Death at a Funeral - Chris Rock and Director Neil LaBute
Chris Rock and Director Neil LaBute © Screen Gems

Neil Labute is known for his dramas, but thanks to Chris Rock who appeared in his movie Nurse Betty, he is now directing his first out-and-out comedy. Based on the 2007 British farce, Death at a Funeral has now been Americanized, and is set in Pasadena, California.

The movie stars Chris Rock as Aaron, who is holding his father’s funeral at his home and worrying about doing the eulogy. His brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence), a successful novelist who feels he should be giving the eulogy, has arrived; his future in-law Oscar (James Marsden) has accidentally taken hallucinogenic drugs, and a mysterious man named Frank (Peter Dinklage, who played the same role in the British movie) turns up with his own agenda.

I spoke with Neil Labute at the press day for the movie about having his hands full directing all these comic icons.

What is the genesis of this project?

Aaron (Chris Rock) © Screen Gems

I can tell you the genesis for me, which was twofold. I’d been looking for a comedy for quite some time, but getting people to believe that you are able to do something other than what you’re known for in this town is sometimes very difficult.

Luckily, Chris Rock had seen the original movie and wanted to make a picture of it in the States. He had worked with me 10 years ago and had a good experience, and also had been a director in the last few years but wanted to act in terms of this production, rather than act and direct.

I had also worked with Screen Gems who were putting the film together. I had done Lakeview Terrace with them and had a good experience. Clint Culpepper, the head of that company, said, ‘Let’s take a chance on somebody doing something different.’

There’s always humor in what I do, sometimes unintentionally frankly, but I’ve never done a comedy other than Nurse Betty, which had humor and scalpings co-existing. It’s an expensive medium we work in, so to get the chance to do something, people will have to say, ‘I’ll trust you with $15 million, $20 million,’ so it’s a big amount of trust.

Luckily I was able to come into this and get a chance to work on what is essentially more a flat-out comedy than anything I’d done before.

You are very faithful to the original.

Director Neil LaBute on the set © Screen Gems

You’re climbing the same mountain, but you want to find a new way to do it as well, especially in this case. I think everyone who had seen the original really loved it. There was no sense of, ‘Oh we can make this better.’ It was, ‘We’re going to make it our own.’

It’s a whole different kind of family. The temperature was already 80 degrees above where this very reticent English family starts in the original. So we had to keep that temperature going all the time, ratcheting up the humor.

For me, the only drawback in the original is that I think a few people are slighted along the way, some of the actors, and I think to a person, those that were slighted in the original have much more to do and are funnier as characters in this particular version.

People look at the first one and appreciate it as we do, and they’re saying, ‘That’s really funny, why are you remaking it?’ So I think you do have that to live up to as well. That is a challenge.

Peter Dinklage plays the same role in both versions of the movie.

Frank (Peter Dinklage) © Screen Gems

Peter has the same needs and desires as the character that he played in the first film. He came up with another version of that character and it’s a fun approach.

Having Peter recreate the part just made sense to all of us. Here he’s playing 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.

How did you handle all these comedic actors?

Aaron (Chris Rock), Michelle (Regina Hall) and Ryan (Martin Lawrence) © Screen Gems

(They) became comic actors, but they’re just really actors. They can riff for 20 minutes and get right back into (the script). One of the great things I thought in terms of everybody’s work was that we shot on video, and it allowed people to just work, and never have to be stopped by the crew running out of (film).

The (actors) threw everything at a take, one after the other, until they had nothing left to give. Chris would say, ‘I’m done, I’ve got nothing.’

Just by having new actors in the roles makes it work differently. 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.

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 made them completely abnormal, and it’s fun to watch that play out on the screen.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane