Interview: Dolemite Is My Name writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
Matthew Turner | On 14, Dec 2019Reading time: 16 mins
With awards season now underway, one of Netflix’s major contenders – alongside The Irishman and Marriage Story – is Dolemite Is My Name (read our review here). The comedy biopic stars Eddie Murphy as floundering comedian Rudy Ray Moore, who has an epiphany that turns him into a word-of-mouth sensation: step onstage as someone else. Borrowing from the street mythology of 1970s Los Angeles, Moore assumes the persona of Dolemite, a pimp with a cane and an arsenal of obscene fables. Deciding to give this alter-ego a film, incorporating kung fu and car chases, the result was Dolemite, a runaway box office smash and a defining movie of the Blaxploitation era.
With Dolemite Is My Name up for two Golden Globes, we sit down with writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. O.J. Simpson) to talk about a movie that took more than a decade to make:
The movie is a joy to watch – I imagine it was quite a joy to write…
Larry Karaszewski: It was a joy to make. Every part of the process. It’s really strange – we’ve made a lot of movies and we’ve been doing this for thirty years and I can’t remember another film that was just such a happy experience.
Scott Alexander: It felt like a party. Sometimes actors would just show up on the set when they weren’t shooting, which is not normal.
Larry Karaszewski: You’d go to the set and it would be like, oh my god, today is Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy – how would you miss that?
How did the project come about, first of all?
Scott Alexander: It was Eddie’s idea. Eddie started it and then it got kicked to us and then we kicked it back to Eddie, but it took almost 20 years to do that.
Larry Karaszewski: We got a call, like, 16 years ago, saying that Eddie Murphy wanted to meet us and we were like, cool, Eddie Murphy wants to meet us. So we went to his office and as we walked in, he just started doing scenes from a movie we wrote called Ed Wood. He was doing the characters, like Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson, and then he said to us, do you know who Rudy Ray Moore is? And we flipped out, because we were huge Rudy Ray Moore fans.
Scott Alexander: I mean, we knew Rudy Ray Moore from the VHS tapes in the 1980s, so we were up on our Human Tornado and our Dolemite and our Petey Wheatstraw.
Larry Karaszewski: And Eddie was really surprised, because he thought he would have to educate us, but we instantly got it, we instantly got the idea, oh my god, Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore, that would be the greatest movie of all time.
Scott Alexander: And we’d always heard stories that Eddie was a massive Rudy fanatic and would throw Dolemite parties at his house and would invite all the guys. You know, it would be Dave Chappelle and Martin Lawrence and a whole squad and then Eddie would scream all the lines back at the TV. So he’s loved this a long time.
Larry Karaszewski: And so, a couple of days later, he got us in the room with the real Rudy Ray Moore. We hung out with Rudy and that was very informative, because when Rudy came in, he came in as Dolemite. If you’ve seen the film, when Rudy goes to a meeting, he goes to a meeting in full costume!
Scott Alexander: It’s full presentation, with the cane and the hat and the suit with the pants that match each other. It was a bit of an act, and then after a while – we were with him for a day – he kind of dropped the facade and then he just became a tired old man who’d been on the road since 1970 and he was exhausted. He was really excited about the idea of being shown respect and that Hollywood was recognising him. Because, Rudy being Rudy, he initially tried to convince us that he’d be better playing the part than Eddie would. He tried to kick Eddie out of the spot, but we said, well, you know, Eddie’s a big star and he’s a lot younger than you and you’re not really the same age you were in 1974.
Larry Karaszewski: And what was really interesting about the meeting was that we saw the two sides. We saw Dolemite and we saw Rudy Ray Moore and that really gave us the big concept for the movie – that’s why the movie’s called Dolemite Is My Name, it’s about a guy who found a persona later in life, a guy who’d always wanted to be a star found a persona that could make him a star.
Scott Alexander: Because Clark Kent is not Superman.
“Eddie said yes, this is my dream project”
All this was still 16 years ago…
Larry Karaszewski: Yes, well, when we tried to pitch it to studios, no one gave a hoot. They really didn’t care. I think they watched some of the trailers for the movie and thought it was outrageous – there was too much cussing, no one really got it.
Scott Alexander: So the project went away.
Larry Karaszewski: Yeah. And then Rudy Ray Moore died. And we felt terrible, because once again, Hollywood had gotten his hopes up and crushed him. And I wound up doing an evening at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood, saluting Rudy and I got Jerry Jones, who Keegan Michael-Key plays, and Ben Taylor, who Craig Robinson plays and Nicholas von Sternberg, the cinematographer, they all came down and told stories about Rudy, so it was great to meet those guys. And still, years went by, and we figured the project passed us, that some cool young filmmaker would come along and make this movie.
Scott Alexander: And we’d always heard about other projects, people were trying to do their own biopics and people were trying to do The New Dolemite, with a new actor playing him and they would come to us and we would just encourage them, but say, it was a moment, it went away.
Larry Karaszewski: It was definitely a movie we wanted to see. And then a couple of years back we made that TV show, The People Vs O.J. Simpson, which was a phenomenal success. It was one of those worldwide successes that gives you that one month where you can kind of go back out and pitch people things that they think are outrageous but maybe they’ll say yes this time. And so we re-contacted Eddie Murphy through the producers John Davis and John Fox. Because Eddie was kind of semi-retired.
Scott Alexander: We hadn’t talked to Eddie in 15 years.
Larry Karaszewski: And Eddie hadn’t said the word “fuck” in a movie for 20 years, so we had no idea whether he was even remotely interested. And he came back and said, yes, yes, this is my dream project.
Scott Alexander: This is the project to get Eddie off his couch.
Larry Karaszewski: And after that, we started up really quickly, for something that took 16 years to actually [get going], it happened really fast.
Scott Alexander: We gave our first draft to Eddie and he said let’s do it.
What’s your process like as co-scriptwriters?
Scott Alexander: We’re in an office every day. We’re old school, no different than if you walked into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1940. There’s a cork board with index cards, each card has a scene on it, and we figure out the scenes, and then Larry lies on the couch, I sit at the computer and we talk it out and we play all the parts and then I type it up.
So he does all the typing…
Larry Karaszewski: Yes.
And you do all the…
Scott Alexander: All the resting. [Laughter] All the Instagramming.
Larry Karaszewski: All the Instagramming, exactly. I run our social media programme.
Scott Alexander: That’s his job.
“What it has in common with our other biopics is that it’s a very driven character trying to swim upstream…”
Obviously in your careers, you’ve been drawn to real-life figures. This is very much in line, certainly with Ed Wood, as you say, but also there’s connective tissue to Andy Kaufman…
Larry Karaszewski: Even O.J. in a sense. The thing that makes this project different to Ed Wood is the racial element, is the fact that Rudy could not find success in traditional Hollywood and had to create a whole separate world for him to be a part of, and for us, it was like, discovering all that stuff about the X-rated album business and the Chitlin’ Circuit, that stuff was fascinating to us.
Scott Alexander: I mean, what it has in common with all our other biopics is that it’s a very driven, passionate character who’s trying to swim upstream, who just has a cockamamie idea that everyone else says is not a good idea. But the racial element is different than all the others, in that there is something holding them back. It might have a little in common with Big Eyes, in that we were sort of dealing with sexism, and that Margaret couldn’t succeed as a woman, so she had to hide behind her husband.
Larry Karaszewski: That’s interesting. Actually, I’ve never thought of that before. But you’re right, our movies have a very consistent theme.
Scott Alexander: We like passion.
Larry Karaszewski: It sounds silly to say we’re authors who are auteurs, but if you look at all the movies, despite having very strong directors, they all seem kind of like Scott and my movies.
I’m also curious as to why you’re drawn to real-life figures…
Larry Karaszewski: Part of that just comes from the fact that, at least in the Hollywood system these days, which is so based on IP and Marvel and Star Wars – that’s all good and well, but we like to do stranger material, and we’ve kind of figured out a weird way of making interesting, off the beaten track movies by finding interesting, off the beaten track real-life personalities, so it’s allowed us to cut through the resistance that a lot of Hollywood has to making original content.
Scott Alexander: And it goes back to when we did Ed Wood, we were breaking ground in that no one had ever made a movie about someone completely obscure with no real achievement. And to us, he had an interesting life and he was surrounded by eccentric people and this seemed like a fun way to spend two hours.
Larry Karaszewski: I mean, biopics before that were sort of cradle-to-grave, they were Gandhi. They were someone does something noble and great and they win Best Picture. We sort of created the anti-biopic, which was people who normally wouldn’t deserve a biopic.
Scott Alexander: And the characters always end up being so nutty and interesting that we always get great actors. They’ve all been very cast-able.
What kind of research did you do? Obviously you had the meeting with Rudy, but when you came to write the script?
Scott Alexander: I’ll give credit – this project was saved by one guy. A researcher up in Northern California named Mark Jason Murray who’s this white guy, a white guy with tattoos who’s obsessed with Rudy and he became Rudy’s helper in Rudy’s final years. He did extensive taped interviews with Rudy, Jerry, Ben, everybody, while they were all still alive. Mark keeps threatening to put out a book, which he hasn’t done yet, but he had all this material and so Mark was invaluable, and we got Mark hired as a consultant on the movie.
Larry Karaszewski: And what’s interesting is that while the mainstream press and the mainstream media in general didn’t pay any attention to Rudy, his success in the video market created – once DVDs came along, they were like jam-packed with extras. And sometimes they were great, sometimes they were really low-budget, a lot of times they would just interview Rudy or they would interview someone else, or they would be –
Scott Alexander: Or Snoop would always show up. Snoop was the world’s biggest fan.
