'Coming 2 America' Director Craig Brewer On Crafting The Long-Gestating Sequel And The Joys Of Working With Wesley Snipes [Interview]

Filmmaker Craig Brewer is a man to whom music is the key that unlocks most things. In his breakthrough film Hustle & Flow, it was the biographic, confessional (and Oscar-winning) rapping of his lead character that propelled the movie forward. In Black Snake Moan, it was swampy blues music; and in Footloose, it was pretty much anything that got your feel moving. Hell, Brewer even did a TV remake of Urban Cowboy and was one of the creative powers behind Fox TV's Empire, which was a musical showcase in episode after episode.

When Brewer teamed up with Eddie Murphy for the first time on the devastatingly funny Netflix movie Dolomite Is My Name, Brewer was able to pack the soundtrack with tasty R&B and funk grooves from the likes of Marvin Gaye, Sly & the Family Stone, and Kool & the Gang. So when the director was given the chance to re-team with Murphy for the 33-years-in-the-making sequel Coming 2 America, Brewer had to get creative about ways to slip choice musical cues into the mix, including a song-and-dance routine with co-star Jermaine Fowler (played Prince Akeem's illegitimate son) and choreographer/singer/actress Teyana Taylor, built around Prince's song "Gett Off." And to no one's surprise, the Murphy alter-ego Randy Watson and the sweet soul stylings of his band Sexual Chocolate return as well from the 1988 Coming To America.

In Coming 2 America, Akeem and sidekick Semmi (Arsenio Hall) are back as Akeem is set to take the crown of Zamunda for the first time, when he discovers from the rival of a neighboring nation (played brilliantly by Wesley Snipes) that he has a male heir that he sired during his first trip to New York 30-plus years ago. Akeem and Semmi head back to America in search of the son, who comes with baggage in the form of his mother (Leslie Jones) and parasite uncle (Tracy Morgan). Brewer and company manage to bring in just about everyone who had even a small supporting role in the original film (including all of the barbershop characters Murphy and Hall played being masterful makeup), as well as some new talent, including KiKi Layne as Akeem's eldest daughter, who believes she should be next in line for the thrown, even though tradition is clear that a woman cannot be leader—one of the man conflicts the film must resolve.

/Film talked with Brewer recently to discuss the origins of the sequel so many years after the classic original, how he managed to find places for music in the movie, Wesley Snipes' forgotten comedic talents, and the significance of Layne's character to the overall story of a male character essentially jumping the succession line.

Coming 2 America is currently available on Amazon Prime Video.

Knowing how much music means to you in putting together your films, on this particular project, it must have been the opportunity of a lifetime to work with Randy Watson and Sexual Chocolate.

Oh yeah. In my life, it always went like, it would be great to work with Prince, it would be great to work with Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, and then Randy Watson. I got to work with at least one of them in my lifetime.

Well, you do have a big Prince moment in this movie. Prince to me is the end-all, and that extended dance sequence set to "Gett Off" was incredible. Where did that come from?

That came from me. I'm very pleased that that was something that worked out. We had a moment where a princess from Nextdooria meets the Prince of Zamunda from Queens, and I was like "We have to do something with Oha [played by Paul Bates]." Because if Oha comes forward with a microphone, the whole world is going to sing "She's your queen!" They're going to know that that's coming, but then to have that song come out of his mouth is going to be delightfully shocking to people.

You would have been at the later part of the your teenage years when Coming To America came out. What did that movie mean to you at the time?

Yeah, I was in high school. My relationship with my father was really about movies, and most of the people who are our age, when you grew up in the video rental age, it was a film festival every night. I would get a movie, but my dad would also get Coming Home or Bridge On the River Kwai. It was always a double-feature, where I would watch my movie and that watch whatever dad was going to watch. So that's when I started knowing who directors were, and then Michael Jackson's Thriller came out, and I was obsessed with it. I don't know if you remember this, but there was a VHS of the making of Thriller.

Of course, plus they played that on MTV all the time.

Right! And that's when I started realizing who directors were. I also had the documentary about the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark, so those became the two things I would watch over and over again. And when I saw John Landis talking with Michael about all of his movies, Michael was saying "I saw American Werewolf in London. I saw Kentucky Fried Movie." So now my dad and I are going out to rent the double-bill of those two titles, which blew my mind. So when we went to see Coming To America, we knew that it was Eddie Murphy and John Landis, so it was a movie we loved. 

There are a couple of movie I can point to, like Coming To America and also Die Hard, where you went to see something, and then you wanted to bring other people to see it. You'd go to your grandma and think "Well she's not going to want to see this; there's cursing." But then you think "No, bring her to Coming To America; I think she'll love it." Coming To America was that movie for us.

I remember when you were doing press for Dolomite, you had already started shooting this sequel. Were those two movies one conversation with Eddie or were they separate? What led to the sequel becoming a reality?

