Director Craig Brewer On His Journey Towards Making 'Dolemite Is My Name' [Interview]

Netflix's Dolemite is My Name is writer-director Craig Brewer's first movie in eight years. Before this, Brewer, who made his debut with The Poor & Hungry and broke out with Hustler & Flow, last directed the 2011 Footloose remake. Since then, he's written scripts that never got the green light and directed several episodes of Fox's Empire. But after eight years away from a film set, Brewer returned sharper, not rustier, with a true story championing artists like comedian, actor, and filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore (played by Eddie Murphy).

Together, Brewer and Murphy returned with a bang. "Dolemite Is My Name makes it official: Eddie Murphy is back," /Film's own Chris Evangelista wrote in his review. "Here's hoping he doesn't go away again." Murphy will be back next year in another Craig Brewer movie, Coming 2 America. After speaking with the filmmaker, it sounds like we could see even more from them in the future. Brewer told us about the joys of working with Eddie Murphy, his career leading up to Dolemite is My Name, and plenty more during a recent interview.

We began by exchanging pleasantries, at which point I turned on my recorder. We pick up our conversation already in progress.Brewer: Because the majority of what made [Rudy Ray Moore] such a hero, I think the people who view the movie and who share in his struggle, is how much he was beat down and told no. I think that that's inspiring people, that they can feel the same way he did, and see some triumph of just pushing forward and doing what they love.He's a very universal character. He talks about coming to L.A. and all these big plans and what his life isn't, and everyone understands that.

Oh, and to be honest, that spoke to me a great deal. I always felt comfortable doing the Rudy Ray Moore story because I felt I had lived a part of it in my own life. I know what it's like making a movie for no money, with a bunch of people who may or may not know what they're doing, making something, and then coming out to Hollywood with the hopes of starting something, and it taking a long time. I always tell people, it was four years of me sleeping on couches to get Hustle & Flow going. But the movie I made before that was very much a goal of mine. It was called The Poor & Hungry.

Did you have the same kind of feeling of triumph at the end of Dolemite, after you finished The Poor & the Hungry

Very much so. Yeah, because all I wanted was, ultimately, what Rudy wanted. You want a big audience to enjoy your work and have a good time. The thing that I love that people are gravitating toward the movie is do I say this? There's something that has happened over the last couple of decades, where it's like everybody wants to be a star, but they don't necessarily want to be a performer. A performer can sit in front of five people and be just as fulfilled performing to them as they could performing for 500 people. Because it's a performer. So it's just natural, in wanting to make people around them feel good and laugh, or feeling their pain.

I think that's the message in the movie is, that instead of being in the theater, he wanted to be out with the people in line. Because that's who he was for most of the film. So, for me, I remember I sold out two screenings at seven o'clock, and at ten o'clock, in my local theater in Memphis. I made my money back on renting the place and renting the digital projector. And I went home and realized that I had enough money to pay for the posters that I'd printed out and to pocket a couple of bucks. I've never been happier. I felt like I made a huge success.

And then the movie won the Hollywood Film Festival, and when that was on the front page of the papers, a theater called me and said, "We've never done this before, but we'll book your movie in our art house theater for a week. And we'll do the same deal with you that we do with studios, so we'll split the receipts." It ran five performances every day, and it ran for a week. And then they called me and they said, "Well, you're the bestseller at that theater. Can we do it again?" And it ran for eight weeks. I made good money off of that. I think I spent about 20 grand making the movie, and that run paid for it.

That's great. You also experience the success Rudy does, when people really embrace his voice similar to the reception of Hustle & Flow. How did it feel when your voice connected with an audience that big? 

Well, it feels fantastic. It really does. It's very rewarding. And I know that Eddie has made comments that he hasn't gone away, that he's been around, and the same, I think, could be said of Wesley Snipes. But I think that all of us during this making of Dolemite, we were all kind of like feeling a little bit like Rudy.

I had taken a big break from making features because it's just getting so hard to get them going. So I kind of went off into television for a while and learned a lot from working on Empire. Well, I was feeling like, "All right, I'm getting close to 50, and maybe I already did what I was here to do." But there was still a big part of me that was, you know, "Man, if they would just give me one good shot to make a good movie, I'm sure that I would do a good job."

