Down to Earth : Production Information

About The Story

Down to Earth (2001)   Movie PosterIt seems everyone is trying to get into Heaven; at least those whose time is up. For Lance Barton, a struggling comedian and able bicycle messenger, his due date upstairs isn't for another 43 years. In the meantime, he has big dreams to pursue on Earth, including a crucial Amateur Night Contest at the famed Apollo Theatre. Hampering Lance's dream however, is one little problem- he ain't that funny.

One day his life would change forever, thanks to an overcautious emissary from Heaven, Mr. Keyes (Eugene Levy). Showing that even God has difficulty finding good help these days, the inept minion mistakenly plucks Lance from a traftic accident- before it takes place. Transporting him to the Pearly Gates, or more accurately, the velvet roped-lines of the most desirous of clubs, the error is finally addressed by Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri), the no-nonsense head angel who manages the place.

Since returning to his own body on Earth is impossible, the urban raised Lance reluctantly agrees to an unthinkable proposal. He will occupy the body of a wealthy old mogul, Charles Wellington, until a more suitable replacement could be found. There, in a plush Park Avenue penthouse, servants and butlers fill his new social circle as Lance works on his streetwise comedy routine for the big Apollo showdown.

Living in the body of a wealthy old white man is bizarre enough for Lance without falling in love with the beautiful woman (Regina King) publicly battling Wellington's company. Complicating matters further is the love affair between Wellington's wife (Jennifer Coolidge) and his personal assistant (Greg Germann), both of whom also plot to have the old man killed.

Living in this most unlikely world, Lance discovers his true inner self, enabling him to finally tap into his potential to reach his dreams.

Bringing such a heavenly story to the screen attracted Chris Rock to his first starring role. After a casual lunch meeting with Warren Beatty, the idea of a contemporary, crossed-race version of Beatty's Heaven Can Wait (1978) stuck in Rock's mind. "This just seemed like a movie I could do," the versatile comedian says. "It seemed absolutely perfect. "

Approaching humor from a racial viewpoint is something at which Rock excels, affirmed by his thousands of concertgoers and millions of television viewers. "In some ways the scenario works better if the person comes back in a different race," he said. "Putting a black man in the role just ups the ante at every level."

About his character, Rock continues "Lance Barton is a real lowly guy. He can't get a woman, can't get laughs, can't get anything. He's a poor, bike-riding messenger in Harlem. And just a horrible comic. So, when he takes over the body of Wellington, this rich guy with his boardroom and his Park Avenue penthouse with all these elaborate gadgets, he's as far out of his element as he could possibly be. The potential was endless."

Producer and Rock's long-time manager Michael Rotenberg agrees. "I think Chris wanted to show the differences between looks, and how they affect people's impressions of each other," he says. "How money affects it, how materialism affects it. All elements which, in Chris' material, are fodder for comedy. Chris' comedy is about truth, with a twist, which makes you see the world from a different angle."

To help Rock realize his vision, he enlisted a proven lineup of talent behind the screen as well as in front. Co-writing the script with him are Lance Crouther, Ali LeRoi and Louis C.K., all Emmy Award-winning writers from his acclaimed HBO comedy series, "The Chris Rock Show. "

Recruited to bring those pages to the screen was a unique and lucky directing choice. Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz, chose the film from a bevy of offers following their comedy smash, American Pie (1999). " More of a classic romantic comedy than their previous hit (and without baked goods), the Weitz brothers were anxious to put a contemporary spin on the 1978 film.

"You probably wouldn't guess, but we really love old films from the '30s and '40s," says Chris Weitz. "That's one of the things that attracted us to this project. There's something resonant about this classic story for every generation. Now, a new audience is ready to hear it in a fresh, contemporary way. "

Combining the unique style of the directing Weitzes with the award-winning and equally irreverent comedy of Chris Rock was a very inviting opportunity for all parties to explore together.

"Chris is extremely witty and smart," says Paul Weitz. "We thought it would be exciting to challenge each other; to find out what he would bring out in us and vice versa. Comedy is an interesting process. You start off doing what's in the script, but invention plays a large part in the process. It's important to provide an environment that allows your actors to be comfortable enough to try different things. "

"Chris and Paul are perfect to direct 'Down to Earth,'" adds producer Sean Daniel. "They bring a fresh energy and quirky edginess that we all like immensely."

Playing a romantic lead was a new challenge for Rock, but one he couldn't resist given its many possibilities. "Most people probably would expect me to play a fast talking cop, but to tell you the truth, I like my characters not to have guns. Two subjects that interest me are comedy and women. So a comedy with a romantic element seemed a perfect mix. "

Co-starring with Rock is a diverse and talented group of actors familiar with comedy, and able to contribute to the film's romanticism.

Actress Regina King, who wowed audiences as Cuba Gooding Jr. 's wife in Jerry Maguire (1996), was signed to play Sontee, Lance's determined, skeptical love interest. Playing externally tough characters, but with a soft core, is what King does so well. Sontee firmly opposes Wellington's business practices, but gradually warms to his surprising new sincerity.

"It's rare you find a script able to break through all the boundaries people put on relationships as far as age, class and color are concerned," King explains. "But all that is out the door here. In this film, love really does conquer all. "

Rock appreciates the qualities of his female lead. "Regina makes this story believable. It's such a joy to see her work every day because she's so grounded, and emotionally sound and honest. She really is her character."

To play an angel on screen, audiences are conditioned to expect someone older, kinder, gentler. Well, forget that here.

Chazz Palminteri, as Mr. King, is the head angel for the new millennium, running Heaven like the privileged club it is, with long lines behind the velvet ropes. Dressed in sharp powder blues and sounding like a Brooklyn wise guy, Palminteri is the firm, yet compassionate man in charge as God's chief lieutenant women.

"I've definitely sent people to Heaven in many of my movies, but this is the first time I've greeted them when they arrived," says Palminteri. "This is my first time playing an angel, and I'm really excited about it. "

"Chazz is kind of like God's consigliere," says Chris Weitz with a laugh. "The obvious way to cast this role might have been some plumy English guy. But we really liked the idea of a slightly thuggish, dangerous guy running Heaven and Chazz was perfect. He's sort of an Old Testament kind of guy. "

Playing Mr. Keyes, the flawed assistant to the head angel, comic actor Eugene Levy reunites with the Weitz brothers, with whom they teamed so famously on "American Pie. "

By prematurely plucking Lance Barton from Earth, Levy's character shows that employee evaluations are needed everywhere, even Heaven. "Keyes is responsible for who gets into the big room in the sky and who doesn't. However, mistakes do happen," admits Levy. "For instance, that little screw up with Lance Barton. .. but don't worry, I'm on that. "

Down to Earth (2001)   Movie PosterCo-director Paul Weitz was quite pleased to again collaborate with the comic veteran. "We know what to lob Eugene, comedy-wise, because we've got this great history with him," he says. "Besides working with him on American Pie (1999),' we've been watching him on television since we were kids. Sometimes I think we actually have a better knowledge of his 'SCTV' characters than he does. "

Frankie Faison (Thomas Crown Affair, The (1999)), veteran actor of stage, screen and television, plays Whitney Daniels, Lance Barton's friend and manager, and one of the few with any faith in his protrgr's comedy potential. Their relationship is put to a test when in the body of Charles Wellington, Lance tries to convince Whitney he is really Lance.

"I'm always telling Lance in order to be funny, he's got to be himself," says Faison. "We're very close. Things get a little weird when this old guy starts doing Lance's material. But once Lance lets me in on things, I try to help him fulfill his dream of playing the Apollo. "

Greg Germann, co-star of the hit FOX TV series, "Ally McBeal," plays Winston Sklar, Charles Wellington's devious executive assistant. He not only is having an affair with Wellington's wife, but also conspires with her to have him killed, "which might not be a bad thing because Wellington's not the kindest of fellows," says Germann. "But once Lance takes over his body, he becomes the sweetest angel on Earth. And that throws me for a loop because this is not the guy I'm used to. "

Wanda Sykes ("The Chris Rock Show"), as Wellington's resentful maid, Wanda, brings her patented brand of sass to the film. Capable of stealing any scene, Sykes' character works begrudgingly for the frugal Wellington, ever cynical to his changing ways.

