Interview: Marlon Wayans

It’s only the middle of the day and Marlon Wayans sits down next to a cup of tea in the empty private screening room of the bowels of the Hazelton Hotel in Toronto. He seems tired, but he’s still as sharp as a tack on the couch of life. The often comedic actor from one of the most talented family lineages can’t be faulted for being tired. He’s been up since the crack of dawn and criss-crossing the city to promote his latest entry into the spoof cinema genre, A Haunted House.

His appearance in Toronto, which comes hot on the heels of a great first two weeks in the United States that have seen an almost $25 million profit on a modest budget of just over $2 million, shows just how dedicated the youngest of the Wayans siblings can be when he believes in a project. For the first time in the genre, he works without the direct collaboration of his brothers Keenen or Shawn, serving as lead and co-writer of a skewering of found footage films and clichés.

In person, he’s as smart as he is funny, and his dedication and love for comedy shines through quite thoughtfully for someone who can still find it within himself to find fart jokes funny. Wayans sat down and talked to us yesterday about crowd reactions to his films, critical reactions, when a genre is ripe for parody, and his work outside of the shadow of his most frequent collaborators, and to just generally shoot the shit for a little bit.

Dork Shelf: First off, I think it’s kind of funny because the last time I was in this room it was to interview your sister Kim…

Marlon Wayans: Oh, seriously? For Pariah? Oh, man, such different movies. (laughs)

DS: Second, I was going back through all of your films, and I don’t think there are many people I could say this to that have had a career of over 20 years and who have worked as much as you have, but I’ve somehow managed to see every one of your movies in a theatre.

MW: Are you serious? Is that a love thing or a hate thing? (laughs) Like, (grits teeth) “I can’t believe they got this guy working again!”

DS: I don’t know, that was just the kind of thing I gravitated towards when I was younger, and I think a lot of people did, too.

MW: So you liked silly stuff? That’s good.

DS: Well, even going back to when you were in Above the Rim, I even saw that in a theatre, too. I lived across the street from a discount theatre growing up…

MW: (laughs) “Yeah, I’ll see Tupac for two bucks, why not?”

DS: Actually my mom was a manager at a Friendly’s restaurant next door and she would hook the manager  of the theatre up with free food so I didn’t even have to pay two bucks or even be old enough to see these things.

MW: Nice. So that was kind of your babysitter, basically. Word. Not only was that a good hook-up, but it was probably better than putting you in front of the TV or internet was.

DS: The movie itself also harkens back to two of my best trips to the movies, the first was when the first Scary Movie was released on my 21st birthday in the States and I was just absolutely fucking wasted watching it. But that’s not even the funnier half of the story. (Marlon laughs) When I went to see the first Paranormal Activity, I went to see it on a packed theatre on discount night… and this is a story I always tell everyone, but it’s relevant here… and in front of me I had two giggling teenage girls, to my left I had a guy who was there with his boyfriend and the one guy kept freaking out at everything that happened, behind me I had the people who kept screaming at the screen asking why the fuck these people were still filming…

MW: Nice, those were black people, by the way…

DS: Yeah, they totally were. I wasn’t going to say it.

MW: (laughs) Don’t even have to. I could tell from that. We always have that thing where we have to talk to the screen.

DS: Was it also because I said discount night?

MW: (laughs) Exactly.

DS: And the dude to the right of me was too stupid to open a bag of potato chips.

MW: He was high.

DS: I don’t know…

MW: He was HIGH. Trust me. He had some of that BC chron. Also, you said it was discount night.

DS: He didn’t even try to open it from the top or the bottom. He just laid it flat and tried opening it along the seam on the back of the bag. It took him 20 minutes into the movie to get that thing open.

MW: That don’t sound high to you?

DS: Yeah, that sounds pretty high. That probably could have been me during the first Scary Movie.

MW: (laughs) You gotta go back and see that one high again so you can find all the shit you missed when you were high the first time.

DS: (laughs) But getting back to the point I was trying to make, it’s that the films you do generally garner huge responses from audiences within the theatre, and is that kind of the starting point for you when you go to set out and make a film like this?

MW: Yeah. I never think of critics. I only think of crowds. Will they laugh at this and will they take ahold of this? I know this part’s going to take them overboard, but how to do we get a laugh out of this. With this one, you might get a laugh out them, but I can also kind of submit them into a laugh, like the fart scene in this one. It’s funny because it’s a surprise, but it gets to the point where it goes back and forth and it’s, like, “Okay, you farted already.” Then by the fifth one, you kind of start giggling again because they’re still doing it, and it just builds to this little one (makes quiet, quick fart noise). I don’t know, I just think of the audience in my head and I just want to make them laugh.

DS: I know that even in the confines of a press screening, it just isn’t the same watching a movie with a bunch of journalists. Sometimes you really can be in a room where people are just too cool to laugh at anything. It’s like the actual experience that the movie is supposed to be about is missing…

MW: It’s raucous. It’s funny because our movies have always been critic proof. The lower the rating with these, often the more the audience likes it. My thing is that a laugh can sometimes be subjective, but I think critics should watch the movie with an audience and then critique the movie, because when you see it with a paying audience or even a free audience, it’s crazy. It’s like a rock show kind of reception. People are stomping their feet and laughing. You can see someone falling out of their seat or wiping tears away. And that’s just the history of our movies overall. Don’t Be a Menace (To South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood) was like that, and Scary Movie and Scary Movie 2 had some of those moments, and this one plays big.

