[Writing]’s like flying. Anything can happen. It’s so much promise in front of you. They’re all The Godfather before they come out.
At nearly 50, Chris Rock is still youthful, scrawny, even vaguely nerdy, but when he strides the stage during his stand-up, he’s like a hungry leopard driving his prey to the kill. He’s so good at it, it’s hard to imagine that when he was a kid, he didn’t want to be a comedian, he wanted to be a writer.
But growing up in ‘70s, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn wasn’t exactly a spawning ground for writers. “There were no writers,” Rock explains. “Being a writer wasn’t like a real thing. There wasn’t even a bookstore! So I got into stand-up, but all I ever really wanted to be was a writer, honestly.”
Though he writes “all the time”—including four features, his TV show Everybody Hates Chris, and various specials, documentaries, and stand-up specials—his new romantic comedy, Top Five is the first feature he’s written solo that’s been produced. Rock stays with what he knows, portraying stand-up comic Andre Allen, who, after a series of box office duds is struggling to stay relevant by staging a publicity stunt marriage to a desperately empty reality star played by Gabrielle Union. As the wedding draws near, Allen’s course is changed when he meets a journalist interviewer (Rosario Dawson), who helps remind him who he is.
Rock’s inspiration for the script arose from a period of restlessness about the direction of his own career. His passion shows in his use of his stand-up voice, the shades of Woody Allen and Richard Linklater, and the cameos from nearly every comic actor he counts a friend, including Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, and Adam Sandler.
Rock spoke to the Writers Guild of America West website about the mini-career crisis that led to his penning Top Five, the biggest things he’s learned not to do when writing, and why his 10 and 12 year-old daughters think their daddy is a writer, not a comic.
I’ve been poring through some of your interviews and one of the things you said is that Alexander Payne asked you why you’re so brave and commanding in your stand-up, but so safe in film.
You can get away with anything [in stand-up]. In movies, you don’t try anything.
How much is Top Five a response to that, how much are you letting it fly a little bit more?
Definitely letting it fly. Alexander’s is one of my favorites of all-time so those words were echoing in my head while I was writing and while I was filming.
Was it part of the initial impetus? When did you decide, I’ve got this movie in me, and I want to do this?
I guess three years ago? Two and a half years ago? I don’t know, I just felt restless. I was doing a couple movies, and honestly, my agent or somebody was steering me toward doing kids movies—this kids movie about a black family that was going on a ski trip, and they didn’t know how to ski. It’s actually a remake of a big movie in Europe, and there was the fact that, a) it’s so typical what happens when comedians turn about 50, no matter how edgy they are, they end up doing kids movies, and b) my family skis great! They’re amazing skiers!
So there was definitely a crisis in me, like, Am I going to do the ski movie? This is such a lie. I don’t know, it just felt like it would have been horrible to write that. I definitely had a crisis of whatever in me. And it was like, Okay, just write another movie, let me just write what I feel, what do I want to do? I always loved the Linklater movies. They’re really simple, and they say a lot. They get a lot into a small movie, just ideas-wise.
Do you feel like in order to do the sort of movie you won’t hate, you’ve got to write it yourself?
You kind of have to write it, depending on who you are. Some people are blessed with certain looks. You know, Ben Affleck is always going to get some great offers, and Matt Damon and whatever. A bunch of guys are always going to get some great offers. Then there are a few others that are going to have to make stuff happen. Hey, I’m not complaining, that’s just what it is.
You said at the Hollywood Reporter writers’ roundtable that when you watch Rocky you think you’re watching a boxing movie, and then you realize, Shit, this is a love story! To what extent is the same true about Top Five?
It is. It’s kinda the same thing. You think you’re watching this movie about a manager and this crazy client. Then when it’s over, you realize you’ve just seen an amazing love story. I like movies that do that. I like movies that give you more than one movie. I like movies that are different movies every time you watch them. You know?
Boogie Nights is a movie like that. The first time you watch it, it’s a movie about porno, but as you keep watching it, porno’s the last thing on your mind. It’s ultimately about those relationships.
You’ve cited Woody Allen a bunch. Obviously, he’s an influence, and your character here is called Andre Allen. How much of Top Five is infused or inspired with the Allen approach?
I’ve watched those movies to the point they’re just in me, you know what I mean?
This is probably the first time I wasn’t watching one while I was doing the movie, but they’re just in me. I love the guy. He created the modern rom-com. He created the little New York movie. So if you’re not stealing from Woody, you’re not really making a movie on some level. You’re just not. If you’re not stealing from the Beatles, you’re not really making music on some level.
And he makes it look so easy.
He makes it look so easy, because he never stops doing it. And he works with a lot of the same people, so they end up with a shorthand.
To that point, you don’t write movies all the time. Does that make it hard, from the writing standpoint? Is that a tough rhythm to jump in and out of?
I do write movies all the time, I just don’t get them made all the time. Or sometimes I write them, and I know after having a couple of read-throughs, nope, this ain’t a movie. This is not a movie. So I’ve written a lot of movies.
Do you like writing?
I like writing a lot. It’s the most fun you can have, especially before you get studio notes and all that stuff run through it. It’s like flying. Anything can happen. It’s so much promise in front of you. They’re all The Godfather before they come out.
Your stand-up is so ballsy and smart, but at the same time you’re an incredibly disciplined master of the stand-up craft. Like your sets—you know when Chris Rock is shooting a special, that it’s bulletproof to every detail. How much does that lend itself to the scriptwriting discipline?
I mean, to the writing discipline, yeah, especially on this one. This is the first movie I wrote by myself, so it feels like stand-up in a sense. The other two movies I wrote with people, it was more of a consensus. This is kind of a vision. Because I didn’t have to compromise with anybody, it’s way more me than I’ve been able to produce in a movie before.
With stand-up, you work your material in front of people—you know for sure what’s working and what’s not. Do you get that same feeling when you’re writing by yourself?
It’s hard. Here’s the thing. When you’re writing stand-up, you know the only person you have to answer to—the only entity you have to answer to—is the crowd, is the audience. When you’re writing a script, the biggest thing I’ve had to learn how to do, is to not anticipate the notes. If you can take a pill that makes you think studios don’t exist, that would be great. If you think you can get hypnotized to think that you’re never going to be in a room and have to answer for this script—which by the way I didn’t have to [here] because we didn’t make it through the studio. That’s the hard thing, getting rid of that fear of being in a room. Because I always say, there’s the script you write, the script you sell, and the script you make, and in some ways they have nothing to do with each other. It’s like, “How do I get the script I write to be the script I make? How do I jump past that sell thing?” Cuz, a lot of times, there’s a lot of compromise in that sell.
Sure. I mean do you knowingly draft the sellable version?
You probably overwrite when you’re trying to get a lot of money. Some things have to be spelled out to people. Also, I’m not a major director. I’m sure Chris Nolan has to spell out a lot less. As a first-time filmmaker you’re too naïve to realize that you’re going to be in a room with six people giving you notes about this thing.
Are the notes or the audience response scarier when you’re writing?
In a way the notes are scarier because those people hold the key, you know? And you know, you’re young, and it’s a big deal for you to even get on the lot. You want to impress these people. You actually want to impress these people, most of whom can’t write. They have opinions, and some of them are right, and some of them are wrong—it wouldn’t be a lot different than one of your friends, honestly. So you’re already collaborating. You’re collaborating with people that don’t write for the most part. There are some great producers that are out there—Scott Rudin doesn’t write, he’s amazing. You know what I mean? But there are not a lot of Scott Rudins out there.
The definition of a producer can be a fairly nebulous thing.
It’s a fairly nebulous thing…The thing with the audience is you’re not going to argue with the audience. They like something, it’s fine. They don’t like something, it’s fine. When you’re dealing with the studio though, you’re both anticipating what the audience is going to say.
How, when, and where do you write? What’s your ritual, if you have one?
This one I wrote, I almost Hemingway-ed it. I was filming a movie, had a rented house facing some water. [It was a] big budget movie so I had a lot of time off. I put the iPod on random, lots of jazz playing, and had a TV screen playing Lenny [and] Belly—I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Belly, it’s an amazing looking movie by Hype Williams. Not a great movie but one of the best looking movies you’ll ever see, and what was the movie with Tom Cruise, Michael Mann…?
With Jamie Foxx?
Yes. Is it Collateral?
So I had those movies playing in a loop, because I knew my movie was filmed at night... because there’s so much night in my movie. So I let the music play, and I keep watching these images of these movies that had a lot of night. And I write. I get up in the morning and try to write from nine to one, and take a real lunch break, and write from one ‘til say four, depending on where I’m at.
So you kinda steep in the ether of these images and the music?
Yeah. The images—especially if you gonna direct something, but even when you’re writing something, you’re writing visuals. You’re not writing a play, you’re writing a movie. How do you want this scene shot? Even if you’re not going to direct it, just write it. How do you want this scene shot? How do you want the lighting even, you know?
You get fairly autobiographical here. Your character is a stand-up comic. There’s a lot of similarities, and I’m sure some differences, but you show a little bit of vulnerability, particularly the way Andre shows how much bad reviews really hurt his feelings creatively. I’m curious if you knew at the outset that’s the one of the things you wanted to do here?
It wasn’t at the outset, honestly. It wasn’t like, “Okay, I’m going to do a movie about a critic.” It just seemed like a good device, seemed like a nice, petty thing for this guy, who had real problems to be mad at. I’m always amazed at how people with real problems, get mad at the littlest thing.
Right. Huge problems, really mad about something inconsequential.
Yeah. You got cancer but complaining about cable. Cable?
How are you feeling about writing more movies?
Oh, I can’t wait! I can’t wait ‘til I’m off this press tour so I can start writing again, honestly.
So you spend a good amount of your time writing?
I’m a writer. I grew up wanting to be a writer. I wanted to be a comedy writer, but I grew up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, okay? And not the Bed-Stuy now that’s gentrified, and all the hipsters grew up there…
Closer to the Robert F. Kennedy Bedford?
Yeah. I grew up in the one Billy Joel sang about: “I walked through Bedford-Stuy alone.” I lived there. And there were no writers. Being a writer wasn’t like a real thing—there wasn’t even a bookstore! You know what I mean? So I got into stand-up, but all I ever really wanted to be was a writer, honestly. And if you watched me as a stand-up early on, I didn’t know how to perform, I was very stiff. But I knew how to write a decent joke. Even my acting now, it’s better. It wasn’t great before, because I was a writer, acting!
This is why you’re tight with Louie C.K.
This is why I’m tight with Louie C.K., yes.
He’s a writer first, and then a performer.
Louie’s a writer. We talk about writing all the time
I’m glad I asked that question, because that would have been a terrible thing to miss in this piece, that you’ve always wanted to be a writer.
I wanted to be a writer. That’s what I tell my kids I am.
My kids are 10, 12. So I’ve been on tour twice since they were kids. So, they just know me as writing all the time. They just know me down in the office, working on a script…
Listening to jazz, drinking a cup of coffee?
Yes, that’s how they know me. That’s what I tell them all the time. Daddy’s a writer.
How much of your stand-up have they seen?
Nothing yet. I’m sure the 12-year-old is going to see something soon. She’ll be at a friend’s house or whatever. When I go to pick them up from school, the boys know exactly who I am and what I do. It’s very apparent that the boys know who I am.
I’m actually more concerned about how Louie C.K.’s children are going to…
Yeah, there might be a little problem there.
Oh my god, that’s going to be a reckoning. But your stuff, so they haven’t seen anything?
They’ve seen Madagascar, and they’ve seen Grown Ups.
Well, it’s coming quick
Yeah, it’s definitely coming.
© 2014 Writers Guild of America West