Marlon Wayans is very confident about his new parody film, A Haunted House. Just how self-assured is he? Leading up to the film's release (it opens in theaters nationwide today), he has traveled across the country to attend upwards of 20 screenings, participating in post-movie Q&A sessions. He's even taken to Twitter heavily to engage directly with his fans. "I'm the type of guy where you don't have to lie to my face—you can tell me straight-up if you hated the movie or not," says Wayans. "I've told people that I want them to tweet me their opinion of the movie, and I'll retweet them all, good or bad. So far, only two people haven't liked it, so I'm ecstatic."
Why such a hands-on approach this time around? Simply put, there's a lot riding on A Haunted House for the youngest member of the comedic powerhouse Wayans family. After co-starring and co-writing several movies with brothers Keenen Ivory Wayans and Shawn Wayans (Scary Movie, Scary Movie 2, White Chicks), Marlon, now 40, is ready for his career's next, all-important phase: becoming a boss in his own right.
A Haunted House—a spoof of found-footage horror movies (from The Blair Witch Project to the Paranormal Activity franchise) that recaptures the spirit of Scary Movie—is his first project without his siblings' input and guidance. He's the film's star, co-writer, and producer, and its release is well-timed alongside the January 15 debut of the new scripted BET comedy series Second Generation Wayans, starring nephews Craig Wayans and Damien Dante Wayans and produced by Uncle Marlon.
Is Marlon ready to become the next Keenen Ivory? At this point, he's actually more concerned with wiping away the bad taste left by recent, inept parody flicks like Vampires Suck, Meet the Spartans, and, yes, the last two non-Wayans Scary Movie entries (not to mention, the upcoming Scary Movie 5). In this candid, lively conversation with Complex, he discusses A Haunted House's earnest motivations, reclaiming the Wayans' positive reputation, conducting business as a "grown-ass man," and the Wayans family's hierarchy.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
With A Haunted House, you must feel extra proud knowing that it was all you this time. No Keenen Ivory or Shawn.
Yeah, it's extremely exciting. I would say that I'm nervous, but I'm actually not. I think if it sucked I'd be nervous, but knowing that it plays well, it's funny, and people are really enjoying the movie for the most part has taken those nerves away.
Were the nerves there before you started screening the movie?
Honestly, no. I've been doing stand-up for the past two and a half years, so my gauge on funny is a lot sharper now. My bull's-eye is much more accurate now. I understand the science of joke-telling even more than I have before, just from going out, doing stand-up, and listening to audiences and what they laugh at.
What initially made you want to go on the road to do stand-up? Was it just to sharpen your comedy, or was there also an element of wanting to see if you can hold your own comically without your brothers around?
It's kind of like alchemy, man. Everything happens for a reason. I started out in stand-up and I quickly abandoned it. After I did it like 60 times, I was like, "Eh, I don't want to do this. I want to write movies, and I want to act and be a star in that way." So, for 20 years, I did the starring, writing, and producing things, but I didn't do any stand-up. My brother Shawn was doing stand-up the whole time. And then I got the role of Richard Pryor. This was about two years ago. I started doing stand-up again because, I figured, if I'm going to play the greatest comedian ever, I need to get my shit together and learn how to do some stand-up.
So I got back into it that way, and I don't know what happened to the Richard Pryor movie, but I fell in love with stand-up. Literally every other weekend Shawn and I were on the road doing stand-up. I love it, I love making people laugh and playing clubs and bigger venues. Doing it actually affected my writing, too. It made me a better writer.
What was it about the whole found-footage movie style that made you want to parody it for your first script without Shawn or Keenen?
Well, initially, the inspiration was, "My black ass wants to work!" [Laughs.] They're not making many movies anymore, unless you're a superhero, and even then, there aren't any black superheroes. I think our bulges are too big. They don't want to see our penises all big inside those little drawers they put superheroes into. So, I figured, I better get to writing. I've written myself a career—me and my brothers, that's what we do. I put my head down, went into this full-steam, and started doing research.
I quickly decided that I wanted to do a found-footage comedy, because that's the way people are making movies nowadays, with found-footage. So I wanted to be the first person to do a found-footage comedy. And what happened was, I was watching Paranormal Activity as research, and Paranormal Activity 2, and I was sitting there, going, "Man, white people do stupid stuff in these movies. What would happen if Paranormal Activity happened to a black couple?" And, boom, from there, jokes just started hitting me. I called my producing partner, Rick Alvarez, and we quickly got to writing.
In A Haunted House, there are several clever, funny gags inspired by specific scenes from movies like [REC] and The Blair Witch Project, as well as individual moments from Paranormal Activity 3, like the oscillating fan, for example. Did you make sure that you watched every single found-footage movie that you could?
