Chris Rock and his cast are well aware that Top Five works. An instant crowd-pleaser at the Toronto International Film Festival and that rare comedy that is already cropping up on end-of-year “Top 10” lists, this is a movie with an immediate edge. Thus weeks before its December release, Rock and co-stars Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J.B. Smoove, Sherri Shepherd, and Ben Vereen were fairly relaxed in their easygoing confidence when they arrived to a New York press conference.
Aware that this was something different than any film he made before, Rock was keen on its similarities to his other famed craft.
“You know it’s weird—I made this movie just like my stand up,” Rock said to the room full of journalists. “I used to have a movie process and a stand up process. These are the jokes for the movie, and I had a whole other file for stand up. Not this one. I put it altogether, and I workshopped it a long time, like I do my stand up.”
Rock compared how Top Five resembles the nonlinear nature of stand up, jumping from long diatribes about relationship hang-ups (represented by the perpetually strolling Rock and Dawson in the film) to pure gross-out humor. It even finds the time to occasionally become political, albeit not nearly as pointed as when he has a microphone in his hand.
Rock considers this kind of livewire energy, which he had never brought to filmmaking before, to be his starting point. He credited it for giving him the opportunity to approach producer Scott Rudin about the project.
“I knew I wanted to do what I do and not have it so filtered down,” Rock said with a mischievous smile as he scanned the room until he found his producer in the back. “And I kind of had a decent idea and I went to Scott [Rudin]. I’ve been writing movies for years, and I never had the balls to go to you with anything else, right?” That smile cracks again.
However with all that ambition, which Rock admitted was influenced by the works of Woody Allen and even Quentin Tarantino, he and everyone involved was aware that its star-studded cast, which includes veteran comedians like Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, and Leslie Jones, amongst others, could still be its own hurdle.
“You can’t make anything really good unless you know how much it can suck,” Rock said. “The worst movies tend to have the best people in them. So, they aggressively suck…There are lazy movies where you can say stuff through the whole thing, and it kind of sucks, but it’s lazy, and you’ve seen it before. Then there’s Howard the Duck where they’re just trying stuff—I mean, it is trying!”
However, all of the present talent repeatedly credited Rock’s direction, and his willingness to go off his own script for finding a proper balance of everyone’s comedic volume.
“I kept calling him a conductor,” Dawson said with complete earnestness. She elaborated, “Just because you have that much talent doesn’t mean it’s going to be watchable. And I thought that was really remarkable, he did that, but he was different with everyone.”
For her own experience, Dawson talked about leaving her comfort zone for the role of Chelsea Brown, as she had little experience in comedy. She said Rock had joked that she auditioned him for the role, but she credited her director/co-star with the ability to let her work through the character and even help find her some on-set wit and a give-and-take.
According to Dawson, he promised her that that anarchic rhythm on-set would work out, and it led to them even collaborating on new aspects of this central dynamic in the film.
Dawson said, “We played with it over and over again. We both had so many ideas that it was impossible to cut. And I’d be like ‘can I add these four more lines?’ And he’s like, ‘But yeah, the scene only needs to be this big.’ And I’d be like, ‘I can say them really, really fast!’”
Sherri Shepherd reflected on similar confidence in how he would work differently with multiple actors even in the same scene. Recounting a sequence of the film where Rock’s Andre Allen and Dawson’s Chelsea visit his humble roots in Harlem, Shepherd noted that they were shooting in an actual low-rent apartment with cockroaches everywhere, purportedly falling out of the cameraman’s shorts. Yet, in this time with so much comedic talent that also included Smoove, Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones and more, Shepherd recalled how they would do what’s on the page and then created new energy with the writer-director.
“My scene was a bunch of comics, which is very hard to corral a bunch of comics,” Shepherd said. “And I’ve got to give it to Chris to allow everyone to have a certain amount of freedom and to then corral everybody back…. And he’s very intensely focused on the directing aspect of it. So, that was a surprise, because when [he’s] doing stand up that’s what you see, but when you work with him as a director that’s what he gets out of you.”
Another interesting aspect of the sequence and the whole film is its literally titular influence of hip-hop on these characters—a rarity in widely released films.
“I would say this is a movie with a bunch of characters who grew up on rap and don’t question it,” Rock said after some thought. “We don’t even call it hip-hop; it’s just music. We treat it like it’s any other music. And in most movies, they treat rap music or hip-hop music like it’s this new thing. Like only old people call it the Internet. Social media! [For] young people, it’s just whatever it is.”
But whatever Top Five is, it’s most certainly a comedy that thrives to please its audience with plenty of laughs and even a few grossly surreal gags. Threading that needle is ultimately what Rock saw his job as writer, director, and star to be on the project.
“I’m not the director; I’m the protector. I write a script, and it’s my job, and it’s Scott’s job, to protect this idea I came up with. And you’ve got to protect it, because there’s nothing worse than a bad comedy.” As Rock says this, he gets that playful look in his eye and starts to smile again. “Drama, you actually get credit for completion! [beat] I like Gone Girl. You can make nine versions on Gone Girl that work. But when you’re doing a comedy, there’s kind of one version that works. And if you miss anything to the left, to the right, two-second syllables, you’ve got nothing. So, it’s my job that all this stuff works.”
Top Five will seems very poised to work when it hits the big screen later this week.