How Craig Brewer Went from Couch Surfing to 'Coming 2 America'

We talk to the filmmaker about his career, the truth about 'Hustle & Flow,' and his work with Eddie Murphy.

Craig Brewer Filmography

Craig Brewer began his career with a $20,000 movie, The Poor & The Hungry. He wrote the original story while still managing a Barnes & Noble store. Set in Memphis, where Brewer still resides, his directorial debut is a down and dirty, black-and-white indie that, in 2000, laid the groundwork for his subsequent films.

From there, couch surfing ensued until he struck the zeitgeist with only his second movie, 2005’s Hustle & Flow, which was a cultural and awards season hit. According to Brewer, though, it wasn’t the success it was perceived as at the time of its release.

With his third feature, released the following year, Brewer stayed true to himself and made Black Snake MoanThe movie (and even its poster) is impossible to shake. Once again, Brewer stood out from the crowd with his sweaty and passionate Southern dramas. To some, the director took an unexpected turn next with his 2011 redo of Footloose, but for Brewer, it was right in his wheelhouse. Remake or not, it’s a Craig Brewer film.

Cut to the present day, the filmmaker has several episodes of the TV series Empire under his belt and two Eddie Murphy comedies to his name, with Dolemite Is My Name released in 2019 and now the Coming to America sequel, Coming 2 America. The director and actor are a simpatico duo bringing out the best in one another. There’s a magic to witnessing Murphy on fire in a comedy, and Brewer knows how to capture it.

In anticipation of Amazon’s release of Coming 2 America, I got on a Zoom call with the filmmaker to discuss his career from its beginnings through to his latest. Brewer also talked about life in Memphis, reminisced about his couch-surfing days, and shared plenty about his collaborations with Eddie Murphy. Here is a transcript of our conversation:

I was just rewatching Hustle & Flow and heard Ludacris say — and I’m paraphrasing — “Leave Memphis in your rearview.” You’re wearing a Memphis shirt, you’re still in Memphis.

Yeah. I actually took that line from my dad. He said he used to believe that because he was raised here, but then he just wanted nothing better than to come back home and hang out. So, I remember every time Ludacris said that I was like, “Yeah, that’s that thing that my dad said that he used to believe.”

Was staying in Memphis instead of living in Los Angeles an easy decision?

You know, it’s gone up and down. There are times that I’m lucky that I can keep an apartment in LA, but there was a good amount of years where I was sleeping on couches. That was hard. I have to say, for me, it’s been a nice place to have kids, to be creative, and have a community, where I can go out and see bands or go to indie film premieres and hang out with people that I’ve known for a long time. I make a point when a movie [of mine] comes out that I have to be at home when it hits theaters so I can go to the theater and see it. This is just the first time I’ll be hanging at home while everybody’s streaming Amazon.

How do you feel about that?

It’s both new and different. There have been years of anxiety that’s come through the process of having your movie opening on a weekend because there are so many things that are out of your control that directly affect you. Yes, you want people to like the movie. Yes, you want people to have a good time or to get whatever you wanted to be communicated, to have that be successful with an audience is something that you want, but there’s also, usually when there’s a big movie release on the weekend, Monday, or really they know mid-day Saturday, sometimes the studio lets you know if your movie is going to tank or not. They’re telling you in real-time, “Ah, looks like we didn’t really hit what we wanted.”

Even though you feel like you’ve made a good movie, there’s a judgment now on the movie by way of people who either did or did not come to see it. So, on the last two movies now, or at least with Dolemite Is My Name on Netflix and this one on Amazon, it’s been a completely different beast. You feel differently about it and people interact with you differently and in more of a positive direction. Like, “Hey, man, I just saw your movie.” It’s not like, “Hey, I went to the theater to see it,” but actually you get more people saying that they saw it because it’s convenient for them and they can get right to it.

So, it’s different, but it’s interesting. I would just say it’s heightened now, historically, because of this pandemic. I don’t know if I’ll ever experience a situation of this kind of a release again under these circumstances. I don’t know if that makes sense, but we’re in such a time now that it’s going to be interesting.

I’ve now heard a lot of directors say they feel less pressure without having to worry about the opening weekend box-office. 

