Forty Minutes with Craig Brewer
By Adam Spector, DC Film Society Member
At last yearís Oscars the rap group "Three 6 Mafia" provided one of the highlights with their Best Original Song win for Itís Hard Out There for a Pimp. That moment wouldnít have been possible without writer/director Craig Brewer, who featured the song in his film Hustle & Flow. The Audience Award winner at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, Hustle & Flow also garnered star Terrence Howard an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Now Brewer is back with his next film, Black Snake Moan, which, like Hustle & Flow, is produced by John Singleton and his partner Stephanie Allain.
As immersed as Hustle & Flow was in rap, Black Snake Moan is even more so with vintage blues music. In fact, the title comes from a 1927 blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson. Samuel L. Jackson plays Lazarus, a down on his luck former blues musician in Tennessee whose wife has just left him. Christina Ricci co-stars as Rae, a troubled young woman who has become the town tramp. After her boyfriend leaves town Rae spirals out of control into endless sex and drugs. She ends up beaten and cast off onto the side of the road. Lazarus finds her and takes her home. He quickly learns that Raeís wounds go far beyond the physical. Lazarus forgoes traditional therapy and chains Rae to his radiator while he attempts to turn her life around. Meanwhile, he rediscovers his passion for the blues and starts his own romantic relationship with Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson), the town pharmacist.
Brewer recently sat down for a roundtable discussion about his new film, his past struggles, and the music he loves:
Question: Youíre obviously not afraid of controversial imagery in your last two movies. Youíve got a pimp. Youíve got an old black guy that chains up a white girl in the South. How do you think people will react to the imagery?
Craig Brewer: I can only speak as to what audiences are doing. I think that they see the poster and think, ďMan, do I want to see this movie?Ē and they go, ďHow can we not? We gotta find out what the hell is going on here.Ē Then they get into it. I find that, especially with a big olí crowd they get to the point where sheís in that chain and itís both shocking and exhilarating. Iíve been in audiences where Iíve seen old women cheer. Itís a very interesting mix to be in an audience because I think that theyíre looking at this not so much as controversial Southern iconography and the imagery, but theyíre looking at two cultures. Not black and white necessarily, but old and young. What I wanted to do in this movie was have that aged wisdom that came from a place not of judgement or a place of righteousness but really came from a place of understanding. He (Lazarus) says, ďLook, Iíve done some crazy things.Ē Lazarusís character has done a lot of crazy things in his day and has suffered through a lot of demons. He put that junk behind him for a while and heís trying to be a little righteous with this girl, saying, ďYouíve got to stop this.Ē But the more heís with her heís almost saying, ďWait a minute, you know I donít know if I can completely run from myself. Iím a night man. My job is to maybe sing these songs where I swear and get people screaming and get Ďem dancing and maybe even get Ďem sinning.Ē But thatís who heís got to be. So I can only speak to what audiences say. You always get in trouble, I think, when you know critics have to put their name to something and they have to put their opinion on what they think of it. It getís a little shaky there. But audiences are feeling it a great deal. And I donít think Iím necessarily pandering to them. I think Iím taking them on a journey where they donít quite know whatís going to happen next.
Adam Spector: Do you think audiences will be at all uncomfortable?
CB: I wanted to take the audience on a ride where they would be culpable. I wanted them to lust after Christina. I wanted them to feel uncomfortable about this white girl being in this black manís house. On a number of levels I wanted them to be uncomfortable. I wanted them to be uncomfortable for Samís safety, Samís characterís safety. I wanted them to be uncomfortable, because, man, sheís kind of coming on to him and thatís inappropriate. Not from a race standpoint even, but from an age standpoint. I mean, heís so old. Heís so big. Sheís so teeny, and so young, and so taboo. Weíre talking about taboo, weíre talking about the blues. You know, weíre talking about the South and weíre talking about those collisions that have brought about some of the worst elements in humans. But also itís brought about our best stuff, itís brought about our best music.
Q: Your films have got a very multi-ethnic cast. Youíve got DJ Qualls in Hustle & Flow and Christina Ricci in Black Snake, but for the most part your main characters are African-American. Thereís some people that would ask...
CB: Why am I telling these stories?
Q: Yeah. As a white boy from Tennessee, do you think you can tell stories about the African-American experience?
