When Malcolm Lee got the call over the weekend that Bernie Mac had died, the director says he was overcome by grief. When he got a call the next day that Isaac Hayes also died, he began to question reality.
"It was surreal," Lee says. "It had to be some sort of bad dream that these two giants would die on the same weekend, and both would be in my movie."
Lee's film, "Soul Men", featuring Mac, Hayes and Samuel Jackson, tells the story of two estranged soul singers (Mac and Jackson) who reunite to honor their deceased band leader.
Mac, 50, died Saturday from complications relating to pneumonia; Hayes, 65, died Sunday after collapsing at his home near Memphis. The cause of Hayes' death has not been released.
The movie, out Nov. 14, now shoulders the weight of being one of the last works by two icons. (Mac also stars in the Robin Williams comedy "Old Dogs", out next year.)
Though Lee and distributor The Weinstein Co. have announced no changes to the movie or its release date, the director says he feels the pressure of creating a fitting farewell to the performers.
"This isn't like "Dark Knight", where Heath Ledger died while editing was in its infancy," Lee says. "Most of our editing is done. We'll go back and see if there is anything we can do better. But (Mac) left us with an indelible performance. I think I got him at the top of his game."
Mac's game included keeping cast and crew laughing. Lee says the actor, who had sarcoidosis, a chronic disorder that can cause inflammation in the lungs, never let the disease cut his days short.
If anything, Lee says, Mac worked harder than most stars and practiced stand-up for crew and cast members on long days.
"He was always ready to perform," Lee says. "We'd have some days that ran 12 hours, and in between takes Bernie would be cracking them up, giving them an impromptu routine."
Lee says he regularly told Mac that he didn't have to entertain the crew and bystanders, but the comedian wouldn't hear it.
"He said, 'These people made me what I am,' " Lee says. "He said that if it weren't for the fans of his stand-up comedy, he wouldn't have the career he had."
Mac plays a wisecracking counterpart to Jackson's dour character, while Hayes plays himself in "Soul Men". Lee says both roles "are emblematic, I think, of the men they were."
Lee, who first met Mac on the set of "The Original Kings of Comedy" (directed by Lee's cousin Spike), says Mac's character in "Soul Men" "is eternally positive, and that's the way he was in real life. (The movie) gave him an opportunity to be extremely raw and showcase his singing and dancing talent."
Lee says he didn't have Mac rehearse too often in the role.
"He liked to be spontaneous, so I just took the reins off," Lee says. "Comedians like to be fresh when they perform, and they know what's funny better than anyone."
Lee says he was initially taken aback by Mac's often coarse brand of humor.
"I remember a routine once when he said that once children were old enough to speak, they were old enough to be hit in the throat," Lee recalls.
"I remember thinking how cruel that was. Then I had kids."
Hayes, meanwhile, "had to be in the movie," Lee says.
"His impact on music is immeasurable," Lee says. "I've listened to his music my whole life; he changed what soul music could be. He's the man.
"They both were. I want my movie to be a tribute to both of them."