“Dave” duo: Moviemaking being a collaborative art, it’s no surprise that directors and stars who prove to be a winning combination re-team for future projects.
Consider, for instance, Eddie Murphy and director Brian Robbins. After their first movie, the 2007 DreamWorks comedy “Norbit,” grossed $95.7 million domestically, they paired up again for “Meet Dave” for 20th Century Fox and Regency Enterprises. Now as “Dave” opens Friday, they’re in production on their third film, “A Thousand Words” for DreamWorks.
“Dave,” which also stars Elizabeth Banks, Gabrielle Union, Scott Caan, Ed Helms and Kevin Hart, was written by Rob Greenberg & Bill Corbett. It was produced by Jon Berg, Todd Komarnicki and David T. Friendly and executive produced by Arnon Milchan and Thomas M. Hammel. Murphy plays Dave, a miniature alien humanoid who comes to New York inside a spaceship that’s a human size body that looks exactly like the tiny Dave.
For some insights into the making of Robbins and Murphy’s movies, I caught up recently with Robbins, whose films over the years have grossed nearly $900 million worldwide. Among his credits are “Wild Hogs,” the 2007 Disney adventure comedy on which he was a producer; and the 1999 Paramount comedy drama “Varsity Blues” and the 2006 Disney fantasy comedy “The Shaggy Dog,” both of which he directed.
“Originally, it was (production president) Adam Goodman at DreamWorks who gave me the script of ‘Norbit’ and asked if I was interested in doing a movie with Eddie Murphy,” Robbins explained when I asked how he and Murphy got together. “I completely jumped at the opportunity. I was such a huge fan of Eddie’s work. I mean, ‘Trading Places’ and ’48 HRS’ were just two watershed movies for me that really made me want to do what I do now. I knew every line from those movies and could perform them all the time. I was completely excited to sit down and meet him. Once I did that, I just fell in love with ‘Norbit’ and we decided to do it. That was like two years ago, right after I finished ‘The Shaggy Dog.'”
Looking back on when he first sat down with Murphy, he told me, “I was extremely intimidated in my first meeting with Eddie (with him) just being such a legend that he is. And I was really nervous those first few days of shooting. Once we sort of found our groove in ‘Norbit’ and once I started showing him some of the cut footage I think he really started trusting me and we formed a nice bond.”
“‘Meet Dave,'” Robbins said, “was something he was developing while we were doing ‘Norbit.’ He gave me the script. I read it and could totally see him in the role and I jumped at the opportunity to work with him again.”
Asked how you direct someone like Murphy who’s been a superstar for so many years, Robbins replied, “It makes my job as a director much easier because he is so uniquely talented. Really what I try to do with Eddie is set him up in situations that I know he’s going to win at and where he’ll be able to exploit all of his talent. I feel like my job is to just put him in the right settings and the right scenes and give him the freedom and the ability to do what he does great — which is to be funny.”
As for how Robbins and Murphy actually work together, he noted, “It’s not that different than any other working relationship on a movie set. I set up shop and then he’ll come up on the set and we’ll talk through what the shot’s going to be and what the blocking is. We’ll have a couple of walk-throughs or light rehearsals. He’s not a guy who likes to beat a scene into the ground before he shoots it. He likes to keep it fresh and not rehearse it or over rehearse it, for sure. And then we roll and I think he finds things as he does it. We’ll watch playback and make little tweaks here and there. It just all depends on the individual scene that we’re doing. And that’s pretty much the drill. We’ll make adjustments on the fly as we go. He’ll always find a little something — a little gravy, a little cherry on top of a scene that really just makes it great. He’ll bring his unexpected magic to it.”
Recalling production on “Dave,” he told me, “The great part about (the film) that I never thought about until he actually did it was that when he was Dave on the outside, the robot that the humans saw, Eddie made this choice of never to blink. So he had this very wide-eyed sort of (expression that was) sometimes almost a little scary. He would never blink in any of those scenes when he was the robot, which I never even thought about in all of the prep work. But once he came on set and did it it was such an amazing brilliant choice and he was able to hold onto it throughout the whole shoot. It just made his human qualities feel uneven, which is what it called for.”
