Death At A Funeral 2010
BEHIND THE SCENES
How did an acclaimed 2007 British farce set in the English countryside find new life three years later as a comedy about a negro family in Pasadena, California? Two words: Chris Rock.
When Chris Rock saw the original film "Death At A Funeral" during its theatrical release, he instantly recognized its potential. "It was really funny," says Chris Rock. "There weren’t a lot of people in the theater, but we were all laughing our heads off. Death and funerals are something everyone relates to and the comedy was good."
Death at a Funeral began life as a British release that made a splash at the Aspen Film Festival, winning the prestigious Cinemax Award. Directed by Frank Oz (Bowfinger, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and written by Dean Craig (executive producer of the American production), the film attracted a small but enthusiastic audience in the U.S. and garnered wide praise from critics.
Chris Rock had the idea to remake the film with an American cast. "It seemed like we could make a different movie and the same movie at the same time," he says. "It had a lot of parts, so we would have a chance to cast a lot of funny people.
Transforming a British farce to American madcap mayhem could be tricky, but then again, coming up with a good script is the biggest challenge on any project, according to Chris Rock. "I always tell people, write the movie you want to write and greed will get it made," he says. "Trust me, between the agents, the manager, the studio and whoever else, greed takes over and the next thing you know you’re making a movie. And I mean, greed in a good, Gordon Gecko way, not in a bad, somebody-trying-to-take-advantage way. Just, ‘hey man, this is too good an opportunity to let pass.’"
William Horberg, executive producer of the first film, signed on to produce with Rock. "Death at a Funeral was well reviewed during its original release, but didn’t attract as much of an audience in the US as it deserved," he says. "We knew that when audiences got in front of it, they really responded. I received a call from a friend who represents Chris Rock asking if I’d have lunch with Chris. I didn’t know what the agenda for the lunch would be. He told me that Death at a Funeral was one of his favorite comedies of the last couple of years, and said ‘I’ve got to be honest with you. I’m the only black man in America that’s even heard of that movie. I know it’s fresh and I know it’s recent, but I think it would be a fantastic idea to remake it.’
"It was kind of an epiphany," says the producer. "We talked at length about what it would mean to transplant it onto American soil and how that would change it. Chris and I both liked the same things about the film, so we were looking to preserve as much as reinvent. The film’s structure, which was perfectly worked out in the original by Dean Craig, is something we fought hard to preserve and honor. Chris helped create the American voice of the piece by finding the right jokes and language and intonations for these characters."
Horberg was an invaluable resource as Rock worked with screenwriter Craig to adapt and develop the script. "Bill really understood the movie," says Rock. "We had some ideas that had been proposed before, and he was able to say, no, we tried that in the first one and it died, so don’t write those scenes. He understood the importance of doing it on a sound stage as opposed to doing it in a house. He understood which moments the audience would really go crazy for and which moments wouldn’t work as well as they could."
Finding the American voice for the film was Rock’s first priority. "Sure, we all speak English," he says. "But their English is a lot different than our English. The British ask a lot of questions. ‘Is the tea okay?’ We tried to take all the Briticisms away without losing the essential humor. It was a big job. You think it’s a few words at first and then you realize a lot of these phrases sound odd coming out of an American’s mouth."
In the end, the filmmakers changed very little of the film’s plot and characters. "The bones of the movie are pretty much the same," says Rock. "I don’t look at it as a remake. It’s more like a cover song. When you hear Bob Dylan’s "All Along the Watchtower" next to Jimi Hendrix’s version, they’re the same song, but they’re totally different."
Horberg continues the musical metaphor. "We’ve got a strong story that an audience connects with and responds to," he says. "Then we were given the freedom to play with that form. It’s almost like a jazz player riffing on a standard song."
When the time came to select a director, Rock returned to a man he worked with early in his acting career: Neil LaBute. Over the last two decades, LaBute has built a stellar reputation as a director of highly personal, often controversial dramas, such as In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, as well as an established voice in contemporary American playwriting, with acclaimed stage works including the Tony-nominated "Reasons to Be Pretty."
