Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (‘Dolemite Is My Name’ writers) on making ‘anti-great man’ biopics [Complete Interview Transcript]

Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have created another fascinating off-kilter biopic, “Dolemite Is My Name,” starring Eddie Murphy as cult movie legend Rudy Ray Moore. Alexander and Karaszewski previously wrote such films as “Ed Wood,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “Man on the Moon,” and the series “The People v. O.J. Simpson.”

Alexander and Karaszewski recently spoke with Gold Derby editor Zach Laws about what drew them to Moore’s story, how Murphy got involved, and how moviegoers have reacted to “Dolemite Is My Name.” Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Scott and Larry, you guys have written films and television shows about people like Ed Wood, Larry Flynt, O.J. Simpson, Margaret Keane, Andy Kaufman. Why Rudy Ray Moore?

Scott Alexander: He sounds like he fits in that list (laughs). 

Larry Karaszewski: I think we concentrate on people that are extremely passionate about what they want to do. Usually their passion is in something that society in general thinks is wrongheaded or they think they’re doing it the wrong way, so it creates this drama where they’re swimming the wrong direction but they have a belief in themselves and a belief in the product. Rudy Ray Moore really does. It’s a sincere thing. He wants to see the movie he’s creating. He wants to listen to the records that he’s making. There’s a joy to it. Other people can’t understand it.

SA: Andy Kaufman wants to put out performance art that isn’t funny but I gotta clarify. You put O.J. in that list. O.J. is not our protagonist. Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran and Chris Darden are the passionate people trying to fight their own good fight in “O.J.” But all the others do apply.

GD: Right. You guys cover the gauntlet of all these really fascinating people and it’s interesting to think what the connections are. They’re people who you, at first, wouldn’t think that this person demands a biopic because biopics usually are about presidents and individuals like that. So tell us a little bit about how you guys came to write this. Was it something that originated with you or how did it come about?

LK: To back up for one second on what we were just saying before we get into the Rudy origin story, what you’re talking about is actually something that we helped pioneer, I think, in the ‘90s. When we made “Ed Wood,” it was really well received and won Academy Awards and things like that but it really felt like a different kind of biopic, that most biopics were three hours long

SA: When we wrote it we were just two unemployed screenwriters who were on the career roller coaster. At that point we couldn’t get a job and so, we talked about this guy that we admired, Ed Wood, who was just known for being a joke and making terrible movies and we said, “What if we dig him out of the margins and we celebrate him and you look at him positively?” This was a crazy weird idea and when we told friends we were writing this, people just looked at us like, “Who would want to see that movie? Why would you want to make that movie?” Like Larry said it was Ed’s passion that we were really into. That became our mantra with all these projects, which is we didn’t really care about presidents or great inventors or great statesmen or people who had changed the world for the better. We kind of care about people who have lived interesting lives and maybe they’re in the margins but they really believe in what they did and we feel like everyone’s life can be valid.

LK: It was the people that we were passionate about, the people we were reading books about or going to see the movies for. And also we looked at the biopic genre in general and most genres change over time, like the western. You have the John Ford period, which led to the Sam Peckinpah period, which led to the operatic Sergio Leone kind of movies. They changed over time. The biopic has always stayed the same. It’s always three hours.

SA: It was in that Richard Attenborough period. He’s a fine filmmaker but it was in that “Gandhi,” “Chaplin,” the people of great achievement.

LK: And our secret sauce is to look at it a different way, a fringe history of the 20th century and we would often just say they’re biopics for people who usually don’t get biopics, or the anti-great man biopic. We came to Rudy because of “Ed Wood.” We got a phone call one day saying that, “Eddie Murphy wants to meet you.” 

SA: This was like in the early 2000s.

LK: Yeah, this was a long time ago. And we’re like, “Holy crap, Eddie Murphy wants to meet us. How cool is that?” So we drove out to meet Eddie Murphy and we got there, we walked in, he just started doing lines from “Ed Wood.” He was doing Tor Johnson and Bela Lugosi and we were stunned that Eddie Murphy was doing our stuff.

SA: And Eddie’s got a steel-trap mind for movie dialogue so he was doing the seats perfectly.

LK: It was amazing. And then he turned to us and said, “Do you know who Rudy Ray Moore is?” It was a holy shit moment because Scott and I were obsessed with Rudy Ray Moore.

SA: In college, we had a friend who was running a video store and he came home with a tape called “The Best of Sex and Violence,” which was two hours of genre trailers.

LK: Yeah, exploitation stuff.

SA: Exploitation, drive-in pictures and the centerpiece of the tape, of this VHS were the trailers for “Dolemite,” “Human Tornado,” and “Disco Godfather.” Especially “Human Tornado,” which is the greatest three minutes of all time. We watched the tapes over and over and over and we would invite friends over saying, “You gotta sit down on the couch. You will not believe this.”

LK: So we became obsessed with Rudy. I saw him play at the Club Lingerie. One of my birthdays came around and Scott…

SA: Back in the 80s, you couldn’t really buy VHS’s. You could rent them ‘cause they were price to rent not to sell.

LK: They were like $100 a tape. You young whippersnappers don’t realize how expensive VHS’s were.

SA: Back then when you wanted to buy a copy of “Gung Ho” it was $100. I actually drove out to Xenon Videos headquarters and showed up with $100 cash to buy Larry his birthday present of “Human Tornado.” So our love goes back to the ‘80s.

LK: Eddie was really surprised because he thought he’d have to educate us about Rudy and he was so happy that we shared his passion. We instantly knew when we got what he wanted to do. We got the fact that, oh my god, Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore, that’s unbelievable. Scott and I, we’re very lucky. We write movies that we want to see. We write movies that if we have nothing to do with them, we open the “L.A. Times” and look at the paper and this movie is playing at the ArcLight, we instantly buy tickets. This was a movie we’d buy tickets for. Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore is such a delicious idea so we instantly said, “Yes, let’s get this going.” And Eddie got us in a room with a real Rudy.

SA: A few days later, met with Rudy he showed up, full regalia. He showed up with the green hat the suit, the cane, the whole show. And we’re like, “Oh my god, Dolemite is here.” He starts doing the schtick but then we hung out with him for the day and after a certain point he kind of dropped the facade and we started to see that this is an old guy, he’s tired, he’s been on the road for 40 years. 

LK: Sitting at that merch table trying to tell T-shirts and back scratchers for decades.

SA: Yeah he’s been dragging around that card table since the early ‘70s and he’s tired and he really wanted this. He wanted the respect, he wanted the acclamation, he wanted Hollywood to take him seriously and finally put him up on that pedestal. Rudy had a big ego that he thought he deserved. We could sort of see that Rudy and Dolomite were two different guys. That really struck us and that became the premise of the script, which was that everyone knows Dolomite but no one really knows Rudy, who was this soft-spoken, thoughtful, introverted guy. And Dolomite was a character he created and he sold.

LK: Right, and that’s why the movie is called “Dolemite Is My Name.” That is part of his catchphrase, the clean part of his catchphrase.

SA: It’s the first four words.

LK: It’s sort of the thesis, that Dolomite is a name that he created, that Dolomite is someone that he becomes a different person when he’s Dolemite. Same way when he reached Lady Reed and she became Queen Bee. This was something we really got into. And then we went to try to sell the project with Eddie and studios didn’t care. No one was really interested even with us and Eddie. I think they saw the “Human Tornado” trailer and it scared the shit out of them. They were like, “Oh my god, do these people really expect us to make this?” It’s sort of the same kind of rejection that Rudy gets in the movie.

SA: When Rudy tries to sell himself these people are like, “No!”

LK: No way, and we felt really terrible, that once again Hollywood had disappointed Rudy Ray Moore.

SA: It’s a story of being a writer or a producer, I’d say, is a lot of times you get excited about a project you want to do, you try to make it happen and it doesn’t happen. And then as a working professional you just gotta move on. You gotta say, “That was a drag, it didn’t happen, but now I have to go find my next job.”

LK: You’re Willy Loman with the suitcase going to get your next gig. A couple years later, Rudy died and we felt terrible. Because we had told him we were going to make a movie about him.

SA: Larry did a tribute night.

LK: Yeah I did a tribute at the American Cinematheque and I got Jerry Jones who was a screenwriter.

SA: That’s Keegan[-Michael Key]’s character.

LK: I got Ben Taylor.

SA: That’s Craig Robinson.

LK: And Nicholas von Sternberg.

 SA: That’s Kodi Smit-McPhee

LK: He was the young UCLA student who was the DP. They all came down and told Rudy stories and it was really a beautiful night. And then even more years went by. We always figured we blew it. We figured someone would come along and make this movie.

SA: Or the World blew it.

LK: But every once in a while we’d hear someone bought the rights to reboot Dolomite or someone wants to do the Rudy Ray Moore story. It was a movie we wanted to see so we thought, “Oh great, please someone make this movie.”

SA: Over the years a handful of people chased us down, they heard that we had tried to do it with Rudy a few years earlier and we would come in and grandfather, producer, whatever and we said, “No, no, no, we look forward to the movie, we’ll be the first in line to buy a ticket but good luck, go do it.”

LK: And it never happened. And so, a couple years ago, Scott and I created “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” and it was a gigantic success and we make movies about Hollywood so we know how Hollywood works. We know if you have that kind of a hit you can sometimes go into a movie studio with an idea they would have rejected any other week of the year and be taken seriously. So we looked at that and we were like, “What are our dream projects? What are the things that really mean something to us that we would love? If we’re going to drop dead in a couple years, what would be the cool thing you’d like to leave behind?” And it was Rudy Ray Moore, so we got John Fox and John Davis, the producers. John Davis had made a bunch of movies with Eddie Murphy. We got word back to Eddie. It wasn’t like we had Eddie on auto-dial or anything.

SA: We were just in a general meeting with John and John and shooting the shit and talking about this and they got really excited, saying, “Do you want to do it?” We said, “Do we wanna do it? Now?” “I’m calling up Eddie right now.” “Wait, wait! We’ve got this next thing we have to write. We’re busy.” “No, this is great, let’s do it.“ Eddie said, “I’m in,” and we saw Eddie the next day and they made magic happen. A couple days later we’re in a room with Ted Sarandos, Larry and I had a big pitch worked out, we got about five seconds into the pitch and Eddie walked in and Eddie just turned into Rudy in the room and you sold the movie at that point.

LK: We kept on trying to go back to our pitch and John Davis kept on hitting us like, “No, no, dude, shut up. Let’s get out of the room. We sold the thing. Don’t confuse them with information.”

SA: And Ted Sarandos, to his credit, was a giant fan going in because I think he ran video stores in the ‘80s and he said, “Guys, I know Rudy, he kept us in business. Those Rudy tapes, they always moved.” So Ted and Netflix were onboard and they were so supportive. They loved the project.

GD: And then Craig Brewer as well, at what point did he come in and how did that help change the dynamic of it?

LK: It actually didn’t change the dynamic because what’s been great about this movie is everybody was on the same page.

SA: Craig made the movie more musical.

LK: Oh absolutely 100%. Definitely Craig is an amazing director.

SA: Craig has such an understanding of struggling musicians and the road life and the world of clubs and the grittiness, what it’s like to be out there on that stage with those instruments and that sweat. He gets that struggle. Craig came on, we wrote a draft, Eddie said let’s do it.

LK: Eddie was a big fan of “Hustle & Flow.”

SA: Eddie loved “Hustle & Flow” going in. Eddie was a fan of Craig.

LK: What’s great about Craig is he made it feel real. I remember the first couple days on the set we were shooting some of the Chitlin’ Circuit scenes and we were in a parking lot or a nightclub set and because he’s from Memphis, because he knows that world, it just felt lived-in and real and not jokey. It’s so easy when you’re making a 1970s movie where you just, “Ha ha ha, they’re wearing platform shoes or a hat is funny.” Ruth Carter, who’s a genius, did our costumes and the costumes are completely outrageous but they feel like people lived in them. They feel like Rudy’s actual clothing and I think Craig really was a total brilliant guy guiding that, keeping everybody outrageously funny as they could be but grounding it in a reality.