I felt a lot of what Rudy was feeling. I mean, I felt it when I was younger, but it's surprising how you can feel it later in your career, and in your life itself. And that's why I love so much that it's Eddie and Wesley, two titans of movies. But to be honest, they really haven't been doing much lately. To see them back on that screen, you go, "God damn, they're good." Thinking, did I think that all this amazingness was going to go away? You know? [Laughs] Why aren't we watching Wesley Snipes and Eddie Murphy movies every year?

So now I'm a part of that right now. I'm sitting here in the editorial offices of Paramount, and I'm looking at Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes right now on the screen. And we're doing Coming 2 America. So I'm hoping that my wish comes true, and we just keep doing more movies with them.

Dolemite Is My Name TrailerI saw the movie in a theater, and I had forgotten just how incredible it feels to watch a funny Eddie Murphy movie with a crowd losing it.

And not to get crass, but much as I love Sam Jackson's "motherf***er," there just really is nothing like Eddie Murphy's "motherf***er." It just rolls off his tongue in a way that I've seen an audience just smile during it. Our crew was doing the same thing. He would swear in the character, and we would just look at each other. It's like, "I know. It's been so long."

Did Eddie Murphy see a lot of himself in Rudy Ray Moore, too? 

I think there's something where Eddie is a lot like Rudy Ray Moore is, that there's Rudy, and then Dolemite. And then there's something about Eddie, and then Eddie Murphy. I'm not saying it's two different people, it's not, but there's a thoughtful, soft-spoken, not-trying-to-perform-all-the-time man that we all know as Eddie. And then the camera rolls, and you see him just get into a character, and then blam! This energy, this locomotive force of comedy just comes out. And like, wow. He was just kind of chill a minute ago, and now bam, this. It was that going on, too, I think, with Rudy and the character Dolemite that he played.

You see a real love of performing from Rudy Ray Moore, and Murphy makes it feel genuine. How important was it for him to get his routines and their rhythms and nuances just right? 

It was a joy to watch that. And there was an electric feeling amongst the extras and the crew, where we realized that we were watching Eddie do stand-up, even if it was by way of Dolemite. There he is, with a mic in his hand, on a stage, and yes, he's got a set to do, but if he felt the spirit move him in a direction of coming up with new lines, he was going to do it when interacting with extras in the audience. I remember the first time he did it, and Eddie left, and I just turned to all the extras and I was like, "He just did stand-up, you all. I mean, that was stand-up." For the first time in, what, 30 years? More than 30 years? Amazing.

What's it like before shooting a movie with Eddie Murphy? What are you two talking about in prep?

I go over to his place with maybe about three or four things to talk about. Go out on his patio, we listen to some music, and we just chill for a little bit and talk. Then I bring up those three or four things. And he always has really good thoughts and ideas on it. You know, if there are questions he has about the script, he'll throw them my way, and I'll come up with ideas. I know this sounds a little counterproductive, but sometimes the best work we do is on the day that we're about to shoot it. I'll get a call from him, like he's asking questions about problems, and then I meet with him the next morning at his trailer, and just go, "Hi. What's your problem, and what if we do this? What if we try this?"

I remember the whole scene where he talks to himself in the mirror after he sees this picture of his father, in Dolemite. We had a whole talk about how to play that, like, "Maybe your pen runs out of ink, you go into the desk, you look for a pen, then you see the picture, and that turns you into thinking about your dad. And you start rehearsing for your role the next day, and then when you're insecure, just a look over that picture. Just to show that part of what you're doing is not only to be famous, that part of what you're doing is to strengthen yourself against people in your life who filled you with doubt and sadness." Sometimes those come on the day. I like working like that.

When Rudy says, "Marvin Gaye ain't s***," would he say things like that out of insecurity? 

I don't know. The "Marvin Gaye ain't s***" was something that Eddie came up with right then and there. And it's so funny, because we had to get permission from the Marvin Gaye estate to not only use the songs, but we also had to say, "This is what's being said." And I was like, "Could we please not write out an email and say, 'Marvin Gaye ain't s***.' Could you please send the scene, because it's so clear, Marvin Gaye is the s***. He's just feeling a little insecure. We don't really believe it." Luckily, they saw the scene and they got it.