Rock says the secret to being a good producer is to hire your own boss. "If the person you hire is really working for you, you hired the wrong person," he says. "We knew that Neil LaBute would take charge. He knows exactly what he’s doing. We haggled over the script a bit, but once we agreed on that, it was his show. He was the general and I went where he told me to go."
LaBute’s pedigree was helpful in attracting top talents, including Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Loretta Devine, Danny Glover, Columbus Short, Keith David, Peter Dinklage and Zoë Saldaña. "Neil’s a formidable playwright, filmmaker and screenwriter," says Horberg, "He’d worked with Chris quite memorably and successfully in Nurse Betty and he’d also worked recently with Screen Gems on Lakeview Terrace, starring Samuel L. Jackson. In Death at a Funeral, Neil found the balance between allowing these bright, improvisational comedians to have their moments, while keeping it all grounded in reality and emotional truth."
After years of dramatic successes, LaBute was eager to take on a straight up comedy. "I’d been looking for something for several years," he says. "It can be hard for people to think of me and comedy together, and this was the perfect opportunity.
"It was nice to try and find that inner comedian in myself," says LaBute. "I think I don’t necessarily do that as a writer. It’s hard to sit at a table and tell myself ‘be funny, you’re writing a comedy.’ It’s much easier when you've got all these funny people around you, and you're truly collaborating with them."
His reputation as an actor’s director was one of Rock’s primary reasons for hiring him. "He’s a taskmaster and a perfectionist without being annoying about it," says Rock. "I’ve been in a bunch of movies, but I’ve only starred in a few. I knew he would be really helpful to me in building a performance."
The director agreed that, with a story as strong as the original, there was no need to reinvent the wheel. "The script really worked," he says. "We didn’t try to change that dynamic, but we had some new ideas. There were certain characters I felt were a little short-changed by the screenplay, because there are so many characters, and there’s only so much time in a movie. We tried to give more to do to certain people.
"Just by having new actors in the roles makes it work differently," says LaBute. "But we all wanted to get to the same place in the end. The ride ends in the same place, but the getting there is a little different. The very reticent English family who has all these crazy things happen to them has to kind of come out of their shell. The family in our story is already sort of out there. They don't really want to see each other, so it’s a different dynamic. It starts at a higher level and then boils over to a much higher level before we all end up back in the same place."
The director likens having Horberg and actor Peter Dinklage, who reprises his role from the original, as having a pair of military advisers to keep him on track. "They went through that experience and could say ‘oh, this is how we did that. I remember now that we should watch for this landmine. Over here is success!’"
"Comedy is so specific," adds LaBute. "You have to make a whole group of people laugh with one moment. But in reality, what makes people laught is so subjective. You know, somebody can trip over something and you feel terrible, somebody else watches it and they laugh."
LaBute says he was able to translate much more of what he’s learned as a theater director to this character-based piece than he has on previous films. "The emphasis on personal dynamics made it a lot like a stage play," he says. "It’s very much bound to one area for almost the entire piece, so it was like moving people around a stage. I shot more on a soundstage than I’ve ever shot before, which made it feel like we were coming home every day. Those things made it feel like a new experience, and I like that idea of keeping myself open to new opportunities."
"Expect to laugh," says La Bute. "We take a sacred cow, the funeral, and lampoon it a bit. It’s a funny take on family dynamics at a moment of real stress. It’s also a meditation on what it’s like to have siblings and how a house can be torn apart by an event like a funeral. We took normal situations and made them completely abnormal and it’s fun to watch that play out on the screen."
FILLING THE PEWS
With over a dozen meaty roles to cast, the makers of Death at Funeral brought together a collection of top comedic talents and skilled dramatic actors to play the extended clan at the center of the story. Finding a way to make those disparate talents work together was the director’s job. "It’s a challenge to make any cast work," says LaBute. "You rarely have a lot of rehearsal time. Some of the actors came for the first time on the same day they started shooting. In this film, many of the characters are related, so you want to make it feel like they're a family, even though they’ve just met."