First of all, there was a lot of chatter on set between me and Keegan-Michael Key about Eddie. We would just riff about the Eddie Murphy movies that we would want to do. So I'd say something about what it would be like if I did an Axel Foley movie. What would that be like? And then one night, we were doing a rough-cut screening of Dolomite—I remember John Singleton was there and Arsenio was there—and afterwards, Eddie said to me "Are you up for Coming 2 America?" And I said "Yes, absolutely I'd like to do that." And then I read the script and thought it was a really cool, interesting take. I thought that I could not only handle the movie like I had just done with Dolomite Is My Name, but I was excited to humanize the characters here and there, add some music numbers, and also make sure people got emotionally involved. I wanted them to be touched by the end, and make a movie that serves as no other things than a celebration of what we loved about the original movie. 

That's not to say we're doing a carbon-copy, because we're not. We're really doing something where we're checking in 30 years later on what happened after Akeem and Lisa went into this bubble of the fairy tale—isn't that what all young love is? And then you start to have all of these responsibilities and the world start changing around you, and that bubble breaks. That kind of excited me, that we got to get deep on Coming 2 America, we were trying to get heavy. But that's the gift that we've got with this scenario. It's different if the sequel happened two years after Coming To America. But now, we get to explore where Eddie is in his life compared to back in 1988. It was a great opportunity, I felt.

Was this your first experience dealing with one actor playing multiple roles in the same scene. How was that logistically for you?

It was very difficult. We really have to give our visual effect supervisor, Jon Farhat, who has worked with Eddie before on a number of movies and is really good at helping with those moments where Eddie or Arsenio had to share a scene with themselves. That's a whole different set of skills that I'd never used before. And the makeup is so amazing; the whole process of seeing Eddie go through that transformation over eight hours is really amazing.

I know people have pointed out that you've worked with Eddie twice now, but you've also worked with Wesley Snipes twice, and I have to imagine that might be a different experience. Tell me about working with him on two very different movies, because I've heard he likes to stay in character, so did you even work with the same guy twice?

I loved him working in character, especially on Dolomite Is My Name, where he played director D'Urville Martin, and I would sit with him sometimes, and we'd have director conversations. He would say, "Hey man. I would do this thing totally different than the way you're doing it." I'd be like "Oh yeah? Tell me what you'd do, D'Urville." And that just plays into just how joyous it is to work with Wesley. He is a pleasure to have on set, shows up early, jokes with the crew. There was nothing but love, and mostly I just get out of his way. He sometimes goes "Am I going to far?" And I'm like "Bring it, man!" I love him being on full tilt. He's been away too long. I'm all for a lot more movie and TV coming out with Wesley.

Speaking of the barbershop scene, I have to give you production design team props because to have the same exact posters and headshots on wall. The boat show poster is still there, my god.

Oh, I was so impressed when I came on that set. They took every inch of the original movie set and made it for us, so to walk on was incredible. I remember, [co-writer] Kenya Barris was on set that day, and we're pretty professional. We've seen some things and made a lot of product, but when Clarence and Morris came on the set and walked into the barbershop, we looked at each other and just giggled. We lost all decorum; we couldn't believe we were here witnessing this.

I want a Soul Glo poster on my wall somewhere. With all the new characters in this movie, I think the heart and soul of this movie is Kiki Layne. I think she's a phenomenal actor, and she really is the key character here because the judgment she aims at her new brother and the way she helps him out but resents him being there at the same time is key. Talk about the importance of that character and finding the right person to play her.

KiKi is an incredible talent, a major star. Yes, she's an incredible actress but she's also a major star waiting to happen. It's only going to take one role to make her a household name; maybe she'll get to play a superhero. Whenever Eddie talked about the original movie, he said "Remember, the first movie is really a fairy tale, so how do we play off of the fairy tale elements in this movie and how do we blow them up at the same time?" So much of what the movie was about for so long was "There's a guy in Queens who realizes that his dad that he never knew is the king of a nation, and now he gets to go there." So much of it was about that relationship between Akeem and Lavelle, but as we started getting into the making of the movie, we realized that really it's about an extended family that is much more relatable to people in the world, where  "I have a brother from my dad's other marriage, and they may do things differently over there, but something works when we get together. Maybe our differences are something that make us better at the same time." 

KiKi really had to thread this interesting needle, because she had to come off with that Akeem in Coming To America optimism, while she also needed the makings of a queen—you needed to believe she could be strong, that she could call it like it is, but she's also dealing with a country that has a lot of misogyny and old rules, and how will she bring this brother into the equation? I'm glad you brought that up because I haven't talked about that much, but it's actually my favorite part of the movie, that brother-sister relationship.

More from you and Eddie coming? Have you two talked about doing anything else together?

We always talk about various ideas, but nothing on the books quite yet. But I'd love to work with Eddie again and Arsenio.

Yeah, it was great to see him back in the saddle again. I don't think I've seen him in anything since Black Dynamite.

He's so good. I wish he would come back more. His comedic timing is great but also he's so great off the dome. You can throw him into an improvisational situation, and he comes up with great things.

Craig, always good to talk. Best of luck and thank you so much.

Take care.