However, I have talked to a couple of comedians who told me they opened or did a set with Rudy, and that Rudy was kind of dogging all the New York comics. They would go up there and play some rap music as they're coming out on the stage, and Rudy would say, "Man, I've got my own theme song. I ain't playing all this other rap s*** to be hot. I've got my own theme song. Cats need to get your own theme song."

[Laughs] On the subject of music, how was it remaking Rudy's songs with Craig Robinson?

Oh, I loved it. We had a really good music team, and I knew that Craig would be able to nail all of it. The part that I'm more proud of with Craig than even just doing those songs favorite moment in the movie, we all called it the Whoop That Trick moment, from Hustle & Flow. It's when he goes up on stage for the first time as Rudy Ray Moore, and he turns to the drummer behind him. He gives an old comedy rim shot. And he turns to him, like, "Don't give me that Buddy Hackett s***. Put your weight on it." And then he starts playing a beat, and then Craig Robinson comes in. He gets on the piano. And then the bass player comes in and gets on the bass. And it's all organic, and it's behind Rudy as he begins doing the Dolemite character for the first time.

That was not prerecorded, nor was it pre-composed. Just on the day, with three cameras rolling, we did it. Say, "Hey, Craig, why don't you just go on the piano and find a riff that works?" There's this moment where Eddie looks back at Craig, while he's playing the piano and he's doing the comedy. And he kind of just had a whole knowing look, like, "We're in the pocket." Every time I see that, I always think, "That's Eddie and Craig," not so much Rudy and them. [Laughs] They're realizing it's good.

Looking back, what were some other spontaneous moments? 

Nothing can beat the first time we saw Wesley do D'Urville. We had no idea what he was going to do. And just during rehearsals, when it all came out, it was just like, "Oh, my God. This character is outrageous." We were even worried about it, like, is it too much? To watch Mike Epps and Craig and Eddie just doing their best to keep their s*** together while he was doing that crazy rhythm, when he went, "I have an enter-tain-ment lawyer." Saying all of those things [Laughs], that was one of the best.

Doing the sex scene was really fun because there was nothing impromptu about it. We were treating it as an action scene. Okay, this happens, then this happens. But watching it all come together, and seeing an audience just lose their s*** over it, it's one of the great joys. Just watching an audience watch that sex scene, and they just can't control the laughter that they have.

Wesley Snipes - Dolemite Is My NameI can see this movie really speaking to artists. Have you heard from any about the movie since it was released? 

It's special. Well, it's a lonely thing being an artist. It's a lonely thing to write books, or screenplays, or music. And there's so much time to get into your head with doubt. I think that Rudy just kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing. And I think that that's the hard thing for artists to do, is to believe in yourself blindly. Eddie and I've talked about this bunch of times. When you make independent films, doing straight-up indie filmmaking, you're really not worried about quality all that much. You just want to make something.

You look at certain independent movies, and they're very rough around the edges. They're truly independent. You got very little money to make it. But there's a spirit to them. It's like, why is this even better than many movies that had more money? It's just that desperate spirit in it that gets you rooting for them. I think that sometimes when you deal with being close to an industry in Hollywood, you're so close but you don't move forward on projects. It's like you're waiting around on, "Well, I need to get the right cast," but then that idea never gets made.

And so you look at Dolemite, and you think, "Well, wait a minute. This movie, some people call it horrible. But being that horrible, it's so beautiful in places, and so outrageous in places that I can't stop thinking about it." So I think that there's a danger in art to wait for it to be perfect. Sometimes you just want to roll with the energy that came to you, just like the idea. Like, "All right, got a great idea! I'm going to go do it." Then go off and do it. That's what I think people are getting out of [this].

Earlier, you mentioned considering stepping away from movies. Why?

My films were getting hard to do. I had written three movies at three different studios. One was Maggie Lynn. It was at Paramount, but then a regime change happened, and more so it was like, if the movie wasn't going to play in China, they weren't going to make it. I wrote this movie and I was ready to go over at New Regency, called Mother Trucker. Just when I was about to go, the regime change happened. So many things are out of my control. You work, and work, and work and fall in love with an idea, and then you're ready to make that, and then there are so many things that keep you from doing it. Then people are like, "Oh, Craig, you're not really making movies anymore." Well, it's not that I'm not trying.