The work ethic required to make it all come together began at the top of the food chain with producer and star Chris Rock. "Chris understands comedy," LaBute says. "He knew how to get a funny cast together, and he trusted me enough to say I want you to do this."
Although the director and his star had previously done a movie together, the dynamic had changed significantly for them. When LaBute and Rock first worked together ten years ago, the comedian was just starting to transition into film acting. "It was a movie that was out of Chris’ sweet spot," says LaBute. "Nurse Betty is a weird mix of comedy and extreme violence. Chris got a great primer in acting from his co-star, Morgan Freeman, who is impeccable as an actor. He’s more confident now than he was then."
Aaron, played by Rock, anchors the film. The son of the recently deceased Edward, Aaron has been given the responsibility of planning the service and writing a eulogy for his father. "It’s the day of his dad’s funeral and everything that can go wrong does go wrong," says Rock. "He wakes up and it’s supposed to be the worst day of his life, but it turns out to really be the worst day. In a lot of great comedies, that’s a through line."
As the eldest of two brothers, Aaron has spent his life trying to please his parents and watching his younger sibling Ryan win easy praise for his breezy charm. "I’m the quintessential oldest kid, so I share that with Aaron," says Rock. "Younger siblings are more likely to do whatever they want to do, but the older sibling really cares about what mom and dad think. That’s something that they didn’t emphasize in the first film.
"We thought it would be a little more interesting if the younger brother was more successful," he adds. "It’s kind of uneasy, and Aaron’s dealing with the fact that his younger brother is a very successful writer, something that Aaron has always aspired to be."
Even though Rock’s character plays straight man to the rest of the family, it was impossible for the comedian not to bring his particular brand of humor to the set. "It was great to have somebody who has a really fresh comic mind," says LaBute. "Ask Chris to do a scene and he’s going to come up with lines that aren’t on the page or throw out a bit of business that surprises you. And if it makes you laugh, you have a good sense it’s going to make 10 people or a thousand people laugh."
The audience can be assured they will get the fresh and funny Chris Rock they expect, but doing something a little different. "He’s really stretching himself in this role," the director says. "It’s the same for Martin Lawrence."
Lawrence, the bad-boy comic known for Bad Boys and the hit sit-com "Martin," plays Ryan, the younger brother—successful, spoiled and totally self-absorbed. After boasting to the family that he bought two first-class tickets for the trip from New York so he would not be bothered by his legions of fans, he confides in Aaron that he’s broke and can’t help pay for the funeral.
"The two brothers are both writers," says LaBute. "Aaron is more of a would-be writer. He’s been working on a novel for a number of years, but hasn’t been able to finish and doesn't let anybody read it. And then his brother went off and became a successful writer of potboilers with titles like Black Hurt. Aaron finally bubbles over. At first it’s about money. Pretty soon the resentments get down to the basics of ‘they loved you more than they loved me,’ and ‘you're not talented, I am, but I'm not able to do what you do yet.’"
Lawrence’s longtime association with Rock was instrumental in bringing him on board. "We go back to the stand-up days performing together," says Lawrence. "After being on the road and hanging out every now and then, it was nice for us to come together years later and do a film together."
"I’ve known Martin probably 20 years," says Rock. "I started as a fan watching him at clubs and going to his gigs. He was famous before I was, and I remember seeing him at the Universal Amphitheater or Radio City. I had a gig with him a long time ago. He opened up for me and blew me off the stage. I could barely get a laugh after that. Martin Lawrence was the only man to ever blow me off the stage."
The dynamic they have developed in real life is echoed in the script in some ways. "Martin’s a big star, man," says Rock. "He’s more successful. He’s more confident. He was just perfect for the part.
