Writer-actor-director Chris Rock’s Top Five is the hot film of the season, with his face appearing on countless magazine covers nationwide. Despite holding the triple-threat title he assumes steering the ship of his new film, Rock sees himself as something more. “I’m not the director. I’m a protector,” he said during a recent New York press event. “I write a script and it’s my job and Scott [Rudin]’s job to protect this idea that I came up with.”
What makes Rock’s idea unique is the way he went about writing and directing Top Five. Coming across like the standup routine of a rusty comedian, the uphill slow start of the film steadily warms and increases in funny as the storyline ascends to the end. This all reflects Rock’s script—focused on his starring role as Andre Allen (no, not Woody Allen, Andre Allen), an A-list comedian turned actor hoping to change his image as a funnyman and brand himself as a dramatic actor. Years removed from the standup world, Andre’s life outlook changes over 24 hours as he promotes his new “serious” movie while simultaneously preparing to marry a popular reality TV star (Gabrielle Union). An interview turned therapy session with a critical journalist (Rosario Dawson) helps Andre face the truth and exorcise fears holding him back.
“While we were filming, we’d be doing something really, really serious and he’d say, ‘Okay, we need a joke right about here,’ says Dawson. “And it wouldn’t be at the beginning or end of the scenes. He was like, ‘Right here we need something to lighten it up.’ That’s why I kept calling him a conductor. Like music.”
While Rock’s film is essentially a self-analysis of the celebrity syndrome of being stuck in a particular branded box (à la the Woody Allen classic, Stardust Memories), the funniest moments are those that are out of the box, full of improv and free roaming. “The way Chris did this movie, it has a standup feel to,” says comedian J. B. Smoove, who plays Silk, Andre’s childhood friend and manager. “And it has a certain amount of laugh per minute. All the rules of comedy apply here.”
The most hilarious scenes bring together Saturday Night Live stars of past and present—like alum Tracy Morgan, and newcomers Leslie Jones and Jay Pharoah. “I wrote a script and there is some improvisation. Now you can’t let everybody improv. Tracy Morgan can improv, you know what I mean,” he said. “But what I tried to do, what I learned in this movie, what I’m trying to say all the time now is, ‘Yeah, it’s my movie. Yeah, it’s my script… but it’s your part. I wouldn’t even call it improvising, you just let people make the role their own.”
“It was not like anything I experienced before from another director. He could do it almost seamlessly,” says Dawson. “So relaxed about it so you wouldn’t have known. This calculating thing behind the eyes that just always was putting it together and seeing what needed to happen and every once in a while if it wasn’t, he’d just give a gentle little nudge one way or the other. It was amazing.”
Top Five ignited a bidding war when it screened at the Toronto Film Festival this year. Finally selling to Paramount for its full $12.5 million asking price, the overzealous industry love came as a result of Rock being able to protect his creative baby. “You got to protect it, ’cause there’s nothing worse than a bad comedy,” he says. “Drama you actually get credit for completion. You could make nine different versions of Gone Girl that work. But with comedy, there’s kinda one version that works, and you miss anything to the left—one second, two seconds, syllables—and you got nothing. So it’s my job to make sure all this stuff works.”
Raqiyah Mays is a seasoned writer, TV/radio personality, and activist. Her debut novel The Man Curse will be released by Simon & Schuster in 2015. Follow her on Twitter @RaqiyahMays.