DS: And here you’re poking fun at a genre that can already do those kind of things on its own terms and have that same kind of visceral reaction. I know from other interviews that you were a fan of the original Paranormal Activity movies…

MW: Oh, yeah. You gotta be a fan.

DS: As someone who has done a lot of these parody films now, when do you think the time is right in any kind of genre to start parodying it?

MW: I think when it immediately starts going downhill. It’s not when you get the good ones. It’s when you start getting the bad ones.

DS: Could you pinpoint the moments with some of the other films that kind of tipped the scales to open the door for this.

MW: Well, with Don’t Be a Menace it was after Boyz N the Hood, which was good, and Menace II Society, which was good, and then they got to South Central, and it became Jason’s Lyric, and then it became another movie, and then another movie…

DS: It kind of became the same kind of industry as found footage movies are now.

MW: Yes, exactly. Paranormal was good. Paranormal 2 was good. Part 3 started going a little off. The Devil Inside, I was like “Um, okay…”.

DS: And that movie had the exact wrong kind of crowd reaction when I went to see it. That was a free screening and people wanted to tear the theatre up.

MW: (laughs) Exactly, but for me I still found bits and pieces that I could take away from that one for my exorcism scene in this one. It lends itself to a good set up for the story we were creating, and for me this movie is different, and it’s something different about our movies. We don’t do the traditional parody because there’s a certain rhythm and a pentameter and style to our movies. The Zuckers have their style of how they do it, and we just do a funny version of an already existing movie. Scary Movie is just a funny version of a horror movie. It was a parody, yes, in some senses because it was more dead on, but we have our own kind of rhythm. If you had never seen Scream, Scary Movie would still be funny. With Don’t Be a Menace, if you never saw a hood movie, that movie is still going to be funny because there are funny characters in certain situations. Sometimes they’re life threatening situations, and you find the funniest things in those situations.

It’s the same thing with this movie. It’s not really a parody. It’s a horror comedy with parody moments, but it’s a grounded couple. I’m not playing an over the top, crazy character. I’m playing a grounded guy whose girlfriend moves in. We just did Paranormal Activity if it was happening to a black couple. And that was it.

DS: And I think in a way that’s kind of what sets your comedy apart even from the movies you’re taking shots at because they often try to coast by on ambiguity and not having any characters at all.

MW: There’s NO story in any of those movies. If I were to do a parody parody that would be the first thing I would mention. That none of these fucking stories have any kind of plot or characters.

DS: And in the wake of your success with Scary Movie, you guys kind of created another kind of cottage industry where these other parodies would come out and be just as kind of sloppily thrown together. Do you think that was another thing that led to you sort of coming back to this genre after some time away?

MW: I think we were kind of just sitting back and waiting naturally for something to just hit us. We don’t do it because we could make some money. I do it because I honestly think it would be funny, and it has to come from a natural and organic place at an organic time when people really want to see something like this.

With the other movies that came out, if you want to look at Scary Movies 3 & 4, I don’t know what it is. If you put them in a line-up with Disaster Movie and Epic Movie and you took the titles off, I probably couldn’t tell which ones the Scary Movie titles were.

DS: Well, at that point they just become sketch movies.

MW: Right, and that’s just not what we do. And if you’re going to do a sketch movie, you still have to have great characters. One thing my family does really well is that we create really great characters. From Don’t Be a Menace, we made Ashtray’s father younger so that he was the way that Cuba Gooding Jr. and Laurence Fishburne looked similar in age (in Boyz N the Hood). I’m sitting there as an actor just thinking “Cuba’s Larry’s age.” (laughs) But to make the father younger than Ashtray and even more irresponsible was just the way to go. You got Loc Dog being the thuggiest gangsta you ever met with bunny shoes. It was so ridiculous. When we wrote Old School, the gang member who has been there so long, but he still lives at his mama’s house. We still find those kinds of things and we know they work.

Here you got Cedric the Entertainer playing a father that comes to do an exorcism who was ordained in prison. He’s half thug, half preacher and it gives you that real point of view from a character that could just come in and say (imitating Cedric) “This bitch just don’t look right.” We never try to jump through hoops, and we do it organically. It just kind of comes to us.

DS: You’re doing this one here on your own now and without the rest of the family…

MW: I don’t gotta split that money, hollllllllla.

(high fives and laughs)

DS: …but one other thing that I realized is on the Scary Movies you worked on there were a lot more writers than just your family that ended up getting credits. Was that a little more diluted and sort of made by committee back on those movies and was it more freeing to work with just you and a co-writer on this one.

MW: You know, it is, but at the same time it’s harder when you only have two minds and two guys talking about it and writing it. What my brother Keenen does when he’s the head on something he likes to have a writer’s room, and a lot of times a lot of people work on the scripts to movies, but we would fight to get them credit if they wrote on one of our movies. And that’s a great way to write because you have a lot of options and Keenen was always great at making decisions.

For me I just wanted to do me and just do what was in my head. For years I had been a part of writing rooms and pitching stuff, and if you ask my brothers I’m like a machine, and it was good to not only pitch, but have to make the decisions and say that’s going to say and that’s something that’s inappropriate. The writer’s room is actually easier. This is harder, having to make the choices. That’s the big boy decision making from where I grew up.