"I’ve been dying to work with him forever," Rock continues. "But the scripts were never quite right or the timing was off. This one just seemed to fit. He’s one of my favorite funny people, so writing a joke for Martin Lawrence is great. It’s like writing a song for Anita Baker or Sade. Sade’s going to sing my song! That’s going to make me look even better."
Working with LaBute was an added attraction for Lawrence. "Knowing Neil’s history and his body of work, I was glad to get an opportunity to work with him," says Lawrence. "And the script is very funny. There was so much already on the page. We improvised every now and then, especially the physical stuff. Any chance I got to do some Martin-isms, I took, but while we might change a word here or there, for the most part, I didn’t feel the need to improvise."
Comedy, according to Rock, is a sort of brotherhood, an experience that only other comedians can really understand. "We’ve got this weird talent to entertain thousands of people by talking. There aren’t a lot of us who have played Radio City Music Hall or entertained 20,000 people in one place. There’s a shared experience and we’re two guys that came from the other side of the tracks. He’s my brother in a lot of ways."
And if two stand-up luminaries are not enough, Death at a Funeral also stars Tracy Morgan as Norman, a close friend of the family with a tendency to the hypochondriacal. Morgan is currently on a roll movie-wise, starring opposite Bruce Willis in the action comedy Cop Out and voicing a manic Guinea pig in last year’s CGI smash G-Force. Like his two colleagues, Morgan brought his own unique brand of funny to the proceedings.
"I worked with Tracy on the old ‘Chris Rock Show,’" says Rock. "I worked with him in Head of State and The Longest Yard. I’ve always been a fan, but in the last couple of years something’s clicked inside of him. People are going to be shocked, because he’s got a huge part and he’s the funniest guy in the movie. He’s an original."
Morgan met Lawrence back in 1995, when he appeared on "Def Comedy Jam." Martin put the younger comic into a recurring role on his sitcom, which resulted in Morgan joining the cast of "Saturday Night Live" where he stayed for 10 seasons before transitioning to "30 Rock." "The script allows us to blend because all of us are different," says Lawrence. "Tracy has his style, Chris has his, I have my own and that’s what the script calls for."
Co-starring with Rock and Lawrence gave Morgan a chance to work with two performers he calls heroes. "It’s always an honor to work with them," he says. "I’m learning so much just being around them. It’s like we’re playing in the sandbox and they know how to make the castles. I’m the baby of the bunch, but I’m trying to make a castle, too.
"They’re very supportive," adds Morgan. "All of the cast was. Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock, Loretta Devine, Danny Glover, Keith David —these people are in the big leagues and I really had to bring my A-game. It’s going to be hot."
Morgan’s unfettered sensibility kept everyone else on their toes, as well. "You never knew what was going to come out of Tracy’s mouth," says LaBute. "It was always clever and genius and unprincipled because of the words he uses. He comes in and he fires away. Not only could he do everything that I could possibly ask, he threw out ideas that worked as well as the stuff that he’d planned out for months."
The trio developed a good-natured competition, cheering each other to wilder feats of comedy madness. "Chris and Tracy and Martin were like stallions running around trying to beat each other in a friendly race across the countryside," says LaBute. "They're very quick and can do a scene as written or come up with a bunch of different improvs. For them, to make each other laugh is the highest achievement. They all were on their best possible behavior, because they wanted to create characters that made the other guys laugh."
Peter Dinklage reprises the role he played in the original, the mysterious stranger peddling Edward’s secrets. "We actually met with other guys," says Rock. "Then it occurred to us to ask Peter. "In comedy you need people who can really play drama, because the more real they are, the funnier it’s going to be. Peter’s a world-class actor."
The character’s name was changed, but his purpose has not. "Peter has the same needs and desires as the character that he played in the first film," says LaBute. "He came up with another version of that character and it’s a fun approach."