Character actress Jennifer Coolidge rounds out the cast as the cheating, plotting Mrs. Wellington. Coolidge also reunites with the Weitz brothers after playing Mrs. Stifler, the Mrs. Robinson-type character in American Pie (1999).

About The Production

Principal photography on the romantic comedy began, aptly enough, on Valentine's Day, 2000. From the minute the cameras rolled, the comedy was constantly evolving- material added or weeded out, and scenes fined-tuned at every opportunity.

"We were extremely fortunate to have a cast that was very funny and willing to go beyond the boundaries and give their all," says Chris Weitz. "Basically, some people are just instant offense, like Eugene Levy or Wanda Sykes, who is a hilarious stand-up comedian. We know we can just put them out there on the screen and they will be funny, and that's a great insurance to have. "

The cast and crew alike embraced the creative and collaborative atmosphere on the set. "You've got to have fun every day, and we definitely did. " says Rock. Adding to the sports metaphors, he said, "We were swinging hard with jokes all the time. Maybe this movie should be called a comedy romantic instead of a romantic comedy. "

Filming was divided equally between New York and Toronto, with New York providing the exterior locations essential for the look and feel for the movie. "This is a New York story and it made sense to film as much of it there as possible," emphasizes Chris Weitz who, along with his brother Paul and Chris Rock, is a native New Yorker. "You can build the interior of a New York apartment on a soundstage and it will translate just fine on screen, but when you're looking to replicate the look and feel of the city's streets, only the real thing will do. There's a particular kind of energy to filming on the streets of New York. "

One of the major highlights of filming in New York was shooting key scenes at Harlem's fabled Apollo Theater. "The Apollo has just a wonderful atmosphere in which to shoot," states Paul Weitz. "There's so much history there- Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Richard Pryor and Aretha Franklin all played there - the place is a hallowed shrine and we were honored to be able to film there. "

For Rock, who has played the Apollo a number of times before, this particular occasion was a unique experience in that he was, for the first time, booed off the stage. "You know how a lot of baseball players just can't hit in Yankee Stadium? Well, Lance really sucks every time he plays the Apollo. He just freezes fight up," explains Rock. "Which is not a good thing because the crowd at the Apollo is the toughest anywhere. When they like you, they're with you all the way, but when they don't, they can be vicious. It's like a gust of wind hits you from all those boos and knocks you off the stage. I had to keep telling myself it was just part of the movie. "

A soundstage in Toronto provided the space for several sets including Wellington's state-of-the-art penthouse apartment, as well as the Gates of Heaven. Production designer Paul Peters and his team worked over six weeks to create the ultra-modem 7,000 square foot, multi-tiered set which illustrated the sophisticated and discriminating tastes of wealthy industrialist, Charles Wellington. "The concept behind the apartment was to keep it very modem and at the cutting edge of technology," explains Peters. "Wellington is supposedly the 15th richest man in America, which is in the billionaire ranks, so nothing was too extravagant. "

One of the key sets in the film was the set for Heaven. "When we were conceiving Heaven our first approach was to identify the cliches and steer clear of them. So the first thing we got rid of was dry ice. There aren't billowing clouds and shafts of light everywhere," explains Chris Weitz.

After many hours of brainstorming with Chris Rock and production designer Paul Peters, the filmmakers decided a good analogy for Heaven would be a nightclub everyone wants to get in to. A very exclusive 1950's style nightclub, complete with velvet ropes, bouncers at the door and unlimited blue champagne. Jokes Chris Rock, "Heaven is a hard club to get in to. .. unless, of course, you're a cute girl. Cute girls get in, just like at any club. "

Two different locations were utilized for Heaven: Mr. King's office and the bar were staged in the stately Pantages Theatre, while the interior of the club itself was located in Toronto's Arcadian Court- an elegant, old-worldly dining room located on the eighth floor of a downtown office tower.