Albert and Allen Hughes have had one of the strangest mainstream careers of any directors who ever landed with the sort of hype that was part of the release of “Menace II Society.” Their subsequent films like “Dead Presidents,” “American Pimp,” and even “From Hell” all have admirers, but they’ve never really had the same sort of imperative heat that they did the first time around.
I’ve spoken with them a few times over the years, and I’ve always found them to be entertaining, outspoken, and unexpected in all sorts of ways, and when I was asked if I wanted to speak with them on the eve of the release of their latest film, I was happy to do so. The interviews took place by phone last weekend, and to avoid my transcriber blowing her own brains out, I was offered each of the guys individually. With twin brothers, that’s a pretty big help.
First up was Albert, and the first call from him disconnected almost immediately. He called right back, and we picked up right away:
Albert Hughes: Sorry about that. Our hotel phone went out.
Drew McWeeny: Hey, how are you, sir?
AH: All right. Doing good.
DM: It has been a while, I believe, since we”ve spoken.
AH: When was the last time we spoke?
DM: God, I think it was pre-From Hell?
Drew: It was as you guys were gearing up, I believe.
AH: Oh man.
Drew: Yeah, I was back at Ain”t It Cool in those days. So, I saw the film a little while ago. I didn”t see it at the junket this weekend. I saw it probably the start of December. And what really stuck with me is you guys have a very, very cool style of shooting action.
Drew: It”s not the current sort of shaky-cam, can”t see what”s going on thing. You guys really made sure that we can see Denzel in these scenes, that we can see what”s going on. I love your sense of geography.
AH: Oh, thank you.
Drew: How did you guys decide how you were going to shoot the action in this movie and then work with the team in order to put it together?
AH: Well, I mean there were like parameters and a certain dogma that goes with very film like rules. And one of the rules that we set for ourselves early on in this book that we put out to the studio and the heads of our department was that we wanted the action to play out as much as possible in one shot so that it felt real to the audience and we wanted to play it in real time, even at the shootout. We did get a little shaky there, more hand-held, and the hand-held stuff comes more when Carnegie starts losing control of his town or his people basically or of himself. So at that point we said okay, let”s do everything real-time and only use slow motion for emotional scenes or just one pivotal scene with Eli… you know which one I”m talking about, between him and Carnegie at the end with guns… just to draw that emotion out. And you know, of course, we were influenced by all the old movies like the 1932 version of “Scarface” by Howard Hawks. And my brother brought up that movie “Oldboy,” like look how he”s fighting 15 guys in one shot, you know? It just feels real. So that was more the motivation, and then when we got into it with Denzel and we had the one scene in the underpass where he”s in silhouette, the actor side of him came out. It wasn”t his ego, though… it was more like, “I”ve been training this long. Are people going to know it”s me because I”m in silhouette?” I said, “Well, you”ve got a very distinct silhouette, so people are going to know it”s you. Don”t worry about it.” And that was the only real discussion we had about his look, but he was down with it from the get-go. He”s like 53-54 years old, so he just had to sustain himself, because usually on a movie like this, you have coverage so you can have a break in between 4 or 5 punches. But when we did that scene in particular I remember by the third take he was like, “Okay, we”re good.” He goes, “You want one more?” I go, “Yeah, I need one more.” He goes, “Well, if I break my leg there”s no more movie.”
Drew: (laughs) Good point.
AH: “Okay, we’re done. We”ll take this.” And I had to doctor it up a little bit, but…
Drew: So this was a spec script, right? Gary Witta wrote this himself and then sold it, right? At what point did you guys become involved with the property?
AH: Gary sold it, I think, and then I think maybe a few weeks later one of our agents called my brother and said there”s this script called “The Book of Eli” that’s set up at Joel Silver”s company at Warner Brothers, and Joel Silver didn”t even realize they had it. Warner Brothers didn”t really know what it was. Nobody had read it yet. So we were in the position where I”m like, “Let”s just get on this and read it really quick before there”s any competition out there.” So we were the first directors and the last ones to read it. And once we finished, I flew back home, and I told Allen I”m going to write a like a manifesto, basically, a word document that detailed our take. About page like 13 or 15, I call him up and say, “You know, I”m on page 15 and this thing is still going on. I haven”t written anything like this since high school.” He said, “Well, put it into book form,” which we learned in the commercial world. You put your visuals and all that stuff together with your verbal and you sell yourself in the commercial world. So I thought I”d put it in a book form and that took another 3 weeks and then I flew into L.A. and then we went and pitched ourselves to Joel Silver and Warner Brothers and an hour later we had the movie.
Drew: Wow. So what was it that you responded to so strongly in the material that made you feel like you had to make this one?
