The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Top Five.
The scene where you go to see your family is amazing. Can you talk about how that came together?
It was ninety degrees in August, in New York City, in the projects. So you can imagine… just the smell! But I insisted on actually shooting in the projects, because when Hollywood – or just movies in general – whenever they fake the projects, they always go overboard. It’s like, “wait a minute… there’s no graffiti in anybody’s bathroom!” The people are people. They’re just poor—that’s it. So we tried to avoid that. One of the things we did to avoid that was to just walk through all the apartments until we found one that worked for the scene, and we basically used it as-is. Then we got all those actors in there. And while it looks improve, it’s not. There’s a lot of important plot points in there that had to be communicated. I mean, some of the stuff wasn’t written out in detail—in the script it just said, “now they argue about rappers.” We shot all day, we argued about rappers, boxers, football players… did OJ do it… Obama… and the rap stuff just seemed like the best to keep, the spirit of it was ridiculous. It was a hot day, but it was so much fun. Just a bunch of comedians getting together, and of course getting a little competitive. It’s like, “OK, these kids are funny… can’t let ‘em beat me up today!” It’s one of those scenes a studio would never let me do, simply because we all get along during the scene. There’s no villain or big blow-up. It’s unusual to have a scene like that.
I actually find it’s better to listen to the scene
How did you decide on the song for DMX’s scene? Was “Smile” a nod to Chaplin? Or were you considering several other songs?
It was absolutely a nod to Chaplin—it just fit the entire theme of the movie so well. You know, about stretching and doing things you’re not normally supposed to do. People don’t know that Charlie Chaplin wrote Smile! So it seemed like the perfect song… and DMX seemed like the perfect person to be in jail. And you know what? It was hard to get him there. It took us two days to get him there… he missed about three planes… we finally had to send him a plane to get him there…! It was one of the craziest days ever of shooting. But you know what? He was totally game. We probably filmed him doing that song about thirty times.
As a actor / director, do you have a routine that you go through? Do you review every take?
You know, in the time it takes to review a take, you can shoot another one. So I try not to keep reviewing—when you review takes all the time, you keep seeing things that are wrong and it really slows you down. Manual Claro, my DP, is so good—I really trusted him a lot. I really trusted my producer, Scott Rudin, a lot. All I have to say is, if you’re ever filming something, just keep shooting. Trust the people around you to tell you if you’re making a huge mistake. Actually, you know what the weird thing is with comedy? I actually find it’s better to listen to the scene, as opposed to watch it. You’re dealing with rhythms and timing there. You might look at the very first take to make sure the set up looks ok, but as you get into it, just listening works better—it’s kind of like being a DJ, listening for tempo and rhythm. I was a DJ way before I was a comedian. And when you’re doing different scenes, it’s almost like mixing together different records; you’ve got to make sure the tempos you’re blending together work as a whole.