Screenwriters Larry Karaszewsi and Scott Alexander specialize in biopics about people few others would consider making biopics about. Starting with their script for Ed Wood 25 years ago, the long-time duo also wrote The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man On The Moon, Big Eyes, and then for television The People Vs. O.J. Simpson. Their latest endeavor is perhaps their most unlikely yet: Dolemite is My Name, a film on outrageous fringe comedian Rudy Ray Moore.
It took over 15 years to bring Dolemite Is My Name to the screen. Thanks to Netflix and Eddie Murphy, the film arrived on October 25th to rapturous reviews. In our interview, we talk about the film’s success and its rocky road into existence.
Awards Daily: Larry, I believe you once said we make biopics for people who don’t deserve biopics.
Larry Karaszewski: I think that’s the subgenre that both Scott and I have been dealing in for a long time. When we made Ed Wood and Larry Flynt back to back, it felt like we were creating a new part of the biopic genre. That we were kind of reinventing the genre. Periodically genres go through changes like the western went from traditional John Ford movies to the Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone movies to the introspective Monte Hellman westerns. The biopic kind of never did. Biopics were always the stodgy 3-hour great man saga. Then Scott and I came along.
Scott Alexander: Beyond the great man biopics were about people of achievement who were important to history and had accomplished something that was notable, and they need to be commemorated and put up on a pedestal. We came along with Ed Wood saying. well why can’t you just make a movie about some little guy that most people never heard of. Who just struggled in the margins his whole life, but he had an interesting story and he had a lot of passion and isn’t he just as important?
Larry: These were people we were interested in. These were people that we were reading books about. We thought why am I can make a movie about that?
Scott: I think both of us as kids in high school and college took an interest in the underground history of our country, and cult movies, and independent filmmakers. It’s like the secret history of the United States. These people running around in their little apartments doing their little deeds were really fascinating to us. It started with Ed Wood and people reacted well to the script, and I guess we haven’t stopped.
Awards Daily: Well, I guess that brings us to Rudy Ray Moore. (Laughs). What drew you to his story?
Larry: The singularity. I think Rudy is definitely the story of the American dream. It’s about a guy that just wouldn’t give up. He kept trying and kept trying. We begin our story and he’s in his 50s. He’s had 3 or 4 (unsuccessful) careers but he’s still refuses to believe that his dream is over. The fact that something as strange as him overhearing some rhymes by a local wino turns out to be his ticket to stardom (laughs), for us, that was a golden story. We had become fascinated by Rudy’s films and seen him in concert, met him in person, and we just knew he was a larger than life character, but he also had a humanity to him that a lot of people didn’t understand. So, to make a movie about the creation of the character of Dolemite struck us as being an amazing opportunity.
AD: How hard was it to get Dolemite Is My Name into production?
Scott: Dolemite Is My Name had a very eccentric path to the screen. Eddie came to us in the early two thousands. He was a big fan of Ed Wood and he wanted to make a movie about Rudy. We were already big fans of Rudy and just the iconography was so exciting – idea of Eddie Murphy playing Rudy Ray Moore who is such a hero to black comics of that generation – seemed to us just a firecracker of an idea. Eddie then got us into a room with Rudy and Rudy was over the moon that finally he was being taken seriously and Hollywood was coming around. Rudy never got through those gates. Studios never called him up and the idea that Eddie was going to commemorate him in a movie was a big deal to Rudy. He told us his war stories. He was always about creating myths about himself – presenting himself as a larger than life figure. He was giving us his take on his life, and it was all exciting, and then we couldn’t sell the project. Rudy was too obscure.
Eddie was coming off Pluto Nash, so, that wasn’t helping. We were coming off Man on the Moon, which is another comedian biopic we’re quite proud of, but it did not make money, so that probably didn’t help. At the time Eddie was ensconced in making family films and Rudy Ray Moore by default is going to be a hard R. So, the project just went away. Nothing happened for about 15 years. Occasionally, Larry and I would get a phone call that someone has the rights to make a movie about Rudy, or someone has the right to make a Dolemite remake and they wanted to meet with us. We never got involved but we always encouraged them.
