After his breakout film, Hustle & Flow, snagged the coveted Audience Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, writer/director Craig Brewer probably saw more doors swing open for him than most filmmakers will see in a lifetime, but walking through them hasn't meant leaving his beloved state of Tennessee behind. Like Hustle & Flow, the director's follow-up project, Black Snake Moan, is a Tennessee tale about poverty, neglect and a longing for connection that goes beyond geography, age, or race. The film stars Samuel L. Jackson as Lazarus, a poor, aging man who has no solid relationships in his life but does have some life experience and blues-based wisdom to impart, to anyone who will listen. When fate dumps Rae (Christina Ricci), the town hussy, outside of his run-down home on the outskirts of town one night, Lazarus takes it as a sign that he's been tapped on the shoulder to make a difference in someone else's life, and he decides to do just that -- one way or the other.
Cinematical recently spoke with Brewer, in Manhattan to promote the film. We talked about casting and guiding the actors through these difficult roles, about the racial divide that the characters must bridge in order to find common ground with each other, and about avoiding the pressures of a sophomore project that so many are anticipating. There are a few big spoilers lurking somewhere in this interview, so if you'd prefer to go into the film tabula rasa, you've been warned.
How did you direct Ricci through the scenes where she's sort of having a fit, going through 'heat,' writhing around on the ground and oblivious to the world?
CB: The interesting thing about the way Ricci works -- and this is a challenge, but it was a challenge that I ultimately benefited from -- is that we did some rehearsal, but she didn't really want to go full-tilt because she really gives you one-hundred percent of herself between action and cut. She doesn't like any of that to leak away. She gets into a zone that is....honest. She's not 'faking' tears. She gets in pain and she cries. So I said to her, I go 'listen, I don't know what this 'fit' is going to be, but I know it needs to be something. So we talked about my anxiety attacks that I've experienced, and we basically decided that we would break it down into three Def-Cons. There was a Def-Con 1, Def-Con 2 and Def-Con 3.
The first one I knew would be just kind of like a tick that she came up with, which is just kind of like, rubbing her leg with her palm, like the top of her thigh, hard, as if she's really nervous about something. After that, she would just show me. So I said 'let's not even do a rehearsal, let's just roll' and we rolled it and I was like 'let's stay in the zone and let's do it again,' and we would do another set-up. Really, I was just as surprised as the audience to see what she was doing. Boy, was it incredible. It wasn't just sighing and moaning in sexual ecstasy, she really looked like she was in the grip of something that had her, and that she was even experiencing some pain and anguish with it.
Was it easy to get her on board, or was it a tough part for her to warm up to?
CB: The fortunate thing is that both Sam and Christina, they read the script and they were on it like 'white on rice.' Sam's people called immediately. Christina read it and told her agent she'd quit the business unless she got this role, and to be honest with you, I wasn't seeing Ricci immediately, because I had this certain lil' Abner-Sadie Hawkins Day dream-18-wheeler mudflap silhouette honey in mind. I had that archetype, because the whole movie is basically these southern archetypes colliding with each other. I was looking for that particular type of look, and it wasn't that I'm not a big fan of Christina, I just didn't really respond immediately to the idea of Christina. But she insisted on coming in to read. She was the first audition I had -- meaning, like, I've never heard anybody say my dialogue -- and in comes Christina, and she's wearing blue jean shorts, a tiny crop top, blue eye-shadow that she bought at Walgreens, and she got on the phone with a linguist in Mississippi, like weeks before, and she had been preparing for this audition, for, like, weeks. And we rolled camera on her, and I just couldn't believe what I was seeing.
I saw a broken character. I saw a child who had been used and abused, and at the same time, she was sexual beyond her years, and then she would just crumble on the floor like a toddler, weeping, and I just couldn't stop thinking about her. We had a good ten days of auditions with some A-line actresses coming in to audition and read, but after about four days, I canceled them. I sent the tape to the studio and I said 'I think I've found my Rae, and she was the first girl I saw.' I took Christina out to this bar and we just started talking about why she wanted to play the character, and I knew that this character was going to be in the right, mature, talented hands. I gave her this box -- I said, 'oh, I just wanted to get you a gift' -- and she opened it up and it was this big, chrome chain in there and I said 'let's go put it on. I'm offering you the role. So that's how we got into it.
How much pressure did you put on yourself to top Hustle & Flow?
