Eddie Murphy: Hollywood Days / Harlem Nights
The spectacular look of Eddie Murphy's upcoming holiday opus is the product of a sure hand and a great eye.
Eddie Murphy has made a vertical career move. Not content with performing only in front of the camera, he has now added "writer" and "director" to his resume. The film on which he has lavished his talents is Harlem Nights, an action comedy set in 1938 that pits scrappy nightclub owners Murphy and Richard Pryor against Danny Aiello and the mob.
About the only thing Murphy is not doing on this film is designing the sets. For that job he turned to production designer Lawrence G. Paull. Why Paull?
"I liked that film he did with Harrison Ford...what was it called?"
"That's the one," says Murphy.
Blade Runner is, in fact, one of the most visually stunning, conceptually daring, and stylistically influential films in recent memory. It brought Paull an Oscar nomination.
"I interviewed three people for the job," says Murphy. "I'm basically a vibes person, and I got good vibes talking to Larry. Plus he came in with this big fuckin' stack of books with drawings of Harlem. He had done his research."
Research was indeed required. Early on in the production of Harlem Nights there was talk of shooting the film on location, but the studio worried that plunking Murphy and Pryor down on 125th Street would send the neighborhood into a frenzy, and Paull worried that turning Harlem into a movie set would prove too daunting a task. "On location you have to tear down 1989 and put up 1938. On the backlot you just have to bring back 1938." And so, in one of the biggest backlot barn raisings in years, Harlem was recreated in Hollywood. Quickly.
"We had seven weeks of preparation," says Paull, "which is ... "Paull stops and searches for the right word. I expect to hear "ludicrous," or "insane," but Paull doesn't finish the sentence. "Let's just say I had nine months to prepare for Blade Runner."
During those seven frantic weeks, Paull and his staff worked every day, and Paull, as is his wont, refused to cut corners. He searched for, and found, vintage linoleum in New York. The design of the casings (or window frames) he "stole" from the 1936 film Dodsworth. The burned joists that he needed for a fire scene his assistants found among the ruins of Carmen Miranda's house, which had burned down the day before. In addition he had an associate scouring second-hand bookshops in New York for period photos, a venture that turned up, among other things, a volume by James Van Der Zee called The Harlem Book of the Dead, featuring nattily dressed dead men in caskets. The source materials for Harlem Nights filled a large office on the Paramount lot. Assistants drew sketches. Draftsmen turned the sketches into architectural drawings. And artists rendered the drawings into full color illustrations so Murphy and Paull could discuss them.
"Once things got rolling, we worked real well together," says Murphy. "You hear stories about directors walking on the set, looking at the designs on the walls and saying, 'oh, shit, what's this guy done?' But that never happened with Larry. The only surprise was how smooth it all went."
Paull is an affable, loquacious, dark-haired man in his mid-40's who began his career as an architect. "It didn't pay well, and I got bored waiting for my designs to be turned into buildings," he says. You can see why he was attracted to the job of production designer. It not only pays well, it's an architect's fantasy. One day you're Stanford White, the next day you're Frank Lloyd Wright. You design everything from segregated toilets (which Paull did for The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings) to futuristic cityscapes. And within a day of turning in the design you can hear the hammers pounding.
"The design challenge on Harlem Nights was to present Harlem as a clean, prosperous, vibrant neighborhood," says Paull. One day, Eddie Murphy's mother, who was prowling the set, pulled Paull aside and told him how important it was to her that Harlem be presented as an attractive community. "Which it was," says the production designer. "Strivers Row, in Harlem, is still one of the most beautiful streets in New York. Harlem didn't really start to decay until after World War II."
Harlem Nights presented Paull with a number of design challenges. "I'd never done a turn-of-the-century brownstone, I'd never done the interior of a Harlem nightclub, and I'd definitely not done a neo-Nazi moderne penthouse," he explains. In case you don't frequent neo-Nazi penthouses, Paull points out that Nazi architecture is distinguished by "the severity of the lines and the verticality of the spaces."
