Are you ready for Christmas? Filmmaker Reginald Hudlin certainly is, going by his latest Prime Video comedy, Candy Cane Lane, which reunites him with Eddie Murphy for the first time since the two of them made Boomerang in 1992.
As you may have guessed, Candy Cane Lane is indeed a Christmas movie in which Murphy plays Chris Carver, a family man competing with the neighborhood to have the most decorated house on the street. Along comes an elf named Pepper (Jillian Bell), who agrees to help Chris create the most extravagantly-decorated house for the holidays. With her offer comes a steep price, where Chris and his family are forced to seek out a veritable 12 Days of Christmas to get her to reverse the damage she has done.
Hudlin is no stranger to comedy, from his early films House Party, Boomerang and others, but Candy Cane Lane allowed him to assemble a comedy rogues’ gallery around Murphy, including Tracee Ellis Ross as his wife Carol, and the likes of Ken Marino, Nick Offerman, Chris Redd, and many more.
Above the Line spoke with Hudlin over Zoom last week, also getting into some of his other work, going back to House Party, and his recent involvement with reviving the Milestone Media comic book characters.
Above the Line: Has it really been 30 years since you last worked with Eddie Murphy, and this is the first thing you two have done together since Boomerang?
Reginald Hudlin: Yes, 30 years. It’s crazy.
ATL: How did this come about? Did you find the script, did he find the script?
Hudlin: It was one of those things where I had a meeting with Amazon and talked about working together. I said I love Christmas movies. They said, “We have a Christmas movie, and Eddie Murphy is attached.” I was like, “Let’s start Monday.” I read the script, the script was fantastic, had a meeting with Eddie. We talked about my approach, and he loved it.
ATL: What was it about Christmas movies that made you want to do one finally? This is your first one, I assume?
Hudlin: Yes, it is. I love Christmas movies, because they have this incredible emotional pull on you as a viewer. I grew up loving Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Charlie Brown Christmas, The Grinch that Stole Christmas, and you say, “Hey, I wanna get in there. I want to make my mark on the mythology.” So, this is me going for it.
ATL: It also depends on when you end up filming it, because filming a Christmas movie in April or May or June might be a little strange. How did you work the scheduling to make sure that didn’t happen?
Hudlin: Well, it was a pretty crazy. The bulk of our principal photography started in January, so we got this movie done in nine months, which is pretty fast.
ATL: That was January last year?
Hudlin: January of THIS year.
ATL: Oh, wow. 2023, that’s a FAST turnaround, cause there’s a lot of VFX.
Hudlin: A very fast turnaround. Look, we had a little under 1000 effects shots, so just that alone makes it pretty amazing.
ATL: I assume when you already a have Eddie on board, it’s really easy to get other people to join up. Let’s talk about Tracee first, so did you think of her, did Eddie think of her? How did that come about?
Hudlin: It was sort of a collective idea. Amazon was a huge fan. I’m a huge fan. Again, another person that I’d been looking to work with. We talked, and it was just like, “Well, this is definitely the right way to go.” But their chemistry was so spectacular; it’s just incredible.
ATL: Did Eddie get involved with casting the rest of his family as well? Was he there to check them out?
Hudlin: No, we’ve made a movie together, so it’s really wonderful that he trusts me. He’s the kind of guy, who is like, “Show me the… oh, yeah, that’s fine.” He’s a guy who, if we all feel like, “No, we’ve looked. This is the one,” then he’d say, “Okay.”
ATL: What I enjoyed about the movie, as it went along, is that we got to see more of the family, and it’s not like Beverly Hills Cop aka the Eddie Murphy Show. Each of the family members gets their own side quest and screen time. I wasn’t really familiar with the actors playing his kids, but they were all great.
Hudlin: I love that Eddie is generous. He’s not the guy who is like, “No, it’s all me. I don’t care about anybody else.” He’s a very supportive actor. You see that opening scene with him in the kitchen with his whole family. Everyone gets a chance to shine and really do their thing.
ATL: What about some of these other actors? It’s kind of a rogues’ gallery of comics from Jillian Bell to Timothy Simmons, Ken Marino, Danielle Pinnock… how did you figure out who to cast for some of these other roles?
Hudlin: Ken Marino was a guy I’ve worked with on a couple of different shows before. I love him. He’s so dependable, so brilliant, so imaginative, and I knew he’d be the perfect next door neighbor. That was an easy one. Tim Simon’s I had never met. A huge fan of his work, especially on Veep. I just knew he’d be great. Danielle Pinnock, who plays his partner at the news station, I’d never heard of her but once I saw her audition, I was just like, “Oh, my God, she’s brilliant. She’s the way to go.” Jillian. Pepper is a really tough role. It’s almost like asking someone to be Beetlejuice. Jillian came in… incredible imagination, incredible acting chops, just everything you wanted for the role and just nailed it.
