Madea Lives: An Interview With Evan Saathoff

So, I originally did this interview for a movie website that never really got off the ground. Since I can’t publish it there, I might as well put it here. Evan Saathoff is an amazingly funny and insightful film critic, and I’ve been enjoying his work for about 2 years now. He’s mostly known for his “Sam Strange” character, where he reviews movies from the point of view of an insane producer. Recently, he wrote a book called Madea Lives: A Film-By-Film Guide To Loving Tyler Perry, and it’s awesome. In fact, it’s so awesome that you should buy it.

D: First off, tell the readers a little bit about yourself, and then a little bit about Tyler Perry.

ES: I’m known primarily for writing funny articles about movies on Badass Digest, where I work as the News Editor. Tyler Perry is one of the most financially successful independent filmmakers to come out in some time. He’s also one of the strangest and most interesting cinematic figures I’ve ever encountered.

D: How aware do you think general audiences are of Tyler Perry’s films? He’s a fairly recognizable name, but most of the people I’ve talked to have barely seen any of his films.

ES: There’s a lot of truth to this, and it was one of the core issues driving me to write the book. When it comes to the film community, I assume most people know Perry’s name but probably don’t know his work all that well. When it comes to general audiences, it’s entirely possible to talk to ten people in a row who have never even heard his name. They might be familiar with Madea, but even that’s not a certainty. It’s remarkable how he can be either ubiquitous or unknown depending on who you’re talking to.

D: Are you able to pick favorites when it comes to Perry’s films? You’ve said that Diary of a Mad Black Woman is the best place to begin when it comes to picking the ones to watch. What makes it such a good starting place?

ES: Diary of a Mad Black Woman goes off the rails in a very spectacular fashion, so people can see right off the bat what I’m talking about when I refer to the narrative weirdness found in most Tyler Perry films. It also serves as a great introduction to Madea. Essentially, the film provides a true launching point for his entire career.

Beyond that, I highly recommend the Why Did I Get Married films as far as craziness goes. Not every movie is totally nuts, by the way. I mean, none of them really function according to mainstream standards, but The Family that Preys, Daddy’s Little Girls, and Madea’s Big Happy Family are all especially well-made Tyler Perry entries.

D: Was it daunting to be writing an entire book about a man most people see as simply a laughable pop culture figure? There are very few books with an approach like this (Seagalogy is one of the only ones that comes to mind,) while people have written dozens of books about Kubrick, Bergman, etc.

ES: No, I’d rather look at something that hasn’t yet been examined than something that’s been looked at a thousand times already. The fact that so many either don’t know Perry or totally misunderstand him definitely fed my interest and kept me going.

D: Was it hard to approach the book from a place that wasn’t pure snark? The book is very funny, but never pokes fun without providing some sort of insight. I’ve noticed that most critics either approach him with pure mockery, or with a piece that explains why the film (and this is mostly in the case of Temptation) was morally wrong.

ES: My first draft did have a lot more jokes, but I made an early decision to cut them out. While I’m certainly critical of Tyler Perry throughout the book, I wanted it to read as an attempt to understand his work, not pick on it. And when I read articles like that, I tend to get a little irritated.

D: What do you think of Perry’s attempts at crossing over into other genres? For example, his titular role in Alex Cross.

ES: I’m very interested in Tyler Perry’s attempts to gain new audiences. To that end, I’m excited to see how people take him in David Fincher’s upcoming Gone Girl. I wish Alex Cross had been a better movie. Even without Tyler Perry in the starring role, I don’t think the film had much of a chance because it’s really silly and difficult to enjoy.

D: You talked about judging Perry’s films in a way that was separate from the way you judged other films. You had to judge them based on their own merits, rather than the merits established by popular cinema. Are there any other directors that you can apply this to?

ES: Sure. Brian De Palma seems like a good example. His films, the really definitive ones anyway, don’t function like normal narratives. You have to put yourself in a De Palma frame of mind to really enjoy all the willed artificiality in something like Dressed to Kill, for instance.

With Tyler Perry, the main thing to remember is that he’s essentially making soap operas. To weigh their success, you have to understand them on that level first. A lot of the melodrama and broad characterizations that turns people off is totally intentional.

D: And finally, what is your next project? I know that you work as News Editor for Badass Digest, as a contributor for other sites, and you have the hilarious Sam Strange column, but are there any other topics that you’d like to approach in long-form?

ES: I don’t know if I’ll ever do it, but I’ve always wanted to write a book that goes through all of Shakespeare’s plays one by one. I think I can offer some different and worthwhile interpretations of his plays. But I also think it would be awesome to jump all the way from Tyler Perry to the greatest writer who ever lived.

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