Craig Brewer

Craig Brewer: The Interview

Craig Brewer, director of Hustle & Flow recently sat down with us to discuss his newest picture, Black Snake Moan. Here’s what he had to say:

Shakefire: How did Samuel, Christina, and the rest get involved?

CRAIG BREWER: Well let’s just start with the top down. It really started with Sam, which was by way of my big brother John Singleton. John doesn’t really like to do things the Hollywood way. He doesn’t go through managers or agents, he just calls somebody up and says “Hey Sam, my boy Craig has got this script and I think you should see it.” So Sam got the script and I met with him. He really takes his craft seriously. He’s probably one of the most technically brilliant actors. Like he will land on his mark every time, he’ll play to the camera perfectly…it’s the result of a person that’s done 60 movies but what people really don’t see is how much research he does on roles and how much work goes into his makeup and really creating his character. So Sam was the first one.

The character of Rae was a little bit more tricky because, man, she’s so outrageous. You think she’s outrageous on the screen but just reading it…it challenged a lot of actresses but they all wanted to take that leap. You know, they saw what this character could be.

But Christina mailed me a letter. I was in a screening of Hustle & Flow and it was like man, I just got an e-mail from Christina Ricci. How cool is that! And she wrote that she had just seen Hustle & Flow and that she went into the bathroom and just started crying. She really thought that I had handled the humanity of the characters appropriately that it would…it would be so easy to kind of dismiss the whores in the movie but she genuinely cared for them. Then she read Black Snake Moan and she told her agent “Look, I’m going to quit the business unless I get this role.”

I told her agent “I gotta be honest with you; I’m looking for a certain archetype. Kind of the whole point of this movie is to go after clichés. I needed to have that daisy duke-wearing, back-of-the-truck-mudflap-silhouette redneck wet dream, you know, and I just didn’t immediately think of Christina Ricci. I didn’t think of Wednesday Adams necessarily. But she insisted on auditioning and so she came in – she was my first audition – and right there on the steps as I’m walking up to the casting department there’s this little girl sitting on the steps smoking a cigarette in a jeans skirt, a tank top, and wearing blue eye shadow she bought from Walgreens.

We go in there to do the audition and she had called somebody in Mississippi (like a friend of hers) and had memorized all of the lines that this woman from Mississippi was saying to her and she totally got the accent down. I just recently watched her audition – because I think it’s going to be on the DVD – and it’s what you see in the movie. I remember being just absolutely enthralled. And it was also the first time I had heard anybody say the lines that I wrote. But where everybody else was trying to be sexy and sexual, Christina’s interpretation of the character was like an immature 13 year-old yelling at her mom, sexually wise beyond her years suddenly and then suddenly filled with rage and yelling. Then she would crumble to the floor like a little toddler, just weeping. And I realized that that’s what the character is all about. We’ve all been in those bars and yeah there may be that girl you want to go home with for a one-night stand but most guys don’t want to go beyond that because there’s a lot of pain that’s there. Ricci I think understood that she…Christina is actually nothing like this character. She’s a little…I would…I would say she even borders on the prudish. She hates any sort of foul language around her. She really wants people to be considerate and professional. And yet she just completely surrendered to this character and jumped in head first.

Justin I called up on the phone and just said “Man, I’m from Memphis, you’re from Memphis, aren’t we supposed to be working together?” We met and we talked about the character and I think we both understood Ronnie. We both knew guys from the south who had been pushed into these aggressively masculine roles and they just aren’t equipped for it. They’re not equipped for that kind of anger and aggression so they kind of crumble and kind of really fall apart.

Everybody’s doing back flips that Justin Timberlake is in my movie because he’s just so huge. I mean he’s just bigger than ever. But really, two years ago I knew, like, I think Justin is on his way just like Will Smith and just like Jamie Foxx. I mean remember there was a time where if you were to say that Jamie Foxx was going to be an Academy Award-winning actor, people would laugh.

I’m telling you, the way Justin is handling himself by not doing the big roles or not doing the, you know, the singing and dancing thing in movies…he’s choosing small roles in interesting movies that I think challenge him and push him outside his comfort zone. He’s just a very competitive guy. If there’s a sport he doesn’t know how to do he’s going to learn how to do it. You want to work with those kinds of people because you know at some point they’re going to surprise everybody and I wanted to be there. I wanted to start that relationship (with him) right now.

Oh, Kim Richards, I have to tell that story. I was in Clarksdale, Mississippi with Sam Jackson. We had taken him on this tour to kind of get the blues in him, you know. We met with different artists like Big Jack Johnson to try to teach him the guitar and Kenny Brown and Cedric Burnside. We’re in this real shit hole of a juke joint and we’re sitting at the bar and this white girl with very little teeth and this tight dress came up, sat down, lit a cigarette, blew her smoke out, looked at me and Sam and said “Which one of you boys is taking me home?” And we kind of tried to move, sort of angle away from her a little bit and it’s like so weird - like our movie just walked in. If anybody ever says that this (movie) is kind of wild and crazy, here we are. Clarksdale, Mississippi. First thing out of this girl’s mouth.