Yeah, what I like to do is sit in the pocket. Lately I've been watching these parody movies that have been coming out, and if you notice when me and my brothers do parodies, they make sense. We don't just bunch stuff together. We have a science to the math that we like to apply, so that it's not jarring to watch. I watch these parodies from the last 10 years and they don't make no sense at all. They jump from one movie to another movie and then another movie.
That's not what we do. We make fun of a movie, but we create a whole original movie around it. So, basically, A Haunted House is traditional to what we do. This isn't one of those pop-referential parody movies. It's a movie that can exist on its own. It's basically a fun romantic horror-comedy with parody moments. If you've never seen one of these Paranormal Activity movies before, you'll still get the movie, you'll still get the relationships, and you'll still like the characters. I didn't make it desperate, like, "Oh, we have to stuff in a lot of pop culture references!" That's not what I do.
What really frustrates me is that audiences actually think that we brought them that bullshit. I would never waste anybody's money that way. That's not what I do. I would never take anybody's hard-earned money and waste it. I'm glad that me and my brothers make it look easy. That makes it easy for copycats to copy it.
We watched our own franchise go to shit. Scary Movie was a good franchise that we started—now, I don't know what the hell it is. It's as bad as one of those other movies. It makes no damn sense. I'm glad we make it look easy, but now it's time for us to come back and do it the right way. And people now will be able to see, especially since Scary Movie 5 comes out four months after my movie. People will finally see who has the real formula. It's not on some competition shit—this is just what we do.
You can take the franchise we created, but you can't take the talent and jokes behind it. You can only fool audiences but for so long, and for so long the audiences have been fooled. They got fooled on Scary Movie 3 and they got fooled on Scary Movie 4. Now, we'll see who got the goods. I don't wish the people behind Scary Movie 5 anything bad, though. I wish them love. I just know that mine is going to make people laugh. I don't know what theirs is going to do.
I saw the Scary Movie 5 trailer in a packed theater recently, and there was an uncomfortable silence the entire time it played. People looked more embarrassed than entertained.
Yeah, and I've seen my trailer play in front of audiences and the people laugh. And my trailer doesn't even have, I would say, a tenth of the jokes that we have in our movie. At no point do you go, "Oh, that's all the jokes they have in the movie." No, that's not even our best stuff.
I'm not being cocky—I'm being confident. I've been studying comedy since I was 4 years old. This isn't about business, or me being a business guy making a movie. No, this is something that we've done since we were kids. I was raised to do this. I was raised and cultivated to do this. Comedy is a science that I've studied since I was 4 years old. So I'm excited that both movies are coming out. Every time people see the Scary Movie 5 trailer and then the A Haunted House trailer, they're like, "Oh, that Scary Movie 5 looks like nonsense. Those movies haven't been funny since the Wayans left."
I wish it love, because one of my great friends [Malcolm D. Lee] is directing it. I wish it love. But, for me, all I wish is that people would stop associating me with that franchise. We did the first two. I don't want nothing to do with it. I don't got no beef, but I don't want to be credited for something I didn't do. I want my audience to know that I had nothing to do with it. If you don't see my face on it, chances are that I had nothing to do with it.
Transitioning back into A Haunted House specifically, was the plan all along for you to do this one all on your own. Since the parody genre has gone to shit, as you say, was there ever any thoughts amongst you and your brothers to do another Wayans family production to restore the good name?
No, my brothers were busy doing other stuff. Shawn was working on a movie, Keenen was working on some flicks and other things he's working on. This genre kind of lends itself to small casts and only one or two real leads. If my brother Shawn and I are in a movie together, chances are we got to play brothers, or relatives.
Maybe he could've played the small role played by Affion Crockett in the movie, but with Shawn, it wouldn't have been sizable enough for him. It would've been a great cameo, but it wasn't something that he wanted to do. Honestly, you want something with more teeth for him. If we're going to be in a movie together, people want to see the Wayans brothers together.
So this one lent itself to a small cast. And, honestly, I wrote this script right out of my pocket, within a couple of days inside my house. But it just so happened that I found a great financier partner at IM Global, so we wound up doing it together. This kind of just ended up being something that I'd do on my own. Plus, I think my brothers wanted me to do something on my own because I'm at that age now. I'm 40, I'm a big boy, and I've been studying for a long time. Now it's time to take the training wheels off and just see what I can do.
Were there any difficulties that you weren't anticipating, from not having your brothers around?
You know, every movie you do is going to be tough, but I always welcome the challenges. Nothing's going to be perfect. The only perfection that you're going to get comes through making the imperfect perfect. That's part of my creativity. It's like, OK, if I can't do this, how can I do this? What are my constraints? Don't tell me I can't—tell me how I can. That's been our approach. We didn't have much money to do it, but we figured out ways to get everything done that we wanted to get done. I had a great crew, a great cast, and great partners with this. And I'm really happy with how they're marketing it.