Larry: We thought this is a movie that should be made. We thought it was a movie we wanted to see. We were thinking someone else would make it. Then Rudy passed away, and we felt really bad because we had sort of promised him that we would tell his story. It wasn’t until a few years ago that Scott and I created The People Vs OJ Simpson television project, and that was a big success. In careers you have ups and downs and highs and lows and we’re definitely on a high, and we said you know maybe we can get an old dream project made. Through the producers John Davis and John Fox, we got word back to Eddie Murphy who was basically semi-retired. We wanted to know if he was still interested and he contacted us instantly, saying, hell yes. Very soon we were brought into Netflix and into a room with (Netflix Chief Content Officer) Ted Sarandos.
Scott: We had our PTSD from the early two thousands where we tried to sell the project and people gave us blank stares. Like who is this? What is this? Why do you want to do this? So we had a lot of prep for that for the big meeting with Ted to educate him about what a big deal Rudy was to the black community, and how influential he was on a whole generation of rappers, and how essential he was to a whole generation of stand-up comics, and what a big deal the story would be. We got 10 seconds into our song and dance and Ted just cut us off, saying, guys I ran video stores in the eighties. Those Rudy VHS tapes kept us in business. So, you can just skip over everything here. (Laughs).
Larry: He knew fully well how great Rudy Ray Moore was. At that point Eddie Murphy stood up in character doing “signifying monkey,” and the project was sold. (Laughs). So, a project that took 16 years get going happened really quickly once we once we got to Netflix.
Scott: Larry and I had play catch up on other projects first, because we’re always behind. When we finally got around to writing it, we wrote it very quickly for us. With the biopics we tend to get very beholden to our research, and we really try to get stuff right, but it makes the writing process very slow. Because instead of typing, exterior night: Rudy drives down the street, you have to ask kind of car did he own that year? We were digging through our notebooks trying to remember – I know it’s somewhere. I know we had a car somewhere.
It almost went back to the Ed Wood days in that we wrote Ed Wood without a lot of information. With most other biopics, we compiled if not one then two 4-inch binders of research material. We would go the libraries ourselves and find the microfiche of old newspapers, and copy them, and we would interview people. With Rudy it really came down to one-stop shopping with this amazing researcher Mark Jason Murray, who’s been writing a book about Rudy for about 20 years now – he says he’s almost done – and Mark had interviewed Rudy and a lot of the other guys while they were still alive.
Larry: The amazing thing was the Academy library, which I’m now semi in-charge of because I’m vice president of history and preservation, you go there, and you can ask for a file about Barbara Stanwyck and you get all the press clippings. When we went to get the file on Rudy Ray Moore the press clipping was an article about me. (Laughs). I had done an evening at the American Cinematheque after Rudy had passed away with Jerry Jones, the screenwriter, Ben Taylor the songwriter, and Nicholas von Sternberg the DP of Rudy’s movies. Rudy’s crew we’re all there. We did met all those guys and we do personal interviews. It was a different experience than writing O. J. Simpson, or the Patty Hearst script we were working on before this, where there’s 10,000 pages of court transcripts. Every character had written their own book.
Scott: Piles of books! So, you got everyone’s point of view on every event.
Larry: Where Dolemite and Ed Wood…
Scott: Shared a lack of information! (Laughs).
Larry: Just because they were so obscure. There wasn’t much written about Bunny Breckenridge, Bill Murray’s character in Ed Wood. It was the same for Lady Reed, for example. We knew very little about Lady Reed before she entered Rudy Ray Moore’s showbiz world. We knew that she had a child and that she was a backup singer in New Orleans, and that was about it. But Rudy had seen in her something special, and that he decided to present her as his protege. He almost saw her as an equal in a way that that even some of the other guys in his posse weren’t.
AD: The film really depicts a male-female friendship in a way few others have. I wasn’t familiar with Da’Vine Joy Randolph before, but she just pops off the screen.
Scott: Da’Vine is the discovery of the film. Other than Da’Vine, everyone else in the film…one review called it “the murderer’s row.” Which, I like that phrase. Once word got out that it was Eddie playing Rudy it just became incoming phone calls. I’m not sure that the casting directors had to dial a lot of numbers, they just had to keep answering their phones. Every guy in town wanted to be in this movie, and it was just a wealth. The only sort off-beat casting ended up being Wesley, in that everyone else is a comic.
