Reginald Hudlin breaks the rules of Christmas movies in his reunion with Eddie Murphy
Reginald Hudlin drew on experiences growing up in East St. Louis for his debut movie “House Party,” based on a 20-minute film he’d made as an undergraduate at Harvard University. The 1990 film was a success and is now considered a comedy classic.
“House Party” opened doors for Hudlin. It attracted the attention of Eddie Murphy, who recruited Hudlin to direct the comedian’s first romantic comedy, “Boomerang,” two years later. But Hudlin has not followed a straight line in his Hollywood career.
He’s directed documentaries about Sidney Poitier and music executive Clarence Avant, wrote several years' worth of stories for the rebooted “Black Panther” comic book and was president of entertainment for Black Entertainment Television. The St. Louis International Film Festival bestowed Hudlin with its Lifetime Achievement Award this year.
Hudlin’s new film, “Candy Cane Lane,” will be available to stream on Prime Video beginning Dec. 1. It marks Hudlin’s reunion with Murphy and is the first holiday movie that either has made. The director played with genre expectations by including elements like a car chase and martial arts confrontations within a story about an evil elf who turns people into toys.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Hudlin about his career and his techniques for breathing life into the familiar form of the Christmas movie.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: What was it like being honored by SLIFF for your lifetime of work?
Reginald Hudlin: It was fantastic. There's nothing like being honored back home in your hometown. All my cousins were there, folks I went to grade school with were there. It was just a great time.
Goodwin: Are you the sort of person who looks back at your body of work very often to revisit things?
Hudlin: No. I'm always way more fascinated in what's next. And if you look at my body of work, it's pretty eclectic, right? It's comedy, then it's a drama, then it's a TV show, then it's a comic book, then it's a concert, then it's a documentary — which is probably not good for business. The branding is easier if you’re the guy who just does the same thing over and over again. That just doesn’t hold my attention.
Goodwin: When you directed Eddie Murphy in “Boomerang” in 1992, it was a big moment in your career but also for Eddie, who was moving outside of straight comedies for the first time. The story is that he loved “House Party” and recruited you to make “Boomerang.” What caught his attention?
Hudlin: Eddie’s very clear in terms of his measurement. Do you get the joke? Can you tell a joke? Do you understand the rhythms of comedy? That’s his bottom-line measurement. So when he saw “House Party” he thought, oh you guys get the joke. You get humor. It’s crazy because we’ve been trying to find the same project to work together on since then, and when this Christmas movie came along it just worked out perfectly.
Goodwin: “Candy Cane Lane” is your first time working together since then. How did the reunion go?
Hudlin: It was just so easy, because we know each other, we were in the trenches together. I feel like I’m better than I was back then, and he’s still who he is. His skill set is so spectacular. So we just picked up where we left off.
Goodwin: Venturing into the holiday film space, what have you been able to bring to that that’s a little different from what we’ve seen before?
Hudlin: Obviously, there’s a lot of Christmas movies. It’s become a subgenre to itself, and it feels like every holiday there’s 30 new ones. So the challenge is, how do you make yourself stand out?
I can say with absolute confidence that you have never seen a movie like this. Most Christmas movies don’t have jump-scares in them. Most Christmas movies don’t have car chases in them. Most Christmas movies don’t have kung fu battles in them.
But that’s the movie we made. We’re like, hey, what if we took everything you liked, and put it in one movie and just mixed it up? It’s got the Christmas magic. It’s got great Christmas music. It’s going to hit you in your feelings. So we absolutely have our cake and eat it too.
Goodwin: You always strike me as a filmmaker who’s interested in using form to your advantage. You try not to be trapped by the tropes and cliches of a genre. You use those things but put more of a fresh spin on them.
Hudlin: There’s rules, right? There’s rules to Christmas movies. There’s rules to horror movies. And everyone knows the rules. So the trick is, you can either feel like you already know what’s going to happen next, or you can play with the audience’s expectations. You can take a hard left, and then you take another hard left, and you end up with the feelings you expected to have at the beginning. But it’s earned. It’s genuine. Because you broke the rules along the way.
People want those familiar feelings, but at the same time they want to be surprised and they want to go somewhere fresh. They want everything. And that’s my job, to give them everything.