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INT: Craig Brewer

03.02.2007

In 2005, writer/director Craig Brewer set the movie world abuzz with HUSTLE & FLOW, a heartfelt story about a pimp turned aspiring hip-hop star. In addition to launching the career of actor Terrence Howard, the film provided the us with one of the more surreal moments in Academy Awards history, when the Three 6 Mafia won the Best Song Oscar for "It's Hard Out There for a Pimp." Brewer recently stopped by the Hyatt Century Plaza in Los Angeles to talk about his latest film, BLACK SNAKE MOAN, which opens this week. Check it out.

Craig Brewer

What was the inspiration for Black Snake Moan?

Well, I guess at least in this case the idea was more therapeutic, more than anything. I was going through a difficult time trying to get Hustle & Flow going, and I was on a plane actually when Russell Simmons was interested in doing Hustle & Flow and they were flying me out. But I didn’t have any money, and my wife and I had just had a baby, and we had just applied for state health insurance so we could have the baby. We were not doing too well. My dad died of a heart attack at 49 so that was always on my mind. I had this really intense anxiety attack on a plane, and the stewardess came by and I told her, "You may want to get the defibrillator ready because I think I’m having a heart attack."

She asked me if I had any anxiety about flying or anything like that, and I said, "No ma’am, but my dad did die at 49. Get the defibrillator out." So she talked me down and it went away. I didn’t know really what it was, but as soon as I got back on that plane heading home, it hit again. It was a good month where I kept that from my wife and finally I confided with her that it was happening to me, and that’s when she told me that it was happening to her, and that it happened on freeways near big semis that she would just feel like she would come out of her skin, so we named it. We called it "Black Snake Moan.”

So, if we would be somewhere and they would begin to hit, we would mouth that to each other and we would have certain ways that we could get rid of the anxiety attacks through each other. If we were apart, I would call her and all she would do is just talk as if nothing bad was happening, like "Here’s what we did with your son today.” But when we’re together and they would really hit me, she would lay on my back and I would lay on the floor and she would put her arms underneath my chest and really push down and that pressure would take away some of that anxiety.

For a confident person like myself, it really messed with me that something could drop me to my knees and have me think that I am about to die. I think there’s a very unique time where you begin to question your own mortality, and the first thing that she recommended I do is write about it; and there was a night where I needed to tune out a little bit and I went to my room and lit a bunch of candles and I started playing Skip James. I am a big blues fan and Skip James had this song called "Hard Times Killing Floor Blues" and "Washington D.C. Hospital Room Blues."

What made Christina Ricci right for the lead role?

The cool thing about Hustle & Flow is that the script kind of went out into the Hollywood pool and really, everybody was responding to it. Everybody wanted to be a part of it. But the problem with Rae, the character Rae, I felt like I’d know it when I saw it. I mean, you all saw the movie. I met her half way on that, that was like on the script but otherwise that’s Ricci. Because lot of people that I had met with thought that it was just about being sexual and that’s not what the whole story is. Ricci demanded to audition and I said absolutely. I’m a fan of her work.

I’m trying to embrace all these Southern archetypes and the whole iconography of Southern culture and that includes drive-in movie, the horny farmer’s daughter, "Don’t go over there she’ll get you," that type of Lil' Abner, Sadie Hawkins daydream, and I didn’t really see Ricci in that particular style, necessarily, even though I’m a huge fan of Christina’s. But she was my first audition and I’m coming up the stairs of the casting department, and there on the steps is this little girl with a jean skirt on and a teeny little tank and she had bought some eye shadow, some blue eye shadow from Walgreen’s, and she called up a friend in Mississippi and had her repeat all the lines to her on tape.

So we rolled the videotape and just recently I saw it, and it’s like a teeny stone’s throw away from her final performance. Where everybody else had tried to be sexual or provocative, her character was like a 13-year-old immature daughter yelling at her mother, and then suddenly she’d be like very wise beyond her years and very seductive, and then she’d be vengeful, screaming and yelling at you, and then she would just drop to the floor weeping like a little toddler, and that’s when I realized like that’s what I’ve been missing. I couldn’t see anybody else but Christina and she transformed herself. We spent about 45 minutes a day putting freckles on her.