CB: Well, you know, I didn't really write it thinking about that, because I wrote it, like, right after I wrote Hustle & Flow, but I wrote it before I made Hustle & Flow. But if you're talking about that whole 'second film' thing, you do think about it. I think, for me, I realized that there's really no way to navigate that and not take your hits. You only lose your virginity once. You only have that first baby once, and everybody is going to be cooing about that for the rest of your life, because it was the first time. But after that first time, you're happy that it's finished. You're happy that it's in focus. You're happy that you got to make it. You don't even think beyond that moment. But when it was clear that I could have an opportunity to make another movie, and I could actually make a movie that I wrote, and a movie that I really wanted to make, you begin to think, 'well, maybe you could have a body of work,' and sometimes that means going left when everybody in town wants you to go right. But I had this idea that I really wanted to do this music series. I would explore the music that inspires me, from the South, and I would really attack the tone of the music.
I tell people 'it's not frosting.' I don't come up with a story and then immediately think 'oh, blues music would be good for it.' I really immerse myself in the music, and you know, kind of ride in my car and zone out a little bit, and start dreaming a bit, and see these images, and one image that came to me was this radiator with a chain around it. It just felt like a song that R.L. Burnside would be singing about in North Mississippi. It felt like Junior Kimbro tune. But like all things with the blues, it also had to have a fable tone to it, because so much of the blues is rooted in fable and rooted in biblical imagery. So I began to explore my own relationship to faith. I began to explore my own weaknesses, with having crippling panic attacks, and how much I just felt like I was gonna die or lose my mind. My dad, rest his soul, who died when he was 49, used to kind of get tough with me and yank me back out of some of that madness and say, you know, 'you're gonna be okay' and 'I love you.'
On some level, the film seems to be premised on the inherent tensions between black and white in the deep South, and someone who saw the film recently commented to me that it seems like the white characters are 'escaping' at the end -- they drive away towards a new and different life, while the black characters stay behind. What do you make of that?
CB: I was really not interested in exploring race or gender in this movie -- it exists without me having to do anything with it. I'm always fascinated by this one moment in the movie -- there is really no sexual moment at all between Sam and Christina in the movie, except for this one kiss, where, in her fever dream, she lunges forward and kisses him, and the audience flinches every time it happens, like an alien's popped out of the floor or something like that. So, it's there -- that tension with race is already there. He's so big and so black and so old, and she's so small and so young and so white, that you could cut the tension with a knife. People are both terrified and titillated by the whole scenario. If anything -- and I don't like to really talk about it, because it kind of gives it away -- but I didn't want to end the movie with a wedding. I wanted to end it with a marriage. I don't think they 'escaped' shit. I think they are going to continue to have these problems, but I think what they have come to learn and what I think Lazarus ultimately gave them was a sense of finding comfort in commitment.
If you're not going to be chained to a community, if you're not going to be tethered to a community, a place, a family, or perhaps even a church, then the best we can hope for is to be tethered and chained to each other. That just means some good old-fashioned, unconditional love without any sort of righteousness or judgment. That was what I wanted to explore with this movie. I feel, to some extent, that I have been that way, and there's a generation under me that, as smart as they are.....there's a lot of exploitation out there that's just kind of almost internalized by this youth. We spend entire days dealing with Lindsay and Britney not having any underwear and getting drunk and going out and partying and reality shows where kids are making out in hot tubs and getting drunk.
We shake our heads and we keep watching and we wait till the other episode and we order our Girls Gone Wild video tapes. I don't think its necessarily unique -- I think every single generation experiences that wildness-time, but there comes a moment, but there comes a moment when you realize that everyone is pretty much taking a part of you, and you're really not left with any sense of self. I needed to have an older generation tell me, without any sense of righteousness, that 'hey, you're okay' and 'you can come back home and be chained to me if you don't want to be chained to anybody else. I'll be the strength for you.'
Was your first cut of the film similar, time-wise, to what you ended up with? And what's the status on your next project?
CB: It always kind of bounced between 1:55 to 1:50 to 1:59, and that's about it. There were teeny little trims, but no, there's no longer cut or anything. I'm doing this music series, so it's time for me to explore another love of mine, which is outlaw country. In addition to being raised on the blues, the first pair of boobs I ever saw was at a Willie Nelson concert, with those Hell's Angels' girlfriends up on their shoulders. It was a very good baptism into the Willie Nelson world. The next movie is called Maggie Lynn, and it's with Paramount. I just have to get this middle-child to have her day, and then I can move on to the other one.