Frank arrives at the funeral with a clear objective. He wants respect for being Edward’s secret lover. When he doesn’t get what he came for, he produces some photographs of himself and Edward in compromising positions. "Having Peter recreate the part just made sense to all of us," says LaBute. "Here he’s played it a little rougher, a little more cavalier. He’s a little more into it for himself, and I like that choice. It was nice to see Peter do something with it instead of just giving us the same performance. Peter was always looking for a new way to do it, even down to the way he jumps on the couch to the way he explodes out of the coffin."
Dinklage doesn’t know of any other actor who has returned to a remake in the same role, and he was determined not to repeat himself.
"I did want to make him different, so I brought a little bit of an edge to it," he says. "When I heard all these great people were involved, I had to do it. Instead of a very proper British, buttoned-up family that unravels, this one is a bit loose to begin with and gets even looser. It’s an old-fashioned comedy idea in a realistic setting. An atmosphere where everybody has to be on their best behavior is just so ripe for things to fall apart."
Watching a trio of stand-up comedians do what they do best was a new experience for Dinklage. "They have a surprisingly serious take on comedy," he notes. "These guys are the best at what they do. They were very encouraging to those of us who are less skilled. Tracy Morgan is just about the funniest person I’ve ever met in my life. I want a pocket-sized Tracy Morgan just to always be with me."
Producer Horberg, who worked with the actor in the original film, notes, "Peter was one of Frank Oz’s more inspired choices. The screenplay as originally written by Dean made no specific mention of the physical description or nationality of Peter’s character. He was just the extortionist who showed up on the day to blackmail the family. We talked about various British comedians but we realized that it was a role that could be cast with any ethnicity or nationality because he’s an outsider. He’s not part of the family and he could come from anywhere."
Zoë Saldaña, a young actress who recently exploded into the limelight with leading roles in blockbusters Avatar and Star Trek, was selected to play Elaine, Aaron and Ryan’s cousin. Elaine is in the throes of a familial conflict. She plans to use the funeral as an opportunity to tell her father that she will be marrying Oscar, played by James Marsden, but knows that her dad will not approve.
"Zoë's really quite a funny person," says LaBute. "She’s very sure of herself and she took Elaine to a different level. You could see she had been trained to always be ready for an audience. Zoë gives a performance that’s naturally funny, but never based on trying to be funny."
With promotion for Avatar and Star Trek looming, Saldaña’s schedule was already bursting at the seams, but the opportunity to work with Neil LaBute was not something she would turn down. "The good thing is that Neil is the kind of director that likes to rehearse on set," she says. "Awesome things happened on the set and it gave me a comfort level with my surroundings. I was able to get a lot of things out of my system, to laugh and break character so much that by the time we got to shooting, my outbreaks were minimal."
Working with the extraordinary group of comic actors assembled for the film was, she says, just as she imagined it. "It was a little surreal. Everybody went a step further with their characters. Neil was always there to make sure we didn’t go too far, but he allowed us to play and go to the outermost limits of our boundaries."
Elaine’s world is about to take a dizzying turn, because her fiancé has accidentally taken a hallucinogenic designer drug concocted by her brother, Jeff (played by Columbus Short). Saldaña says that Marsden is "exquisitely versatile. He morphs into his character. I love working with actors who keep a very youthful approach to the work. James has a way of improvising and using everything around him that is completely organic. He keeps going until someone yells ‘cut.’ He’s gets lost in this world and takes you in there with him."
While Marsden turned in a giddy comic performance in the 2008 film Sex Drive, he is best known as a romantic leading man, a role he fine-tuned to perfection in Enchanted, opposite Amy Adams. "James was a surprise," says LaBute. "When you haven’t seen someone do comedy, you wonder if it’s in their repertoire. James went for broke. He is still the good-looking boyfriend, but he gets to be as silly as he wants to be.
"And he was unstoppable," the director adds. "Sometimes I would wonder how I was going to fit together all the great stuff he was coming up with, but finally I didn’t care because it was so funny, I knew I’d find a way."