AH: Well, at first I didn”t respond strongly at all. I mean, Allen read it first, then he called me up and goes, “You”ve got to read this.” And I said, “Okay.” So I read it, and I called him back and I said, “I don”t know, man.” He goes, “What do you mean, you don”t know?” I said, “I don”t know about the spiritual or religious element in this. I”m not comfortable with that right now.” He said, “Well, just sleep on it.” I said, “Okay.” So I went to sleep and I had a dream about the movie, but what made me find my way to the movie was this song called “Zero-Sum” from the Year Zero CD by Nine Inch Nails. Allen had been playing this song in his car for like a week for me. Just playing it, you know? So I went to sleep and I had like a 7 or 8 hour dream about the movie, but the song is what got me into the movie. Then I woke up and I called him and I said, “I get it, I get it. Let me go to Prague and do this thing,” and then I just got into this manic state where I just saw the world and I saw the characters and I found my way in, you know? There are ways people can find their way into the movie or out of the movie and I always knew that even when the movie was finished and was in its complete form, that liberals would have some trouble with it, you know? And conservatives wouldn”t for the most part, but it”s all depending on where you”re coming from in life. If your politics are one way or the other, you can read the movie in several different kind of ways. So we went in with that kind of knowledge and basically saying, like, let”s pull back. Eli”s spouting like bible stuff, you know, and coming off preachy, but it”s not about that. It”s more of saying this mission, this guy, is doing one thing, but he”s not trying to be… looking down or casting blame or passing judgment on people based on it. So that was more of the thing I tried to rid the script of in a way. You know, keep it more about a character and not about religion, you know?
Drew: I love that you guys have sort of the restrained version of Gary in this one. I think what is really nice here is that he and Denzel have found a rhythm together, like they are definitely in the same movie. How much of that was a discussion with you guys up front? How much of that was what Gary brought to the table?
AH: Well, it was a combination. I think one thing Gary said on the set that was really funny… one day he was like… he was doing a scene, I think it was the scene where he was like “Put the road crew together” and banged his leg up. He”s like, “We”ve got to get that book.” And he”s really big in that scene, you know? But he was insecure about it, so like Gary would always ask for an extra take. One more, one more and Denzel”s cool with three, you know? Then after we did the scene, the next day he came back and he”s like, “Can I do my close-up again?” I”m like, “Why? No problem here. We”ll do whatever you want.” I love guys that want to do an extra take. He”s like, “Because I think I may have went a little bit over the top yesterday.” He goes, “You know, I”m a ham.” He goes, “I”m the king of overacting. I”m the king of overacting. I just want to calm it down. I don”t know if I hit it right.” The thing he didn”t realize was that, and what I love about Gary is, he”ll do six or seven takes and in those six or seven takes, he”ll give you different variables on the reading. And he already adjusted himself the day before, but he had been harping overnight. He was really hard on himself. And with Denzel, it was more like he was taking lines away from the script. Denzel can read the Yellow Pages and make it sound great, you know? He does these big monologues and stuff all over the movie. And he was like, “No, this guy is like this,” and we agreed like he”s more action and less about words, so he was kind of fine-tuning everything, and I think Gary was also of the opinion on this character, and my brother was too, is it can”t be a traditional by the numbers bad guy. He has to be more gray. And he was doing everything to fit that. He even had trouble with the breakfast scene, I remember, where he grabs Jennifer Beals and I remember for days he was harping on that. He”s like, “I don”t understand why he would do this. Why he would send the daughter in to do this for the book.” He could rationalize some things, you know? Because he would try to find a way not to be a traditional bad guy, so those discussions were going on constantly and they basically found the rhythm on their own, you know? Denzel and Gary. Okay, they’re telling me to wrap up.
Drew: Well, listen, thank you so much, man. I enjoyed the movie. I”m really looking forward to people getting a look at it, and I hope somebody turns around and hands you guys a gigantic action film after this because I”d love to see you rip it up.
AH: (laughter) All right, thanks, man.
Drew: All right. Take care.
AH: All right, bye.
And then almost as soon as I hung up, the phone rang again, and this time, it was Allen:
Drew McWeeny: Hello?
Allen Hughes: Hey, Drew.
Drew: Hey, how are you doing, Allen?
AH: Very good. How are you doing?
Drew: Very well, thanks. So, I was talking a little bit with Albert about my response to the way you guys shot action in this movie, and it”s just got such a clean, simple command of geography, and that seems so unusual in the marketplace today. Like everybody has pushed in the other direction. It really struck me that it”s unusual to be able to see your lead actor doing what he”s doing in the movie.
AH: Yes, yes.