It's daunting sometimes how many projects you have to have in your oven just to get one dish made. It got to be where I was thinking, "This can't be it. This can't be the rest of my career. I'm making money by writing scripts that never get turned into movies." And so then, the idea of doing television came about. I was curious about it because I knew that the industry was going to be going there more. But then when I got into it, I got addicted to it because, it's like, "Oh, I like this script Empire. Oh, I'm going to direct it next month" And then two months later, that episode of Empire would be on TV. And then it started up again. And so you actually got to see what you made. You had some sense of forward momentum, some idea of closure on something. Whereas so many things in Hollywood just aren't that way.

What else did you learn from directing episodes of Empire?

I try to explain this to people, and I'll try to do the best I can to explain it to you. I made four feature films before I started working in television. I'm doing like 10 episodes of the show, right? And when you're a director, it's not that you're fighting the producers, because almost like a little bit of comfort you have in not knowing everything that is part of your production.

I'll give you an example, and this seems very simple, but it's like, "Okay, and now this scene takes place in this one arena. I'm going to need 400 extras." Then you have the day where they go, "You can't have 400 extras." And you're like, "I can't do it without 400 extras!" And there's just no money for 400 extras. "Can you do it with 200?" "Oh, I don't know about that." You're at odds with the production because you're trying to hold your vision together, right? That has value. I get that.

But in television, if you have 50 extras, you have three hours for this scene, and then we're going to move on, and then there are three hours to do this other scene. And so I'll come into a set now, and I'll be like, "All right, I know I've only got 50 extras. Why don't we start this scene and these people will come up from this corner right here. I don't want to split the focus here because the focus point is going to be going back and forth between these two people. Let's just do this wide-angle here." You're coming in because art is not what you're leading with. You're almost leading with the machinery of making your day.

But what I found was, that actually engendered much more creative instances and ideas than, "Okay, I'm coming in here with something so solid in my head, and everything that can't make it work is going to chip away at what's special." After you work in television, you really could just show up on the set, someone could hand you sides, and you read through them, and you read it through with the actor, and you could step in right there and just start shooting, and it will work, if you've gotten to that place where you're good at it.

But I think being in service of Lee Daniels and Danny Strong's vision was good for me, where I wasn't thinking solely about just doing mine. My first-ever television episode was doing an episode of The Shield. I'm a huge fan of the show. So it's like, "I don't want to do it my way. I want to do it The Shield's way."

It was good for me to take a break from me trying to think that everything needed to be, and be in service of that. And then, day after day after day, just do it. So much of what you do, when I think you're writing a script, is you treat everything as so precious. And now it's like, "Oh, wait a minute. We lost that location, and the actress isn't available. Okay, well, how can we save this thing? Why don't we do this person at this location?" Now, filmmaker version of me, a decade ago, would have been like, "There's no way it can work!" And now I'm like, "Why don't we do this?" And you're like, "Oh, why didn't you do that in the first place?" That's what I mean by television taking all that preciousness away from you. You do get great stuff.

I remember the first shot that I did with Eddie on Dolemite, in a barbershop, and he had this one line. And people were responding, laughing, when he's selling his record in barbershops. And I said, "Action!" And he did it. I said, "Cut! You good?" And he goes, "What are you talking about?" I go, "Are you good?" He was like, "No. We've got to look at it, and do a couple of takes of this." I go, "Oh, let's go and look at it." And he looked at it, and I go, "Do you want to do another one?" He was like, "I guess I don't have to." I go, "All right. Let's move on." And then later that day, he was like, "You're fast." I've learned that if you get a perfect one, don't ruin it. Let's just move on.

So it sounds like you really went into this just feeling more positive and assured from Empire.

Yeah, yeah. I'm now at a point where, if I just see a camera set up by my DP, and I can call the cameraman and go, "Are you on that 40 or the 65?" And he goes, "The 65." I go, "Okay, that'll work." And I don't need to necessarily even go look through the camera to know what that's going to look like with a 65 millimeter. Now I know what a 40 looks like. I know what different lenses, I know what they do now. You can get your arms around filmmaking, where before it seemed so overwhelming to know everything. But now I feel like I've got a better handle on it because of television.