Oscar is a seventh-grade teacher who is a bit high-strung and very aware he doesn’t have his future father-in-law’s approval. "I thought my character was going to be really funny to play," says Marsden. "I mean a guy who is having his first acid trip at a funeral—there were no boundaries. Neil let the floodgates open for me. The comedy bar was set high by Chris, Martin and Tracy, and I tried to rise to meet them."
Columbus Short echoes that sentiment when he says, "This cast is like Kobe Bryant. It can shoot. It can dribble. It can go to the cup. It can pass. It’s a well-rounded cast. I grew up on Martin, I grew up on Chris and I love Tracy, so to work with them was a thrill. You always want to be surrounded by people at the top of their craft and these are the biggest names in comedy."
"Neil just let me go," says Short. "I like to go off the cuff. He knows what he wants. He knows how to shoot. It feels grounded in a reality, so he lets us play."
Short’s character Jeff is a pharmacology student with a lucrative sideline—making and selling designer drugs. "He is extremely funny in the piece, and I don't think he’s known for being a comedian," says LaBute. "But he makes a perfect little brother to Zoë Saldaña. They're constantly bickering and the looks they give each other feel like they're really from the same family."
Rock also admires the young actor’s work. "The guy was great in Stomp the Yard," he says. "This kid’s going to be the next big thing."
Actress Loretta Devine is beloved by audiences and fellow performers who admire the sassy wit and outsize persona she has brought to films as diverse as Beverly Hills Chihuahua, This Sunday and Crash. She packs an emotional wallop as the newly widowed Cynthia, and then follows up with a delicate comic touch. "Loretta Devine has made a meal of something that was just an appetizer before," says LaBute. "In the original, I didn’t think the mother had enough to do, but Loretta brings great humor to the role. You can’t take your eyes off her."
Devine, whose career stretches from Broadway (the original production of "Dreamgirls") to television (she’s currently on "Grey’s Anatomy"), had worked with both Morgan and Lawrence previously. "I think the attraction for me was the fact that I’d get a chance to work with Chris," she says. "I’m still a little nervous around him because he’ll say things like, so were you in ‘Sounder?’ I’m like, ‘Hell no, I wasn’t in no damn Sounder! Excuse me, that was 90 years ago.’ You never know what he’s going to say.
"Chris always comes off very serious, but the three of them are always on, so it was a fun set," she adds. "You just never know whether he’s joking or not. As with Tracy, you just think, this has got to be a joke. Whatever he says, it could not possibly be the truth."
As Aaron’s wife and Cynthia’s long-suffering daughter-in-law, Michelle, Regina Hall is trying to be respectful of the dead, but it just so happens that the day of the funeral is the day she is most likely to get pregnant—and she’s not letting anything get in the way of her agenda. "We knew Regina was funny from the Scary Movie series," says Rock. "But her character is classic. An ovulating woman at a funeral’s kind of funny."
When casting Hall, LaBute thought she looked too young for the part at first glance. "She bounced through the door with no make-up on," he says. "I thought she could be 23 and didn’t look like a wife to me. But she just blossomed into that character. Her work is quick and clever and she threw a lot of trust my way."
LaBute’s reputation as a man of the theater was initially intimidating for the actress. "Then I met him and found out he has the biggest, most amazing sense of humor," she says. "His way of directing is so subtle and encouraging. He has a way of coming in with a very, very gentle touch and just nudging you in the right direction.
"The movie is really funny and smart," says Hall. "There are great comedic actors in it and surprising performances from everyone. It was really great to be a part of such a collaborative effort. Everyone showed up with their best stuff everyday."
Luke Wilson, who plays Elaine’s ex-boyfriend Derek, credits Martin Lawrence with giving him one of his first real breaks in Hollywood, a leading role in the buddy comedy Blue Streak.
"We’re always talking about making Blue Streak II, says Lawrence. "Any chance I get to work with Luke again is fun. He’s calm and collected, but he also has a very funny sense of humor."
Derek has come to the funeral to win back Elaine and doesn’t expect the competition that Oscar presents—even while under the influence. "He serves the plot, but he’s also a very funny character," says LaBute. "Luke can hold his own in a comedic scene. He was surprising in every scene we shot, adding a real offbeat flavor."