Filming was done mostly in Los Angeles along with a month of shooting on location in New York City: “We shot on the Statue of Liberty and did a bunch of scenes in Times Square. You take Eddie Murphy in New York in the middle of summer and you definitely draw a crowd. We had a big sequence where the ‘little’ Eddie Murphy and Gabrielle Union got thrown out of the ship and they were in the middle of Times Square having to find their way to get back on the big ship. And then there was a big finale sequence at the Statue of Liberty that involved helicopters and boats and all kinds of stuff that we shot out there for a week.”
Did Robbins storyboard those scenes? “All of those big action sequences were all storyboarded,” he explained, “and my storyboards were taken into what we call pre-viz and were animated. You might not follow them in stone, but they are a great guide and very helpful for everybody especially when you’re dealing with all the effects shots.”
Having the storyboards and pre-viz footage enabled Robbins to devote most of his time during shooting to working with his actors. “Exactly,” he agreed. “To me, that stuff is my homework in pre-production. It frees me up. When we get on the set that stuff is taken care of and I know what it’s going to be. I still work in those parameters, but it frees us up to do the real work, which is getting the performances and tweaking that and making sure that the story’s coming to life.”
Murphy’s involvement in his three films with Robbins goes beyond his starring roles. “He’s definitely involved in development,” Robbins said. “He definitely has his input in the script process before we ever get there. Very early on ‘Norbit’ I would show him a lot of cut footage. Then he came to my editing room a couple of times to watch a lot of stuff when we wrapped. He would definitely give his input. He was very anxious to see stuff before I finished and I would invite him to the editing room and he would look at cut footage and give us feedback.”
When we spoke Robbins and Murphy were shooting the comedy drama “A Thousand Words,” which opens next year. “We’re about half-way through. We finish at the end of July,” he told me. “This is actually a project that, again, Adam Goodman at DreamWorks gave to me to read. I read it on a flight to Europe right
after we finished ‘Meet Dave.’ I got off the plane and called Adam and (said), ‘God, I love this thing. Who are you thinking of putting in it?’ He was like, ‘I’m not sure. Who do you see in it?’ And I was like, ‘Eddie would be unbelievable in this role.'”
Murphy’s character, he explained, “is a guy who’s a fast-talking literary agent who is really soulless and is taught a lesson by a New Age guru who sends him a tree which puts a curse on him. Basically, the tree has a thousand leaves on it and every time Eddie says a word a leaf falls off the tree. And when he uses up all the leaves he’s going to die unless he can figure out how to change his life.
“So it gives Eddie a great opportunity to be this really fast-talking guy that we’ve got to see him play in the past, but about a third of the way into the movie he has to shut up and communicate like a silent movie star. So he sort of becomes like Buster Keaton. It’s something we haven’t seen him do before. It’s really a great concept and a great piece of material. Steve Koren, who wrote ‘Bruce Almighty,’ wrote the script. It’s quite unique.”
Reflecting on how production’s gone so far, Robbins observed, “It’s been very interesting to really watch fast-talking Eddie Murphy have to act without words. It’s just been a really great experience. It shows me every day how enormous his range is — how he can squeeze the funny out even when he’s not talking.”
Is there a difference in how you direct silent movies? “Sure,” he replied. “You want to set up sort of visually poetic and funny stuff. So you’re always thinking it’s not about the words, it’s about the funny thing in the frame visually as opposed to what’s funny on the page. So it really is a whole different approach to directing. I’ve spent a lot of time watching all the Buster Keaton movies and Chaplin movies. I had them on in my office the whole time that I was prepping the movie and it was a good learning experience.”
Looking ahead, Robbins is juggling a number of projects: “We’re getting ready to produce the sequel to ‘Wild Hogs’ (for Disney). We’re going to start shooting that early next year. And we have a bunch of good stuff in the works at DreamWorks (where) we have a deal. Who knows what’s next? We will pick (something) when we finish this one.”
Another anniversary: I’m happy to report that today (9) starts this column’s 24th year in The Hollywood Reporter since it was launched here 3,168 columns ago on July 8, 1985.
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com