In terms of our script structure D’urville Martin is a straight man in that he’s the only person who’s been in the establishment. Who has worked for Paramount Studios and he’s been directed by Roman Polanski. He’s self-serious about his stature and the second he agrees to direct and costar in Dolemite he regrets it. By definition, (director) Craig Brewer realized he should not be played by a comic. They went after Wesley, which was such a great idea because Wesley brings stature and gravitas as a serious actor in a way that the other guys don’t.
AD: He’s also incredibly funny in the film.
Scott: Then Wesley outsmarted all of us and clearly realized, that hang on a second, everyone gets to be funny but me? What kind of what kind of shit is this? (Laughs). He showed up with that interpretation and we were just cracking up. So, Craig went with it.
AD: There’s been a lot of focus on this being a comeback film for Eddie, but this is probably Wesley’s best role in several years too. Giving these guys a chance to shine in such terrific roles has to feel good.
Larry: It’s very gratifying. We wrote the movie as a tribute to Rudy Ray Moore, but we were also writing it as a tribute to Eddie Murphy. We wanted to have a movie that allowed Eddie to show all he can do. Those great flashes of Eddie Murphy genius. Whether it was the X-rated comedy of his early days, his music that he does so well, or his serious acting like in Dreamgirls…to put that all in one place. I don’t know if that had ever been done before. Everyone talks about our entire cast, but I think what was a really wonderful thing is that a lot of that is because Eddie was so generous on this – letting the other actors shine. He wasn’t one of those actors who comes in and demands the scene be all about him. The other guys all have these great moments and certainly Da’Vine has one scene after another and he just T’s her up with respect. It’s a great thing to watch onscreen.
Scott: I like that word, generosity, which I keep seeing used to describe the movie. Which is Eddie’s performance and it’s the attitude of the film. It’s not a movie with villains. It’s a very sweet movie that likes everybody in the film. The movie only exists because Eddie wanted to play Rudy, but Eddie graciously shares every scene with his costars.
AD: Maybe my favorite scene in the movie is when Eddie says if the crew is hungry, I’m gonna go make sandwiches. In that way, the movie paralleled the movie within the movie.
Larry: He was pretty amazing that way. His producer credit is a real producer credit. This all came from Eddie Murphy’s point of view.
Scott: That line was created by the screenwriters being told by the line producer you guys up too many friggin’ locations, you have to cut back. We actually had a scene – which is based on a real anecdote – where Rudy is in his Dolemite pimp outfit – runs over to Ralph’s and picks up bread for the crew because Ben (Taylor) didn’t order enough bread that day to make sandwiches. (Laughs). It was this ridiculous scene of Rudy screeching up in a car and then running down the bread aisle, and then he’s in the cashier’s line in his pimp outfit. It’s funny, but it’s a lot of work for a production just to get that image of Rudy standing inside of Ralph’s.
Larry: And when it (the actual scene) became a feature, it worked very well. I think there are a few defining moments in the movie and when he pins D’urville against the wall, that’s basically a mission statement that I will do whatever it takes to get it done.
AD: I’m sure it’s been really delightful to see how well Eddie and the movie has been received after his being away for such a long time.
Larry: This was a really special experience. Everybody interviewed at the end of a film always says, “it was like a family.” But it really was like a family. Every time there’s any opportunity for a press thing or a premiere, we all get back together and we have such big smiles on our face. I think part of that is that we watch this movie and people come out of the movie with smiles on their face. I don’t think they’re expecting that. They’re not expecting Dolemite to be a feel-good movie. They’re not expected to be touched in those last in the 5 minutes of the film the way they are. It winds up being much more emotional and you just really like those people on screen. You feel like they’re doing the right thing and you want them to be rewarded for it. We were all aiming to make a great movie, but that’s something that kind of goes beyond that. You’re lucky to be a part of a film that that is able to touch people like that and we’re very grateful for it.
AD: As funny as the movie often is, I thought – more than anything – it was about perseverance. About not having assets at your disposal and still finding a way to make a door where one didn’t exist. I think that’s a universal message and why people are so moved by the movie.