GD: Yeah, you bring up an interesting point. I think the movie surprises people because on the surface you think, it’s gonna be kitschy and goofy but there’s a real heart to it as well that keeps it grounded in reality. There’s a surprising amount of empathy that you feel for all these folks, just like in “Ed Wood.” You go out thinking you’re gonna laugh at the cheesiness of it but it’s about dreamers.

SA: Yeah, we knew it was gonna have that in common with “Ed Wood.” We actually were resisting it being too similar, which I think made the movie for the better because we really thought about making the movie about segregation and separate but equal in terms of tackling issues that have nothing to do with “Ed Wood.” Yes, the movie was always gonna get to a point where it’s a bunch of goofballs trying to make a movie for the first time and that’s always fun, but we really thought about this idea that you’re in the 1970s. You think Hollywood ‘70s is modern and post-civil rights and all that, but these are a bunch of black actors and actresses and singers and writers who can’t get through the gates and they’re stuck in their own separate world and they’re playing in their own nightclubs for black audiences. We interviewed some actors, Glynn Turman and Hawthorne James, who were really involved with the Inner City Cultural Center explaining that this was a real place for serious black actors and actresses and directors and writers to hone their craft because they weren’t getting jobs. They might get one or two gigs a year and the rest of the time, they would show up onstage in this theater for black audiences and we thought, “This is such an unusual world that we’ve never really heard about before,” and it really makes you understand Rudy’s struggle and Rudy’s feeling that he’s an outsider and that no one’s gonna give him that job so he has to give himself that job.

LK: Also it was about the lack of representation onscreen. I think one of the key moments when we were writing the script was writing that scene which now it’s “The Front Page,” when they go see that movie.

SA: Which is a metaphor.

LK: Yeah, it’s one of those things but you think of “The Front Page” or any of those big movies of the ‘70s and they’re general audience-pleasing films and Craig did such a good job, when you go to the screen and you go the audience laughing and then you hit that row with Rudy and his friends and it’s like you instantly say, “Oh my god.” Nothing wrong with [Walter] Matthau and [Jack] Lemmon. Matthau and Lemmon are great. Billy Wilder directed the movie for crying out loud, but you see that row and you realize, “Wait a second, Hollywood was ignoring these people.” There was no way they could look at that screen and identify with anything that was going on there. So Rudy is forced to, “Let’s create our cinema, let’s create our own world.”

GD: The most touching part of the movie is seeing people watching “Dolemite” and seeing the end of this journey for Rudy so I have to imagine for you guys to finally see this movie realized after so many years, that must be pretty special, right?

SA: Yeah, again, in terms of being meta, meta, meta, the moment that always really touches me, which is just me projecting myself into the screen, is the moment of Eddie watching the audience enjoy the movie at The Uptown in Indianapolis where he’s just standing in the back of the theater and he’s got this look of wonder in his eyes, like, “I can’t believe this works and they’re enjoying it the way I wanted them to enjoy it.” Every time Eddie gives that smile, I just feel great.

LK: In “Ed Wood,” we created a happy ending for Ed Wood. “Plan 9 from Outer Space” never played the Pantages Theatre.

SA: It didn’t?

LK: (Laughs.) It was almost like in Ed Wood’s mind, this is the movie he’ll be remembered for but this isn’t really how it ended. But in Rudy’s case, he was making movies that connected with an audience.

SA: They were big hits.

LK: They were big hits so for him, seeing that crowd in Indianapolis, that’s the way it actually happened. The very last scene in the movie actually took place in real life, in real life it was at the Woods Theatre in Chicago. It was at the premiere in Chicago and it was so popular that they added these 2 a.m. shows and Rudy realized that people were gonna be standing there all night long and he literally set up a thing on the sidewalk and decided he was gonna entertain them outside all night long until every person got in.

SA: You just gave away our ending!

LK: He’s seen it four times already! It’s this beautiful thing and that Lady Reed scene where she says she’s never seen someone like her up on that screen. I’ve been told by so many people that they see the film and they’re laughing, laughing, laughing, and then it gets to the point where they’re like, “I’m actually crying at ‘Dolemite Is My Name’? I wasn’t expecting that.”

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