Larry Karaszewski: And it would be things like Rudy takes you on a tour of locations and it would be Rudy walking around the Dunbar Hotel. And it was probably like the eighth special feature on the DVD, but for us it was gold.
Was there anything you left out of the script that you wanted to put in?
Scott Alexander: Initially we were going to put all the movies in. When we structure a movie, we always back into our ending, which is we want to end the movie at a point where all the story strands come together and there’s something emotionally satisfying. And what makes Rudy matter is that all the rappers say he’s the Godfather of Rap. Eazy-E and Snoop and all those guys, they say Rudy started it. And so, in our minds, we had to get into the 80s. And so it seemed logical to do Dolemite, Human Tornado, Petey Wheatstraw and Disco Godfather, which would get us into the late 70s and then we could squeak our way into the 80s. But once we fell in love with recording albums and we fell in love with the Chitlin’ Circuit and selling albums out of his car trunk, it was just all so crazy that we weren’t going to get to Dolemite until halfway through the movie. And so then we had to reverse-engineer the ending with the little kid at the theatre, to sort of metaphorically say, okay, this is the beginning of rap. We had to get to that point somehow and so there were moments that we wanted from the other movies that we cheated a bunch of Human Tornado into our movie.
Larry Karaszewski: And “Put your weight on it” is a catchphrase from Disco Godfather. So, it sounds corny, but we were handing a pimp cane down to the next generation.
Scott Alexander: And you know what got cut out, which I thought was going to be such a great scene – we’re location nightmares for production managers. It was a true story – they were making sandwiches on set one day and they ran out of bread. And Rudy just got in his car, drove to Ralph’s Supermarket, but he’s in the full pimp outfit and he’s running down the aisle buying white bread and then at the cashier, just real fast, throwing money at her. It was really funny and it really showed the ends Rudy would go to as a producer-star – he’s buying bread in the middle of the day. But you can’t close down a supermarket for four hours of shooting just for that one shot.
You said earlier that you were on set during the shooting. Were you required to write on the spot, so to speak?
Scott Alexander: We weren’t required to do anything. We were just there to have fun.
Larry Karaszewski: We’ve been very lucky in that way. Most of our scripts have been respected enough so that by the time we get to shooting, we haven’t really had one of those nightmare productions where people are ripping things out and people are improvising things up.
Scott Alexander: The script is locked by week one.
Larry Karaszewski: Yeah. And so it was just more of a joy to go down. And certainly with that cast, a lot of people were doing improvisations and things like that, but they stayed very, very close to our script. And every once in a while they’d say something that was just so golden, it was great.
Scott Alexander: We sort of had a speech about lighting white people and black people and Wesley [Snipes], to his credit added “It’s a cinemagical reality”, which is just like [chef’s kiss] beautiful.
Larry Karaszewski: It’s like one of the great lines of all time.
“Any other place would not have made this movie”
Obviously the film is on Netflix. What’s your experience with Netflix been like?
Larry Karaszewski: It’s been amazing, because any other place would have either not made this movie or –
Scott Alexander: More importantly, they wouldn’t have made it.
Larry Karaszewski: And even if they did, they would have really gone to their low-budget division and it would have been considered like this little bastard step-child, and what we were able to do with this movie was do it properly, have those Ruth E. Carter costumes, have those set designs…
Scott Alexander: Have lots of extras.
Larry Karaszewski: Yeah, that ending at the theatre, that was one of the most joyous experiences of my life, to walk through extras, who were all dressed in Ruth Carter costumes. That was just phenomenal.
Scott Alexander: The world is fully lived-in. And you need money to do that.
Larry Karaszewski: And you have that cast. And so, that would not have happened if it was a minor label in the States, so what Netflix did is they recognised the project, they recognised the power of Eddie in that role, they recognised the power of our script and said yes, let’s make a run for it, and so far it’s paid off with people watching it and with getting a [Golden Globe] nomination for Best Picture.
And are you big Netflix consumers yourselves? What have you watched and enjoyed recently?
Scott Alexander: There’s a little show, I don’t know if you know it here in England, called The Crown, that I really love.
Larry Karaszewski: [Laughs]
Scott Alexander: You should check it out.
What is it you love about The Crown?
Scott Alexander: The backstage drama is fascinating. Larry and I are always drawn to process, to showing how things get put together in back rooms and that’s what that whole series is about.
Larry Karaszewski: Yeah, it’s one of those things where so often when you do something like The Crown, or even some of our kind of biopics, people have a kind of manifest destiny about them. These are important people, so it has to happen this way. And we realise in that show that people still have to put their clothes on and get out of bed and go to the bathroom – they’re just normal people that happen to be in the middle of history.
Dolemite Is My Name is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.