How did you feel as a filmmaker coming out of Dolemite

I think the challenge of Dolemite was to know that we were telling a story that was going to take place over a lot of different years. And it's funny because I just finished watching The Irishman, which kind of did the same thing. When you've got to get through a lot of story that takes place over a lot of time, you run into the problem that montages bring, where it's like, "All right, is this whole movie going to be montage essentially?" And that's one thing very early on I started looking at Dolemite going like, "Better be careful because there's a lot of these opportunities where montages can happen."

One of the harder scenes that I needed to figure out was this fight scene. It was filming a fight scene. Not the one where the guy gets kicked into the trunk, but the final fight scene. I was saying to myself, "How do we do this? Because a fight scene is shot over a day or two days. We can't have this whole scene be in the movie, in the fight scene." And then I got handed the original slate for Dolemite, I started clapping, and I was like, "This is the device that we'll use. We'll use the slate to move us forward through this sequence." Those kinds of things, being open to those kinds of elements, ideas, I think is what I learned the most from Dolemite.

And I think the next movie that I do...I think Coming 2 America is its own beast of a movie [Laughs]. It has a tone, so it's already happened. We're getting there. I'm very excited about it. But in terms of the movie that I'm thinking about, what I'm going to take Dolemite would be on, in terms of what I've learned, I think I'd just like to do something personal. I'd like to maybe do a love story that's in this working-class world.

I think that I've learned how to work with actors in a better way from working with Terrence and Taraji on Empire, and Christina and Sam on Black Snake Moan, and now with Eddie, and Wesley, and James Earl Jones. I think I now have a good idea of how it's done. Sometimes you can come in with a list of ideas. More often than not, it's trying to keep it loose, trying to make it more like a band. Like, "Hey, let me start a riff. That sounds good. No, less on that. Less on that." That's what I've learned. A very rambling answer, sorry.

No, no. I appreciate it. Do you see yourself making more movies set in Memphis?

No, I've got one big project that I'm trying to get going, but I'd like to. I'd like to.

How's editing going at the moment? Coming 2 America has to be your biggest movie, right? 

Well, we just started this last week. So all it is, it is just daunting. I would say the only difference between this and other movies that I've had is that now I've come out of television, where editorial's a process that you have to do very quickly, and then the same thing happened with Dolemite, so I don't feel as ill as I have in the past, where I feel like I'm at the bottom of a mountain. Or more so, I'm not buried under the mountain, I've got to claw my way out of it. I feel good, but we've got a lot of work to do. We just started.

Have you and Eddie Murphy already talked about making even more movies together? 

Yeah, we've talked every once in a while about it. Any opportunity to work with Eddie, I would love to take. I just think he's truly talented, and I love working with him. I would love to make another movie with Eddie. I would say the same about Wesley. I think Wesley is amazing.

Agreed. How else has exploring the life of Rudy Ray Moore inspired you? Going forward, do you see him as an idol?

Oh, absolutely. If anything, it reminded me of that. Eddie and I, we were filming a scene in this small strip club, and I said, "I got my start in a strip club just like this." [Laughs] "What are you talking about?"

Did you really? 

I did. I told that to Eddie. I go, "Yeah, there's this strip club called the King of Clubs in Memphis, Tennessee, and on Sunday there was this old guy named Earl, who would let me come in before the day shift started, and I'd give him $20, and I'd give other strippers that got there early $20, and I would film my first movie, The Poor & Hungry, which took place in a strip club, in the strip club."

And this was my film school. My cameras, my lights. I still have an image of this one stripper, Tequila, holding the boom pole above her head, and she was my sound person with it. In full bikini, and clear pumps, and everything. It was great to remember that that's how I started. I started off a lot like Rudy [Laughs].

And going into gas stations that I needed to use as a location, and talking to the manager, and going like, "You look really good. Did you ever think of being in a movie?" And getting them interested in being in the movie, just so I could use their location. It reminded me about that time, and it also gave me comfort that I could always return to it if things in Hollywood don't always work out.


Dolemite is My Name is currently streaming on Netflix.