Yeah. I think there was an article recently where the Hollywood Reporter, or somebody, was finding out that more and more studios or streamers are not releasing numbers because they don’t want to give any sort of false impression of the movie or whatever. There have been people that are critical of that. I would just say that I think that we really need to ask ourselves, “Is box-office in a conventional way really something that we can judge anything by anymore?” I know that there are benefits to knowing what a movie made, and I’m not against people knowing what movie has made, ultimately, but usually, in artistic media, they release it and report it as if it is a judgment on the movie.

I get it, but I think that there are too many other things that are at play right now because if something’s streaming and then there’s something in a movie theater, where is the line of its success? Or even on a grander level, can you gauge the worth of Austin Powers off of a theatrical take, which was not good, but it became huge on DVD? Then suddenly the Austin Powers sequel is a huge movie because of the movie that came before it. Now with the pandemic, I get my family together, it’s like, “All right, today we’re going to watch Let Him Go or Greyhound” — these movies that have stars in them but I don’t know if I’d be rushing out to the movie theater to see them. Especially because there are not that many movies where I’m gathering the family to see it. It’s like, “Oh, we’re going to watch it at home.” I’ve kind of enjoyed that.

On the other hand, a movie like Dolemite Is My Name played fantastic with a crowd in a theater.

I completely agree. I would see the people laughing in the audience with Dolemite Is My Name, and there’d be this part of me that would frown because I knew, even though I’m so thankful to Netflix because no one would have made this movie other than them, deep down I knew, “I don’t know if people are really going to experience this the way that I want them to experience it,” because there’s just nothing better than infectious laughter with an audience that you’ve kind of built a camaraderie with over two hours.

I would always say to myself, “Don’t worry. Coming 2 America is going to fix all that. You’ll be in a theater and people cheering and saying lines along with the movie.” So, now we’re here, but I must admit, I feel differently about it under the historical circumstances, which is like, “Well, I hope it provides some true joy and comfort.” If they’re not able to go out and have a big event night, maybe get in your bubble and have an Eddie Murphy film festival week and crescendo into the sequel coming out this weekend.

Both Dolemite Is My Name and Coming 2 America are very kind-hearted comedies. Back in the ’80s, Eddie Murphy’s comedy went pretty hard, but now, there’s something very kind about the comedies he’s making, especially with you. How important is it to him, as well as to yourself, what these comedies are saying and putting out in the world?

First of all, I think you’re right on, picking up on that. It may also be me, as well, embracing these themes that one could say, “Don’t go as hard,” but I would still argue, and I’m not by any means arguing with you, Jack, but early hard Eddie Murphy, we’ve kind of got to look at what that is. I don’t want to say I was there for the birth of Eddie Murphy, but I was. I was there when he premiered on Saturday Night Live. I was in junior high and then to experience the 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop, and then to be a kid and somehow get your hands on a VHS of Delirious was, I mean, you might as well have been stashing Penthouses. It was this thing that the older kids would be like, “Have you seen this?” It was so bold, especially for kids that are like, I guess I was around 13 or so, that was discovering comedy now for the first time. I wasn’t raised on Richard Pryor yet. I discovered him through Eddie. I discovered a lot through seeing Delirious and Raw.

I would say, though, that the combination of Eddie Murphy and John Landis is always couched with some soul and some heart. I would say that Trading Places and Coming to America were beautifully subversive in that way. They made you think that it was just all about the laughs, but there was some genuine heart that was happening with those characters. With Trading Places, the joy of knocking somebody down who was up on their high horse and then building somebody up from the street and going, “You know what? We actually work together.” Then a similar thing with a young prince saying, “I really want to find someone that speaks to my heart and my mind.”

So, I’ve been hearing a lot of people saying, “Oh no, it’s not rated R like the first movie,” but the one thing that Eddie and I did say to each other was, we were talking about it and were like, “People do forget the spirit of Coming to America,” and especially of Akeem. Part of the joy of that movie was him coming to Queens, that was rough. This movie, as you know, takes place in like in Zamunda. There’s kind of a different dynamic that’s happening in this movie that we hope is still entertaining and funny, but we kind of want to check in on where Akeem is now, thirty-three years later. He’s got three daughters, he’s a father of future princesses and queens, and what does that mean to the man that we saw in 1988 and to the world that we saw in 1988.

