Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Catching Up With Craig Brewer

Posted By on Wed, Oct 4, 2006 at 4:00 AM

With the release of his third feature film, Black Snake Moan, pushed to February, local filmmaker Craig Brewer has spent his time setting up a production office in the South Main Arts District and working on several upcoming projects. Just days after sitting down with the Flyer, Brewer got the go-ahead to direct a bio-pic of black country star Charley Pride, with Hustle & Flow star Terrence Howard in the lead. With Brewer hosting an event this week to promote the Indie Memphis Film Festival, it seemed like a good time to catch up with Memphis’ most successful filmmaker. — Chris Herrington

Herrington: When did you move into the new office?

Brewer: January of this year. It’s the Memphis branch of [Brewer’s production company] Southern Crosses the Dog. I’ve got a personal production deal with Paramount Pictures, me and my producing partner Stephanie Allain. We both have offices in the Gloria Swanson building at the Paramount lot [in Los Angeles]. But I’m never in my office there, and that’s because I put in my contract that my part of the office would be funded here in Memphis, which is something they don’t usually like to do. They like to keep everybody on the lot so all of your money keeps going back into their own real estate coffers. But I just knew I was going to be here most of my time, not to mention that most of the films in development are going to be either shot here or in the state of Tennessee.

And is that a part of that three-picture deal that came out of Sundance?

No. A lot of people get confused about that. That three-picture deal was not for me, it was for [John] Singleton.

That deal wasn’t for Singleton to produce your movies?

No. And I don’t think Paramount realized that until the next morning — that they didn’t have a deal with me. So I immediately had Black Snake Moan ready to go, and Stephanie and I were running all over town trying to get our production company up, and Paramount was eager to snatch us up. We’d just made Hustle & Flow. We had a script they wanted to do. So they gave us the offices, and now we’re in development on numerous projects. We’re trying to make some movies for the CMT brand and the BET brand, and work on my own films.

Black Snake Moan was originally set to open this month, but has been pushed to next February.

Right. We were set to open this September, and two things were really hurting that. I was never pleased with September. None of us were pleased with September. It isn’t a good movie month, as we’ve seen. The film industry has really taken a big hit on some of these bigger releases. Jackass sort of broke the September crunch, but The Black Dahlia, Hollywoodland — a lot of these movies are not performing the way they’d like them to. It’s not summer. It’s not quite fall. People are just getting back to school. It’s just not a good month.

But even more so, the press was so taxed with Snakes on a Plane, and we really feel that Sam [Samuel L. Jackson] created an incredible character with us, and so we wanted to use his time to really sell the movie. Perhaps if we have a screening [out of competition] at Sundance, we can really use that as a platform where I can return back home and have a big press blowout there.

Given that the content, on the surface, is rather provocative, has there been any hesitation or concern?

None. I’ve got to say, my studio has been really great. They’ve been very supportive. There’s never been a turn we’ve made where the studio hasn’t been with us. It’s a really cool company over there, the smaller division of Paramount, which is called Paramount Vantage. They embraced the way I wanted to sell it, to decriminalize it a little bit, allow people to know it’s about a woman that’s on the end of a chain and they can have fun with this movie.

Was there a sense of trying to obscure that early on?

I don’t think there was any sense of trying to obscure that. I just don’t think there are any movies out there that are dealing with the kind of subject matter I’m dealing with. They do this thing out there called running the numbers, where they want to know if there are other movies out there like yours so they can gauge how to market it. There just haven’t been many buddy movies that have my premise of a black bluesman trying to chase the demons out of a white sex addict.

Has the delay of Black Snake Moan caused any delay for you in terms of moving on with other projects?

Oh no, quite the reverse. If I was having to sell Black Snake Moan right now, I don’t think I would be able to do the things I have on the cooker now. So it’s worked out rather perfectly. I’ll probably have to do the international push for [Black Snake Moan] in March, and head all over the globe then. And I want to be filming Maggie Lynn next summer.

Maggie Lynn is the next film?

Yes. I’m finishing up the script right now. And then I’ve got to do the same hustle. It’s not a done deal in terms of making the movie. They loved the pitch. They loved the idea. They’ve paid me to write the script. I haven’t turned in the script, so we’ll see.

What’s the pitch?

Well, my pitches are a little bit evolved. I bring in a boom box and play music and dance around the room and act out different characters. But, in essence, it’s a story about a mother of two who’s married to a dirt-track racer, and all their weekends have always been spent loading up the RV with snacks and supplies and putting all their efforts towards the husband’s racing. Then Maggie gets her heart broken because she finds out her husband’s been cheating on her, and it’s about her moving back into her family house with her mother and her brother, who’s a drunk now, but used to play music in Nashville and kind of failed at it. It’s about them getting back to playing music in a barn, remembering some of the music that her and her Daddy, who’s died recently of cancer, used to play together. It’s basically about a girl trying to find her voice again when so much of her life was devoted to her husband.