Drew: Denzel”s prep for this movie must have been fairly extensive because he”s great and it”s not really something we”ve seen from Denzel before. What were those conversations like with him and how did you guys prep him for what you were going to be doing in the film?
AH: Well, conversations with Denzel are always interesting and fun and challenging because it”s not like a typical director/actor relationship, you know? It”s actually more of a filmmaker/actor relationship because filmmakers collaborate with their talent. So with Denzel, you know, you”re not going, look here”s what we need and here”s how we want it. You go, what are your thoughts? Here”s our thoughts and you just start having a discourse about it, but I let him know right off the bat… the first meeting I had with him, I tried to figure out a way to tell him that he needs to be skinny and he was already at that point by his own admission overweight because he was editing “The Great Debaters” and eating a lot, you know? And so about 20 minutes into the meeting he goes, “What do you think this character looks like?” And I”m, “How am going to tell him this?” And I said, “I think he”s gaunt and gray.” And he goes, “Okay.” And then we started talking for another hour. He just moved past it. And an hour later he goes, “So skinny and old?” I said, “Okay yeah. Skinny and old. Get the gray out.” And from then on, you know, once he got into it, man, he got into really shedding the weight and training at the same time. The training was… there was diets, and then there was boxing training to get physically stronger, and then there was training with Jeff Imada who did the “Bourne” movies and “Fight Club” and “Last Samurai”, and what I love about Jeff is that his guru is Dan Nisano, who was Bruce Lee”s right hand man. And Bruce Lee was like one of my gods. I even studied his philosophy beyond the man on the screen. But the one thing that, going back to the question you asked or statement you made, the thing I loved about Bruce Lee in all his movies, all 4 movies he made, is that they would hold the shots, particularly “Enter the Dragon,” and you would see the whole fight in one shot. They made sure it was a medium shot or a head to toe shot. And I just remember always as a teenager, even before I knew who he was, when I was a kid and being struck by something. I don”t know why it was different. Because it wasn”t chopped up. It wasn”t manipulated. And emotionally it resonates with you more even though or may not know it, it does matter in the end, you know?
Drew: Oh yeah. Well it”s funny, because people don”t give Robert Clouse enough credit as director on that. They always talk about Bruce Lee but you”ve got to give Clouse credit for knowing how to shoot him.
AH: Yeah, absolutely. You know, Bruce was very good at knowing the camera, too. When we sat down with Denzel, he understood the power of the camera and how we needed to shoot things because he”s not one for falling into iconic poses and doing things that are by the numbers, and this movie we needed certain mythological iconic poses to be hit, so we had to do a dance with him. And I know the breakthrough moment came when I showed him “Oldboy,” the Korean film that won the Palm D’or a few years ago.
Drew: Great movie.
AH: I said, “Look at this one shot, D. It”s fucking two minutes long, three minutes long. It”s fifteen guys, and he”s got a hammer and they”ve got knives in his back and he”s going back and forth. If we can just pull off something… I mean, we”re not going to pull this off but if we can just pull something off in this shot, we”ll be golden, you know?”
Drew: It”s been an interesting sort of process for you guys to get to this. Is there material between the last time I saw you guys onscreen and this that you”ve liked but that you haven”t made it to screen with, or has it been a choice where you guys went off to work in commercials and said “You know, we”re just going to go do this for awhile”? Because it really feels like this is something that, in talking to Albert about why you guys took it and the process that you went through, that it spoke to you and it was important to you to get this job.
Drew: And you guys have never followed the track of… and this is one of the things that I really like about your work… you”ve never followed the track of the “black” director in Hollywood. You”ve never made that part of your identity. It”s always been about finding movies that maybe people didn”t expect from you.
Drew: So can you talk about sort of why this is the thing where you guys finally said, “Okay, this is what we want to do”?
AH: Because when I read it, it was at page 45 when Carnegie says, “It”s not just a book, it”s a weapon, and when it is pointed at the hearts of the weak, the minds of the weak and the desperate, it will give us control.” Already up until that point it was a phenomenal spec script and when it hit that note I said, “Oh my God, this is…I”ve got to do this if this guy doesn”t fuck the rest of the script up.” Because I knew…what”s important to my brother and I is that you don”t have to like the movie. I don”t care. There”s certain critics that obviously won”t like the movie because of the so-called religious overtones when it”s not religious. Actually it”s spiritual, but if they want to call it that and they don”t like it, but as long as you respect the point of view, you know? And the passion, you know, the passion for the medium, the passion for the story, the passion for caring. Just caring, you know, then we”re fine. Because at the end of the day those projects that we didn”t get to do over the years, out of the five, maybe one was a little bit out of our wheelhouse, but most of them… the other four were a perfect fit, you know? Because it”s not just a year of our life to us. It”s more than a year of our life and it becomes our life and home is work and work is home and vacations… there is no… everything is everything at that point, so we just can”t go direct comic book guys and go home and turn it off and come back and have a dude flying on green-screen with a cape. What are you saying with that? It”s not saying anything.
Drew: It”s funny because I met you guys the first time years ago. I worked for Ain”t It Cool, and I remember years ago talking to you about things you wanted to do and one of the things you dropped as a thing you loved from your childhood and if you ever got the shot at it, you”d go make it… it blew my mind. It was the moment where I realized that you guys just had no interest in being in the box that Hollywood would put you in. It was “Little House on the Prairie”.
Drew: Really, it”s always stuck with me, and you were serious in saying it. You talked about the influence it had on you as a kid and why you loved it so much and responded to it. And it really reset the way I think about you. Do you have a problem… is it because you won”t make the films that people typically would associate with you? Is that what has been the….?
AH: You know what it is? I mean to answer that in an all encompassing way is that we”re Persian Armenian Negroes, you know? Black men who were raised by a feminist radical pagan woman who taught us always to challenge authority in a respectful way. My father was a street hustler, a player with a good heart. He was an individual that came from nothing but was an exceptional individual, you know? From Detroit, you know? And we came up in the time of in the 70″s obviously when everybody was just getting… the Civil Rights were just kicking in, you know? We came up in the blow era, the Me era… the white man era. Reganomics, you know? And we were victims of Reganomics. Our afterschool programs got cut and we saw exactly what the fuck happened to friends and family and people dying from, you know, and we saw the other side of the tracks as well. My point is that we”re not just one thing. I love “Little House on the Prairie” with Michael Landon. That show would bring me to tears every week. It was very inspirational throughout my childhood. I also love NWA and the way they talk about shooting niggers, right? But I also love Karen Carpenter. You know it”s… we”re polar. We”re polar because we are bi-racial. We were raised by a feminist woman and a man that eventually dealt in moving women across state lines for purposes of… you know? So it”s more complex than somebody who grew up in Mayberry and went to school at Harvard and when you grow up, these things are your Achilles heels you feel like, but when you get older, they become your strengths, you know, because you see life from all points of view. And you”re interested in things that are good even if they”re sweet and sappy. I like “Pippi Longstocking.” I”m sure my brother told you that shit. At one point my brother wanted to make “Pippi Longstocking”. I”m like, “That”s career suicide, playboy.”
Drew: See, that”s what I”ve always liked, and whenever I”ve talked about you guys, I”ve always cited that as something that shows the range of where your heads are. The fact that you guys could see a way that that could speak to you or that you would identify with that material. And I think there”s a lot of filmmakers who are happy to be categorized. They”re happy to be given that one thing that they do and just do it over and over and keep that note.
AH: Right, yeah.
Drew: Has commercial work… and this is something I know a lot of filmmakers go do, they get into the commercial world and it buys them room to breathe.
AH: Yes, it does.
Drew: Does that give you strength in terms of which material to pursue or not pursue?
AH: Yeah, that”s what that did. We were making more money than we ever made before shooting commercials. It wasn”t fulfilling, I”ll tell you that, but it bought us the latitude to say, “No, we”re not going to do that cheesy popcorn sub-superhero movie that no one knows about or that they kind of do know about and if we do it right, it might be big. We”re not going to do that.”
AH: At the end of the day it”s all about… the bottom line is, what are we saying? It doesn”t have to be rocket science or brain surgery and definitely we don”t want there to be a message, but you”ve got to be saying something, you know? And the last thing is Western culture has a problem with always wanting to quantify and categorize everyone so they can shuffle them in a file cabinet or put them to the side, stack them in a pile and move on. And some of the greatest human beings, artists, craftsmen, writers, poets, whatever… even plumbers, sanitation workers, it”s everybody. Some of the greatest ones I”ve come across you can”t even… they”re inexplicable. I call them Captain Inexplicables. You can”t put your… it”s not that simple with some people, you know?
AH: It isn”t.
Drew: Well, Allen, thanks, man. I really enjoyed the movie and I thought that the chemistry between Denzel and Gary was just right-on. Those two together paid off in all sorts of interesting ways.
AH: I appreciate those words. That”s what we want, Drew.
Drew: Yeah. And it”s good speaking with you again, man. I hope it”s not as long next time.
AH: No, it won”t be.
Drew: And I look forward to whatever you guys have cooking next.
AH: Thank you, Drew. That means a lot to us.
* * *
“The Book Of Eli” opens tomorrow in wide release.
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