Just one year after introducing the rest of the country to the Memphis crunk scene thanks to his movie Hustle & Flow and its Oscar-winning original song “Hard Out There for a Pimp” by Three Six Mafia, filmmaker Craig Brewer is back with Black Snake Moan. This time, he’s taking on Memphis blues in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Lazarus, a divorced down-in-the-dumps bluesman who finds a new mission trying to tame a boozin’ nymphomaniac (Christina Ricci) from her evil ways. His remedy? Chain her to his radiator until she settles down.
ComingSoon.net talked with this colorful Southern filmmaker about his new film and his continuing quest to document the music of his region. While his ’70s monster truck hat gives away his background as a “good ol’ Southern boy,” he’s also well versed in the language of movies and music and knows how to eloquently explain the ideas and themes of his film, as we discovered:
ComingSoon.net: Can you talk about the origins of “Black Snake Moan”? I understand this was an idea you had in the works even before making “Hustle & Flow.”
Craig Brewer: The whole storyline of it is that I wrote “Hustle & Flow” in Memphis, Tennessee where I thought I was going to be shooting it on a video camera with my friends Al Kapone and Three Six Mafia. Then Hollywood started getting interested in it, because I made a movie that won the Hollywood Film Festival called “The Poor and Hungry” so I was getting flown out to Hollywood a lot. And that trip you make to Hollywood, you think to yourself, “Here we go. I’m making a movie, it’s all happening.” Then you get flown out again and it doesn’t happen, then again, and it doesn’t happen. And this happened about a dozen times. The problems were that they didn’t want to make it with me, they didn’t want to make it with Terrence or the way I wanted to do the music. Even when Stephanie [Allain] and Singleton [the film’s producer] got involved, it was still a battle to get anybody to help us make it. Finally, John had to finance it himself. But I was doing this plane ride and my heart started pounding and I couldn’t get any oxygen, and I thought I was having a heart attack just like what killed my dad at 49. I brought over the stewardess and said “Get the paddles ready, I’m crashing. I’m having a heart attack.” She asked if I was afraid of flying or have ever had any anxiety attacks, and she thought I was. As we talked a little bit more, it passed. I didn’t know what it was. Very normal flight, but my wife and I didn’t have any money, we just had a baby. I couldn’t get a job because I kept being flown back and forth. Stephanie Allain is like paying my rent; Singleton’s floating me some dollars once in a while. So I’m not in the most confident place that a man could be in, and then they just kept happening. They kept happening when I got on a plane or in a car. Sometimes I’d be in a meeting and I’d just feel this feeling come over me. Me and my wife both helped each other, because she was having them, too, and we would figure out ways to get rid of them.
CS: I was getting worried that you were going to say that she chained you to the radiator.
Brewer: No, no her way to get rid of them was that I’d get on the floor and she’d lay on my back and put her arms up underneath my chest and push down, then they’d go away. We named the condition “Black Snake Moan” after the blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson. He was always singing about bugs and snakes. I knew about the song because I study music a great deal. It has historical significance because one of the lines in the song is “That’s all right, mama, that’s all right with you,” which later was turned into the Big Boy Cruddup song which later Elvis Presley sang as “That’s Alright, Mama.” I knew about the blues song as one of the most haunting blues songs there was. I was listening to blues one night and I just got an image in my head of a radiator with a chain around it and yanking against it, and that’s how it all started. Really, I wrote the movie thinking that I was going to make it on video camera at my granddad’s house in the woods–this was before “Hustle & Flow”–so I wrote the script really to deal with these attacks, then “Hustle & Flow” happened. At Sundance, there were people saying, “Hey, what are you doing next?” and I’d go, “Funny you should ask. I have this script ‘Black Snake Moan.” And every studio–I met with everyone of them–and I think they were in a difficult spot, because they all passed on “Hustle” and the reason they passed was because they were like, “Well, we don’t know if we really want to embrace this kind of subject matter with the rapping.” Now, they’re like, “Hey, Craig, we love what you did with that rappin’ pimp, what do you want to do now?” And I was like, “Well, I want to chain a girl up to a radiator at a black man’s house in the South.” Needless to say, they were trepidatious.
