Director Trades Rap for Animal Talk, Special Effects

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Carr, director of the new Eddie Murphy comedy, "Dr. Dolittle 2," has designed album covers and artwork for several Def Jam hip-hop recording artists and directed music videos for performers such as Public Enemy, Slick Rick and Jay-Z. The MTV Video Award winner made the jump to feature films with the 1999 hip-hop comedy "Next Friday," starring rapper Ice Cube.

Considering his background, it's a bit of a surprise to meet Carr in person--a fact Carr readily acknowledges.

"You thought I was black," he says with a smile. "Not only isn't he black, but he seems to be quite Jewish and fairly short," Carr adds in a third-person voice. "I have had that my whole life. It's so cool. It's always such a charge when people meet me."

So how did a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn find himself so closely aligned with the world of hip-hop? "It was actually circumstance that led me there," says Carr, 35, over brunch in Beverly Hills on Father's Day.

Carr teamed up with his partner, graffiti artist Cey Adams, more than a decade ago to create the cutting-edge design firm the Drawing Board, which worked on some of the top hip-hop CDs. From album covers, Carr and his firm then ventured into filming music videos.

"The thing about hip-hop is that it affords me this avenue to express myself," says Carr. "My affection [for hip-hop] grew into a passion. I am really the luckiest guy in the world. I have to be honest, we were literally the most influential visual source for kids. If you were in high school and you loved Public Enemy, you knew about Public Enemy because the way I packaged it and my relationship with [lead singer] Chuck D. I feel very grateful and a little bit puffed up having been involved with hip-hop when people thought it was a fad."

"Next Friday," which was the sequel to the 1995 urban hit "Friday," was produced for about $8 million and went on to make nearly $60 million domestically. "This budget of this movie was literally eight times bigger," says Carr of "Dr. Dolittle 2."

"I had never done a visual effect. Literally, three months later [while making the movie] I said, 'What is a green screen?' I had no idea."

Producer John Davis, who also produced the 1998 blockbuster "Dr. Dolittle," which grossed more than $290 million worldwide, saw "Next Friday" and thought he and Carr had a similar sense of humor.

"He laughed at my jokes so I hired him," Davis says, "He was young, fresh and funny. He came out of the world of music video. Music video directors have an interesting shooting style and visual style. We needed to bring something fresh to this movie. A sequel has to be different and hopefully, it has to be better."

'Work With People I Dig'

In this installment of the comedy very loosely based on Hugh Lofting's stories about a doctor who talks to animals, several animals approach Dr. D to help them save their forest from evil human developers.

Carr says that 20th Century Fox wanted him to go with big names as the voices of the animals, but, he says, "I saw this as my opportunity to work with people I dig."

Steve Zahn, who voices the role of Archie, a decidedly show biz-type bear, is someone Carr has loved in such movies as "Out of Sight." Carr got his good friend Michael Rapaport to be the voice of the raccoon. Isaac Hayes is the voice of the possum, and Mike Epps, who worked with Carr on "Next Friday," is the streetwise Kodiak bear dating Ava, who is voiced by Lisa Kudrow. "She is so cool and she got my niece tickets to 'Friends,' " says Carr. Norm McDonald returns from the original as the voice of Dr. Dolittle's dog, Lucky.

Carr, who brims with self-confidence, was scared about the prospect of working with Murphy, whom he admired since the comic's "Saturday Night Live" days.

Initially, Carr prepared and blocked out scenes for the first 15 days of shooting. The first scene with Murphy called for the actor to walk into his house and greet his wife (Kristen Wilson). Carr explained all the shots he had planned for the simple scene to Murphy, who was not impressed.

"He said, 'My character would never do that.' I said, 'Your character would never walk in the door?' " So Carr quickly scrambled and thought of another way to shoot the scene. This time, Murphy approved of the camera moves.

"I looked down and I had sweat coming down my pits and I looked at my [director of photography] and he was even worse than me."

Murphy, Carr says, never challenged him again. "I think what he wanted to know is that he wasn't going to be forced to direct himself," Carr explains. "He wanted to know that I knew what I was doing. From that point after, I knew 12 ways to shoot everything."

Carr encouraged improvisation on the set. "On my other movie that is what we did mostly," he says. "It was very loose. I work with a lot of comedians and people who were incredibly inventive. When I started working with Eddie, he would say the dialogue as written."

After three or four takes, though, Carr would tell Murphy: "Let's do another" and then he would give me something different. When we were doing the voices of the animals, I would nail the dialogue as written and with Steve Zahn and Michael Rapaport, we would just riff and come up with stuff."

Though Murphy and Archie the bear (whose real name is Tank) share numerous scenes on film, the actor and the bear never acted together.

"It was too dangerous and time consuming," says Carr. Instead Murphy and Tank's scenes were done with a motion controlled camera. "You design a shot and then the computer programs the move into the camera," says Carr.

Murphy would shoot his part first because, Carr says, "you don't want Eddie to get eaten by the bear and also Eddie gets paid a lot of money not to sit around and wait for a bear to do something."

Tank was brought in after Murphy completed his scene and the computer did the same exact move. Then the two sequences were composited into one seamless scene.

Although there is PG-rated toilet humor in "Dr. Dolittle 2," there is a particularly sweet scene in which Murphy and Tank talk about falling in love while eating toasted marshmallows around a campfire.

"The campfire scene is the thing I'm most proud of," Carr says. "What I am most gratified about is that Eddie isn't with the bear and the bear doesn't really talk, but I hope most people will get lost in the moment."

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