Looking back at your career, you've always been interested in working outside of the Wayans family circle, whether it's starring in dramas like Requiem for a Dream or blockbusters like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. What do you think it is about you that's always compelled you to step outside of the family and work independently?
Well, a lot of times I hear people from families saying, "Oh, I want to escape being known only for my family's name and brand." But for me, I love the Wayans thing. That's my tribe. I love them to death. I'm in love with my family. Those are the greatest people I've ever met or I will ever meet. I live first to be a father, a son, a brother, and a friend. Actor, producer, and director come after those things I just mentioned. The things that are important to me are just letting people know how I love my family and how I move in my life to make their lives easier.
I never want to escape my tribe, but I do have different dreams. I do have different goals from my brothers. I like doing drama because I'm a performing arts high school kid—that's why it took me so long to get to do stand-up. I'm an actor, but my brothers came up as comedians, so they're writers, producers, directors, and stars every night on stage. That's what they gravitate towards, but, for me, I came up as an actor.
Now, though, I'm a comedian, so I'm understanding both, and I want to do both. So if there's a project with a director and a cast that I think can be successful, or at least it has a chance to be successful, I'll go do it. If I'm going to do some bullshit, I'd rather do my own bullshit.
Pretty much. I think they've all taken classes, but I went to a performing arts high school. I'm theatrically trained.
Why do you think you're the only one who had the interest to get that training so early on?
You know, I think it was just me looking ahead of the curve. My brothers did what they had to do in terms of doing comedy—that was the means to their end. I had a little bit more time to understand and go, "You know what? I want to add this performing arts high school to my repertoire because it will help me as a performer. That way, if I choose to do stand-up like my brothers, it will help me excel at a more rapid pace because of the skill-set I'll have as an actor-performer." I knew that having that in my back pocket was going to help me all around.
Don't get me wrong—Damon is a really strong dramatic actor. My sister Kim rocked this movie she did called Pariah. Keenen has done a lot of action-comedy, which requires you to really play your moments well. Shawn, even, did a movie called True Blood where he showcased his acting. We all can act—I just went a little deeper into my studies. I guess it's a cheat because I'm younger.
When you were writing A Haunted House with Rick Alvarez, was it liberating to know that you could get all of your jokes and ideas in? As opposed to the past scripts written alongside you brothers, where it must've been more competitive to get your own ideas into the finished products.
At the end of the day, when we do our projects together, somebody has to be the decision maker, and that's going to be [Keenen] Ivory. We all collectively pitch thousands of jokes, and it's ultimately Ivory's decision. We let him do it because that's what he does and what he's great at, but on this one, I got to be the Ivory. I got to be the guy making the decisions. Mike [Tiddes, the director] and Rick were my counsel. We worked together as a committee, but, ultimately, somebody has to make a decision, and that was me this time.
Did you speak to Ivory for any specific advice when assuming that role for A Haunted House?
I always go to Ivory for advice. He's the Godfather, so you're a fool if you don't go to him and ask for his opinions. Whenever I have any problems, Ivory gives me his opinions and oftentimes I apply them. Now I may not listen to everything, but I listen to whatever works for me in that time and in that situation. For this project, he schooled me on the value of pre-production, and making sure that you hire the right team.
Continuing your new Ivory role, you're also the executive producer of the new BET series Second Generation Wayans, starring your nephews Craig Wayans and Damien Dante Wayans and showing their struggles trying to make it in Hollywood.
Yeah, it's basically their rise to fame and a look at how hard it is for them to make in the shadow of their uncles. It's a really good, scripted show.
The thing is, for me as the exec producer, I allow them to do their vision. It's their vision of themselves, and it's a different complexion of the Wayans humor, so I invite it. It's not that same in-your-face style that I have—theirs is more laid-back in the cut, and they've got some really funny stuff in there.
I'd imagine that you can relate to the element of trying to succeed in family members' shadows, being the youngest in your family.
Absolutely. It was hard for me and Shawn to step out of the shadows of Keenen, Damon, and Kim. And now, for my nephews, it's even harder for them. Shawn and I were Tito and Jackie, and my nephews are Tito's sons. [Laughs.]
It's interesting how everything comes full circle, and now you're in the Keenen Ivory role after 20 years.
But the thing is, I'll never really be in the Ivory role. Ivory is always going to be the Godfather. I just hope Fredo makes him proud.
So A Haunted House isn't the start of a full-blown solo Marlon phase?
No, man. This is New Edition—Bobby isn't smoking crack. [Laughs.] We're family. We're always going to keep doing stuff together. I'm thinking about the next thing already for us. I miss working with Ivory and Shawn. We make a lot of really great music together, so I'll never stop doing that, man. But I will always go off and do my own thing, too. As a grown-ass man, I'm able to do that. When the fingers get stronger, so does the fist.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)