Interview: S. Craig Zahler Talks Brawl in Cell Block 99


Brawl in Cell Block 99

Brawl in Cell Block 99: Writer/Director S. Craig Zahler talks about his latest modern exploitation film

Bone Tomahawk writer/director S. Craig Zahler‘s already buzzed and acclaimed contemporary exploitation film Brawl in Cell Block 99 stars Vince Vaughn (Hacksaw Ridge, True Detective), Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter), Marc Blucas (Underground), Udo Kier (Blade, Flesh for Frankenstein, Melancholia), and Don Johnson (Django Unchained, Miami Vice, A Boy and His Dog). The movie hits theaters on Oct. 6, 2017. For those of you minus a calendar, that’s TODAY.

RELATED: Read our Brawl in Cell Block 99 review here

In Brawl in Cell Block 99, a former boxer named Bradley (Vince Vaughn) loses his job as an auto mechanic, and his troubled marriage is about to end.  At this crossroads in his life, he feels that he has no better option than to work for an old buddy as a drug courier.  This improves his situation until the terrible day that he finds himself in a gunfight between a group of police officers and his own ruthless allies.  When the smoke clears, Bradley is badly hurt and thrown in prison, where his enemies force him to commit acts of violence that turn the place into a savage battleground.

We had the chance to chat of the visionary Zahler to discuss this most brutal and stylish smackdown. Zahler is the real deal. Have a read… When did you first come up with your idea for Cell Block 99?

S. Craig Zahler: I wrote it in 2011, and it was the script I wrote immediately before Bone Tomahawk. I’d seen a bunch of movies at Film Forum, they were having a retrospective of prison films, and I started thinking a little bit about what would I do with the genre. What tropes are interesting to me? What would I do differently? And then I really started coming up with the character, and the opening scenes of what he goes through coming home and ends with him having his nice pas de deux with the car, and really just had the setup of the character from there and wrote it out. It was one of many pieces that I’ve sold, and didn’t control, that I then got back under my control to do for my second picture.

CS: So was it already in someone else’s hands by the time Bone Tomahawk began?

Zahler: It was, and some producers were gonna take it and try and make it, and they’d gone through a couple different stars, and it didn’t land, and then after Bone Tomahawk was done, it was just sitting there, and certainly they had intentions on making changes to it, none of which I was into. Then Jack Heller and Dallas Sonnier, the producers, got the piece back and it was in our control, and then we were able to make it.

CS: When did you begin considering Vince Vaughn for this lead role of Bradley?

Zahler: Pretty early on. Sometimes you have access to certain stars, and sometimes you don’t, and then sometimes someone discovers something and a door opens up, but pretty early on I thought Vince would be an interesting choice. Eventually Dallas Sonnier spoke to his team, and Vince checked out Bone Tomahawk, and he loved the thing, and the door was open. Much easier kind of convincing people the second time around when you already have the first one to show people, like this is where you’re gonna land, and obviously I’m a very actor-focused director, so someone can look at the performances in Bone Tomahawk and feel comfortable that they’re going to be well handled, and Vince and I got along extremely well from the beginning of our first meeting, so it clicked right away with him.

CS: Vince Vaughn is usually thought of as oafish, bumbling, goofy, comedic, a jokester, and here, he’s just a dead-on, rock-hard intense dude. This isn’t how we would imagine seeing Vince Vaughn. With Kurt Russell, in a western, yeah, you can totally see that. Did Vince take to the script, and this character pretty quickly, or was there some work to do?

Zahler: Vince enjoyed Bone Tomahawk so much, and this script so much, there wasn’t much convincing. He saw Bone Tomahawk, read the script for Cell Block 99, we had a conversation, and right away he saw who I was, and where I came from. People who have some degree of success, or are best known for some type of work, or as an actor, have the ability to show different things you can do. I feel it as a writer, and for me it’s a little bit less like I want to show people the different things I can do. It’s more just like they’re just different worlds I want to create, and at this point I’ve written maybe fifty screen plays, and eight novels. That’s a lot of fiction I’ve generated, so something that keeps it fresh for me at this point is changing genres pretty regularly.

Now I’ll circle back, I’ve written five westerns at this point, I’ve written a lot of science fiction, I’ve written a lot of horror, I’ve written a lot of crime, but I keeps it fresh doing different things and I would imagine for a performer it’s a similar thing, and then in this case, like you’ve mentioned, and maybe every single review points out, there was initial skepticism with him in this role, and questioning why he’s in there, and then after five minutes of the movie have passed, you can’t think of anyone doing this better.

CS: It was sixty seconds into the movie for me.

