RT Talks With "Black Snake Moan"'s Craig Brewer
It's Hard Out Here For A Nymph...
Craig Brewer first rocked Sundance in 2005 with "Hustle & Flow," a rap underdog story that took home the festival's audience award. Now he's back with "Black Snake Moan," a tale of sin, redemption and the blues starring Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, and Justin Timberlake.
In "Black Snake Moan," a troubled bluesman (Jackson) tries to save a promiscuous woman (Ricci) by chaining her to a radiator. What sounds on paper like a lurid schlock-fest on paper is a surprisingly moving and occasionally funny drama, featuring edgy performances from its leads and a profound sense of place.
Brewer is a filmmaker with a love of music, and with "Moan," he delves into the mythical land of the blues. Brewer talks with Rotten Tomatoes about making movies in Memphis, the joys of exploitation films, and selling one's soul to the devil.
Rotten Tomatoes: You really have a thing for combining the mythology behind various musical genres with film.
Craig Brewer: It is a thing for me. I think that with "Hustle & Flow," the mythology of rap is -- well, hell, it's the mythology of Sundance, if you think about it. It's the way out. It's the way in to the business. It's the big dream. And the mythology of blues is how to get through pain, and how to get through truly feeling alone and abandoned.
RT: You also seem to really want to shoot movies in your hometown of Memphis.
CB: There's part of me that wants to do it for my community, and build a film community there. But really, it's more selfish. It inspires me. I can't really see myself doing the kind of sexy, crazy juke joint scene that I have in "Black Snake Moan" on a L.A. soundstage with extras out of central casting. I just don't think they're going to be able to understand the kind of rhythm and soul that Memphis and Mississippi has. I'm very inspired by the region, and it stars snowballing into everything. Meaning, I want to have it take place in juke joint, so I gotta go look at juke joints. So we go into the juke joint, and it's like, "Oh, look, they have aluminum foil over the windows, and they've got broken jars upside-down for light sources. Oh wow, that's how ours needs to be." So it just keeps me fresh and keeps me sharp and keeps me at home, more than anything. What else I've seen a lot is duct-taped-up microphone stands. And just because I've been around it so much, I had to have it in the movie.
RT: With "Hustle & Flow," you've said you wanted to take character actors, and give them roles that were different from what they're known for. In "Black Snake Moan," you're working with established stars. Did that present a challenge for you?
CB: No, because with "Black Snake Moan," I wanted actors to work outside of their comfort zones, and I don't mean that in a kind of way where it like I'm trying to push them, like they don't normally do that. It's just that there's only so many roles out there, and I think that Christina, when she read the role, she saw an opportunity to make an iconic character. She wanted to build it from the ground up. I want to have that kind of relationship with actors, where they know, "OK, Craig's doing a new movie. That means I don't have to look the way I've looked in the last five films. I don't have to sound the way I've sounded in the last five films. I can go out on a tightrope and challenge myself and take more risks." I like working with actors. I know Sam Jackson's a huge movie star. Same with Christina and Justin. But I like working with people, and those were the right people to work with.
RT: You spent years trying to get "Hustle & Flow" off the ground, and then you had only a short period of time to actually make it. With this one, was it like, "Take all the time you need?"
CG: You fantasize about that. You say to yourself, "They're gonna give me more time and more money, and therefore, I'll be able to have a comfortable experience making this movie." You never have enough time, you never have enough money, you know? You always want more resources. The one thing [the success of "Hustle & Flow"] did do, though, was before, I would give [studios] the script to "Hustle & Flow," and they would think, "Oh, this is a little too challenging, a little too dark. We're going to pass." Now they read my scripts, and they consider doing it. They realize they read one thing with "Hustle & Flow" and saw something else. Now they're reading "Black Snake Moan," and they're thinking the same thing: "Can this movie about a white Southern nymphomaniac chained up to a black bluesman's radiator actually have heart, and actually have humor, and even have a sweetness to it?" And I tried to put it in there, and I think it's there.
RT: Was the material still a hard sell?
CB: Yeah. It's so funny; people in Hollywood were referring to it as "the radiator movie." But I've gotta be honest, I'm in a really good home right now. Paramount Vantage is the most exciting company right now. They really supported me. They didn't tell me I had to cut anything. They've just encouraged me to be bold. They've embraced the tone of the movie.
RT: There's a certain level on which your films are one step away from B-movies.
CB: I love B-movies. But there are B-movies from our generation that we forget about. "Footloose" is a B-movie. "Flashdance" is a B-movie. They wanted a sexy Jennifer Beals on the cover, with a sweatshirt off the shoulder, and there are certain elements that are there to titillate, and to bring in kids, and get 'em dancing.' But with those movies, I found great inspiration. I watched "Purple Rain" over and over again, and let's face it, even though [Prince is] huge now, that was a B-movie when it came out. That wasn't something that the studio was thinking, "Well, we're gonna sell this to the masses." But all B-movies -- especially with "Hustle," where blaxploitation was a great inspiration -- when you look at blaxploitation, it's always about one man up against incredible odds, and he's got an incredible attitude. No fear, y'know? And I think there's something to be learned from that attitude with movies. You've got to figure out a way to be provocative without trying to sell the movie just on being provocative. "Black Snake Moan" is a movie about sin and salvation, so there is going to be a rather dark, crazy, out-of-control first half, and then things start to come back to home.