Familiar with LaBute’s film and stage work, Wilson was equally intrigued by the cast of the film. "A theater guy like Neil working with Martin and Chris and Tracy seemed like it could be an odd pairing," he says. "It actually worked really well. For some directors, it might be tough to wrangle those guys, but he had no problems. You hear that stand-ups are competitive, but that’s just not the case on this movie. Chris came up looking up to Martin, and Tracy came up behind them and looks up to both of them. They all respect each other and, at the same time, they get a kick out of each other."
Veteran actor Ron Glass plays Duncan, Aaron and Ryan’s physician uncle and Elaine’s father. "From my perspective, Duncan’s function is to make sure the family is well taken care of and that nobody’s out of line," says Glass.
LaBute worked with Glass on his last film, Lakeview Terrace. "Here’s a guy with a long experience doing comedy," says LaBute. "He’s adept at playing the truth of a scene and can amp it up to create a comedic environment."
For his part, Glass admires the breadth of the director’s experience. "Neil is so bright and so accomplished in so many arenas," he says. "You feel like you’re in really good hands, and that for me is a quality that I like in a director. I was surrounded by world-class stand-up comedians who are also fine actors. I tended to stay in the scripted realm of the show, which was a wise choice on my part."
Every family has an embarrassingly blunt elder statesman or stateswoman. Danny Glover fills that role in Death at a Funeral as doughty Uncle Russell, a man not afraid to say what’s on his mind. "Danny’s not known for doing comedy," says LaBute. "But he’s such a good actor and he throws himself into this world and plays it very seriously. When he’s working, you can hear the crew laughing out loud—and that’s quite honest."
Glover believes that the best humor comes out of real-life experience. "Everyone has an Uncle Russell somewhere," he says. "I had an aunt like that and she would say stuff to me that was totally off the hook. I didn’t want to provoke her, so I always was very careful around her. People will look at this film and see themselves, see an uncle, see a cousin, see an auntie in all this and it will become a moment for them to bond."
BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE FUNERAL
Death at a Funeral was shot on Sony Studios’ Stage 23 after seven days of exteriors filmed on location in South Pasadena. Over the years, Stage 23 has served as the shooting venue for a series of films for Screen Gems. It was originally built as a Spanish-style apartment building for Quarantine, became a traditional home in The Stepfather, a modern home in Obsessed, a nightclub in Takers and, following Death at a Funeral, it became an apartment building for The Roommate and a burlesque club for Burlesque.
For this film, production designer Jon Gary Steele recreated the elegant interior of a Craftsman-style house, where most of the frenzied comings-and-goings take place. "We scouted dozens of locations and ended up going in the direction of a shingled home in Pasadena," Steele says. "We shot the exteriors on location and then we created the interior we needed on the soundstage. The director wanted hints about Edward’s secret life scattered throughout the house, so we placed sculpture, paintings and photographs everywhere that point to it, if you know what you’re looking for."
He describes the interior of the house in the British film as "much lighter, but Neil, the director of photography and I all liked the idea of making walls very dark and rich with lots of wood and great wallpapers."
"There’s a wonderful collision between the conservative tones of the Craftsman house and the uncorked insanity that’s going on beneath this roof," says Horberg.
LaBute and director of photography Rogier Stoffers wanted the setting of Death at a Funeral to have the realistic look more often associated with drama. "Often with comedies they use what I think of as ‘comedy lights,’" says LaBute. "They just throw things up and if you can see it, that’s great. I wanted to have something that maintained a dramatic film quality. That’s why I brought in Rogier to gave things a painterly quality."
"Everybody initially asked why isn’t it light and bright?" says Stoffers, who worked with LaBute on his previous film, Lakeview Terrace. "We thought that if we created this fancy, classic, almost solemn environment and then slowly told a story that starts to unravel, getting crazier and crazier, it would create a nice juxtaposition between two worlds. When the coffin falls open and these people sitting in this beautiful dark environment in their black suits begin to go completely out of their minds, it really works!"
