BLACK SNAKE MOAN An Interview with Director Craig Brewer
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BLACK SNAKE MOAN
An Interview with Director Craig Brewer
Is this film therapeutic for you?
Craig Brewer: Well, I guess in this case the idea was more therapeutic than anything. I was going through a difficult time trying to get “Hustle and Flow” going and I was on a plane actually when Russell Simmons was interested in doing “Hustle and 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 help insurance so we can 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 but I had this really intense anxiety attack on a plane and the stewardess came by and told her that she may have to get the filberater ready because I think I’m having a heart attack and she asked me if I had any anxiety about flying or anything like that and I said, ‘No, but my dad did die at 49”, so she talked me down and it went away. I don’t know really what it was but 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 to her what had happened to me, and that’s when she told me that it was happening to her, and it happened on freeways near big semis that she would feel that she would come out of her skin, so I called it “Black Snake Moan”. So if we would be somewhere and they would begin to hit then we would mount that towards each other and we would have certain ways of getting rid of the anxiety attacks through each other like if we were apart, I would call her and all she would talk as if nothing bad is happening. “Here’s what we did with your son today”, but when we’re together and the anxiety attack would 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 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 it was a very unique time where you begin to question your own mortality and the first thing 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 stated 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 Blues. Those were the two songs I would listened to over and over again. I had this vision in my head of me going to my granddad’s house in the country and going through that front door and this chain was just sitting past me as I was going into the door and it wrapped this big old radiator. It was right there in front of the door and I remembered that I could feel an anxiety attack coming on because I just knew that that radiator would be ripped out of the wall and remembered that I shouldn’t be writing about this. I shouldn’t be thinking of any of this because here it comes, the black snake moan is about to hit me again, and the pain went away and the radiator held. Looking at this radiator and it was yanking, and yanking, and dust and rust is flying off this thing like it went away and I began to feel a little better and I think I was in need of my dad. I just needed to be yanked back, a little bit.
When you put this story together, how did you come across to cast Christina Ricci as the lead?
CB: The cool thing about Hustle and 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 mean, I met her half way on that, that was like on the script but otherwise that’s Ricci. A 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 mean, I’m a fan of her work. I had this certain, you know, 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 Little 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, 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 throw away from her final performance where everybody else had tried to be sexual, provocative and 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 T.V. 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 you know, and that’s what gets you in trouble or maybe I get myself in trouble but that she even went out to Dillard’s in the south and I don’t think they have Dillard’s out here, I don’t know, but insisted on getting the white cotton panties. It had to be just right, she chose her own chain, had about five different chains laid out for her and wouldn’t you know it she picked up that biggest, heaviest, gnarliest chain, biggest padlock kind of thing you put on the back of a trailer and she just owned it like from that day on like I could it in videos and now when I watch the movie on so many levels because I am embracing this and this kind of tone which is a lot like a Tennessee land play or a short story by Leonard 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 are usually in categories and I like people to laugh at the outrageousness of it and also be moved.
Are you concerned about being typecast as a Southern director?
CB: 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 are missing right now in films is a regionalism. I look at some of my favorite directors, I mean, let’s look at Spike Lee’s films and even from his small films. “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 improvy. Suddenly it’s like somebody just came in with a new instrument and they’re kind of ripping on the clarinet, I think that comes from Brooklyn. I think that comes from this dad. I think it comes from living where he’s living. I think the same thing can be said about Alexander Payne from here he is, I think the same thing about Robert Rodriguez, I think the same thing about John Singleton and South Central. I really feel empowered and inspired by Memphis musicians. We have a history of not having much and trying to do a lot with it and we’re not really professionals. Jerry Lee Lewis is not a good piano player, but he plays it a certain way and he bangs on that piano a certain way that that’s Jerry Lee Lewis. If you give him a Bache contada he would make it sound like a Jerry Lee Lewis Bache contada. Helen Wolf is not the prettiest sounding voice in the world but with the right microphone in front of him and the right guitar and the right song he’s magic and 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.
CB: 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 in April 4, 1968 is a very important time in soul music. It’s when you know Mavis Staples and Isaac Hayes and all these people – musicians who lived in a truly integrated successful studio in stacks in Memphis, began to see that they didn’t want to be singing happy songs and that’s the soul movie that I’m currently developing right know.
Sam told us about scenes where he’s reading The Bible and an adlib about, and a white girl too that you took out of the film, can you talk about those scenes and anything else that we might see on the DVD.
CB: Oh sure, there’s a beautiful scene that I just had to trim where Sam Jackson where he’s trying to take the fever away from Christina in the tub, when he fills the tub of ice and water, that he reads what he read out there in The Bible and it’s from Matthew when Jesus is healing the sick and Jesus says, “If you have faith that’s in a grain of mustard seed then you can say into the mountains move hence and they shall move” and the movie was just going a little long and more so I really didn’t want to beat people over the head with particularly Christian imagery just because I felt that the movie had plenty of biblical metaphors and I just wanted it to be something where it’s like its not so much that I’m trying to beat a religion into people as much as he believes it, it’s something that is meaning something to him and that’s why it didn’t make it into the movie but there’s a lot of great scenes that are going to be in the deleted scenes. I went through them last night and really you could cut a whole new movie called the Last Temptation of Lazarus.
What did Sam bring to the movie that you haven’t seen in his other films?
CB: Two things really. There is a subtlety I feel in this movie, there’s one shot that I can watch over and over and over again its 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/or the Mississippi. If you watch he actually holds his posture a little bit differently. I’ve just watched him change where he kind of pulls – 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 same to play blues and he’s so perfect for it but mostly 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 and I think that we never get to see him be romantic and it’s really great to – an audience really respond to that you know, they have to do that, they want him to be happy, they want him to find love.