I’m trying to follow a little bit of the model of Coal Miner’s Daughter, where for the first hour you’re in the holler and for the second hour you’re in the world. I’ve always liked that, because it really gets you into the family dynamic of the narrative and really gets you into the character. So I really want to be in some East Tennessee town, and then the second half of the movie is her going to Nashville to play in this one club.

In the past, when we’ve talked about your next projects, [the rock and blues epic] Devil Music and the King assassination/sanitation strike movie have always come up. Where did Maggie Lynn come from?

You know, where a majority of my inspiration comes from. My wife and my kid and my life. Making two movies back to back when you’ve been selling your family and friends on, hey everybody, trust me and believe in me and maybe we’ll be able to make movies for studios. Well, achieving that dream is a little bit of a double-edged sword. You finally get where you are, but there’s a little bit of a weight in that rush, where the people who are around you are suddenly eclipsed by you and it’s time for them to start finding what they want to be and want to do. It’s something that seized me, that I wanted to explore and have fun with. It’s definitely more accessible. And I’m really into country right now, and I wanted to explore that genre before I got into the sanitation strike.

What other projects are you working on?

Well, I haven’t really talked about this, but the thing that’s generating a lot of interest and a lot of my time right now is something I’m really passionate about, and that’s Bluff City Chronicles [a long-simmering concept set amid the Memphis music scene]. I can’t really find my way into a story until I find the music, and I’m so in love with Memphis music right now. I think we’re in a real special time. And as a local filmmaker in residence, I would be foolish not to want to make something with the artists that are around me. I look at Amy Lavere and Harlan T. Bobo. I saw the River City Tanlines last night. They are just the most exciting thing in Memphis right now, and I want people to know about them. So I’m trying to figure out a new way to tell stories about Memphis musicians. How they have to struggle to record and struggle to pay their rent and load up into venues and how they all relate to each other. That’s something that I’m very interested in right now.

What format will that take? A feature-length film? A series of shorts?

I don’t know yet. I know that whatever manifestation it is, it’ll probably be something where you have to buy a DVD or go online. But it’s not going to be something that ends. It’ll be something open-ended. I just think that artists and audiences are getting more interested in real people. I believe in actors. I believe in their craft. I think it’s an incredible art form where you can stand on a mark with lights and grips and crew guys all around you and try to be honest about something you just memorized. But there’s something different in the energy of capturing people that are real doing what they do. Even if they’re having to recreate an argument telling a bartender to please turn the jukebox off because now they’re about to sing their gig. That kind of bullshit conflict that musicians have to go through all the time, I think would be more interesting than doing an independent film with actors. There’s something there. It may not work, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case. I go to YouTube all the time and I’m entertained by real people. Even people making music videos that are so raw and basic. Simple video camera videos that are more interesting than things that are shown on 35 millimeter on MTV.

What else is on your plate?

The sanitation strike movie — 4/4 I think one of the most incredible times in Memphis history is from January through April of 1968. The movie I want to make tells about the time in-between the death of Otis Redding and Martin Luther King’s assassination. You look at Stax on McLemore and the Lorraine and City Hall and it’s a very interesting triangle. And that’s where I want this entire movie to take place. I’ve read the accounts of the workers and what they’ve had to go through. Mayor Loeb suddenly coming into power and having to deal with this crisis.

So it's not a movie focused on the King assassination?

No. King’s only a part of this movie. But really the characters are young Isaac Hayes, T.O. Jones, who led the guys off the job. The AFSCME president Jerry Wurf from New York, and Mayor Loeb. If we can pull it off, it would be epic. I think there are a lot of young people in Memphis and in the world who don’t really know what their parents and grandparents went though in that first March that went violent. I really want to put the Invaders in this movie. The Invaders were almost like a militant group, along the lines of the Black Panthers, but they were right here in Memphis. I don’t think any of the young people around today even know about them. This was a very interesting town at that time. They were making music in the middle of it, and music really changed at that time. And I want to do something where the narrative takes place in the crucible of that conflict.

What’s really wonderful about the story is that everyone was at a crossroads in their life. Everyone in this movie was at a crossroads. Even Dr. King was going against his own team. He wanted to lead a poor people’s campaign. And it was not popular. But he felt compelled to go where he was needed. It became less about white and black and more about right and wrong. And the first thing that he responded to were more than 800 workers who walked off the job without any sort of union help, without labor even calling the strike. They were just fed up with it. My story begins with the two men being crushed in the trash compactor, which ultimately leads to everyone walking off the job.