Scott: That reaction has been really lovely because going into this we did not expect that kind of universal takeaway. We were very focused on telling the story of segregation in this time period and how bunch of black performers who couldn’t get past the gatekeepers were forced to do it themselves, and Rudy was forced to be entrepreneurial because nobody was going to help them. That was our idea behind the screen play, but it’s been this larger takeaway, which is people saying that the movie inspires them to go create anything they’ve ever thought about creating, but never got around to doing. That’s been really magical
AD: How did you get Craig Brewer to direct?
Larry: Craig Brewer I believe was Eddie Murphy’s idea. Eddie was a big fan of Hustle & Flow. I think he was working with Craig on a different project, and I was friends with Craig from the Memphis Film Festival. I’ve gone back to the Memphis Film Festival several times and Craig is kind of the unofficial mayor of Memphis. I think Jerry Lawler is the king of Memphis.
Scott: So, we know the King and the Mayor? (Laughs).
Larry: Bobby Rush I think is the prince of Memphis so…
Scott: We’ve known a lot of un-elected leaders of Memphis. (Laughs).
Larry: Craig was always very gracious during those visits. We’re just such big fans of Hustle & Flow. Everybody always says Hustle & Flow, but the other great movie is Black Snake Moan which is unbelievably great. He’s such a good filmmaker and we got along with him so well. One the first things Craig talked about was the importance that there was Rudy Ray Moore and there was Dolemite, and don’t confuse the two. When he puts on the wig it’s a different person. For us that was definitely our goal and Eddie’s goal, and Craig got it. Craig got it in a big way even beyond our wildest dreams. I think he took our script and brought it to another level.
Especially with the musicality. Craig really knows the music world and how music works in film. He can do those montages where you hear a piece of music that seems like background music and then two scenes later you realize someone is actually performing on stage and then that becomes a real scene. He does it in such a seamless kind of way. He’s from Memphis and he knows these underground Memphis blues club so well, he knows what that world looks like. He knows what the feel of those places are. He knows what those bars look like. There’s a realness to the locations in this piece. He made that world come alive. I think that’s one of the things we really love about the film and was one of the things that makes it much different than Ed Wood, is that whole chitlin circuit section, the making of the X-rated album section. You get to know that world which we don’t think has ever been on screen before.
AD: Speaking of the music in the film, you had a real ace in the hole with Craig Robinson. Who besides being an incredibly funny human being is a terrific musician too.
Scott: He’s amazing. I will admit out of sheer stupidity during the casting process people I became fixated on Craig Robinson – “he’s got to play, he’s got to play Ben,” and I just kept screaming this and I had no clue that Craig (Robinson) at any musical talents. (Laughs). He just seemed to embody Ben Taylor. Craig (Brewer) said that’s good because he’s got a great voice. I said what do you mean? Then I showed up on the set and he’s singing that opening song and it’s like holy shit, and then he can play keyboards, and like Larry said, Craig (Brewer) was able to weave music into the storytelling even more. When Rudy starts doing that routine in the club, Craig (Robinson) can just walk on stage behind him and start giving him some chords on the piano and it’s for real, because Craig is so multi-talented. My god, if we had not had a musical actor in that part the movie would’ve been a lot different.
Larry: Another thing I want to say about Craig Brewer goes back a little bit to what we were saying about Eddie in terms of generosity, is that Craig had such affection for these characters. You could tell that he’s just really loved Lady Reed. The thing is when you make a movie like Edward Wood or Dolemite, because the characters are quote end quote “making a bad film” and it is easy to look at it like ha ha ha they’re making something bad. You can look down on the characters, and that’s something we never tried to do.
We’re not making some great claim that the movies they were making were great art or anything like that, but they were making movies for themselves, and they’re having a great time doing it. They’re guerrilla filmmakers and I think because Craig comes from the same world Scott and I do where we made little student films. We made these movies with our friends with no money and we had a great time doing it. So, you understand the camaraderie that occurs when that happens. Craig Brewer did a really great job of showing Rudy Ray Moore as a guerrilla filmmaker as well as a comedian.
Scott: Sometimes we write these movies and we’re being biographical, but we’re also being autobiographical and sometimes it’s intentional and sometimes it just happens. When I watched when I watch the movie now I keep flashing back to those super-8 days, calling up all my friends in 10th grade and saying you got to meet me on Saturday morning because t’s really important we shoot this scene, and they don’t want to be there because it’s early on the weekend, but I’m so persuasive. Come on, we’ll have fun and my mom will make sandwiches. Let’s do it! (Laughs).
