Brian Robbins has emerged as one of the most successful comedy directors of recent years, thanks to the box office smash hit, Norbit, despite the film’s critical panning.
Robbins has re-teamed with comedy icon Eddy Murphy in Meet Dave, which opens this week, and the pair are currently in production on A Thousand Words. In this exclusive interview, Robbins talked to Paul Fischer.
Question: Let me just start by asking you, obviously, about Meet Dave, this kind of combination of comedy and sci-fi. Why did this particular idea appeal to you?
Robbins: Well, to be honest, it came about when I was finishing up Norbit with Eddie and he had already been involved in developing it, and he gave it to me. When I read it, I thought, “Wow. This is a kind of cool premise.” It’s something we hadn’t seen before and I thought the opportunity for him to sort of play this sort of robot, so to speak, was a cool thing for him to do, and lent itself to some really great comedic situations.
Question: There’s a lot of dealing with both special effects and the comedy. Do you find it easy to balance the two?
Robbins: Well, you know – I mean, the special effects are fun, and it was fun to sort of play, and create the ship, the inside of Eddie Murphy’s body. Then also the sequences where people got thrown out of the ship, and were sort of lost in New York City, were a great deal of fun. And that’s where the special effects and the comedy collided, hopefully, which made it doubly fun.
Question: What surprised you the most about working with Eddie, the first time you worked with him?
Robbins: Well, the first time we did Norbit, I was really surprised at how he had this ability to sort of be this very calm, cool guy, walk on the set, and – sort of very low key. Then, you, you say, “Action,” and bam. He just turns it on. You know? And it’s like almost turning on a switch. And he can be extremely alive and animated, and then you yell, “Cut,” and it’s like – the switch is off, and he’s sort of just back to being cool. But I gotta say, of all the actors I’ve worked with, he – just comedically, is the most gifted actor I’ve ever been around, comedically.
Question: Norbit came in for quite a critical slamming. Is that water off a duck’s back to you? I mean, do you more or less don’t care about what the critics say about your work?
Robbins: Well, I don’t know about more or less don’t care. I mean, obviously I care and I think anybody cares what people think of it, whether critics or fans or family members. But I do think that certain kinds of movies, especially comedies, get a tough shake from critics, and are sort of reviewed in a certain context, you know? I’ve said this before about a movie like Norbit, which played to some of the highest-testing scores I’ve ever gotten for a movie, I mean, just unbelievably crowd-pleasing. That got super high, excellent marks, about as high as you could get, to the test audiences. But yet, the complete opposite from critics, so that’s totally the head-scratcher thing.
Question: You think the critics should be forced to see comedies with the general public?
Robbins: I do think so. I it’s the same thing for studio executives, by the way. The reason you never let studio executives watch a comedy in a room by themselves is probably the same reason you don’t want critics to watch a comedy in a room by themselves, or anybody, for that matter: It changes the experience, you know what I mean? It’s like you sit in a theatre full of people really enjoying a movie, and it has a different impact. Than a bunch of grumpy people watching a movie alone. [LAUGHTER] I don’t know. You know, I hate getting dragged into that debate, but it’s just sort of my pet peeve.
Question: Why is comedy, as a genre, become of so much interest to you as a filmmaker? What do you get out of making a comedy film that you may not necessarily get out of making a drama?
Robbins: Well, first of all, there’s nothing more difficult than comedy. I don’t care what you say. I mean, performing and/or making it. I think getting people to laugh, and understanding comedic timing, is one of the most difficult things there is, and it’s just fun to make a comedy. It’s challenging and it’s fun, and there’s nothing – for me, more pleasurable than to sit in an audience full of people, real people, and see them laugh at a film. And really have a – go for a good ride. And, you know, we live in – it’s not the most fun time in the world right now, you know? And I think that’s what movies are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be entertainment and escapism and fun, and to me, comedies are all of those things.
Question: What are the challenges in making original comedies? What are the challenges for you to come up with original comedic ideas?
Robbins: Well, you want to try to do fresh stuff. I mean, that was what was so much fun about Norbit, for instance, and Meet Dave, is that – you know, those characters in Norbit had never been seen before. And Meet Dave really hasn’t been done, anything like that before. Where you’ve got this guy wandering around New York City, he looks like a human being, but he’s not a human being, so that it’s sort of like a robot. But yet, an actor is playing the robot, you know? So any time you can have something that’s different, and something that’s fun, and then try to flip it in a comedic way – it’s a lot of fun, and it’s challenging. And, you know, if you succeed at it.