I was watching TV in a hotel and I saw Britney Spears doing a concert, and I called her up and I said, "Look at her hair.” She said, "I get it." We’re crafting this -- no offense to Britney -- but kind of like this white trash dream. She even went out to Dillard’s in the South and insisted on getting the right white cotton panties. It had to be just right. She chose her own chain. I had about five different chains laid out for her and, wouldn’t you know it, she picked up the biggest, heaviest, gnarliest chain, the biggest padlock, the kind of thing that you put on the back of a trailer, and she just owned it like from that day on. I couldn’t see anybody else.

And now when I watch the movie it's on so many levels because I am embracing this kind of tone which is a lot like a Tennessee Williams play or a short story by Flannery O’Connor. These are authors and the particular type of performance that I don’t think is really seen in cinema these days, because I think people usually need categories and I like people to laugh at the outrageousness of it and also be moved.

What did Samuel L. Jackson bring to the movie that you hadn’t seen in his other films?

Two things, really. There is a subtlety that I feel in this movie. There’s one shot that I can watch over and over and over again. It’s when she first stands up to reveal the chain and he looks embarrassed. He looks a little awkward, and it’s great to see someone as towering and powerful as Sam do something that restrained, and you see how much he suffers in his eyes like when his woman tells him "I don’t love you no more.” Sam’s known for being the big action guy. There’s certain things we love Sam to do.

That’s why we can do iconic impersonations of Samuel Jackson because he’s our American actor. We like seeing him do the Sam thing. But in this movie, he really worked to create a character from some of these blues men that we put him in touch with in Mississippi and northern Mississippi. If you watch, he actually even holds his posture a little bit differently. I’ve just watched him change where he kind of pushes his gut out just a little bit more than usual and his posture would just change.

But the thing that I find most – other than the obvious which is like he plays the blues and really like people probably have been waiting for Sam to play blues and he’s so perfect for it -- but more so I really like seeing him in a romantic situation with S. Epatha Merkerson. When you see it with a full house, they’re rooting for him and that’s a respect that someone like Jackson has basically earned over the years. I think that we never get to see him be romantic and it’s really great. An audience really responds to that, you know, they have to do that. They want him to be happy. They want him to find love.

Can you talk about the decision to cast Justin Timberlake?

Even before Hustle & Flow happened, when I was just making movies in Memphis on my video camera, I remember seeing him in interviews back when he was just about to leave N Sync. It was right before he started to record Justified, and I remember turning to my wife and saying, "I think I’m supposed to work with Justin Timberlake" and she’s like, "Really, why?" And I was like, "He’s up in Millington and I think I really want to try to rep my region." That’s why David Banner is in my movie. How many LA movies are there with LA rappers? There’s no Southern movies with Southern rappers until I came around.

And so I believe in just pulling all the artists together from my region. And the more that I talked with Justin, the more I realized that he was the only person that I could really go to on this. You know, we both have really thick Southern families, and we’ve always been kind of like dealing with the fact of how far do you run away from your own heritage and your own Southern background...Justin’s a very confident young man, almost wise beyond his years in a spooky way. I think it’s a testament to Justin that he’s taking this route with his career.

You really could do kind of like a big tent pole production with him singing and dancing as the lead above the title, but he’s choosing these roles where he’s a supporting character and surrounding himself with really good actors. Also, he’s made three movies; I’ve made three movies. We’re starting off, and I like that we’re young and fresh and trying something knew. I guarantee you there’s going to be a time, like five to ten years from now, Justin’s going to be a movie star.

So you were impressed with his acting?

I was. This is not an easy supporting role to play, especially to be that vulnerable.

Are you concerned at all about being typecast as a Southern director?

