Interviewing directors is always a crapshoot. Sometimes they really have something to say since they found a connection to their film, but other times you can just tell they did it for the paycheck. You can always be assured when you are talking to a director that wrote and directed their film there is a special connection there and sometimes it is deeper than just something they were interested in. In talking with writer/director Craig Brewer about his latest film Black Snake Moan I quickly realized this was a very personal film and it was obvious from the very beginning.
Brewer wrote Black Snake Moan before he wrote his 2005 hit Hustle and Flow and just as he did with Hustle, a lot of him bled into the script and the story, which is one of the things I think helped people connect to the Hustle story, but I have personally experienced a different reaction to the early marketing pieces for Black Snake Moan, and this is where I began my interview.
Sitting in a bar a couple of nights ago the Black Snake Moan trailer came on and a few people laughed and were saying, “Are we supposed to take that seriously?” Since I had seen it I was able to tell them what it was all about and the minute I told them it was by the guy that did Hustle and Flow it all sort of clicked, but I was wondering what your thoughts on the marketing were. Also, have you run into situations where people have not been quite able to figure out what it was, drama or comedy, based on the trailer?
Craig Brewer (CB): Well, I kind of got that same thing with Hustle and Flow, people saying, ‘Well, I’m not into rap, I’m not into that urban thing,’ which I really never saw it as that kind of a movie, but no, I am very much behind the marketing, I’m very much a part of it. I told them that it needed to be like this.
Personally I love the marketing and since I put it up on the site, the trailer has been in the top five in most viewed.
CB: Yeah, I think the thing is that… I kind of feel… I’m not making the comparison that I’m Elvis Pressley, but I kind of recorded “That’s Alright Mama” and like Sam Phillips and Dewey Phillips are sitting there looking at this 45″ acetate going, ‘Hey, what radio program do we play this on? Do we play it in the race programming? No, we can’t because the kid’s white. Do we play it in country? No, we can’t because it’s rhythm and blues… we don’t really know where we can play this thing.’
I look at movies like Baby Doll by Kazan and books by Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner and they take place in palpable, authentic looking worlds that people sometimes don’t have any context or continuity to, especially when it comes to the South. I think that’s the liberating thing about the film. You can have these outrageous movies that are dramatic that do make people fearful and cry, but also make them laugh and cheer. So I don’t know if you could put it on a comedy shelf or the drama shelf, I really don’t know. I do know the movie is very effective and I have been showing it across the country and people both laugh and cheer and tear up and they go through the gamut of emotions like you would in church.
Oh, it definitely has a really good balance and I was actually going to ask you about that. You are tackling a lot of sensitive subjects such as religion and sexuality and I was wondering if chaining Ricci’s character up was a way of adding some levity to a situation that could have gone dark really quick had Sam Jackson’s character used duct tape or a rope and tied her to a chair?
CB: It sometimes knocks people on their ass that I could actually be metaphoric in a movie. They think Oh my God, can you really do that these days? But the chain and the radiator mean something to me. I was going through a very crazy time in my life when I was writing Black Snake Moan where I was experiencing anxiety attacks, my wife was experiencing them, we didn’t have any money, we were trying to get Hustle and Flow going, nobody wanted to make the movie with me directing it or Terrence [Howard] being in it and nothing was certain. My dad had died of a heart attack at 49, we just had a baby, we didn’t have any health insurance and I was getting these crippling attacks that would just drop me to my knees and my wife and I, we became reckless and we found that the only thing we could do no matter what we were going through is we would have to come to each other’s aide when we were ailing and I had a fantasy of just being yanked back. Of being chained up in my grand dad’s house out in the woods with no cell phones, no email. I could get around the house but I just needed to deal with my head and I needed to get well before I could move on and that’s really what the whole thing is.
Duct tape, yeah, I know what you mean, that would be too violent. He’s not trying to be necessarily violent he just wants her to not leave the house. She can go outside, she can go into the bathroom, she can do whatever she wants, but it’s a father-daughter movie. He’s being firm with her, he’s being patient with her but he’s also keeping her captive. It’s just some of the pent up male vengeance inside of him, his woman just left him for his brother and he’s got some stuff that he hasn’t been able to say to a woman who’s a captive audience.
If I remember correctly you said with Hustle and Flow you sort of told the story of your life through Djay and even though you have sort of already gone into it, how much more spilled over into Black Snake Moan?