Question: What do you think sets Meet Dave apart from other comedies?
Robbins: Well, like I said, I haven’t seen it before, so the chance to see Eddie Murphy, who’s supposed to be a robot but look like a human, but yet played by an actor – an actor playing a robot hasn’t been done before. And Eddie – you know, right off the bat, he just nailed it. You know, he made this great choice. Like, he never blinks. He always has this wide stare when he’s the robot, the whole movie. I mean, the first day he came on that set with that sort of – those robot eyes, which are his eyes, and that sort of robotic look on his face, I knew he had something going.
Question: You’re working with him now for the third time. Obviously there must be some kind of synchronicity between the two of you, as you’re working.
Robbins: Well, I think that we had a really good time making Norbit. And that was a hard film to make, and that was a good experience together. I think he was really happy with the way the movie turned out, and it was successful. And he actually brought me into Meet Dave, and gave me the script for that. And that was also a really good experience, and went well, and we really bonded. We share a similar comedic sensibility. And A Thousand Words, which we’re shooting now, is a script that I got to look at. And I gave it to him, because I just felt he would be brilliant in it.
Question: Can you tell me a little bit about that? What is the premise?
Robbins: Eddie plays a guy named Jack McCall, who’s a literary agent who’s kind of a really fast-talking, bullshitter guy, who really doesn’t have any soul in his life. Isn’t really grounded and he needs some enlightenment. He’s trying to sign a client who’s a spiritual guru. Kind of like an Eckhart Tolle sort of guy, so he goes to this guy at the ashram, and he’s bullshitting him. And the guy sends him a tree which has 1000 leaves on it and every time Eddie says a word, a leaf falls off the tree. When he uses up all his words, all the leaves fall off the tree, he’s gonna die, unless he figures out how to find enlightenment. So what’s cool about the movie is, for the first third of the movie, Eddie is just talking, talking, talking. He’s that fast-talking – you know, Axel Foley, Eddie Murphy that they all love. And then for the rest of the movie, he has to sort of become silent. And gives a very Chaplinesque, Buster Keaton performance, until he figures out how to find his soul, and make his life great. So it’s sort of like, a very cool comedic thriller, in a way.
Question: Is this likely to be Eddie’s last hurrah because rumor has it that – he’s said, actually, I guess, in a recent interview, that he wants to retire. Has he spoken to you about that?
Robbins: I don’t know. I don’t know if he’s gonna retire, but I think he’s itching to get back to doing stand-up, so he might do that for a while, and take a break from making movies. I’m not sure he’ll completely stop making movies. I don’t really know what’s inside his head. I know that he’s been doing this a long time, and he’s made a lot of movies. I really don’t know. I hope not.
Question: Brett Ratner is making Beverly Hills Cop IV, but I don’t even know if Eddie’s gonna be even in that movie.
Robbins: Yeah. Who knows if that’s really gonna happen. I don’t think they have a script.
Question: Now you’re also prepping Wild Hogs II, are you not?
Robbins: Yes. Yes, it’s gonna shoot in the spring.
Question: And everyone’s back?
Robbins: Everyone’s back, and maybe back with a fun addition. We’ll see. Can’t tell you who yet.
Question: Can you talk about where you see the sequel going? I mean, in what direction you see the sequel going?
Robbins: I don’t think I can give it away yet. [LAUGHTER] It’s sort of a little bit of a secret right now. So, I can’t really share it. I mean, I know, but I don’t think they want me to tell.
Question: And any plans beyond Wild Hogs II?
Robbins: Well, I mean, we’re still shooting A Thousand Words, and Meet Dave comes out so then this movie will come out some time next year. I’m not sure what the next movie is gonna be. We’re trying to figure it out. I made four movies in four years, so I might have to take a nap first.
Question: You actually began your career as an actor, all those years ago. Do you want to go back to that at all, or do you want to do any sort of cameos in a movie you’re directing?
Robbins: No, I don’t – I have no desire to go back to acting. People joke with me all the time about putting myself in my movies. But I don’t know. I don’t have that jones, or that ego. [LAUGHTER] So. I’m very happy doing what I’m doing. I love what I really do. I really could say that. I love making movies, and I love directing, and getting to work with a guy like Eddie Murphy, who’s so talented every day is sort of like a dream come true. Because, I mean, I grew up idolizing that guy, you know what I mean? And I knew every line from Trading Places and 48 Hours. And so to get to come to work with that guy, who was sort of a comedic idol to me, every day, and make movies with him, is just a blast. So that fills my need and my ego enough. I don’t need to act any more.