So, it’s by no means as heady as I’m talking about, but it’s definitely something that was important to us. So, even with Dolemite Is My Name, I think that Eddie still is, that movie is pretty delightfully vulgar, but it’s still delightful. You know, it’s not 48 Hrs. or Rudy Ray Moore’s shooting someone on his crew. There isn’t that kind of swagger from those early movies, but I think that Eddie, though, is, like we saw in Saturday Night Live. He’s occupying a really interesting place to take over in comedy now that the Bill Cosby throne has been left empty, which is like, “Oh, Eddie’s a family man.” He now occupies that place. I remember back when he was in Delirious and he was a free man and he was a rockstar, but now he’s grandad. So, where is his head now with that guy that was armed with such wit and bite and creative one-liners to take anybody down now has a family that he truly loves and truly loves being a father?

When you guys first met, was it an instant connection? 

I think, first of all, we’re not so far away in our ages that we don’t reference some of the same pop culture and the same music. I sometimes like to get to know people in other ways than the work at hand. I think that I just wanted to hear his stories about making movies but also hear about musicians that he’s met. Really, I think that we just created a nice working relationship. I was excited with ideas and it was nice to have planning time with him for the day as to what we were going to be doing and then go off and execute it. I like to keep a real positive set.

I think that after Dolemite, after we wrapped shooting, he told me it was one of the best experiences that he had working on a movie. Then when he saw the movie, he was just so proud of what we all did that I think that he just, knowing that Coming 2 America was something that could have gone immediately, he wanted to just keep that momentum of what we were doing with Dolemite moving forward, including with a lot of the same team, like Ruth Carter doing costumes and Mark Little, my assistant director. When you’re dealing with a movie of that size and the complexity of Eddie needing to play against Eddie, you need a fantastic assistant director as well as a producer in Mark Little. We had just done it with Dolemite, so it felt like that chemistry, yes, was there in terms of our working relationship, but it was so nice to just stay in that world through two movies.

What’s it like editing an Eddie Murphy performance?

Well, okay, I think that that’s something that would surprise a lot of people because I think that yes, Eddie is perfect at going off-book and doing improv and even coming up with good ideas for people in the scenes. One of the lines that I remember Eddie telling Arsenio was when he says in the movie, he goes, “Prepare the royal jet. We are going back to America.” Semmi, all he was supposed to say was like, “Oh please. Can’t we set up a Zoom call or some sort of, a one-on-one phone call?” He had this long speech and he did a very good job with it. Eddie was like, “Hey, man, try just saying, ‘Oh hell no.'” So, now it’s in all the trailers. That’s what Eddie is good at, but he’s precise with it.

You would think that oh, he can just go off and do all this improv and then you’ve got to whittle it down, and I say this with respect and awe, but he’s kind of old school like Sam Jackson. He can nail it in the first take where you’re like, “Wow. I’d watch that movie.” You maybe do it again or do it a couple of times if he wants to, but he’s bringing the goods for two or three takes that you’re like, “Let’s move on with the day.” I know that people think that there are just so many jokes and material, but not when you’re good. Not when you’re good. You’re coming in with exactly what’s going to work in the movie. He does that.

When you’re making a comedy this big in scale, how much does your mind wander back to your first experience behind the camera on The Poor & The Hungry?

There are definitely a lot of moments where I have to stop and my version of pinch myself a little bit. But then again, I really have to say that I remember the early days of this. I remember the early days of logging onto websites and learning everything that I could about filmmaking. I remember watching a lot of like Bennet Miller, the director, talking about that documentary that he made, The Cruise. It was a documentary about that one big-haired, crazy architect tour guide and taking people around on these tours, but you would learn everything you could, like what camera did Bennet use to make this independent film? Those are the things that I got excited about, right? Learning what everybody was doing to make something for no money that nobody was asking you to do.

Then when you start getting into that real low-budget independent filmmaking, it just comes down to, do I really have a story that’s going to make people feel like they relate to it in some way? That muscle, there’s not many podcasts or blogs completely devoted to that for young independent filmmakers who are so technically desperate. We want to make a movie so bad, but sometimes it gets down to that thing that requires no money and no access to the industry to do. It’s like, did you make these characters compelling or did you make the story interesting? Does this moment pay off emotionally?

I found that there were times that when I was on this big-ass movie, that I was thinking a lot more about those early days on The Poor & The Hungry and going, “Yeah, it’s still just down to, am I relating to what I’m making?” The toys get bigger and the budgets get bigger and craft services get bigger and my waistline gets bigger, but it does still get down to that very simple thing that’s hard to do. You come full-circle, I think, where you’re like, “Man, it’s just as challenging.”

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.