That “let’s put on a show” spirit is so endearing to us. Larry’s point about the movies being bad…I am kind of happy that at the end of the day we have fun with Rudy’s bad Kung Fu just because who can resist? (Laughs). Rudy is truly terrible at throwing karate chops and kicking people in the head – no one is worse – but other than that I don’t think we really do any of that below the belt kind of ha ha look the boom got into the shot, they’re shooting up the set, or someone is looking at the camera. That kind of stuff I don’t think is in our movie. Because we really weren’t concerned with that. Everyone always talks about the you know the movie being legendary for the boom mics, and that on one of the Blu-ray releases you can actually watch the boom mic deep edition or the non-boom mic edition. I don’t even think it’s alluded to in the film.
Larry: No, it’s not.
AD: One of the fun parts of watching the movie is watching them having fun making it. They are filled with joy over being able to do it.
Scott: Going back to the early days, I crewed on low-budget slasher films in the early eighties. We were literally getting paid pennies. I’m not sure I was even making a dollar an hour, but it was so much fun because it was real film running through a real camera, and we’re picking up lights, and we had a microphone. We’re making a film. We’re on a real set. Despite the fact that the set is in the garage of an apartment building and the director’s mom is making us tuna sandwiches for lunch to feed us. It was still a real movie. That’s exciting stuff when you’re breaking in.
AD: Larry, bringing in some local flavor (Larry and I are both from South Bend, IN), I’m old enough to remember when you were on Beyond Our Control in South Bend.
Larry: When I grew up in South Bend, Indiana there was a television show that was created, performed, directed, and written by high school students and it ran on the NBC affiliate. That really became your whole high school experience. We would write scripts on Monday and Tuesday, we cast them on Wednesday, we’d rewrite them on Thursday, we’d build sets on Friday, we’d shoot it on Saturday morning, and it would be on TV on Sunday.
Scott: It really debuted on Sundays?
Larry: Yeah. It was this crazy semi-professional thing, but there was that camaraderie where you were making all the props and building all the sets and doing all this stuff. It was all a little half-ass, but it was all pretty damn good too. Because it was it was coming from place of joy and creation. So many people came out of that show. Like myself and Daniel Waters, who wrote Heathers, and Dave Simkins who wrote Adventures in Babysitting, and Dean Norris who was in Breaking Bad, and Traci Paige Johnson who invented Blue’s Clues. For a little junior achievement show in the Midwest it was a breeding ground for a lot of people to get their start.
AD: After Ed Wood and The People Vs. Larry Flynt, this is probably the third time you’ve gotten significant Oscar buzz around one of your films. Considering those films got passed over…
Scott: Ed Wood won two! But if you’re talking about us, yes, we’ve been passed over.
Larry: It’s been strange. A lot of people always come over to us and they will shake our hands and we’ll be about to go on stage, and they’ll introduce as Academy Award winners, and we have to go onstage and say we are not Academy Award winners. We’ve never been nominated. “But we saw you on stage!” (Laughs).
Scott: We once had an argument with the former president of Disney who actually supervised Ed Wood and he said, “I saw you win an Oscar!” (Laughs). He said, “I saw you win for Ed Wood!” No, you didn’t. He said, “I remember you guys, you gave a great speech!” David, you’re dreaming. It never ever happened.
Larry: We’ve won Golden Globes. We’ve won a lot of awards. We’re not complaining that we haven’t won awards. O. J. Simpson won just about every award everything it was up for. We won best screenplay for Larry Flynt from the Golden Globes. It’s just that the academy has never quite connected with us.
AD: Are you excited about the possibility of finally getting that notice”
Larry: It would be wonderful. I was a little kid and one of one of the first Oscars I ever saw was Tatum O’Neal winning for Paper Moon, and I thought oh my god, little kids can win an Oscar! I’m you know I’m on the board of governors now for the Oscars. Obviously, I love the organization and it’s a great place. What we’re really crossing our fingers for is Eddie Murphy getting recognition. He deserves it.