CB: Oh, it’s a very personal movie to me. It’s really funny because my wife and I always joke, like people are always saying, ‘Are you Sam Jackson and is she Christina Ricci?’ and like I go, ‘No, I’m the girl in the daisy dukes with the chain around me.’ [laughing]
When I started to lose control of myself I just really started to lose faith. I really started to question religion because I can get really cynical about religion and I can get very cynical about prayer. I finally just decided that if I couldn’t pray to God and feel earnest about it then I would just need to try and hear my dad’s voice and I needed to hear “Listen son.” I needed someone to say “son” to me and I needed someone to say “your problems are not unique” that we all go through these times and that you’re entitled to some peaks and you got to get right. You got to be tethered to something. You got to be grounded to some community to some family and some faith, and to be honest with you that’s when I began to let go. I know this sounds painfully simplistic, but a lot of the movie is about letting go of hate and letting go of fear. I really needed to do that for me to move on and this is where I am exploring it, in this movie, with a hot daisy duke wearing girl on the end of a chain.
After your success with Hustle and Flow how easy was it to get this made, to get the actors and were scripts just piling up at your doorstep?
CB: Projects were definitely being offered to me and they were some pretty big projects and I would be in the room with the heads of studios and they would pitch them to me, but they all knew about Black Snake, they all had it because I wrote Black Snake before I started shooting Hustle and Flow. So it was already in the can ready to be filmed, but I don’t want to say it was easy, but compared to Hustle and Flow I guess it was. Sam Jackson got the script from Singleton and he really responded to it. Christina sent me an email after she saw Hustle and Flow and then she read Black Snake Moan and insisted on coming in and reading for it and there were a lot of actresses that wanted to read for it, but she was so brilliant in her audition that I couldn’t see anybody else [doing it], I had five more days of auditions and I cancelled them.
That sort of answers another one of my questions, which was going to be how easy it was to get Christina to agree to be chained up and to take on this role, but it sounds like it wasn’t hard at all.
CB: No, it was very much the other way around, I was looking to do a movie with my Southern obsessions and my Southern archetypes and I was looking for that “Li’l Abner” Sadie Hawkins dream, that redneck fantasy, that silhouette on the back of an 18-wheeler mud flap. So in my limited experience I was seeking a different type than Christina.
Now, I am a Ricci fan, but I just didn’t immediately see it until she came in and read and she was fighting for the role, she wanted to play this desperately and I wish you could see her audition tape because it is fearless, it’s coming from a place of true compassion. She is an artist who had compassion for this character and used her arsenal of talent and craft and costume, she came into the audition and she looked like Rae, it was incredible. When I showed the videotape to other people who were also on the fence with the notion, people in the studio, when I should them the tape they were like holy shit, it’s an incredible rendering of this character. Then she wanted to have herself look a certain way and we started to put freckles on her skin and on her body and the hair, she slimmed down basing this idea that this character is raised on sugar cereals and chips. I think she just nailed it to the wall.
I’ve heard people refer to Black Snake Moan as pulp, would you agree with that?
CB: I don’t know, I know the poster kind of gives it a pulp feel, which is exactly what I wanted it to do. The movies I am attracted to like Baby Doll and A Streetcar Named Desire, these are movie posters with passion on the front, taboo imagery. You look at the poster for Baby Doll and it’s got Carroll Baker looking gorgeous as all get out, but she’s in a baby crib and she can barely even sit in it, her bare legs are hanging off the side of it and you’re kind of like God that looks so exciting, should I be this excited about this? You know? I don’t know if it is right for me to be excited about this.
Well look at Sam Jackson’s character in the poster, and you look at Christina Ricci’s character in the poster and you think Wow, that’s wrong and man she looks good and he is all sweaty. There is something both terrifying and titillating about it. The movie poster is not incorrect necessarily.
Are there any alternate endings to Black Snake Moan and was there ever an inclination to go a different way? Because you could have gone many different ways with the third act.
CB: No, that has always been the ending. I saw this as being a Saturday/Sunday movie. To me the blues crescendos into gospel. You basically get to the end of your work week â€“ by the way this is the life I really do feel I live in Memphis with my friends and with my wife. We go out and we, you know, we get a little fucked up sometimes and we dance with everybody and you just sweat it out of you and it’s dirty rock and roll and it’s dirty blues and it makes you do crazy stuff sometimes and yet you crash and you feel truly exorcised and exhausted and you wake up the next morning and you can either go to church or nurse a hangover or sometimes both.
