When it comes to giving our comedians a proper biopic or, heaven forbid, a fractured reflection of their politics, passions, and intimate, formative moments, America has not done very well. All non-documentary attempts to capture the ravenous, angry genius of Lenny Bruce, including the mundane Lenny, have not bore any proverbial fruit and though Man in the Moon is an enjoyable vision of Andy Kaufman, the film skews closer to hagiography than philosophical consideration. Nobody’s attempted to explore the relentlessly skeptical mind of George Carlin in movies, and if Man in the Moon is really the high-water mark, thank goodness for that.
That being said, one that always seemed to be in a place to break the mold is Lee Daniels‘ long-gestating take on the life of Richard Pryor, with Mike Epps attached to play the controversial, brilliant comedian. The movie has taken a lot of hits over the years – Daniels has left the project before, for one – but producer Bruce Cohen said that he has every intention of bringing the movie to the big screen “somehow.” This is what he said during a recent interview with our very own Steven Weintraub for Bleed for This, which Cohen also produced:
You’re attached to the Richard Pryor movie. This is a movie that to me I can’t understand how a Richard Pryor film has not been made yet, so is this gonna be the one that goes?
COHEN: I hope so. It’s one of the most brilliant scripts. Bill Condon did the initial draft and then Lee Daniels has done the rewrite and unfortunately, it’s hard to make the economics work in this landscape. It’s not a cheap movie: it’s period, it’s wide scope and it’s getting a cast together that gives you enough foreign value to let you make the movie. [That’s] the challenge. The Weinstein Company and Lee and myself and Mike Epps, who’s been attached for a while to play Richard Pryor, all of us…as badly as we wanna make the movie, we feel even a little higher obligation to the subject matter, to do it right. So, we’re not gonna do it until we can do it the right way and I hope it comes together soon because it really is a project that needs to be made.
Cohen also said that the movie will focus on the entire span of his life, rather than taking a look at a particular stretch of his existence to draw out Pryor’s ineffable persona and essence. It’s a bit of a gamble but, mind you, Daniels made arguably the most important non-documentary film about the black American experience of this decade with The Butler, another biopic. Not one for sober rehashing, Daniels turned the life of one of the White House’s most overlooked employees into a destabilizing, funny, disturbing, and deeply moving portrait of living through the last 100 years of America’s racism. He’s undeniably the right man for the job here. Cohen went on to talk about the scope of the project and the tone of the script:
So you guys are going ambitious.
COHEN: We are going ambitious and that is the pitfall of biopics I completely agree. This script has solved that the emotional arc of this script is so overpoweringly beautiful that it’s just one of those scripts where it’s like on what planet has this not gotten made yet. But it will, it’s going to, some way, somehow it’s going to get made.
Sometimes with people’s lives they sort of are afraid to tackle when they really had problems, and Richard really had problems, like he had issues. But he was gifted performer so are you guys tackling it full on in the script or is it one of these things where you’re gonna….?
COHEN: No, we’re tackling it full on. The script is as dark, and raw, and sad, and scary in some ways but ultimately inspiring as well as a script can be. I wouldn’t say that’s really part of the problem because the financiers really they’re looking at the value of the film. They’re not concerned per se if something’s really dark, but we didn’t get any help from that. If it was a romantic comedy it would be easier to get our funding together. You know if you look at Lee Daniels’ work, if you look at my work and certainly if you look at Harvey’s work, you know these are filmmakers who do not pull punches and that’s certainly the case here.
If he’s to be taken at his word, Cohen seems to have the right mindset for the film and his tales of trouble getting financing are, sadly, hardly breaking news. One would think that after the success of Empire, which cooled off a bit in Seasons 2 and 3, Daniels would have a bit more clout, at least enough to get an Oscar-friendly (at least on paper) biopic of one of black American culture’s greatest icons made. Perhaps the script really is just too good, too rambunctious and severe, too aware of its central figure’s faults as well as his triumphs. These were things that often alienated audiences from Pryor himself, so in a way, it’s fitting that his biopic would be a similar tough sell. Still, Cohen paints a picture of a movie that I would wake up early on a Friday or stay up late on a Thursday to see as soon as possible, and I have a hard time believing I’m merely one of a few who thinks that.