What I like about the title — I always knew the title was going to be 4/4: The Common Time — is it starts off with Isaac Hayes talking to one of the kids that sings on “Soul Finger” about what 4/4 is. About how it’s four beats to a measure. About how the world basically spins on 4/4. And then he takes him to Stax and people are like, ‘Yeah, well, Daddy was best with 6/8. And the kid’s like, what’s 6/8? And they say, ‘That’s what Otis Redding sang in. And they take him into the studio with Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn and Jim Stewart there, and they play “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long ....” And they remember Otis, who brought everyone together.

They’ve rebuilt the studio for you.

Yeah, you know, the hardest thing I’m finding about Memphis right now is progress. Me and Mike McCarthy made an early career out of crumbling buildings.

So, are you still interested in making the Devil Music script you’ve been talking about for so long?

Oh yeah. The problem with Devil Music is that it’s so big. I see it as a big extravaganza, with special effects. It’s a fun movie, and I think it’s an expensive movie. And I think we’re at a time in entertainment where the expensive movies are a gamble I don’t want to take right now.

It also prohibits you artistically. Because there’s so much money involved, decisions get made on a marketing level that aren’t necessarily conducive to the kind of storytelling I want to do.

So what’s the story on the Hustle & Flow 2 rumor that’s out there? Is that really happening?

Yeah. It’s not something that I’m going to be doing right now, but after Hustle & Flow came out one of the questions I kept getting asked was, did DJay become a star? And I said, oh no, no no. But after the movie came out, I started thinking about it. And I dreamt the sequel and a third movie on a plane ride. It was very clear in my mind when I landed.

Have you put pen to paper on those?

Yeah, I’ve got them outlined. I’ll go ahead and tell you the names, the temporary names. The second one is called The Chitlin’ Circuit and the third one is called Platinum and Gold. The second one is all about the struggle to get your single played, touring on buses and dealing with disc jockeys and other rappers on the bus trying to do the same thing and how cutthroat that music industry is.

Would making those movies be contingent on Terrence Howard continuing in the DJay role?

Uh, yeah. If Terrence doesn’t want to do it, then I’m not going to do it. Terrence and I, right now, are trying to figure out what we want to do next with each other. We’re exploring a Charley Pride movie. A lot of people don’t know that Terrence is a big country fan. He doesn’t really like rap.

What’s the plan for the Indie Memphis event this weekend?

Well, we’re trying to turn this into a storytellers celebration. It just happens to be filmmakers this time. I’m big on trying to get as many people out to local films as I can. Whatever I can do to bring attention to that, I want to. Not only is Indie Memphis a place where I got my start, but Burke’s is really the first location that I shot my first movie, The Poor & Hungry. So I felt that it would be great if we could have an event at Burke’s where I would sign posters of my new movie, Black Snake Moan, for anyone who bought a book. If you make a purchase at Burke’s, I’m going to give you one of these special collectors posters, which, by the way, are not the movie poster. They are collectors’ posters that will soon go away. For local movie fans, it’s a good thing to have.

Jason Freeman is going to be playing and we’re going to show trailers of all the local films [screening at Indie Memphis] and also a trailer for Black Snake Moan. It’ll be a big ole party, but more importantly, it’s me reiterating to the community that you have to support the new young filmmakers. The biggest reason I’ve stayed in Memphis is that I know, for certain, that I’m going to have some stinkers in my career. There may be a move that completely crashes. I need to have a family around me that loves me regardless, and that’s what Memphis has been.

If I lived in that world in L.A., where I put my self-worth in what the numbers are that are coming in or what the critics are saying, then I’m going to hang myself in the shower. But at home, I feel very safe. And if there’s something I would like to do, it’s provide that same safety to other local filmmakers. You can’t be judged on one movie or one short that you make. You need to be judged on the body of work that you do, and that requires some growth. There are some entertaining shorts and films that some locals are doing, but they may end up being filmmakers on a bigger level, the way I’ve had on opportunity to do. I love the Lil Film Festival that Christopher Reyes puts on and I’m always supportive of anything that the MeDiA Co-op does, but Indie Memphis is kind of the big daddy as far as I’m concerned, because there’s always this time when everybody is trying to finish their films by the deadline. There’s a great excitement.

Craig Brewer hosts the Indie Memphis Film Festival preview party Friday, October 6th, at Burke’s Books in Midtown. The event runs from 7 to 11 p.m. and will feature trailers of Brewer’s Black Snake Moan and of local films screening at this year’s festival.


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