S. Craig Zahler is an interesting guy, because not only is he a filmmaker with a cinematography background, but he’s also an acclaimed genre novelist, drummer in a metal band, and always has a number of projects going on besides whatever movie he’s currently working on.
Zahler made quite a few waves in 2015 when his Western Bone Tomahawk premiered at Fantastic Fest, and his new movie Brawl in Cell Block 99 is causing just as much a stir as he explores the prison movie genre.
Brawl stars Vince Vaughn as Bradley, a man who just lost his job and found out his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) is cheating on him. Years later, they’re doing much better, as Bradley has returned to transporting drugs for his friend Gil (Marc Blucas). When one of those jobs goes wrong, Bradley finds himself thrown into prison, but the Mexican drugdealers that were involved in the drug bust aren’t through with Bradley yet, as they put him through a rough gauntlet while he’s in prison.
That’s probably all that can be said as to not spoil a movie that cruises slowly at 30 MPH before exploding after an hour, then never stopping as we watch some of the most jarring acts of violence being committed by and to Bradley. And yes, that is THAT Vince Vaughn carrying this grim and violent tale. Zahler’s surrounded Vaughn with an amazing cast that includes Don Johnson, Udo Kier and even Fred Melamed in a hilarious scene.
The Tracking Board got on the phone with Zahler earlier this week for the following interview where we also talked about his next movie (also with Vaughn), called Dragged Across Concrete.
I’m curious about how this came about. I really liked Bone Tomahawk, and I know you’re a novelist, so how do you decide when writing something like this whether it should be a book or a movie?
Well, Brawl in Cell Block 99 was always going to be a movie. I had seen a bunch of prison films at New York’s Film Forum, and after watching a bunch of these, I came up with a few things I’d like to do in a prison movie. Obviously, watching those, I saw some things I wanted to avoid, and I wrote this screenplay. One of the reasons that I landed on Brawl in Cell Block 99 as my next picture was a more practical one of what can I do? I didn’t want to do a second Western in a row, even though I have other Western pieces, and a large-scale science fiction piece sort of seemed out, so this was a piece that I had and that the producers Jack Heller and Dallas Sonnier were able to get back under our control, because a lot of my pieces are just sitting in… I have six pieces just sitting in Warner Brothers alone.
We were able to get this thing back in our hands and take it forward. It was something knowing that the budget would be small, so we hoped a little bit bigger than Bone Tomahawk, something that I can execute at a level after above the level I was able to execute Bone Tomahawk at. That’s a lot of how it landed there. I mean, all the things I write I have to be interested in. People speak of their passion projects like if I’m not passionate about it I’m not writing it. So really it was a question of which was the piece that we could do for the number — which in this case the budget was about $4 million. Which is the piece that we could do in that price range where I would still have complete creative control, and it wouldn’t be too compromised trying to do it at that budget level.
That’s amazing for that budget, since you have so many locations, even to find the right prisons, since you have multiple cells and prisons. How long did you spend preparing before you were ready to make the movie?
Prep wasn’t long enough. You talk about the locations. We literally lost locations during the shoot and went on our lunch break to find new locations. That was pretty constant while we were going. You pointed out something that not many people have noticed. The quantity of locations is a lot for an indie feature like this. We’re all over the place and it’s a little bit the design of the movie that set it up like, “Well it’s a crime movie about this guy on the outside, and he’s dealing with the drug trade” and then you get to the second cast and the new location then the third cast in the new location. I don’t really want to spoil anything for your readers who haven’t seen it but there’s enough in the way of cast and locations for this to have been two if not three different independent movies, and it was something that the lines producer really came in early on and was like “Holy crap, there’s a lot of locations and there are a lot of people in this movie.” Not just like extras just walking around but actual speaking roles with pages of dialogue, and it was a lot.
I think the hard prep for this movie was… and I might be mistaken here but maybe about six weeks, five weeks? A good chunk of that, like the latter portion of that, I started getting in to stuff that’s more enjoyable than driving around looking for locations. By that I mean rehearsals and fight choreography and doing all of the work there that’s pretty creative; as opposed to just getting in a car and driving around Staten Island for nine hours, which is even less fun than it sounds.
A lot of big prison movies, they either build something or they rent Alcatraz, which is just out of the question with this sort of budget, so I’m impressed by what you did with what you did with what you had to create these different environments.
Yeah, I mean some of that credit definitely goes to Jack Heller and Greg Zuk—these are both producers on the movie– for finding the third of the three locations of which I spoke, which is really why we wound up shooting this move in Staten Island. I mean once I saw Cell Block 99 and the area surrounding it, that whole thing fit this thing in reality the way that it did. We needed to connect the dots and certainly our production designer did connect the dots between what was there and what’s on the page, but we really had some imposing and fantastic locations, and that’s certainly an area in which I’m much happier with this movie than I was in Bone Tomahawk is so far as the locations in the script and the specific geographic and color changes that are in the script are represented in the movie.
It’s not easy and shooting this many locations and so often — sometimes multiple different locations in the same day – it is challenging but in the end, it makes the journey bigger, and it gives it this sense scope that if we really simplified things and if I compromised any of that stuff it wouldn’t happen.