ATL: I feel like Jillian is kind of an underused secret weapon. You put her in your movie, and she’s always great, and this is a much bigger role for her, which plays on what she does well.
Hudlin: I mean, she has a following, and I hope this movie takes her to the next level, because she absolutely deserves it.
ATL: I asked before about when you shot the movie, because I have to think that for your production designer or set decorator, this could be a dream or an absolute nightmare. If they’re prepping stuff in November or December, that’s probably fine, but they definitely went a little insane with all the Christmas stuff.
Hudlin: I mean, I had strong feelings topping anything else we’ve seen on screen before, any stuff we’ve seen on YouTube of real candy cane lanes across the country. [Production Designer] Aaron Osborne, quite brilliant, and no matter how crazy my idea was, he would take it and plus it up even further.
ATL: It’s interesting that this is on Prime Video, as was Coming 2 America. I really want to see Eddie return to theaters, because back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was king. Do you get the impression we’ll ever see him in theaters again, or is it just easier to get movies like these made via streamers?
Hudlin: It’s not just an Eddie Murphy question; it’s an industry question. In another era, this movie would be a huge theatrical release, but we’re in a different marketplace right now, between COVID and the strikes. I’m a big believer in theatrical, so I really hope, not just Eddie, but all the big movie stars and unknowns that are super talented, that we can really rebuild theatrical with a bunch of great movies.
ATL: You’re no stranger to directing comedy, but you also directed Marshall and some amazing documentaries, like Sydney. Is it harder to direct drama after doing comedy for so long? Do you feel comfortable working in both realms?
Hudlin: I love doing both. In fact, for me, doing different stuff all the time may be bad for business, it may be confusing to some folks, but honestly, as a creative person, it’s like rotating the crops. You stay fresh. You’re doing something new and ambitious, you’re not falling into a rut, and there’s a little bit of fear that comes from switching it up. If you ask me what’s harder, drama or comedy? Folks who do both all kind of agree… comedy is harder.
ATL: Interesting. Even with a partner like Eddie?
Hudlin: Comedy is harder. [laughs] Look, deep in our puritan ethic that has shaped America, we think, “Well, you can’t take it seriously if there are jokes in it.” To paraphrase Steve Martin, “Comedy is serious business.”
ATL: I learned something new, while I was preparing for this. I knew that House Party was a huge hit when it came out and was particularly big here in New York, but I did not know it premiered at Sundance. I know you did a short film first, but was it considered independent for the time?
Hudlin: It was at New Line Cinema, so we had a small indie studio finance it. But yeah, we got it into Sundance, and, oh my god, it was a smash! We won a couple of awards there. The audience award, cinematography award. They added all these screenings, because people just kept packing the place out, the tickets were just flying. So we knew we had something.
ATL: I have to ask you about some comic book stuff, because I almost know you more from your comics work, like your run on Black Panther, but I love that you brought back Milestone Media, since I was a big fan of those books in the ’90s. What made you want to bring that back, and is it still something you’re very active in and keeping the books on the shelves?
Hudlin: I mean, I love comic books. I grew up on comic books. I’m not one of those people who get snobby, like, “Ew, it’s just a comic book.” It’s all the same thing, right? It’s a medium, and the quality of the work is what determines whether it’s disposable or not. I love the Milestone characters. They actually asked me to join the first incarnation of it, but I had just started my movie career, so I said, “Let me focus on my day job first.” But with the passing of Dwayne McDuffie, the remaining members of Milestone asked me to step in. I said, “I won’t make that mistake twice. I’m in.” And it’s been a great time since then.
ATL: Are you guys working on bringing the characters to other mediums? I know you had the Static cartoon for a while, but Blood Syndicate would make an amazing Max series.
Hudlin: You’re preaching to the converted, believe me. We’re very much focused on turning the Milestone properties into other mediums.
ATL: At one point, you were also going to do a Shadowman movie, which was Valiant, so is that something you’re still trying to make happen?
Hudlin: It kind of fell apart. The folks who own the property, they switched into something else, and I don’t know what they’re up to now.
ATL: Valiant’s been kind of up and down with different things for years now.
Hudlin: Yeah, it was too bad, because we had some really cool stuff that we were going to do with it, so too bad.
ATL: Oh, well. That’s one for the memoir. I also want to ask you about your documentary work, and whether what you’ve done in that realm has influenced your narrative features.
Hudlin: Oh, absolutely. Storytelling is storytelling; it doesn’t matter. I really enjoy doing Black Godfather, Sydney, our docuseries, Fat Tuesday. Those have all been fantastic experiences, and I look forward to making more.
Candy Cane Lane is now streaming on Prime Video.