Costume designer Maya Lieberman used clothing both to set the scene and to impart crucial information about each of the characters. A story taking place over the course of only one day, as it does in Death at a Funeral, provides a costume designer with specific challenges. "You might assume that it’s very easy to do a movie with each actor wearing only one costume throughout," she says. "It’s actually more difficult. When you have only one shot to tell the story and develop the character through the clothes, there’s a lot more importance on that one look. And since we were dealing with a funeral, we were confined to a certain palette of colors, which accentuates the challenge in differentiating the characters."
For Cynthia, the grieving widow, Lieberman balanced the character’s natural flamboyance with her concern for propriety in the face of her husband’s death. "Loretta Devine has such a great big personality and I wanted that to show in her clothes," says the designer. "The best part of her costume is a teeny, tiny feather funeral hat which at a certain point starts to do the wiggle. It brings just a little touch of comedy in the clothes, especially when Oscar’s high and he’s staring at it. We definitely didn’t want the comedy to come from the clothes in this movie, but there’s a little bit right there."
For Martin Lawrence’s character, Lieberman selected an expensive suit with a bit of edge. "Ryan wants everyone to feel his vibe when he walks into a room," she says. "He definitely has the flashier look of the two brothers. We wanted to keep it dark to contrast with Chris in the white shirt. So he has a black, French-cuffed shirt. His Versace suit, black with a grayish stripe, gives him a little attitude."
For his characterization, Morgan was given some great assistance from Lieberman. "There’s something a little off about Norman," notes Lieberman, "and I thought there should be something a little askew about him at all times. So while he’s wearing a really nice suit, we cut the sleeves and pants a little short so there’s an awkward look."
Columbus Short’s character is younger and more irreverent than most of the family, which gave Lieberman the opportunity to deviate from the funereal palette. "With everyone else so solemnly dressed, it’s fun to have a character we could give a crazy, inappropriate look for a funeral. He wears pants with the suspenders that hang down and Pumas. But first, we have him answer the door in these crazy boxers."
Stoffers and his team shot the film on high-definition video. "We had a cast full of great comedians and improvisers," says Stoffers, "Working in this format allowed us to try things in different ways and not be hampered by the fact that there’s only so much film in the camera."
"We never had to break in the middle of something and change film," says the director. "I was always ready for the actors and they were like race horses. They could go for 10 or 15 minutes at a time. And then they would just be finished. Chris would look over and say, ‘that was everything I had in my head, and I came up with new stuff for you. But now I’m done.’ With that kind of actor, it was great to have the freedom to keep shooting."
Stoffers was impressed by the director’s relaxed attitude on set. "Neil doesn’t seem to be bothered by stress, which allows him to always stay open to possibilities," he says. "It’s hard enough to make a movie and it’s great if you can do it in a way that you can have fun."
With so many naturally funny people in the cast, the filmmakers took full advantage of their improvisation skills. "As long as we adhered to the form and the structure of each scene, there was a lot of room for people to bring their personalities," says Horberg. "That’s what we hoped and prayed would happen. It’s like two plus two equals five. When you’ve got guys as funny as these guys, you put them together and let the sparks fly."
LaBute says one of his primary responsibilities was to create an environment in which the actors felt safe to be silly. "They could do the things that the script required them to do to make people laugh. It worked out so well that people wanted to see what other people were doing. We sometimes found ourselves writing people into scenes, because they were already there and they wanted to see what happened. Chris was there when he didn't need to be there, lending his presence to the whole thing.
"If somebody came up with a good line or a look or a pratfall, we jumped on it," says LaBute, "We tried to make it part of the fabric of the whole piece. I had to get the material that was already there, but you never know where else a good joke’s going to come from. It’s the bold performers who know the material and then can go somewhere else. For me, it was all about seizing those opportunities."