We’re sitting there and we’re trying to figure out who can play Christina Ricci’s mother. I really think the terrible thing about that character is that she’s a woman who used to be like her daughter. She used to be young and beautiful and the center of attention and then she had this little girl and you know where some people are very giving she was very selfish. I wanted an actress who used to be the big child star back in the day. So me and Sam are just sitting there going over different names and he’s like “well what about people from the 80’s” like Penelope Ann Miller or, you know, we’re just kind of thinking about this. He’s like “Well who was your first crush?” and I was like “Man, there was this little girl from Escape from Witch Mountain that I loved.” I told my parents when I was like six years old, I was like “I want her as my big sister”, you know, “I love her.” And so I told my casting director “Find me Kim Richards.”

She had been out of the business for 20 years and she comes in to audition in this black Madonna tour shirt and blue jeans with that sexy, husky voice she even had when she was a girl, and she’s like “Why did you call me?” I was like “’Cause I was in love with you. I know you probably get that a lot but I genuinely that I was supposed to see if you can do this role. So would you mind reading for it?”

She’s got a beautiful little girl that looks just like her that’s going into acting. Well she read through it once and I said “You love your little girl, don’t you?” and she’s like “Oh, she’s my light.” I said “And you want her to be successful as an actress, don’t you?” and she was like “Absolutely, I want her to have all the things that I had.” So I said “Do this role again and completely turn that switch around. You need to hate your daughter. You need to hate the fact that she may take the limelight. Once she did that I saw her. It was like 20 years out of the business and you’re back. I gotta get you back in this movie.

SF: Can you talk a little bit about the south and how it’s prominent in your films?

CB: Um, it’s the last mythological place in America. It has its own crazy stories and histories and even my people love talking about them, sometimes the crazier the better. I mean, I’ve been at funerals where suddenly the most outrageous behavior happens. Everybody laughs and then everybody calms down and goes back to crying. Suddenly some dumb thing happens with somebody from the other side of the family and then there’s an argument and everybody gets in a fight and then it’s back to crying again. There just seems to be a lot of drama and I feel that it’s the one thing that is our continuity. I’ve found that sometimes we need to remind ourselves that we’re attracted to that kind of material.

I loved the plays of August Wilson and Tennessee Williams and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. I always feel at home when I read those things because my grandmothers would always tell my crazy stories about growing up in the south. I like all the clichés and the archetypes of the south and that’s why I really wanted to see this collision between two very different people that are both experiencing very similar pain.

Rae, her character is of that horny farmer’s daughter archetype. That’s that, you know, “Oh son, don’t go over to that house”, you know, “That girl, she’s gonna get ya.” There’s the funny version of that and then there’s Harper Lee’s version of it in To Kill A Mockingbird where a man’s on trial for just going in and helping a white girl move a chifforobe and she’s attacking him. There’s this immediate, visceral reaction that I find in audiences. Even though I’m not exploring race or gender in this movie it’s just there. So you have an audience who sees this very big, old, very black man and this very small, young, very white girl in this house and the audience is both terrified and titillated at the same time. They expect something. Like they expect either somebody to come walking through the door or they expect some kind of violence to happen toward Lazarus because this girl is there. They sometimes are afraid that these two might get together. 

There’s this moment in the movie where I always turn around and I watch the audience and I think it says more about the audience than it does the movie. But (Rae) is just in a fever dream. She’s just…she’s just out of control, you know. She’s not even thinking straight and (Lazarus) is holding her and he’s going “Come on gal”, you know, “Wake up, wake up” and she just kisses him, right, and the audience flinches like it’s a horror movie. It’s like an alien hopped out of the wall. I think to myself “Wow, a kiss did that?” I mean, this audience is so jacked up and stressed about this and then BAM this kiss and you just see people move in their seats. It’s the funniest thing. I think it’s that collision, it’s that crossroads that everybody in the south I think has had in their life and I think it’s lead to some of the most terrible things in our history but also some of the most sacred things. I can’t help but think of music especially.

When we eat, when we watch sports, or when we make music or listen to music it’s not that we ignore each other’s differences, we celebrate them. I really wanted this movie to be a combination of all these forces at work but you come to the end of it and you go “you know, I kind of feel a little foolish about getting all worked over that” because really these are just two people who have chosen to be family. I know a lot of people who don’t have family and sometimes you need to choose it. You need to have a community around you and that’s what being chained to that radiator for her, even though it’s got this whole exploitive tone to it, it’s actually about faith. (It’s about being) given roots and be told that no matter how bad things get or how crazy things get this will not move and you can always come back to this.

Interview by Baron Aloha