Zahler: Yeah, and this is the thing. If you saw this guy on the street, would you think, oh here is is a comedian? You wouldn’t, and the set of his face, he is a little over 6’5″, so he is an imposing height, big guy. There’s something there naturally that isn’t a comedian, and he happens to have fantastic timing. The only person I can think of that has similar good timing is maybe Bob Newhart, and these are my two favorite guys in terms of comic timing, so I am a very big fan of the comedic Vince Vaughn, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t see him in another way, and I’ve seen him do these different dramatic roles. I thought that there was something there that could be even further afield, and there’s a full transformation. The shaved head, the tattoo on the back of the head, he certainly put on some muscle for the piece. Then the stuff that other roles have not required him to tap, and that is both the his athleticism and his fighting abilities, which are there and are real, because he’s boxed, and he competitively wrestled throughout high school. So he is someone who already has that.

Then there’s just all of this nuance that he can access as a performer, that maybe there’s less space for if he’s playing a high-energy motor-mouth character in a comedy, that isn’t quite the same space for him to explore all these different things. And again, it’s whatever the role requires, and something that I’ve seen that Vince is better at than maybe anybody I’ve worked with, is when he knows the character, he knows everything that is right for that character, and the little moments that are in between the moments of dialogue, finding all of that stuff. He just knows what works for Bradley Thomas.  Two weeks ago, he and I wrapped what is our second movie together, my third movie, and it was the same thing there, he’s playing a very different character in that one. He has a very good sense of, this is a little moment, and these might just be little grace notes between major moments, but he knows what works for the character and what doesn’t, and really has a very good sense of this.

CS: I’m very drawn to your films, and running into you at the Bruce Lee series at MoMA and around town it’s easy to see you’re just in this stuff. You’re not approaching these stories with these ultra-high budgets, with all these cast and crew trailers, and everyone’s eating sushi for lunch. You know, you’re bringing us into the movie. And without wires and running up the walls, how did you and Vince come up with the fight choreography?

Zahler: Trade in sushi for biting into a chicken finger, completely raw inside, and you’ve got the idea. It was grim on that, that was a hard shoot. It was harder than it needed to be in some aspects, but yeah.

CS: Now you’ve another film coming up with Vince, and with Mel Gibson, another person who began in low-budget films. We’ve followed his action, versatility, we’re seeing him do this, and now your next one is called Dragged Across Concrete, so we can only imagine what you’ll be doing to us there. Were you able to take a similar raw approach with your third film? Is it hands-on, you’re all together, and you’re making this happen in front of us?

Zahler: Yes. It’s the same thing. I don’t want to do CG stuff. Which isn’t to say that if I did a giant scale, hard science fiction piece, which is maybe the only thing that would lure me into that world, I wouldn’t use it, but it would still be hard science fiction, so it would depend on how much people want to hear about string theory in their science fiction movies. But, yeah Dragged Across Concrete is similar to both Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, everything is done practically. Every bullet hit is a squib, or a makeup effect. Everything happens live on the set. The only thing, and this is the case with Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 as well, is I’m okay with a little wire removal or something like that, but in the end, I want the thing that the audience is looking at to be real, to have been real on the day, whether it is a car crashing into another car, or getting blown up in the lot in Brawl in Cell Block 99, or a dude getting cut in half in Bone Tomahawk. That’s what we saw on the set, and I didn’t manufacture it in the editing room, and I didn’t say what everybody says in all these situations when it gets stressful, ‘we’ll fix it in post.’ Because my feeling is when you direct a movie, you should direct most of it on the set. You should not be fixing most of it in the editing room, you should not be coming up with solutions there. You should get stuff that works the day that you’re shooting it.

Dragged Across Concrete is the same. Everything happened there, and it was a really challenging shoot. Again, I had a great experience working with the actors, and that aspect was terrific, as it was on Brawl in Cell Block 99. But my insistence of doing everything live, be it windows breaking, or cars wrecking, or people getting shot, does make it harder, and potentially less safe, and I think the results are there up on screen, but you need people who are willing to do this stuff.

In the case of Brawl in Cell Block 99, yeah, I mean, you’ve gotta know when you watch those fight scenes, and there are these long shots where five, ten, fifteen things are happening in one shot, doing multiple takes of that is difficult, and that some of the mistakes are takes where people are getting punched. I needed actors who are willing to do this, and willing to commit and okay with the idea that this wasn’t going to be comfortable, and Vince Vaughn and the various people he fights in the movie were all game, and that’s how it gets done. You can’t manufacture it. Those fight scenes that are in Brawl in Cell Block 99 can’t be manufactured in an editing room. They are rehearsed, rehearsed again, rehearsed, and then you do take after take until it all lands, and it’s not a comfortable process, but I think in the end what you have is something distinct and memorable, and something that feels real, and that showcases the performers in a different way.

You brought up Bruce Lee, obviously those movies showcased him the way that a Fred Astaire movie showcases Fred Astaire doing his dancing from head to toe. Buster Keaton, the way he’s showcased head to toe. It is featuring a performer, which is what I’m trying to do in everything I do. In all of the scenes, whether it’s a subtle moment of acting, or a comedic line, or fight scene, I want to show the stuff that they’re doing and capture those moments, and not get in the way of it with style. I want to feature the performers, which is why it’s a really different thing that fast cuts, with lots of slow motion, and the way that violence is typically stylized…