I want to ask about Vince Vaughn, because he wouldn’t be the most obvious person for the role, but he’s absolutely amazing in the movie. He’s obviously quite large in stature, but what was it like having him as your partner in making this film?
As a creative partner in this, I mean he is fantastic, and what I’d like to find in the lead actor, and so if you go on IMDB, you’ll look at my third movie which we wrapped production on two weeks ago, and you’ll see he’s also one of the stars of that one. That’s perhaps a better compliment than I could pay him with any words that he’s already the star of the third movie I’ve done. He is terrific, and one of the things about him, because obviously there’s going to be much discussion and has been, in terms of why I chose Vince Vaughn to do this role, and how did I see him in this? This is someone who’s done a lot of work over the years and I enjoy a bunch of his performance in movies in particular, Swingers and The Cell and Old School and now Hacksaw Ridge. These are all pieces that show different facets of what he can do, but the thing is — and even in movies that he’s in that I don’t like as much as those — he’s a very consistent actor and he’s always engaging. So I knew, because he knows how to be real in a scene and he doesn’t feel the need to show you all the acting technique in that scene, which a lot of actors want to show you all their technique and how much acting they can do. I mean there’s a reason that I can’t stand Bryan Cranston for instance. I never see that guy on screen without him showing me all of his acting techniques, and it always looks like acting. It doesn’t look like a person being real in the scene and engaging with people. It looks like a perk of doing acting.
But people love that stuff and it gets Emmys and Academy Awards for actors that do that kind of stuff. My taste is different. I like to look and see somebody be real in the moment. Someone comfortable not doing a lot of acting, and then when someone needs to do a lot of acting, it doesn’t feel real, o in the case of Vince Vaughn, it always looked real to me in the movies that I mentioned. He’s very, very solid, and then there’s the reality that if we saw this guy on the street, I don’t think he looked like a nice man. He always laughs when I say this. If you saw him on the street, you wouldn’t think he’s a comedian. Even Vince Vaughn as he looks in regular life. Now he’s a very nice guy, we’ve had a ton of great times together and I consider him a good friend at this point. We’ve been in the trenches a couple times over in our traveling the world with Brawl in Cell Block 99 and he’s a great friend, but that doesn’t mean I think he looks like a nice guy. There’s just this set of his face, and then on top of it the dude is over six five. Now that’s for real and that’s an imposing height. That is a height where you are standing a head taller than most humans that you are around, so he has that and on top of this – and this is the fortunate thing because I didn’t fully know this — he has a boxing background and he wrestled competitively throughout high school. So he had the physical capabilities as well as the imposing side, as well as the somewhat unfriendly look and then there’s this consistent performance through the years. I was very confident I was going to get something good, if not very good and what I got I think is an incredible performance that frankly should be in every awards discussion, but because the movie is not a politically-driven agenda movie, but a fun badass guy movie with some surprising humor, I don’t know if it will be in that conversation but man, it should be. This is what great acting is, everything he’s doing in this movie.
I totally agree. One thing I liked about Bone Tomahawk, and this was similar is that you’re really good at creating the slow build where it’s very slow building the characters but then it explodes and then doesn’t stop. What drives you to that kind of pacing?
It’s interesting, because of course everyone uses the term “slow burn,” “slow build,” all these kinds of terms, and for me, I just looked at it as I am equally interested in quiet moments of drama and bizarre moments of humor as I am in moments of extreme violence. So it really comes from a place of me as a writer, and I’ve written things that have almost no violence and like maybe a moment here or there but I’ve written entire pieces. I’ve written novels that have very little violence. So I’m interested in that other stuff. I don’t even think of it as the slow build, because I think that those moments are worth focusing on and of as much interest as the violent ones. More than a few people reached out or critics pointed out their favorite scenes in Bone Tomahawk as you know is Chicory talking about reading a book in a bathtub, and there’s just two old guys lying on the ground talking. And that is a favorite scene of mine in the movie and it was cool to see it singled out so regularly, but it’s just these characters talking and you’re learning about them. It comes from a place of me having an equal interest in the human parts and the surprising character moments in the humor as I do in the violence. My feelings in terms of leaving it in is I’ve made two 132 minute movies, and these two will be quite a bit shorter than movie number three. I think if it’s good or interesting I leave it in there. While a lot of people come from a place of make sure you grab the audience this way, make sure the audience this or that, that’s just not where I come from. I come from I like this stuff and I want it in there. I hope people like it but it’s okay if they don’t or if they find it boring or if they find it disgusting or if they find it offensive because I like it. I’m not chasing the audience. I enjoy when they enjoy it, but I’m making all these creative decisions to my taste and then hoping to find an audience after it, but satisfied that I made the version of the movie that I think is the best.
Hey, it’s working so far. I want to talk about the music, because I know you’re a musician as well, so I was curious about how you decided to approach the music. Did you play some of the music or find people you knew to do it? (Warning: Prepare yourself for a very long and nerdy answer about the music of Brawl in Cell Block 99.)
