Producers John Fox and John Davis have worked together on a number of projects in recent years on film and television. They are the production team behind one of the year’s best reviewed films, Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name. In our chat, the duo talk about how the film came together, what life was like on set, and the joy of being around Eddie Murphy as he delivered what has already become one of his most critically lauded performances.
Awards Daily: How did the two of you get attached to Dolemite Is My Name?
John Fox: Eddie Murphy pitched it to me about 15 years ago when I was at Dreamworks. This has been a passion project of his since then. I brought Scott and Larry in to write it and unfortunately, we couldn’t make a deal with Rudy Ray to get his life rights at that point. So, the project fell apart. Then John and I were at Fox for a meeting on a different project and we bumped into Scott and Larry in the lobby there. I asked the guys if they were still interested in telling Rudy’s story and they said, “Yeah, are you kidding?” We said we’d talk to Eddie and see if he’s still interested. We called Eddie and he said he was.
John Davis: In the meantime, Ted Sarandos (Chief Content Officer at Netflix), who was my next-door neighbor, had said to me, “I really want to do a project with Eddie Murphy.”
Fox: It was just serendipitous that we bumped into Scott and Larry, and John and Ted are so close. It must have been within 2 or 3 weeks of bumping into the guys we had sold it in the room to Netflix.
Davis: Here’s the great story about how we sold it in the room. Scott and Larry are meticulous pitchers and researchers. We had spent weeks with them working up the take. We go into the meeting and Eddie shows up in character. Eddie does Rudy for twenty minutes – Ted is on the floor – by the time he’s done, Ted says, “Let’s do this.” The boys looked at me and said, “But we never got to pitch.” I said, “Does it matter? Just go write it.” (Laughs).
Fox: It was a great, great moment. They had a wonderful pitch all cooked up and when Eddie started doing the character, all bets were off.
AD: It’s amazing to think of the good fortune that had to come together here. Eddie had slowed down to the point of almost semi-retirement and Scott and Larry were ready to get back in on a dream that had died 15 years ago.
Davis: Here’s the deal: We’ve been working with Eddie for 25 years. I’ve made five movies with Eddie. I talk to him all the time. I love Eddie. The most entertaining thing you can do is go up to his house and hang out with him. He’s hysterical, and wonderful, and warm, and full of energy. He just needed to find something that was a challenge and engaging. He wasn’t retired, he was just looking for something unique. He’s got all the money in the world; he loves his ten kids – a lot of them live at the house. This is just something that engaged him, and he loved Rudy. He met him and he knew him. Rudy was an inspiration to him. As he was to a whole generation of stand-up comedians. As he was also the godfather of rap. He created the whole cinema of blaxploitation. Within the community of entertainers, he’s a big deal. He’s the most famous, influential comedian you’ve never heard of. It was easy to get Eddie to come out and do this.
AD:I used to run a video store in the 90’s and Dolemite was rented out all the time. Eventually, I took it home one night when it was actually on the shelf and I found it hysterical. It wasn’t so much whether it was a “good” or “bad” movie per se, it was more that you could feel the joy onscreen by the people who made it. It was infectious.
Davis: I think that shows up in our movie. You get the sense that Rudy found a family. He didn’t really have a family in L.A. He found a family making this movie and they had a lot of fun doing. I think that’s what people connect with.
AD: I think this might be Eddie’s best work. We’ve seen pieces of all he can do in different movies, but I think this is the first time it’s all under one roof. Not just the funny and the naughty, but the warmth and dramatic chops too.
Davis: I think that’s a reflection of where he is in his life, who he is, and how he’s feeling now, and the peace that he’s found. There’s a lot of comedians at this stage who are kind of bitter and angry, and we know a lot of comedians are driven by inner demons. Eddie was emotionally ready to give you this character because of the place he’s in now.
Fox: I think you’re watching an artist who’s matured. He gives an extraordinary performance that’s the result of 30 plus years of acting. You just see how he’s evolved. He’s just fantastic in the movie. This truly was a passion project for him. You just see his eyes light up every time that camera turns on and he jumps into character. He just comes alive. It was a joy to watch him every day on set.
Davis: All of us had a great time on that set. Comedies are great to work on anyway. It was one of the most fun experiences either of us has ever had.
AD: As a viewer, you get a real sense of joy coming off of this movie. As if everyone just loved showing up for work every day.
Fox: Well, That’s Craig (Brewer). Any set is a cult of personality. It’s either dictated by the movie star or the director. Somebody is dictating the tone on that set. In this case, we really lucked out because Craig is the most wonderful, warm, fun – playing music on set and creating this environment where everybody feels casual and loose. Then you have Eddie who is in such a great place. He’s just vibing with everyone and having a great time. They always say the movies that are easy to make never seem to be successful and the ones that are tough to make are the ones that are successful, but in this case – knock wood – I think we defied that.