John Singleton was telling us earlier that there’s been some death threats to your home.
CB: Well, it’s hardly worth to get into but yeah, I’ve been on a few blogs but of course there’s people that are not pleased with any notion of a black man needing to help a white woman and – its really funny because this movie plays in the south and it plays like gangbusters and that’s because we’re not particularly interested in the whole racial elements or even the question of gender, everybody there I think really kind of gets it, it’s a ride that needs to be treated as a tale, it’s a fable. Hate groups like that – the best thing I can say to some of those groups is you know, they’re kind of played, you know, they’re just played, I mean, they’re boring. We’ve got a long way to go but boy have we moved past that bullshit.
Can you talk about casting Justin Timberlake?
CB: Yeah, even before Hustle and Flow happened when I was just making movies in Memphis on my video camera I remember seeing him in interviews when he was just about to leave In Sync and 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, you know, he’s up in Millington and I think I really want to try to rep my region I mean 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 talk to Justin the more I realize 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; but we knew characters like Ronnie. We knew young men who had been pushed into very aggressive masculine roles by their family. Having uncles and fathers smacking them around and calling them sissies or faggots just to make then harder and they’re not equipped for it, they’re not like that, they’re not necessary killers to go into war and I’ve seen it destroy men, I’ve seen it just make them crumble and break inside and Justin had observed that with people in his life. Justin’s a very confident young man, I mean, 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. 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?
CB: I was. This is not an easy supporting role to play, especially to be that vulnerable.
Do you think the South is better portrayed? What do you think when see that “Cold Mountain” was directed by a Brit and starring an Australian and another Brit?
CB: I don’t know, I love the Cold Mountain but the problem is everybody in the south read Cold Mountain. There’s nothing that southerners love to do than say that they have a better idea on how they’re to be betrayed than other people but there are some great southern films, and great southern filmmakers that have come about. One of which I’m really excited about is Joey Lauren Adams. Not only do we need more female voices in cinema but man, how about a female voice from Arkansas, now that’s going to be interesting over her career and what she wants to explore. The same with Philip Morrison who did “Junebug” which I just though was probably one of the most incredible southern movies I’ve seen in close to a decade. Peter Taylor, the local Memphis author was asked why are there so many good southern story tellers and he said, “we lost” and I know what he means by that because I think that both whites and blacks in the South feel that we’re kind of doomed and dammed to be our only friends. I don’t think it’s as easy as you can take a black man from the city and assume that he’s going to get along with a black man from Jersey over a white boy from the South. As much as some of those intersections and collisions between race and gender and class have led to some horrible things in the South past its also led to Booker TVMGs, its also led to Johnny Cash, its also led to Rufus Thomas and BB King and Otis Redding having the best white engineer in the world record his voice. It seems like when we get creative or we get spiritual or if we get hungry we forget about everything.
What was it about the song, Black Snake Moan, that lent itself to be the title of the film?
CB: The fear of the unknown. The fear of Blind Lemon Jefferson born in Texas, died a horrible death in Chicago when after a gig in a snowstorm he got lost 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 and that how (singing black snake …) 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; 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 you woman from sneaking off at night”. 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 and 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 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.
You mentioned Skip James earlier that you were listening to him. Were you able to get his voice in the movie?
CB: The thing is that Skip, God bless him, I just felt that this is more a movie about Mississippi and Tennessee and I felt that somehow being a man who is a preacher and used to hear that music coming up from the juke and go, “well they’re not scandalous” – couldn’t stay away from women and couldn’t stay away from liquor and ended up going to jail for killing a man and you know. He is the blues, he’s the man who can’t stay away from that kind of pain.
John Singleton and Stephanie Allain both mentioned that others did not want you to make this film after “Hustle and Flow”. Can you talk about them and the support they have given you?
CB: Yeah. I tell people I’m like the child of two divorced parents that are very different and John Singleton’s like the “Yeah, yeah, go, put the chain on it”, and Stephanie’s more of the, “Now Craig, let’s think about this” and I kind of dance in between the two but really I think especially both of them, Stephanie who gave John a start at Columbia and they both worked in the studio situations, I think really feel that we have an opportunity to create something knew. There really isn’t a category I could put Hustle and Flow in, luckily because it’s rap and because there are African Americans in it, America can say, “well it’s a urban film”, which I think is something I know that I have a problem with that category. I know it’s necessary to some extent but I have a hard time necessarily putting something like “Eve’s Bayou” next to “Belly” just because there’s African Americans in the leads. With Hustle I think people could just put it under that category and not think of it as a comedy or drama or anything. This movie is a little bit more difficult. People laugh at this movie and also are moved by the movie and they wonder if I’m somehow being disrespectful because I have funny moments in it. I’ve been at funerals in the South where the most inappropriate shit would happen and everybody busts up and then it passes and we’re back into the wake. This is part of it and we’re attracted to the grotesque and the outrageous, sometimes they’re members of our family and hard not to love.
With the success of “Hustle and Flow”, what kind of screenplay are you getting sent?
CB: 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, even 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 so I think – I’m sorry, any other questions?
Why weren’t there any deleted scenes in the “Hustle and Flow” DVD?
CB: I shot that movie in 24 days. Whatever I chopped up went into that stew. There’s not much that I can really let fall by the waist side but Black Snake Moan has a lot of really good deleted scenes.
BLACK SNAKE MOAN opens on March 2, 2007
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