In addition to three soundstages at Paramount, Paull used every street set on the lot at the Burbank Studios, a block of 8th Street in downtown Los Angeles, The Queen's Salon on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, and a bathroom in a cheesy hotel near MacArthur Park. "We put in new wallpaper, we cleaned all the tile, we polished the floor and built our own marble water closets and toilets," says Paull. You get the feeling that if Paull had time he'd love to take you on a tour of this men's room and point out all his little touches.
It is this enthusiasm, along with his training and his terrific eye, that have made Paull one of the top designers in Hollywood. "The film that changed my life," he says, "was Dr. Zhivago. I was dazzled by the art direction. I walked out of the theater thinking, That's a career I'd like to try.' A few weeks later I met an art director who needed a draftsman, and I signed on." Four years later, in 1970, producer Albert Ruddy gave Paull his first job as an art director on a film called Little Fauss and Big Halsy. That was the last film Paull worked on that had the word "Little" in the title. He prefers to work on a grand scale and to create, as he puts it, "slices of time." He appears to have been equally at home in the marshy backwaters of Bingo Long as he was in the murky metropolis of Blade Runner.
When I asked him if there were any concerns about Harlem Nights that kept him up at night, he said, "No."
"Any technical difficulties?"
I ask Paull if, when he's watching a film, he's aware of the design decisions. "Always," he says. "Sometimes I'm enthralled. Sometimes I'm aghast. My all time favorite gaffe is in How the West Was Won. Just as a big wagon train comes over a hill, you look up in the sky, and you can see a jet trail. I'm sure they thought nobody would notice. But, as an art director, you can't think that way. You have to be extremely careful. If I'm not on the set, I try to have one of my assistants there."
If you spend an afternoon with Larry Paull, you realize, in about five minutes, that you're dealing with a man who moves quickly, acts decisively, and doesn't suffer fools gladly. Walk with him through a warehouse of old cars and their old owners and you hear this exchange. "We can't use that one," says Paull, pointing to a 1937 Ford.
"Why?" says the owner.
"Because it's powder blue," says Paull.
"It came that way," says the owner.
"I don't think so," says Paull. "Henry Ford had a basic color scheme. Black and--black. Besides, that's not the look I want." He tells me later that Harlem Nights will have no pastels. The look will be dark and somber.
As we walk back to the set of "Club Sugar Ray," Paull asks a colleague when the dailies are being screened. The man shrugs. "Have you seen Eddie?" asks Paull. The man shakes his head. Murphy, no doubt burdened by his directorial chores, has, in the long hours between set-ups, become something of a ghostly presence. Few see him. His whereabouts are guessed at. Sometimes his arrival is heralded by the appearance of his factotums. Sometimes it's not. I ask Paull about his working relationship with Murphy. "Eddie had to be available to me. I'm not his best friend, and I don't hang out with him on weekends, but he couldn't help but deal with me, one-on-one, on a daily basis. The entourage was there, but when I needed access, I didn't have a problem."
Was there any friction with the young, first-time director?
"No. Eddie gave me a great deal of autonomy because of the lack of time. I talked him through the look and the style of the film. I showed him 25 or 30 illustrations. During the shooting, I led him into and out of the matte shots. He was a happy puppy."
Murphy, who, on the day I spoke with him, had just finished shooting, said, "If I direct another film I'll definitely hire Larry Paull."
"Will you direct another film?" I ask.
"That's like asking a guy who's just climbed Mt. Everest if he wants to go up the mountain again. My first response is, shit no."
What's Paull's feeling about Harlem Nights? "I think Eddie's done a fine job. He's gotten good performances. But to tell you the truth, I've given up trying to predict how a film is going to do. So much occurs during post-production. You never know what's going to end up on the screen."
Jeffrey Lantos profiled Christopher Guest in Movieline's September issue.