Davis: Ruth Carter brought it also. We got to be on set and see those amazing costumes on the actors. That was another dimension that was really exciting. She’s a brilliant costumer. She won the Academy Award last year for Black Panther. She gave this movie a whole other element.
AD: I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised considering Scott and Larry’s track record with films like Ed Wood and Larry Flynt, but I was caught off guard by how moving the film is. It’s a great story about perseverance almost more than anything else. About creating a door where there isn’t one.
Davis: It’s a hopeful message. It’s really resonating with people right now.
Fox: That’s the true American spirit, isn’t it? Hopefully, this movie can be relatable to everyone.
Davis: It goes back to Frank Capra who said, “The common man can be uncommon.”
AD: I think there’s a lot of talk about this being a comeback for Eddie, but Wesley Snipes is so great here too. How did you get him?
Davis: John and I did a TV show with him three years ago.
Fox: The Player on NBC. It ran for nine episodes.
Davis: We developed a really good relationship with him. We’ll have dinner with him. He’s a hoot to hang out with. So, when it came time to make this movie, we just called him.
Fox: He’s the greatest. He just oozes charisma. Tom Rothman used to always say, “Once a movie star, always a threat.” I think that’s so true – especially in Wesley’s case. The guy, he jumps off the screen. He’s Wesley Snipes for god’s sake! And you see it. His take on the character was so unique. At first you think, where is this guy coming from? Then you realize there’s a real authenticity to what he’s doing. It was wonderful.
AD: Larry and Scott told me that when he was cast, they thought he was going to play the straight man, but that Wesley had other ideas.
Fox: Yes! That’s true. Very true.
Davis: He created that character and he pulled it off.
AD: Da’Vine Joy Randolph is the discovery of this movie. Can you talk about how she was cast as Lady Reed?
Davis: Our casting directors, Mary Vernieu and Lindsay Graham, brought her in. We did five movies with Mary last year, so we really love her. She keeps turning out undiscovered gems. We put Da’Vine on tape, and we looked at four or five other people, but she jumped. There wasn’t a choice. She knew we had never seen her before, but she took this part and made it something special. The minute we saw her, we knew it.
Fox: She made the choice for us. That was the easiest casting decision in the movie. A no-brainer.
AD: I thought the relationship between Rudy and Lady Reed was unusual in that it was a male/female friendship with no romantic angle. Rudy treats her like an equal. You don’t always see that onscreen.
Fox: That was very purposeful. We wanted these two to be kindred spirits. Outsiders in this world who weren’t accepted, and they find each other, and they inspire each other, and have each other’s back. We set out to create that kind of dynamic. I’m very proud of that storyline.
Davis: What can I say? We loved this movie. We loved the cast. Each piece of casting we were meticulous and thoughtful and took the time – it was a very deliberate casting process. The end result was the chemistry was great with everybody. At the end of the day, what are the most important decisions you make as a producer? It’s the director, it’s the casting, the cinematographer, the costume designer. We talked Ruth into doing this after Black Panther. She was really hot coming off winning the Academy Award. She really enjoyed the challenge. It’s all the pieces. Netflix was great in supporting every decision we made.
AD: Did you even try to take it anywhere else?
Davis: I took it right to Ted. We went no place else. In retrospect, some people have said we maybe should have taken this to a studio because this would have worked as a commercial film. But we felt if we did that our choices would be compromised. Netflix encouraged us to make the best movie we could make. They gave us the money to make the best movie we could make. Sometimes at a studio when you are making a comedy, they tell you you’ve got to make it for 20 million dollars. John and I wanted to make a really wonderful movie. We wanted to pay homage to the legacy of Rudy Ray Moore. We wanted to give Eddie the opportunity to do something he really wanted to do, and we wanted no limitations on that. So, we made a deliberate decision and I think the result is we have the movie that we have.
AD: The movie is starting to get Oscar buzz for Picture, Screenplay, Eddie, and other members of the cast. That has to be gratifying to have the film be received so well.
Davis: I’m a member of the Academy, and I’m going to vote for this movie. (Laughs).
Fox: The movie was a joy to make. The most important thing is the response from the people has been overwhelming. If we are lucky enough to be in the (Oscar) conversation, that’s just the cherry on top.
Davis: 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s insane. Over 90% on the audience score. John and I get calls and texts every day from people telling us they love the movie. This is why we do this.
Dolemite Is My Name is currently streaming on Netflix.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.