I hope so. As a matter of fact, I’m very proud about that. I would really like to represent my region. It seems to me that the one thing that we're missing right now in films is a regionalism. I look at some of my favorite directors. Let’s look at Spike Lee’s films. Even from his small films to The Inside Man, there is an intense inspiration from jazz. He is a jazz filmmaker, I feel. There’s times that you’ll be watching something and it’s obviously part of the narrative strain and then it just gets almost like a little improv-y. Suddenly it’s like somebody just came in with a new instrument and they’re kind of riffing on the clarinet. I think that comes from Brooklyn. I think that comes from his dad.

I think it comes from living where he’s living. I think the same thing can be said about Alexander Payne from where he is. I think the same thing about Robert Rodriguez. I think the same thing about John Singleton and South Central...So I want to be considered a Memphis filmmaker even if I do something that takes place in Alabama. It’s why I continue to live there; it’s why I continue to be inspired there.

A while ago you mentioned a movie that you were considering, about Southern musicians meeting at the crossroads.

Oh you’re talking about a long time ago -- Devil Music. That’s my rock and roll movie.

Is that still in the pipeline?

Oh yeah. It’s written and I’ve even got people that want to be in it, but it’s pretty expensive so I’m holding off on that. The next one’s Maggie Lynn. The next one’s the country music movie, and that’s all written and the studio loves it and we’re just going to be getting into that and then the soul movie. I really want to tell the story of that time in Memphis between December of 1967 when Otis Redding went down in the plane crash with the bar case through the sanitation strike and when Dr. King is assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

What was it about the song, "Black Snake Moan," that lent itself to the title of the film?

The fear of the unknown. Blind Lemon Jefferson born in Texas, died a horrible death in Chicago when, after a gig, he got lost in a snowstorm and froze to death, which really is sad considering like that’s how he always thought he was going to go out. He was always singing about scorpions or snakes or bugs being in his room and not being able to see it and could some pretty mama please come get this black snake. It’s also a very wicked old song. There’s something even about the scratches and pops in the album and the simplistic guitar playing and that howl just sends chills down your spine. The most powerful thing about the blues that I’ve found is I think it’s like rap. I think it’s exorcism music.

Rap artists dance between reality and fantasy, and I think it’s a very important thing to articulate those things. Mississippi Fred McDowell in North Mississippi would have a line, ‘Well I’m going to buy me a bulldog and chain it in my front yard and that’ll keep my woman from sneaking off at night.’ Now I don’t think Mississippi Fred really bought a bulldog and chained it in his front yard, but I think he felt that way and I think that blues music, just like rap, is taking those fears, taking those anxieties, and articulating them over and over again, sometimes three times in a verse, and then you somehow get control over it instead of it controlling you.

And if you just have a bad week and you go into the weekend and you’re hell bent on some personal destruction and you go to a juke and you drink and you’re listening to the music and everybody’s up and dancing, you feel better, you feel exhausted. You drop into your bed and you wake up the next morning and now it’s time for church, and it’s kind of the same thing but now it’s like switched. It’s no longer about screwing and fighting and drinking and now it’s more about Jesus and God, that everybody’s still sweating and dancing and singing.

With the success of Hustle & Flow, what kind of screenplays are people sending you?

I always write my own scripts. I’ve not read any scripts for me to consider directing, but I now have a company called Southern Cross the Dog at Paramount and we’re trying to produce things. I want to see more working class movies. Even Purple Rain was a working class movie, though that’s a big entertaining musical, raw, but those people didn’t have any money. They were still struggling from gig to gig and movies like Urban Cowboy and Officer and a Gentleman. There used to be a time where the only goal was... Richard Gere just needed to graduate. We got into the 80s and it was like you need to graduate and then shoot down some Migs. That’s the Top Gun version.

Why weren’t there any deleted scenes in the Hustle & Flow DVD?

I shot that movie in 24 days. Whatever I chopped up went into that stew. I didn’t have much that I could really let fall by the wayside, but Black Snake Moan has a lot of really good deleted scenes.

Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at thomasleupp@joblo.com.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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