CB: Weíre living in very cautious times right now, where people look to movies as having to adhere to some sort of moral standard to some extent. I donít necessarily live in that world. I wasnít ignoring race but I didnít think it was something that I should have stayed away because it was there, because I have such a love for the music. Do you wait to tell the story thatís in your heart, that you desperately want to tell the world, for an African-American to tell that story? Or do you make sure you go into it knowing that thereís going to be that kind of scrutiny? You better nail it. You better be respectful to a culture. I have African-Americans as leads in two movies that Iíve made about rap and blues. You know what I mean? I donít know how I could have done it any other way but with African-Americans. But at the same time Iím not trying to put a patent on anybody. Iím not saying all black men are pimps no more than Iím saying that all white girls are nymphomaniacs...
I understand that I am in a little bit of a sticky place. I think the thing that I just want to tell people is, ďGive me the benefit of the doubt. Iím coming with true love and true understanding.Ē I know blues, and Iíll be even more honest. I wish more African-Americans would embrace blues. It has been, to some extent, abandoned by African-Americans. Thereís not many young blacks who know much about the blues. These were true pioneers, these were Delta bluesmen in Mississippi, in segregated Mississippi, in a place where there was a true, palpable threat of death, both from levees breaking and flooding homes. Iím not talking Katrina. Iím talking about old songs. To the fires of hell, to a womanís lust, to being lynched. They (the bluesmen) chose, in a time where people had to be very, very quiet, to sing and shout out these things in their head, these fears. I think that the music, in its repetition, in its beat, in its fierceness at times, is the thing that made those bluesmen take control over that fear instead of having that fear control them. I think thatís the lesson that Lazarus is trying to convey to this girl. I do not go into these things flippantly. I really am careful, even when Iím being reckless.
AS: Give the subject matter, when you were making the film and working with the actors, how did you keep it from being an exploitative film? How did you try to inject reality into an outrageous situation?
CB: Well, I think that, like with all melodrama, what you do is you have an outrageous situation. You get people to try to play it somewhat straight. But the great thing about having Sam Jackson and Christina Ricci is that they have their own personas. They really are movie stars. What I mean by movie stars is that I put them in that Jack Nicholson department. I put them in the Bette Davis, the Katherine Hepburn department. They are presences unto themselves. Sam Jackson has a theatricality to himself. Christina has that too, and to see two people who have that, thatís already part of their essence. Itís their truth, theyíre not putting on a show. Thatís really how they are, how they react. But theyíre still playing it straight. Both Sam and Christina really cared about these characters. Christina had a connection with this girl. She desperately wanted to play her. Sam wouldnít leave us alone. He had to play this guy. Heís a Tennessee boy. He knew this character. I found it rather refreshing to see Sam in a role like this. He could be a little bit of his badassness, but heís much more subtle in this movie, I think, than people are used to. And also, I canít remember any time where Iíve seen Sam romantic. And to see him with S. Epatha Merkerson... So you get the right people with you and you put a lot of trust in them and God and hope that itís all in focus.
AS: In both Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan music is featured as not only essential to the story but as a vehicle for redemption and fulfillment. Does that reflect the way you feel about music?
CB: Thatís definitely the way I feel about rap and blues. For me at least, the creative spark really starts with the music first. The music is not the frosting. The music is the cake. Thatís why Black Snake Moan is in this Southern fable type of way. Blues is filled with mythology. Itís filled with parable, and so it informed the way I wanted to do this movie. I knew that I was going through a lot of pain in my life. I was trying to get Hustle & Flow made for three years, and I was just going to do it on video, just like I did my first movie. Just do it at home. Itís so funny. I was going to make the movie with Three 6 Mafia.
AS: They would have acted in it?
CB: Yeah, Al Capone, who did two of the songs, was going to play DJ (the protagonist). We would just do it on video. And then Stephanie Allain got involved and John Singleton got involved, and then with all these studios, it was just like, ďHey, we could do a movie like that, but we probably donít want to do it with you. This is going to be a directorís story and we canít have a white guy doing the black experience, so to speak.Ē I wasnít trying to do the black experience. I was trying to do this guyís experience. They also didnít want to do it with Terrence Howard. They also didnít want to do it with Three 6 Mafia. So I started having these wild anxiety attacks. Iíd never had anything like that in my life, and my dad died of a heart attack at 49. I think that was on my mind a lot. Actually, that plot point is in Hustle & Flow. Thatís what Hustle & Flow is about. I felt like this movie (Black Snake Moan), even though I wanted to do these music genre movies, had to be a movie that was living in this almost outrageous scenario. It had to be something of a world that I wanted people to experience, to have a great time with, to be afraid and aroused and offended and the same time they canít really completely take it seriously. Let me assure you, as someone who lives in the south, we do not have white women chained up and chained to radiators. Itís not happening, and I donít think anybody whoís going to come see the movie (will believe) that this is what happens every day. Just like I donít think any 13 year old who saw Hustle & Flow said, ďI gotta be a pimp.Ē
AS: From what youíve said it almost sounds like Black Snake Moan was therapeutic for you.
CB: Absolutely, I needed it. Iím not Sam Jackson in this movie. Iím that hot girl on the end of the chain. Hollywood and entertainment can make it real easy for you to get lost. Because itís the art of the hypothetical. Your movie may work if Brad Pitt is in it. Iíll tell you one thing. I remember people saying to me, ďWeíll make Hustle & Flow, but you gotta make it funnier, because we canít like this guy. We canít make him human. If we make him funny, we can laugh at him, then we can handle it better.Ē And Iíve had studios tell me that. So you tend to get lost a little bit because you so desperately want to make movies, you want to be working. Listen, itís not like, ďOh, I need to make a movie for my career,Ē I need to make a movie so I can eat. You know, I had a baby. I didnít have health insurance. I mean I had to go down to Jackson Avenue with everybody else and apply for state health insurance so I could have my kid. So I was ready to sell my soul numerous times with it. But, for whatever reason, you know, I didnít. But it took a toll on me. I started getting wild ... just losing myself a little bit. And when youíre that untethered, you know, you tend to get a little reckless with yourself. Then you reach that point, you know, kind of like where Christina is in that garden and sheís lost. Sheís screaming and crying. She doesnít even know where she is anymore. I just wanted, like, a dad, you know, my granddad to say, ďSon, weíve been here. You need to just do some yard work. You need to maybe eat some good food or make some food. Youíve got to remember that life continues on and that you are entitled to happiness and that you are entitled to love.Ē I know a lot of people who did not have unconditional love in their life and itís a true crime. I really believe in the healing power of people. I really do believe you can make a choice to love someone and to ignore the bad parts of them, you know, and not focus on that. You do more good to them and to yourself by concentrating on the good.
Q: So your mindset when Allain and Singleton came along was, ďOK, I might actually get this project (Hustle & Flow) off the ground. So during that time you started thinking about this film?
CB: Yeah, because it just wasnít getting off the ground. And whatís even worse, man, is that everybody in Memphis knew that John Singleton was doing business with me. And everyone was like: ďMan, Craig, youíre paid. Youíre going up the ladder,Ē and we couldnít pay our rent. Weíre selling furniture. I sold all my videos that I had collected since I was 14 years old. Citizen Kane, that my dad bought when it first came out on video, he got it for me. And I had this big yard sale, 400 videos. I go over to my friendís house and I see my movies. It was an exhilarating time but it was a real terrible time. So I wrote this movie right after I wrote Hustle & Flow but it was before I shot Hustle & Flow. So, when Hustle & Flow came out and they said, ďWhat do you want to do next?Ē I said, ďWell, all of you people who passed on Hustle & Flow, boy, have I got a movie for you!Ē
Q: Thatís the one you wanted to do.
CB: It really was because I want people to know, and they may not feel it, I donít know, that Iím really trying to do something. Iím really trying to tell this set of movies. And then, after that I think I may do something different, go back to theater. I might take Hustle & Flow to Broadway and make a musical or something. But, until then, Iíve got this idea, this country movie that I want to do in Tennessee, this next one Iím doing, Maggie Lynn. The scriptís all ready. Weíre gonna be casting soon. And then I want to do my soul movie because I really love Stacks. I love the story of Stacks. But I love the story of the sanitation workers in Memphis, and the moment between Otis Redding dying in December of Ď67 and Dr. King being assassinated in April of Ď68. It was a very interesting time in Memphis, Tennessee. Itís called 4/4, which is four beats to a measure, which is also April 4 (the date of the Dr. Kingís assassination). Itís also called the ďcommon time,Ē which I always liked, 4/4, The Common Time. So thatís the soul one.
Q: What for you, if any, has been the price of success? You have mentioned hustling to get Hustle & Flow made. So now that youíve achieved that level of success, it would be nice to get those Hollywood projects. Are you looking at making those compromises?
CB: No. Iíd really like to try not to. The thing is I know itís really the thing to do, to be the rebel and say, ďMan, Iím not going to sell out,Ē but Iím already kind of a bat, you know. Neither a bird nor a beast. Because in Hollywood Iím that crazy Southern guy who makes movies like this. But back home Iím the Hollywood sellout. (Laughs) So I canít win for losing. And also I didnít begin my career with absolutely everybody applauding. Hustle & Flow was panned by critics and praised by critics. Itís hard to know what success is anymore. I made that movie for $2.5 million. It grossed a total of $23.5 million and people weíre like, ďYou know, thatís not like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and itís definitely not even Napoleon Dynamite.Ē What is success? Is it critical reviews? I donít know. Crash, everybody hated that movie. Critics hated that movie. Audiences seemed to like it. The Academy seemed to like it. Who are we supposed to believe on this? The true price, I guess, of success is ... I mean I donít think thereís any downside to success. You know, Iíve worked with my name on my shirt. Iím happy, I really am. The problem is: Can you move on to your next movie? Can you go from being a person who is like, ďIíve gotta make a movie or Iíll die,Ē or, ďIf I could just make one movie, then Iím good.Ē But then you have the option suddenly, you can make more. Then youíre left with: What kind of filmmaker do I want to be?
Q: Who are your influences? Clearly your parents...
CB: Yeah, my dad was a big influence on me because, he had a lot of big influences too. I guess if I were to have a couple of heroes, itíd be Sam Phillips. He made a label called Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee and he was the one who recorded B.B. King, Howliní Wolf, and Rufus Thomas. He also recorded Elvis Presley. I always liked what he said and that was that really youíve just got to get passionate people in the room and make sure they get there on time and make sure you get the microphone placed right and then wait for that magical moment and hit record. Iím trying to do that with actors. Iím trying to get the right kind of actors together where I can just get this thing going and hopefully I can record it correctly. But when weíre talking about influences, Iím one of those guys that grew up on Spielberg movies, like everybody else. I was inspired by Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I didnít go to college or anything like that. I didnít go to film school. I got really into theater. I really got into Tennessee Williams, and Beth Henley and William Inge, David Mamet, Lanford Wilson, August Wilson. They were the greatest playwrights ever. August Wilson, you know I look at a play like ďThe Piano LessonĒ and what that piano meant. The piano itself was a metaphor as well ... the position that it put that family in. Man, they can sell it, they can so easily sell that piano.
Q: The soul of your whole family.
CB: Yeah. I wish people could look at the radiator and the chain in the same way. To me itís about faith. To me that radiator is faith, and it keeps you warm, it cools your fevers. You put your head to it. I think I was inspired through those playwrights, through Tennessee Williams knowing that a glass unicorn represented Laura Wingfield (in ďThe Glass MenagerieĒ) and her club foot because none of the other horses looked like this unicorn. Then she finally gets kissed by the gentleman caller and he breaks the glass unicorn and the horn falls off. I had a playwriting teacher who told me that youíve got to put the skull in Hamletís hands. What that means is that if you had to burn your play or your book or your movie, what is that one image, if you were just left with that, that could hopefully describe the struggle of the movie or of the piece? To me, yanking on that radiator and her just screaming to get free of that. As much as some people would say, ďThis poor girl is being held against her will.Ē Iíve seen something else. Iíve seen someone that is so angry at the world and so out of control that suddenly something goes, ďCome here. Sit down. Iím not going to let you go.Ē and doesnít let go. And from that comes tears and ultimately rest and perhaps peace just to even listen a little bit.
AS: You bookend Black Snake Moan with film of Son House, the 1930s blues legend. Where did you find those clips?
CB: Thereís a bunch of clips like that, that you can find online. But really, where my passion comes from, is that thereís all these guys in Memphis, white and black, young guys, college guys and older. And we love those blues artists, those soul artists. And we collect video. We find everything. Iíve got Ike and Tina (Turner) doing this washing machine commercial. It was live, I think, in Germany. Theyíre selling washing machines, but their singing is awesome. And then Howliní Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson. Thereís some incredible old black-and-white footage of them thatís out there and we know itís almost like looking for the Ark of the Covenant. Weíre looking for the tablets of Moses because we feel like this is it. You canít do another interview with these guys. You canít call up Charlie Patton. Heís gone. Like Robert Johnson only left us two pictures of him. I mean, two pictures in this day and age? You think about ďGod, if you can get some footage of these people.Ē I was delighted to put that footage in the movie in two places. One: I think it kind of saved my ass, because I was thinking that Iíve got a lot of people who saw Hustle & Flow. Theyíre coming to see my movie. I wanted an old man to go, ďHey people, this isnít a hip-hop movie. This is a blues movie. This consists of that which is between a male and female when they are in love, and when one or the other deceives the other one.Ē And I needed someone to get us started and to think right like ďHey, this is not what youíre expecting. Itís going to be a tale and itís going to take us into some dark places. Here we go. Are we ready?Ē Then, even at the end of it, he comes back and says, ďMan, sometimes that kind of blues can even make you wanna kill somebody.Ē And youíre just like, ďOh no, whatís going to happen next from that?Ē So thereís that part where it helped me...
I remember watching Risky Business and when you see Tom Cruise put on those black Ray-Bans and that gray blazer and heís walking through his suburb and heís rounding guys to come over to his house to... Heís being a pimp, and this music starts up. I remember saying, ďDad, whatís that song?Ē and him saying, ďThatís a famous song called ĎMannish Boyí by Muddy Waters.Ē So I had to buy that song ... and then it just became addictive. I would collect this music and I would love it and I felt that I was special because I knew that this was special, that this was something that was recorded once and these people arenít around anymore. They made this contribution ... itís incredible music and I just wish people knew how special these artists were. They were important.
Black Snake Moan opens in area theaters March 2.
Oil, Mongolia, Katrina and George Butler:
The Environmental Film Festival Celebrates 15 Years in DC
The 15th annual Environmental Film Festival in the Nationís Capital, March 15 through 25, will present 115 feature, documentary, animated, archival and childrenís films selected to provide fresh perspectives on environmental issues across the globe. The 2007 Festival features cinematic work from 27 countries and 50 Washington, D.C., United States and World premieres. Nearly 100 filmmakers, scientists and special guests will discuss their work at the Festival.
Festival premieres include the IMAX film, Hurricane on the Bayou, capturing the unprecedented devastation of Hurricane Katrina; Manufactured Landscapes exploring the aesthetic, social and spiritual dimensions of industrialization and globalization; Ten Canoes, an ethnographic feature film focusing on the Ramingining Aboriginal community in Australia; Sharkwater exposing the global threats to sharks and their importance in the food chain; The Last Winter, a supernatural horror film with nature in a leading role; Khadak, set in the bleak beauty of the Mongolian steppes; Into Great Silence, which seeks to embody rather than depict a Carthusian monastery; John James Audubon: Drawn from Nature, a portrait of the life and work of the famous scientist, woodsman, hunter and artist; and The Return of the American Elm about meeting the challenge of Dutch elm disease.
Two 2007 Oscar-winning films will be screened in the Festival: An Inconvenient Truth, winner of Best Documentary Feature and Blood of the Yingzhou District, winner for Best Documentary Short Subject.
The eminent naturalist Dr. E.O. Wilson will share his innovative perspectives on biodiversity and sociobiology and show clips from The Secret Life of a Naturalist about his life and work. Director George Butler will present his latest film, The Lord God Bird, a work in progress on the elusive Ivory-billed Woodpecker as part of a Butler mini-retrospective at the AFI Silver Theatre that will include In the Blood and The Endurance: Shackletonís Legendary Antarctic Expedition. Genome pioneer Dr. Craig Venter will show and discuss his film, Cracking the Ocean Code, about the search for the genetic secrets of our worldís oceans. New York Times columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman will present Addicted to Oil: Thomas L. Friedman Reporting about the relationship between Americaís energy consumption, oil prices and geopolitical power. Dr. David Suzuki will reflect on his life as a scientist, environmentalist, broadcaster and author.
Nationally renowned animator, cartoonist and illustrator Bill Plympton will present eight of his shorts and discuss his oblique, off-beat style. The classic Japanese animation, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind will be shown as well as a selection of nature animations for families and children.
Winners from MOUNTAINFILM in Telluride and the Wildscreen Festival in Bristol, England are among the highlights of the 2007 Festival. Films will address the global oil crisis, climate change, the threat of global dimming, the 2004 Asian tsunami, the environmental rebirth of Chicago, the Dutch genius for cultivating tulips, Rachel Carsonís legacy and the shifting sands of North Carolinaís Outer Banks.
The Environmental Film Festival has become the leading showcase for environmental films in the United States. Presented in collaboration with over 65 local, national and international organizations, the Festival is one of the largest cooperative cultural events in the nationís capital. Films are screened at over 40 venues throughout the city, including museums, embassies, libraries, universities and local theaters. Most screenings are free to the public and include discussion with filmmakers or scientists. For a complete film schedule, visit the Festival Web site or call 202-342-2564 for a film brochure.