One of the greatest things about this movie was that dance sequence and how you did not go clichÃ© with Ricci’s character which you could have easily done.
CB: It’s not about hooking up, she’s a sexual being and it began out of pain. I know people who are overtly sexual and it came from having to grow up a lot sooner than they anticipated and usually that is through pain. So what do you do with yourself when you are left with that kind of feeling and yet it always comes from a place of fear? Well, that’s the first time she can actually be sexual and there’s no fear really in it. She feels very protected, a friend that has not taken anything from her is protecting her and watching her and that’s the feeling I really feel in Memphis. I feel we are all kind of looking out for each other. We all are aware that we get kind of messed up and we look out for each other.
With Black Snake Moan is there anything you hope the audience will come out of the theater thinking or talking about?
CB: I wish they would do the same thing now that I am getting with Hustle and Flow. Basically everybody now rented Hustle and Flow, they watched it on Netflix or the saw it on Showtime last week and I get the same thing, ‘I didn’t know I was going to enjoy it. I didn’t think I would like a movie about a pimp rapping.’ I think the same thing is happening here. I have been showing [Black Snake Moan] all across the country and a wide variety of people – old, young, white, black, every type â€“ are coming up to me saying, ‘We loved it. We feel both exhausted and inspired,’ and they’re anxious to, I know this sounds corny, but they’re anxious to love somebody. I think it’s truly a movie about love and unconditional love. I would say if there is going to be criticism it would be that it is religious and it is, to some extent, about the Good Samaritan and it is about sin and forgiveness and it’s something about being a filmmaker from a red state where the people wear their religions on their sleeves, I think we’ve kind of gotten away from the true message of it all and it is that we are all brothers and sisters and we all mess up. We’ve got to stop judging each other and letting go of some of that hate.
Hustle and Flow received great reviews and Black Snake Moan is already getting some good buzz, how much does critical opinion matter to you?
CB: Well, it’s tricky, you say that Hustle and Flow had fantastic reviews and that this movie is getting fantastic reviews but I just remember getting bad reviews. The first time the movie played at Sundance Manohla Dargis called it rubbish. I’ll never forget that and it is so funny because people came up to me and they were like, ‘Oh man, we’re so sorry Manohla Dargis called your movie rubbish,’ and I was like, ‘Wow… Who’s Manohla Dargis?’ I suddenly realized there is no rhyme or reason to any of it. Hustle got bad reviews and it got great reviews. Black Snake Moan has gotten bad reviews and fantastic reviews. I also remember that year that Hustle and Flow came out and I was reading terrible review after terrible review after terrible review of this movie called Crash. My friends are going, ‘Have you seen Crash?’ and I am like I gotta see this movie. I loved it, all my friends loved it and then it won Best Picture. I just don’t know anymore. I don’t know what an artist should necessarily covet. I don’t know if they should covet reviews, box-office or people digging your movie and I think the only thing you can cling to, or at least the only thing I have learned to cling to, is “Do I like it? Does it mean something to me?” and I can just hope that somebody is going to respond to the things that I am responding to.
Casting Justin Timberlake. Had you seen him in Alpha Dog or did you cast him before that? Because this is a pretty tough role for a newcomer.
CB: I hadn’t seen him act at all. I saw him in a Barbara Walters interview and he was talking about being a guy from Memphis and how much it influenced him as an artist and I felt that too, and this was before Hustle and Flow. I turned to my wife and said, ‘I think I am supposed to work with Justin Timberlake.’ I finally met him and we talked and we felt very similar in many ways. We felt a certain love/hate relationship with the South where we knew people like Ronnie. We knew guys that had been pushed into aggressive, masculine roles. That had uncles and fathers smacking them and calling them sissies and how sometimes it would make people humble inside. He’s also a very confident man, kind of wise beyond his years like you would never imagine. I told him, ‘I need you to play a guy who is really vulnerable.’ I think the great thing about Justin is that he is choosing these interesting roles. People need to applaud him by his choices. He’s a guy that could easily do a singing and dancing movie for the teenagers and he chose not to.
Now Sam Jackson is perfect for the role of Laz and I was wondering if there ever was a doubt in your mind that he would be the person to play it.