CS: Well, that’s quite an image.
Brewer: I tell people that I am that girl on the end of the chain, but the chain and the radiator, believe it or not, is actually metaphoric and I’m always fascinated that once you introduce any sort of representation of race or gender into anything, you really can’t explore anything metaphorically anymore. It is what it is.
CS: It’s funny you mentioned the problems selling this movie to the studios. Have any women or African-Americans confronted you about the imagery of Samuel L. Jackson holding a chained-up Christina Ricci?
Brewer: Well, there’s three posters out there. There’s one with just Christina and Sam in the corner, and then there’s just one of Sam holding onto these chains and then this is the final movie poster. We were all gearing up towards “Hey, these two are in the same movie together and he’s chained her up.” I know there’s a lot of people who jump to conclusions. They did the same thing with “Hustle & Flow” where they read the logline and that it’s about a pimp rapping and they say, “Well that’s not for me.” A black man who chains up a white nymphomaniac in his house, everyone’s immediately thinking that she’s some sort of sex slave and that’s the furthest thing from the truth. This movie is actually my most moral movie.
CS: With “Hustle & Flow”, though many of the actors had been in movies, they weren’t nearly as well known as the big name stars you cast in this. Can you talk about having this starpower and having them do things their fans might not be used to?
Brewer: This was obviously a different experience than “Hustle & Flow” because of that one element. But I always knew that if this movie was going to work, it was going to need to be a “versus movie” and what I mean by that is that I need to get an actor and an actress that are so damn good and also very much in our minds, very much part of the cinema iconography. So it would be Samuel L. Jackson vs. Christina Ricci, like I gotta see that fight. I gotta see what those two against each other going toe-to-toe, what that combo is going to do. The thing that I really learned with that particular type of actor Sam’s been in like 60 movies, Christina we’ve essentially seen grow up on movie sets, you really do put a lot of trust in them that they know what they’re going to be doing. I didn’t storyboard. I would just come in and we’d do some rehearsals, and I’d encourage them to go a little farther, not necessarily in terms of performance, but I am creating this goosed Southern gothic world, and then get out of their way. Just figure out a way to witness it and not try to tell the story too much with my camera. The scenario is so outrageous and at times embracing that Southern melodrama that you would see like in a Tennessee Williams play or a Flannery O’Connor short story, that sometimes it was best to just be in a nice wide frame and watch these people exist in it.
CS: Obviously, John Singleton already had a relationship with Samuel L. Jackson from “Shaft,” so how early did Sam come on board?
Brewer: He was pretty early. John snuck Sam the script and he read it, and he’s a Chattanooga, Tennessee native, he grew up in Tennessee. Once I met with him, I realized he was the guy. The one question I had, he immediately answered, and that was, I asked him, “Can I play you old?” And he was like, “I’m almost 60 and when I grow a beard and hair, it’s white, but my people always want me looking great.” And he looks fantastic! He’s a great looking dude, but I said, “But I really want you to be an actor. I want you to have the creative freedom to create whatever character you want. I want to give you all the tools and show you these bluesmen playing music, give you some pictures and then I want you to go off and create this guy.” A man of Sam’s stature, you’re not hiring him for the star, you’re hiring him as a man who is going to completely take control of this character and guard it.
CS: I was surprised that he actually learned how to play guitar for the role.
Brewer: Yeah, a lot of people think those are hand doubles, but they’re not. That’s all Sam.
CS: Why was it so important for him to really play guitar when there are so many movies where actors don’t?
Brewer: Well, there’s the guitar playing, which was a true feat, but I really believe that with my movies, it’s kind of like working from the outside in. Terrence couldn’t really figure out that pimp until we got him in the studio and he started rappin’. I remember DJ Paul saying to him excuse me, Academy-Award winning DJ Paul he said, “We don’t have any talent here in Memphis. We just talk, that’s what rap is.” ‘Cause Terrence was trying to sing it. I think that getting Sam down with Big Jack Johnson down in Clarksdale, Mississippi and Kenny Brown, the white guy with the cowboy hat that he plays with in the blues house, this guy that was raised by R.L. Burnside, was when Sam began to figure it out. But I think what’s more important then the guitar-playing, and it’s something that I’ve had in all of my movies that I really am proud of, is that Sam’s really singing all that stuff. What I mean by that is. God love “Walk the Line” but they’re lip-syncing. We actually recorded him on-stage live. You see spit coming out of his mouth and it’s real. There’s never a moment where he’s lip-syncing in “Black Snake Moan.”
CS: You didn’t have to do a studio version that’s cleaner than the sound you can get on set?
Brewer: Sure, we do a studio version and it’s a very difficult process on the soundstage, because you then have rubber drums, phony guitar strings that don’t make any sound, and you have a completely quiet set because the microphones are picking up his vocals, but the music is in an earwig in his ear and with all the rest of the band, so they’re moving and pretending to be playing an instrumental track that’s already laid down and Sam is singing live over that. I’m in the back with the headsets and I have my soundguy mix in the music with the vocals. Now the obvious problem with this is that there are a lot of shots you have to do in a music number like that, so it’s taxing on the voice. I always run two cameras and get some “hero close-ups” and some medium shots of the performer, so I don’t tax them all that much, and then I get a bit wider, I can cheat a little bit more and maybe use vocal tracks that we used a little earlier in case their voice starts getting a little tired, but Sam just warmed up, so I found it a little easier to do the wide shots first.
CS: Those scenes in the club were pretty amazing, especially the dancing.
Brewer: We filmed that right across from my office at this juke joint called “Ernestine and Hazel,” it used to be a brothel back in the cotton days of Memphis. I remember all those people came into audition right off the street, no agencies, no nothing, and I told them right before we started shooting that scene, that “You’re the reason I’m not shooting in Los Angeles or Canada.” I can build this set anywhere, but I go out dancing with all those people every weekend. I’ve been in juke joints like “Wild Bill’s” in Memphis, Tennessee and whether you’re white or black, thin or fat, everybody starts dancing, everybody gets drunk, everybody gets into that trance that that particular type of blues puts you in, and everyone is sexy and everyone is safe. It’s not a fantasy. That’s actually the most real part of my movie is that juke joint scene, that’s what it’s like. That’s really a place where she could be sexually free with no intimidation or fear around her.
CS: How was it bringing Christina Ricci into this environment? She obviously comes from a very different background.
Brewer: I was really surprised, because that was late in the shoot and I think she really shifted into that Southern thing. She was really right at home, I think. She really did her homework. Got on the phone with people in Mississippi when she was auditioning to get that accent right. She’s incredible, she really is.
CS: What about the Justin Timberlake factor? He hasn’t done many movies at this point despite his huge status as a pop superstar.
Brewer: When I brought him up, there were a lot of people cocking their heads at me like the RCA Victor dog. They didn’t understand why I was going there, but I really believe in putting the people of my region in my movies. When I met with him, I knew he had an understanding of these guys in the South that we’ve come across that have been pushed into aggressive, masculine situations and pushed to be violent and they crumble. They don’t have it in them. Also, Justin’s a very confident individual and I needed someone so confident to play someone so vulnerable. Now, everybody’s praising me that I put him in the movie. Well, remember there was a time when you were curious about it but he’s made three movies, I’ve made three movies, and we’re starting off together. I’d like to do more with him.
CS: The movie really looks amazing, so I’m surprised it wasn’t built around storyboards, especially with its ’70s look. Was this something that you and cinematographer Amelia Vincent had in your heads before shooting?
Brewer: Yeah, we were much more inspired by the films of Sergio Leone and watching “High Noon” and “Shane” and “Unforgiven.” Also, “Baby Doll,” the Elia Kazan movie that Tennessee Williams wrote with Carol Baker, Eli Wallach and Karl Malden. “Streetcar Named Desire,” I really like how Kazan introduces people in these wide shots. The first time Stanley Kowalski is introduced with Blanche in the foreground kind of watching him like an animal, and then he just is in that close-up and you hear the audience melt because he’s so goddamned good looking. Yeah, I understand the whole exploitation genre but drive-in movies are a part of that whole Southern landscape. You can’t drive behind an 18-wheeler without seeing that mud flap silhouette of a platinum beauty.
CS: I remember this absolutely genius teaser for your movie in front of “Snakes on a Plane” last summer, and it was more comedic in some ways. Who’s idea was that?
Brewer:That’s our trailer. The way she’s just yanked back on the chain and everybody laughed. But my movie’s funny and I look at the movies and the books I’m inspired by and they’re funny and tragic, there’s something grotesque about them and also you get giddy over it. But the same thing happens to me when I go to family funerals. Everybody’s really somber and then some drunk relative shows up and does something inappropriate, then a fight happens, then you’re laughing and shaking your head and then making sure that everybody is comforted.
CS: Before you told me, I didn’t realize you studied music, so is music going to be an important part of any movie you make from here on in?
Brewer: That’s it. I’m doing this series that I really want to produce in the South of the music from the region that’s inspired me. My next movie’s country, I’m doing soul after that, rock ‘n’ roll. Yeah, it’s the cake not the frosting. I try to discover the tone of the music, how the music was created, what historical ramifications created the music. With the blues, it’s hard to get away from biblical imagery, it’s hard to get away from fable, it’s hard to get away from extreme people doing extreme things out of love and desperation. I really saw a connection to rap. I saw it as exorcism music. I saw it as music that articulates the “inarticulatable.” (That’s not a word.) People have fear in their heart and people have anger in them. Sometimes it’s best to be in your car and blare that music and punch at the air, air guitar or whatever you have to do before you go home or go into that conference call. (chuckles)
CS: So you’re next movie is going to be set in the world of country?
Brewer: “Maggie Lynn.” After this movie premieres, the script’s all done, the studio has it, we’re moving ahead.
CS: So Memphis and music
is that going to be your thing or do you see a point in five or ten years where you want to get away from it and trying something different?
Brewer: Memphis was my college. I didn’t go to film school or anything like that, I just started studying about Sam Phillips at Sun Studios recording Alan Wolf and Elvis Presley. I read about Willie Mitchell recording Al Green over at Royal Studios under High Records. I read about Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton creating Stax Record out of an abandoned movie theatre and recording Otis Redding and Sam & Dave and Isaac Hayes. They had a certain way of doing it and that was you get a bunch of talented egos and personalities in the room with all their flaws, all their sins and you hope you get them there on time. You roll tape and you see what magic happens between “action” and “cut.” Sometimes it’s best to have limited tools. Sometimes it’s best to not have a sh*tload of money. Sometimes it’s best to be working with what you got and that brings about some great music. I try to make my movies that way. I want to embrace that maverick spirit that was in Memphis. Not that I’m Elvis Presley but I really find it interesting that he recorded a race song with “That’s Alright Mama,” that was a black song. It’s not so much that the recording is necessarily controversial, it’s just that there wasn’t a radio station to play it because they were so segregated to some extent. There was race programming. “You can’t play it there, ’cause he’s a white boy.” “Can we play it on a country station? No, it’s not country.” I’m finding myself in that same position with “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan,” people want to know if it’s a comedy, if it’s a drama. Is it an “urban film”? Well, I’m not really into that.
Black Snake Moan opens on Friday, March 2.