So same as Bone Tomahawk, I worked with a good friend of mine. We’ve been friends 31 years now. We met in Junior High, and he’s a music professor named Jeff Herriot, and he lives in Wisconsin, and we grew up together in Miami and are great friends. We’ve done done heavy metal projects together and a new synthesizer project together, which is called Binary Reptile, and we write the music. In the case of Bone Tomahawk it was a little bit of a strange music and then the operatic song that’s in the closing credits. In the case of this movie, which has almost no score, we did a little bit of synthesizer with bass guitar and drums. I didn’t want to have to tell you a scary scene is scary or a sad scene is sad or a funny scene is funny. I feel if those scenes are genuinely successful, I don’t need to tell you that. And if they’re not successful for you, I don’t want to try and tell you that they are, so again I’m kind of comfortable with that. In terms of the music for this movie, most of the music is original soul songs that I wrote with Jeff Herriot, and I figured for a few different thematic reasons I like the idea of Bradley listening to something that wouldn’t be the most obvious choice which in his case would probably be country music, but listening to something where you know there’s a pained quality to the singing and a religious aspect to some of the music.
I’m a big fan of soul music and have seen a lot of classic soul performers before they passed away. and I was really interested in just having music in this movie that recalled another time, so you get a sense that mainly it’s Bradley listening to it, but you get a sense that people are in this space of being nostalgic, and also music that’s spiritual, which might work with the character or might also be a counterpoint against that. So there’s a lot of stuff when I’m writing the lyrics for these songs and coming up with the melodies and the harmonies and all that stuff with Jeff. There was a lot for me to think about because I already had the full movie there, and said, “Well, this will be the song that’s sort of underscores what’s going on in the scene.” “Oh, this will be a song that completely counter points what’s going on in this scene but this lyrics can land on this moment in the movie.” So it was a really enjoyable process. And then, holy cow! Nothing really beat out the fact that we then got the O’Jays and Butch Tavares singing these things, so we have these soul legends performing the first soul songs I’ve ever written. This was really an incredible… like something beyond imaginable for me. The way that I look at it is sort of like if I ran for class president in elementary school and then became the President of the United States as the result. The first soul songs I ever wrote and co-wrote were then sung by Butch Tavares and the O’Jays. The ten-time platinum O’Jays who I’d seen in concert before.
I’m glad you went there because I wanted to ask about those songs. They sounded really familiar but I couldn’t place what the songs were, and I just thought you had a good music supervisor with eclectic taste, but that’s amazing.
Yeah, yeah, thank you. Most people — well actually everyone, unless they know ahead of time — think they’re vintage tunes, and we approached the instrumentation that way and holy shit, are there a lot of instruments when you’re copying a style of 1969 to 1978 soul. You have your full rock band, your bass, drums, guitar and then add to that a harp and flute and a horn section and a string section, and bongos. It’s a massive thing to build and we built it all with real instruments. It’s not a bunch of synthesizers. It was an undertaking, but a really enjoyable one and again, supremely satisfying hearing Eddie Levert and Walter Williams taking a tour through the song and vamping at the end of it. I could go on forever but I could talk about it this whole interview.
I’ll make sure to get the soundtrack because I definitely would like to hear the full versions of the songs.
Yeah, the soundtrack’s coming out in a couple weeks on Lakeshore Records.
Excellent. Now quickly I wanted to ask you about this other movie you’re doing, Dragged Across Concrete, which you’ve already shot, so is that very similar in tone, and is Vince playing a policeman this time?
Yeah, the next movie is called Dragged Across Concrete and I would say yes. It’s similar enough in tone. It’s an ensemble piece, like Bone Tomahawk and the leads are Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Michael Jai White and Tory Kittles. Like Bone Tomahawk, there’s four characters that are the focus, and it definitely has elements of these pictures in terms of I’m spending plenty of time with the drama. I can guarantee there’s a scene that you’ll watch a guy eat a sandwich for more screen-time than maybe if you’ve ever watched a guy eat a sandwich. And there’s violence. There’s some surprising and bizarre stuff. I would say a thing that probably sets it a little bit aside from these, besides the fact that it will be quite a bit longer, is that the plotting is pretty complicated by comparison, and the left turns are pretty sharp. There are definitely going to be sections where people are going to be like, “Oh, I guess the movie’s about this person now.” I’m really, really proud of it. Vince is great to work with again. Mel was great to work with, very open to direction, and you certainly wonder when you’re dealing with a top-grade director, how open that person will or won’t be, and he was very open. Tory Kittles is a phenomenon, as everyone will see, and Michael Jai White is a pro and a great guy. I had a good time on that one, and Laurie Holden is in it, Don Johnson is in it again. Jennifer Carpenter is in it again, Fred Melamed, he’s three for three, he’s in all my movies.
I loved him in that one scene he does in “Brawl”—he was great.
Don Johnson is there for massive rediscovery and new appreciation. That man has everything he did when he was younger except he’s a more refined and better actor. He looks great, he sounds great. He’s maybe the most charismatic human being I’ve ever met, and it makes me proud when I see the accolades he’s getting for this movie, and the attention, and I hope other people recognize him and put him in their pieces, because he is as good as it gets.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 hits select theaters on Friday, Oct. 6.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor