Interview: Craig Brewer on Directing ‘Coming 2 America’
Some might look at the job of directing a sequel to Coming to America as an enormous responsibility. Craig Brewer saw an opportunity.
“It’s more than 30 years later,” Brewer explained during a recent Zoom conversation. “Sequels usually get greenlit because they want to quickly capitalize off of the success of the current movie. So they’re like ‘For God’s sake, let’s do that again! And let’s come up with a new MacGuffin’ or something like that. But I tell people, I was a teenager when I saw the first movie and now I have two teenagers. And it was kind of fun to see Akeem, who in the first movie is so idealistic and has so many, so many great ideas about truth and love, and now being a dad. And to me, I felt like that’s cool. Like, the characters in the movie are experiencing the same thing that the audience that loved the original are probably feeling right now, and it’s a great opportunity to have that avenue of relatability.”
Brewer was 16 when the original Coming to America opened in movie theaters in the summer of 1986. The film, directed by John Landis, told the story of open-hearted African prince Akeem Joffer (Eddie Murphy), who refuses to accept an arranged marriage and instead travels to the United States in search of true love. When the pieces finally came together for a Coming to America sequel a few years ago, Brewer was in the midst of directing Murphy in Dolemite Is My Name.
“[Murphy] told me that he had one of the best experiences ever making Dolemite Is My Name,” Brewer says. “And then to be so proud of the movie afterwards, he was like, ‘Let’s do this again. Let’s do Coming 2 America.’ And I thought, like, “Oh man, you thought you got beat up on Footloose. You’re about to be taken to the woodshed if you mess this up.”
He didn’t mess it up. Coming 2 America reunites Murphy with most of the first film’s cast for a story that sees Akeem discover that during his earlier visit to Queens, he left behind an illegitimate son (Jermaine Fowler), who is now the official heir to the throne of Zamunda. That lets Brewer flip the premise of the first film — with Fowler’s Lavelle and his mom (Leslie Jones) traveling to Africa to learn Zamundan customs — and to cleverly reconsider how Akeem’s supposedly progressive values from 1986 look in 2021.
During our chat, I also talked to Brewer about why he wanted to take on the project, how he reunited the original film’s incredible cast, and whether he factors a movie’s intended destination — theaters or streaming — into his approach as a director. He also revealed one very surprising inspiration for the movie beyond the original Coming to America. You’ll never guess what it was.
Why did you want to make a sequel to Coming to America?
Well, I got involved because I kind of stepped big time in the Eddie Murphy family. It was not only working with Eddie, but his whole team. He’s got kind of a family operation and when we were working on Dolemite, it just suddenly started coming together.
I felt like I was ready for [the job]. I was ready to take any sort of stress that would come with it. I think the thing that I had in my back pocket was a few things. First and foremost, people want to see Eddie and Arsenio again. It was so clear to me. I mean, I would see them just hanging out, watching the screening of Dolemite together, and there would just be an excitement around them. I mean, Eddie is wonderful. Arsenio is wonderful. But to see Eddie and Arsenio sharing a frame does something to you. You immediately smile. You see two old friends that you haven't seen in a long time. They always did right by you. They always made you laugh. They entertained you. They changed you.
The second thing was I knew front and back that John Landis feel. Like I’m a huge fan of John Landis movies, especially that classic run that he had from, from the ’80s into the ’90s. It’s kind of incredible and it never really gets talked about much in terms of auteur filmmaking, but he’s an auteur. His movies do not look and sound like other people’s movies. I just watched American Werewolf in London. It is such an interesting tone. I can see people maybe even rebelling against it today, like, “Oh, what is this? Is it funny? It’s also horrific.” And yet he’ll do something like The Blues Brothers where there’ll be these musical numbers, and a lot of those really influenced me and the kind of musical numbers that I put in my films.
When you came onboard was the basic story already in place, where it inverts the original and Akeem’s son now comes to Zamunda?
It started off as that. But I think that the things that was important to me is that I was really inspired by Fiddler on the Roof. It’s one of my favorite musicals. And I love the idea of a person who is entrenched in traditions for the right reasons suddenly realizing that the world is changing. And it’s also affecting the people that he loves, mainly his three daughters.
I also wanted to make sure that there was stuff about what’s happening between Akeem and Lisa. I started analyzing the first film, probably more so than is probably recommended. I would ask these rather big questions, like, “Has Lisa returned to Queens in these last 30 years?” And I was like, “I don’t think so.” The last thing she said in Coming to America “Nah.” She used to be a person that was very committed to helping her fellow man in the first movie. The first time we met her was at a benefit. Now she’s been living in this bubble of fantasy. What’s going to happen when suddenly that bubble bursts and now she’s dealing with something like this long-lost son that she didn’t know anything about? Will this disruption ultimately make them better people?
To me, that was fun. That was fresh in a world that one could say is just inverted, like instead of Eddie going to Queens, now it’s a son coming to Zamunda. But I knew that would lose some of its steam after a while and we needed to kind of use that complication to service, a larger question, which is “Are you going to be your father? Are you going to be a father and king for the next generation, instead of being the guardian of your father’s world that has passed?”
One thing I really liked about the movie is it’s not just Eddie and Arsenio that are back, you got so many of the supporting actors to return from Shari Headley to James Earl Jones to John Amos and even Louie Anderson. Was everyone excited to come back? Did you have to convince anyone that this would be a worthwhile project?
Shari Headley and I had this long conversation because there’s a scene where she’s intoxicated and she was like “You’ve got to understand that Lisa doesn’t just belong to me. Lisa belongs to everybody that bumps into me at the airport and tells me “That movie means so much to me.” So she was at first a little cautious about that, like “Do I want to play this character this way?” And I was like, “I think that there’s an advantage that we have because people are so familiar with you. And that is that you get to get drunk in this one scene and actually have this moment of truth that Akeem needs to hear.” There were always elements where especially the people who were in the first movie, they wanted to show up, obviously, they wanted to be a part of it, but they were all also very concerned with the legacy of the movie and what they had to say in this next movie.
The makeup effects in the first movie are so famous, and you get to bring back those old characters in this movie even though the guy who designed all the original makeup, Rick Baker, is retired. Did you try to coax him out of retirement to do the makeup again? How hard was it to recreate those characters without him?
Well, Rick is retired, so there was no convincing him. The tricky thing about the makeup, especially with the barbershop guys and with Randy Watson, is the first thing that I’m sure people thought when the teaser dropped was “Whoa, how are those guys still alive?”
I get it. I understand what they’re saying, but I also think that I could do a movie 30 years from now and I still want to believe those guys are still there. But we also wanted to give them a little bit more of a realistic age as well. You’ve got to remember that there’s so much time that goes into that makeup. And the artistry that goes into even the teeth is enormous. And we even had to create Baba, a new character that Arsenio plays. It’s a tremendous amount of work, which doesn’t leave you much time to actually do the work work.
You’ve made movies for the big screen. You’ve made a movie for Netflix. Now you’ve made this, which was originally produced by Paramount but is coming out on Amazon. I’m curious: As a director, do you take into consideration where whatever it is you’re making is going to wind up? Do you think about “I’m making this for people to see in a theater,” or “I’m making this for people to watch on their television” or anything like that?
You know, I would love to say that there’s a difference, but I don’t really direct thinking that there’s a difference. I think the only time that I think differently is if I’m directing like something for television versus cinema or versus a narrative feature, because I just want to believe that in television you’re kind of crafting the rhythm of the show by way of the editor and the story. Whereas when I’m making movies, sometimes I don’t need to cut into a close-up. Sometimes I can allow something to live in its master or in a mini-master or something like that, because that’s just kind of the feel of a narrative movie.
But look, the reality is — and it’s funny because I brought this up when we were doing the color timing and the sound design on Coming 2 America, I was like, “Look, I just did this on Dolemite Is My Name” — and even though we designed it to be in a theater because Dolemite did come out theaters — “I just want to make sure that the movie that people are watching at home through their television audio or their sound bar or their surround sound is a good approximation of what we’re mixing here on the stages. And luckily, technicians now are so used to that. It’s really a matter of everybody’s home theaters are now just bumping up into a place that’s never going to be exactly like the experience of going into a theater, but it’s pretty close.
So yeah, we’re in a new world. Despite Covid. We’re here now. I’m sure I’m going to read the essay that Martin Scorsese just put out about cinema versus content. But I also know that Marty’s been making movies for Netflix as well, because there’s places that are not necessarily making movies that are dependent on opening weekend global box office numbers. And perhaps we needed a little bit of a shake to our system because it was beginning to clog up the creativity.
Coming 2 America is available on Amazon Prime Video starting on March 5.
Gallery — Franchises That Had to Recast Major Roles: