Exclusive Interview: Footloose Director Craig Brewer

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The decision to remake an ’80s favorite like Footloose, the movie that made Kevin Bacon a household name in 1984, certainly wasn’t one to be taken lightly by director Craig Brewer, whose exploration of the South in his earlier films Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan proved him to be the right filmmaker to tackle a film set in that region. That decision required overcoming lofty personal goals to rework a movie he loved as a teen by being reverential to the source without possibly alienating potential new and younger audiences who may have never seen the original 1984 movie

The new version of Footloose stars newcomer Kenny Wormald as Ren McCormack, a young man relocated from Boston to the Southern town of Bomont to live with his uncle after the death of his mother, only to learn that the young people of town have been forced to follow strict rules set by the town’s religious leader, the Reverend Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid), after the tragic death of five teenagers in a car crash. One of the rules outlaws public dancing, something Ren can’t abide by, so with the help of the preacher’s rebellious daughter Ariel (Julianne Hough) and his new friend Willard (Miles Teller), Ren decides to rebel against the reverend’s rules.

The results are surprisingly solid–you can read our review here–but while Brewer’s latest may already have the namebrand value that lets moviegoers know what to expect, it also has to contend with the baggage of being a remake of a movie that many people loved as much as others hated it, with both groups eyeing the decision to remake it suspiciously.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Brewer last week to talk about his approach to tackling his first remake–more to find out the “hows” than the “whys”–and we slipped in a couple questions about his proposed relaunch of Tarzan for Warner Bros. and other possible projects he may get back to now that Footloose is done.

ComingSoon.net: Hey, Craig, how’s the junket been going so far?
Craig Brewer:
Oh, it’s going good, you know? I almost want to hand everybody a little card at a junket that just says, “Why?” on it, so I can get that out of the way. (laughs)

CS: That’s funny, because I’ve spoken a lot with Rod Lurie, who did the “Straw Dogs” remake, and he had to go through the same thing with that movie.
Brewer:
Yeah, no, I know Rod well, too. He made “Nothing But the Truth” in Memphis, Tennessee where I live, and that’s where I met Rod. We’ve talked to each other on Twitter a few times. I’m sure he’s had to go through his “why” as well. (laughs)

CS: Oddly enough, it’s not something I was planning to ask you about.
Brewer:
I don’t mind being asked. I mean, I understand it. I’m sure if I were sitting in front of myself, I’d be asking the same question.

CS: I’m one of those guys who if I even thought “why?” it was because I wasn’t a fan of the original movie, so when I saw the movie, I liked it, but I was fighting that enjoyment every second I was watching. I’m sure there a lot of others like me, but setting that aside, what was your first experience with the movie?
Brewer:
Well, I was 13 when I saw it. It was in Valeo, California when we were living in Northern California, and I saw it with my parents. I absolutely loved it. It was one of those transformative movie experiences. I tell people, the idea of a hero up until that point was very different. My heroes had light sabers, my heroes had bullwhips like Indiana Jones. It was as if somebody crawled in my head and made a movie for me. Ren McCormack was a different kind of hero. I was a kid who was very much into musical theater, and I would dance in shows and sing songs and I experienced some of that jocks at school making fun of me. Theater was a place that I felt very safe. When I went and saw “Footloose,” there was something about watching Kevin Bacon that made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I mean, it was all wish fulfillment. I wasn’t as cool as he was, but I felt like him. I felt like I just immediately identified him. Then to buy the soundtrack so I could just every day relive the movie experience. I would just get chills listening to that music.

CS: Music’s such a big part of the movies you’ve made, especially “Black Snake Moan” and “Hustle & Flow.” I understand when you did the pitch for this you already had decided which songs you wanted to keep from the original movie, so I assume the music was something that kind of stuck with you this whole time?
Brewer:
Oh yeah, yeah. You have to understand, I mean, “Footloose” was that important movie for me. The soundtrack was that important soundtrack, and 1984 was a big year for me. I mean, first it was “Footloose,” and then “Purple Rain” came out. Those two records in my household, they were just constantly spinning. (laughs) To address making a modern version of “Footloose,” I remember going into the studio after some resistance. They came after me twice because they really wanted to do it. To be honest with you, I just doubted their sincerity, not in making it, but they came to me saying they wanted to do it right. Finally, I began to see what they meant. Adam Ditman, the President of Paramount, was very clear to me that there hadn’t been a good teenager movie in a long time, like the kind of movies that everybody is selling to teenagers, they’re either fighting robots or kinda crude comedies. It’s not that those movies are bad, but it wasn’t the same thing that I got when I was 13. I don’t know what it was about him telling me that that kind of stuck into my head, but I was like, “What is that movie for kids?” I don’t think it’s “Step Up,” I don’t think it’s these dance movies, you know? There’s something else about “Footloose” that spoke to a different part of the young teen ideal. Once I made this connection to it both as a fan of the original and as a parent who’s now dealing with a very cautious time that we live in where people do overreact – and I’m now one of them. I’m now one of these people that if you tell me that my kids are in danger, I’m going to listen. I may do things and say things and think things that I probably never would’ve thought that I would’ve said or done because I’m now a parent. Once I found that way to start exploring it, I knew the whole tapestry of the movie. I could tell you what songs I would keep, and I could tell you what songs I would change. I went in very clear-headed with what I wanted this movie to be. I brought in a boom box. I brought in a playlist. As I pitched the movie, I would play music and switch from song to song. It was fun.

CS: It’s surprising how much of what might have worked for kids when the original movie came out still works today, because you’d think that teens have changed so much since those times.
Brewer:
It’s funny. I remember being in the audience and watching that argument between Ariel and her father in the church. When Lori Singer said, “I’m not even a virgin,” I remember the whole audience going, “Oh…” I’ve now watched “Footloose” I can’t tell you how many times across this continent and then with full audiences. That line still gets a groan. As much as we think that teenagers are hardened, there’s nothing they haven’t seen or there’s nothing that can shock them, that’s not true. That’s not true. (laughs) I was surprised how much “Footloose” was relevant to our time. I remember in ’84 thinking that it was ridiculous that there’d be a town that outlawed dancing, but the way we presented it, it’s a little different for that. It’s all of these rules, and dancing outside of the supervision of parents is one of them.

CS: That’s actually the toughest part of the original movie to get past, and once you get past that part, it really connects.
Brewer:
That’s why I had the whole action at the beginning. I knew that if I could just somehow make that law real in a way that an audience can go, “Okay, I buy this; I understand how we got here,” then we could move into the story. If it didn’t work, then we would have an issue.

CS: Besides the music, one of the toughest things must’ve been finding the two leads. If you look at the original movie, it was a huge break for so many people, and you had to find people that age who could pull it off. Julianne Hough is amazing in this movie and I’m curious how you came to her. We all know she can dance, but I wondered how you knew she could pull off the dramatic aspects of the character and what that involved.
Brewer:
Well, it’s funny. I have this really interesting story that happened where when I came onto the project, I insisted that I should be able to cast who I think is right for it. There were some other actors that were already attached as Ren McCormack and I said, “We really need to shake the Etch-A-Sketch here,” because when I went and saw “Footloose” back in ’84, I didn’t know who any of these people were. That discovery is something that’s going to be important for an audience. It was for me. I remember going, “Who is this guy, Kevin Bacon? Who is that girl, Sarah Jessica Parker?” From that moment I saw anything Kevin Bacon was in, and I think that audiences needed that with this movie. They needed to discover Ren McCormack. They didn’t need to know that he was an actor from another movie. That’s why when Kenny (Wormald) came onto the scene of the audition I was like, “Wow, not only is this guy a great dancer, but he’s got some charisma.” Julianne, though, was already attached to the project from that earlier version that they were going to be doing with Kenny Ortega. To be honest with you, I thought she was pretty much cast because she was beautiful, and she could dance. The earlier version that they were going to do was very dance heavy, it was kind of like a dance celebration of “Footloose,” whereas mine was going to be closer to the original and have this drama between her and her dad. I remember telling Julianne, “Listen, this part is no longer yours. You need to tell me that it is yours or show me that it’s yours, but we need to do something about this because I need to know if you can handle this.” So she said, “Well, I’ll tell you how you handle it, you read me for it. Read me right now.” I took her over to my casting director’s house and we had a bunch of actors there, and we went through every scene in the movie. She just fought for it – tears were rolling down her cheeks in some scenes. I left so exhilarated because up until that moment, the movie was still an abstract idea because I had just written a script, but I’m not seeing people in front of me. After that day, it was not only that I found Ariel, but I stumbled across a new star. I was just as surprised as everybody else. I knew she could dance, but Ariel, it wasn’t important that she dance. It was important that she be misunderstood, that she have passion and that she could show the complexity of a girl that just lost her brother in a car accident and now has everybody in her high school essentially blaming her brother for all the restrictions. I mean, where would that send a girl, into destructive behavior? Probably. I was surprised that Julianne could convey that. It was surprising and I love her to death. I think she’s going to be a big star.

CS: Maybe a month or two ago I went to the set of “Rock of Ages” and met her for the first time. I had never seen “Dancing with the Stars,” and I knew nothing about her at all, so seeing her in this movie after meeting her, I was like, “Wow, Ariel is very different from how she is in person.” I also wanted to ask about Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell. They were some interesting choices because obviously they have the ’80s connection as well, though they’re playing the other side as the parents now. Did you have to resist the temptation to get Kevin Bacon to play the preacher or to try to get any of the original cast back for this?
Brewer:
No, and listen, I know that it’s kind of a place you go immediately. You think, “Okay, well, what about Kevin? Could he do the preacher?” I think that it would’ve done something. It would’ve made you feel that Ren McCormack ultimately lost in 1984, like he ultimately became that thing he didn’t want to be. I don’t know if audiences would be able to shift as much as they would just to want to see Kevin in a role, you know? That being said, there was something though, where I wanted people who were megastars in the ’80s. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about seeing Dennis and Andy and an audience already feels like they know them. That’s what being actors over these years, they’ve earned that feeling and that respect of an audience where suddenly Dennis Quaid shows up and he’s like a friend. When you see him grieving, it means more to you because he’s somebody that you know. Really, it’s also an opportunity. I mean, I love Dennis Quaid. I’ve loved all of his movies. I became a fan of his watching “The Right Stuff” back in the day. Andie MacDowell, I fell in love with watching “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan,” and obviously through the movies in the ’80s and “Groundhog Day” and “Short Cuts,” so it was a pleasure working with them.

CS: Maybe I’m misremembering, because it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but “Black Snake Moan” had some dancing in it if I remember right, maybe in the bar scenes?
Brewer:
Oh yeah, yeah. It’s weird. It’s almost like an angry dance, the angry dance being the thing where Kevin Bacon or Kenny Wormald’s dancing in the warehouse. It’s kinda like that with Cristina Ricci dancing to Sam Jackson playing the blues.

CS: You do have some of the moves from the original movie but also a lot of different styles, so how did you approach the choreography for the movie and find someone who could get what you wanted?
Brewer:
Well, I really have to give it up to Craig Zadan, who produced the original “Footloose,” who is also a producer on this “Footloose.” He put me in touch with Jamal Sims. Now, Jamal Sims was the choreographer on “Hairspray,” which Craig Zadan produced with Neil Meron. I met with Jamal, and we were just kindred spirits. We were kids of the ’80s and we loved “Footloose” and we loved a lot of the same types of movies and experiences from that time with dance. The reason I knew he was the guy to go with was he had a real concern – because he was the guy that did all the choreography in “Step Up,” right? He said, “Look, we’re going to have a problem if this movie looks choreographed because the original ‘Footloose’ really wasn’t choreographed.” I mean, yes, it was choreographed, but it didn’t feel like everybody was suddenly breaking out into a dance number where everybody was moving in unison, right? It had a different organic feel to it. You’d go to the drive-in where everybody’s hanging out. They start playing music and people are playing videogames and beginning to move to music. It’s not like everybody’s in unison, so that’s something that was important to us. We wanted it to have amazing dancing, and yet at the same time, we didn’t want it to look choreographed. Jamal, I think expertly walked that line as to, “When are we going to wows you and when are we going to make it seem like, okay, that guy’s just grooving and moving and he bumps into this girl and that gets her moving and grooving,” and make it seem like it’s normal and organic.

CS: You mentioned “Greystoke” earlier, and at one point you were going to do a “Tarzan” movie as well. Does that also come from that same period of just being something you’re just a big fan of?
Brewer:
Yeah, I was always a big fan. When I lived in Northern California, there was this television station called TV44, and they would play like, the old Weissmueller “Tarzan” movies back in the day. But in the ’80s when I saw “Greystoke,” it really kind of rocked my world because I’d never seen the origin story of “Tarzan.” I didn’t know how “Tarzan” became “Tarzan.” If you watched the Weissmueller movies, he is already made, he’s already the white ape, so to speak. But yeah, “Greystoke” was a big movie for me. Yes, I just finished my draft on “Tarzan.” I don’t know if the studio’s going to make it or not, but keep your fingers crossed that hopefully it will go in another week or two.

CS: That’s also going to be another interesting challenge, but it’s going to be a different one because there hasn’t been one everyone remembers like they do “Footloose.”
Brewer:
Right, right. I mean, there’s been the Disney movie and everything, but there hasn’t been a good “Tarzan” movie in a while.

CS: Absolutely. You’re one of the filmmakers that’s been very communicative with people on Twitter and online. Is that something very natural to you, or do you feel it’s more something that’s necessary in this day and age that you have to be out there?
Brewer:
You know, I compute it differently. First of all, I enjoy doing it. I’d like to consider myself a pretty accessible person, and I like passing on what I know. But I think for “Footloose,” what it was is that I knew that I was going to get a tremendous amount of backlash, and from people who’ve never seen it. There are going to just be people who are angry that it was remade, and it comes from two separate camps. There’s people who absolutely love the original “Footloose” and can’t believe that we would dare remake it, then there’s people that think that “Footloose” was a stupid movie, and why would we want to remake it? It was hard either way to win, so I think what I started to do was just like, “Well, am I going hide or should I maybe just engage people in a positive way?” It’s hard to stay positive because there’s some people out there that are really snarky. I find that if I send them a message or if I ask them a question, they crumble like a cookie. They feel embarrassed that they made some sort of rash statement because the internet and Twitter is basically for complaining. I made a goal with myself that I was going to engage and not hide, but also be positive and not return some of the snark with equal snark and I’m really glad I did it. It’s made me feel stronger with whatever the outcome of “Footloose” is. There’s some times that I’ll do a search on “Footloose” and it’ll say, “I can’t wait to see ‘Footloose’!” Then the next one will be like, “What the hell are they doing remaking ‘Footloose’?” The next one will be like, “I can’t wait! ‘Footloose’ looks so awesome!” Then the next one will be like, “This ‘Footloose’ looks terrible.” But what I do is, I re-tweet all of them. Not all of them, but I decided I would re-tweet the negative with the good; I’ve been surprised at how much of a positive reaction people get from that.

CS: I’m hoping I have a chance to see the movie again at the all-media in New York, just so I can watch cranky critics like Rex Reed and Lou Lumenick having their minds changed, and I think there will be some surprisingly positive reviews from unlikely critics.
Brewer:
(Laughs) Yeah, yeah, it’s weird. It’s funny because the other day I read the “New York Times” review of “Footloose,” then I read Roger Ebert’s review of “Footloose”, the original one. It’s really interesting because I might as well be reading a bad review of my “Footloose.” The things that maybe they didn’t like in the original are probably the same things that they may not like in mine, which is like, “Okay, definitely there’s a guy now dancing in a warehouse. Like, what kid does that?” Well, yeah, but that’s what made it “Footloose,” that’s what made it it’s own special thing.

CS: Even Roger has admitted that he’s been a little too hard on some things that he’s seen again since they’ve become classics. Obviously, it’s been a while since you did “Black Snake Moan,” so had you been developing other things before “Footloose” and “Tarzan” came around?
Brewer:
Oh yeah. I had written a movie for Paramount called “Maggie Lynn”, which was kind of based in Tennessee in a world of country music and I had thought, “There’s gotta be a way that we can do a country music movie that isn’t going to scare you guys.” Like country music can be a lot more pop and a lot more contemporary. That’s why they called me with “Footloose”. They were like, “Look, you can do that and just do it with ‘Footloose.’ We just can’t do it with ‘Maggie Lynn’ right now because people aren’t really going to see new and original things, especially with women in the South.” That was the mentality then. Of course, “Blind Side” came out later, and “The Help” came out later and there’s always exceptions to the rule. I also wrote a movie called “Mother Trucker,” and that I still may do this year depending on what happens with “Tarzan,” but yeah, I’ve been keeping busy. It’s just tricky to get movies made these days. There’s only one thing that makes me mad on Twitter, and that’s when people say, “I see that they’re remaking ‘Footloose.’ Hollywood is running out of ideas.” I’ve deleted so many times wanting to respond to people, because I don’t know why that they think that they have nothing to do with it, you know what I mean? That audiences don’t have anything to do with it. I immediately tweet back, “Well, what did you think of ‘Tree of Life’?” They don’t know what I’m talking about. “Well, did you go see ‘Drive’? What about ’50/50′ this last weekend?” It’s the audience. They’re voting with their dollars and I guess just because I’m still smarting from the box office of “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan,” I’ve never had a hit ever. I’ve never had a movie that hasn’t been deemed a disappointment, and it’s because it’s hard to get people out to see original stuff. Then they complain about it later. I hope that that’ll change, but in the meantime, we can try to make the best movies we can.

CS: It’s the double-edged sword of filmmaking I’m sure.
Brewer:
Oh yeah. (Laughs)

Footloose opens nationwide on October 14.