Superstar Kevin Hart and producer Will Packer, who partnered for the hits “Ride Along” and “Think Like a Man” series, bring their signature style to “Night School.” The comedy from director Malcolm D. Lee (“Girls Trip”) follows a group of misfits who are forced to attend adult classes in the longshot chance they’ll pass the GED exam.
Co-stars Tiffany Haddish, Rob Riggle, Taran Killam and Romany Malco join Hart on-screen for the film that Hart produces for his Hartbeat Productions, and Packer via his Will Packer Productions. We caught up with famed director Malcolm D. Lee to discuss working powerhouses Will Packer, Kevin Hart and working with Tiffany Haddish again. Check it out after the jump.
The Knockturnal: How did this collaboration between you, Will, and Kevin, come about?
Malcolm D. Lee: Kevin and Will had been developing the script for some time, it was an idea of Kevin’s they had since the release of Ride Along one. Kevin had an idea and told it to Will, so they were developing it, they got a script together, and I came on late in the process. Will and I had worked together. Will said, “hey. I’d love for you to work with Kevin, we got this project.” And I read it, I liked what the potential of the movie could be and I was a little reluctant at first, I’d just been working a lot and just had done Girl’s Trip and wanted to spend some time with my family. But the opportunity was too great to work with Kevin and get to work with Tiffany again as well as Will. So that’s basically what the idea was.
The Knockturnal: You have so many gifted comedic actors in this movie, were there lots of ideas and improv from the cast?
Malcolm D. Lee: Absolutely, I encourage that in fact. The first thing I do when joining an ensemble comedy is make sure that we’ve got really funny people cast. That comes from a grounded place of character. We talk a lot about who they are as characters and where we want them to go and I allow them to tell me their ideas about how they feel about them. That way once they get fully immersed in the character and when we get in a scene they know what that person would say in any particular situation because they’re immersed in the character. And of course these are really funny people who make a living being funny so they know how to find the funny especially within the moment because that’s what so important. I do a lot of takes and I wanna make sure all the ensemble has their moment. We do take after take. You don’t wanna read the same lines from the script until you know what’s gonna happen. It’s not gonna impress you anymore. But when you can energize the scene with improv it really gives you something special.
The Knockturnal: Is it tough to control that with so many comedians? I imagine it’s like a non-stop comedy show.
Malcolm D. Lee: I think that all the actors were very respectful and we set a tone very early. About as long as the comedy comes from character it’s fine with me. Even to liven a scene up or freshen it up, they can go off book and off character for a second to see what would happen. It does end up sometimes people breaking character and laughing and stuff like that. But that’s okay because you need the loose energy on a set. Especially when you’re doing a comedy because at the end of the day if you don’t have a lot of choices in the editing room it’s not a good prospect because you need quality laughs and you only have one way to go, one way to tell a joke, one way to get out of a scene and it doesn’t work, then you’re in trouble.
The Knockturnal: You have an all-star cast with Kevin, Tiffany, Bresha, Yvonne, Taran, and so many more people. What was it like assembling all these talented people together?
Malcolm D. Lee: Well Kim Coleman, our casting director, showed me a lot of people and that was my directive, let’s find some really funny people. They all came in and read. Did callbacks and discussed characterism and you mentioned those other folks, we also had Romany Malco, Rob Riggle, Fat Joe, they’re all great. They all embody their characters really well and they’re all really talented actors.
The Knockturnal: With Kevin being not only the star of the film but also a writer and a producer, what was it like working with him on this project?
Malcolm D. Lee: It’s great. Kevin is a great leader, he’s a very hard worker. He’s got a thousand things going on at once which gets a little annoying when you’re trying to make your day but that’s okay because he always gives a hundred and ten percent, he’s way open to direction, he doesn’t let his ego get in the way of telling him what they best story is and the good thing about Kevin is he can actually save scenes at times because if something’s not working if the rhythm is off about a scene Kevin Hart can improv something and it can save a scene. Something that’s not even in the script and he did that a number of times in the movie and it’s helpful to have somebody like Kevin to be able to rely on to do things like that. No that you wanna do that every time but it’s good when you have that backup.
The Knockturnal: The test stealing sequence, I think was my favorite. What scene for you was your favorite to put together?
Malcolm D. Lee: Well that’s one of them for sure. That one, the MMA stuff, I would say all the classroom things, although they were a challenge, we shot a lot of footage and we had a lot of different angles and stuff like that, those were good to shoot as well because that’s the establishing of the Night School crew and we wanted to make sure that we know who these characters are, get to know them and, that’s the crux of what the movie is. This group of misfits.
The Knockturnal: I love that you didn’t use younger actors for the flashback scenes, talk about that decision.
Malcolm D. Lee: When you’re starting your movie out in a flashback it’s hard to have somebody be Kevin Hart. Who’s as funny as Kevin Hart? Who’s 17 years old, or 20 years old that can play him? So for me it was never a question that it was gonna be Kevin. You have to use that kind of stuff judiciously because everybody looks their age. Kevin’s no spring chicken anymore, but he’s great and he knows how to play that high school voice. The only thing we never came to an agreement on was the facial hair, I wanted him clean shaven but he didn’t wanna look like a booty face he said. “I can’t do that, I’m going on tour man!” I was like, “this is for the movie Kevin, come on. You can do it. It’s just hair, it’ll grow back.” But he’s definitely afraid of looking like a five year old.
The Knockturnal: What was it like working with Will Packer on this project?
Malcolm D. Lee: Will’s great. We had a great collaboration on Girl’s Trip. This one he’s very supportive, really getting me whatever I needed from a production standpoint. Pushed hard on getting cast. Pushed hard with the studio to get on board with everything. With casting decisions, with the extra days, and also when you get on set with him he’ll say a couple things from behind the monitor, “like okay we need this thing, or try this.” Or whatever and usually, 90% of the time it’s a great idea that are very well integrated into what we’re doing.
The Knockturnal: You mentioned before, Girl’s Trip, and having worked with Tiffany on that being her breakout role. What growth did you notice in her between those two projects.
Malcolm D. Lee: Well it’s a very different role for Tiffany because in Girl’s Trip she’s the comedic fastball. She’s the catalyst, the enzyme, the straw that stirs the drink and makes everything go. Energizer bunny. On this one she had to be more of an actor. She had to drive certain scenes. She had to deliver plot in other scenes. And so that was a different role for her, not only as a character and what we were asking her to do. I think she did a great job in making that transition.
The Knockturnal: You’ve done some amazing comedies. What about Night School made you say yes?
Malcolm D. Lee: I think it was the possibility of working with Kevin and then the concept of not only talking about setting up a high school movie but also having an opportunity to delve a little bit deeper into learning and some people’s different learning styles. Not everybody learns the same or receives information in the same way. So I thought it was important for us to touch on some of that in this movie with Teddy’s learning disability that are undiagnosed until Carrie, played by Tiffany, helps to expose them, so it was a good thing to not only make people laugh, but make people think about, okay, the educational system is not individualized, it’s very broad and we need to do a little bit better about helping those who learn differently than others in the mainstream.