CB: Once I met with him I knew he was the guy. Especially, after I saw him in this interview because a bunch of people were interested. Morgan Freeman was interested and a few others and I remember I was about to go to the Oscars, the year before Hustle and Flow was up, and I am at home watching some sort of “Access Hollywood” interview and it is with Sam Jackson and he starts talking about how he was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee and I remember turning to my wife going, ‘How did that element get passed me? I didn’t know Sam was from Tennessee.’ Then he starts talking about his struggles with addiction and how he has put that behind him and I suddenly just saw that Sam had this life that he put behind him and that’s what the character has done.
Then I go to the Oscars and I see him as a presenter and it’s right after Morgan had won, and Will Smith and Jamie Foxx and everything and I was kind of thinking to myself When is Sam going to get one of these Oscars? Then I saw him in the lines for the limos and I’ll never forget I turned to my wife and said, ‘I think Sam Jackson has got to play Lazarus in my movie.’ Then I met with him and it was on right there.
We went down to Clarksdale, Mississippi and got with some bluesmen. He started learning to play the guitar and you know the one thing I applaud Sam about the most is not so much that he learned how to play the guitar, but there is not a music movie out there right now, and I’ll challenge any of them – Walk the Line to Dreamgirls – they’re lip-synching.
So that was Sam singing the whole time?
CB: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, we pre-recorded with other guitarists because he only had like four weeks to learn the guitar but he is singing live every moment you see him sing live. That means a lot of takes, that means me running two cameras because I don’t want to get his voice tired. It is a very tricky process to sing live in a movie. (see Sam sing here)
When we started the interview we talked about the tough times you went through and now you have movies getting Oscars and Morgan Freeman and Sam Jackson both want to be in your films. I am wondering from where it all began to where it is now, what are your feelings on your career?
CB: Every time it gets cold out and I am going through the mall and see calendars, where people are buying New Year’s calendars, I always get a little anxious, a little sick to my stomach. I used to work at a little bookstore where that was my job, it was like bargain books and calendars are coming up now and I would get all those goddamn paper cuts and everything, but I am incredibly grateful that I get to make the movies I want to make. That I have a really supportive team with Stephanie Lane and John Singleton and that I have got a studio that is behind me. I have to say, Brad Grey invited me up to his mansion a couple days before he took over his job [as the head of Paramount] and he knew that I wanted to make Black Snake Moan and he just told me, ‘I’ve gotten where I am by supporting talent and I want to support you so if you want to do Black Snake Moan as your next picture then we’re going to do Black Snake Moan.’
I have been very impressed with that kind of mentorship of people around me that have encouraged me to tell my story and do what I want to do. But I would say the most important thing about all of this that I have managed to do is stay at home. Memphis is really my radiator, it is that thing I want to be chained to and that I don’t want to get too far away from. It snaps me back if I get a little too big for my britches, it’s the place that reminds me that I used to show the movies I made on a video camera in bars on white sheets hanging on the walls. They loved me then and they will love me if every movie I make tanks.
After Black Snake Moan what is up next?
CB: It’s already written, we’re doing Maggie Lynn. It’s time to do the country music movie. Putting the hip hop and blues behind me and moving into outlaw country.
What’s the storyline going to be?
CB: East Tennessee wife with two kids and a husband that’s a dirt track racer. She finds out that he’s been cheating on her and she moves back in with her brother and her mom in the house where her father died and they used to sing songs in the State Fair together. It’s about her going on the road for two months with her brother to Nashville to play in honky-tonks and be selfish for once in her life.
Have you started working with a studio or done any casting?
CB: Paramount has the script and it’s all done, I just have to get Black Snake Moan out of the way and I can start making it.
I think it was almost six months back that Terrence Howard said there might be a Hustle and Flow sequel is that true?
CB: They’re not going to be for a while if they happen. They are outlined and some are written but yeah after Hustle and Flow there was a day where I saw like kind of this trilogy of a man starting in creativity and then eventually moving into the second part which is selling your music out on the road in the buses and then kind of reaching that Jay-Z stature in the third one. It’s probably going to be a while, I have two or three other movies I am going to do before I do that.
Would you do anyone else’s script?
CB: I really want to work on my own stuff for this particular music series that I’m doing. But, just to give you an example, the next thing Terrence and I are doing is the Charley Pride story and I am hiring a writer for that. So yeah, very much so, I would direct something that someone else had written, but really I want to be known as a writer/director and that’s what these projects are.