Hustle & Flow : Interview with Craig Brewer

Being a director and a writer is not an easy task to accomplish, especially when you are trying to get a film produced and shown in theaters. At the same time, playing both roles goes a long way when trying to assume control of your own project. It has worked out for a number of directors who have written their own script and made the movie with the vision. One such director was John Singleton. Singleton wrote and directed the classic "Boyz N the Hood" and has prospered in the film industry since then. Now, he's doing what was done to him and giving someone a chance to come up the same he did, by producing his first feature. Craig Brewer wrote and directed a story set from the South much in the same way Singleton wrote "Boyz", which sets out from LA. The film is called "Hustle and Flow" and stars Terrence Dashon Howard, who's best known from numerous films including "The Best Man". Premiering at this year's Sundance Film Festival in the hopes of landing a distributor, Brewer spoke to about his film, his background, and how Singleton got involved in the project.

What is "Hustle and Flow" about?

Craig Brewer: Well, it's about this temp hustler, and when I say temp, he's not the pimp we usually see in cinema. In Memphis he's much more down. He's kind of working out of a Chevy Capri with one girl and he hustles. He's a gateway hustler. He hustles a little bit of the pot on the side, a little weed, but he gets a midlife crisis one night where he's around the same age that his father was when his father died and just a lot of dreams that he had when he was younger, he's realizing that it's like, am I it, am I over, does this kind of lead to the end of my days, and he just decides that he's going to make a stab at what it was when he was 13 and that was you rap, and it was cool. I know I'm kind of going off the subject here, but the rule is that he's really a guy that's like in his 30's so he was around when he was like 12 or 13 which is like when rap and hip hop was really coming around, and there's a lot of cats like that, that remember that time, and had dreams like that, but now that kind of just pays the rent, and so it's his struggle and his dream to make this demo tape and turn his place into a music studio where he and a friend of his from high school, Anthony Anderson's Blaze and his two girls work to make this demo of rap music.

What inspired you to write this story?

CB: Me and my wife, and my family, like my sister-in-law and my brother-in-law. We made a movie called "The poor and the hungry", which we made for $20,00 on video cameras, and I cut it myself, and it was the first film that I ever made. I didn't go to films. I'm a theatre person myself, so I had to learn as I was making it. I live in Memphis and I found that the active creation is what ultimately rescued all of us.

We stopped thinking about trying to make it, we just wanted to make something good, and I found that when I went around to a lot of the local rappers that I really love in Memphis. I found that they were making their music. They got their start making music the same way and in the same method that we were making our movie which is kind of like by any means necessary, so whereas I'm like trying to edit my movie and I can either have air conditioning or I edit because like one of the other would blow out my circuit breaker so we're young end thieves. They were turning off their refrigerator because the hum was getting on the mic and they had to borrow their friends MPC to come over and make it neat. It was a raw art form. It was an art form that was not exclusive. You did not have to have money to say what you had to say to get it out, and I always found that - I always believed that there hasn't been that movie yet. There hasn't been a movie which is really showing people creating music. Usually rap music is usually geared towards performance, and there's always a rap off, or that one producer, that one label owner is going to be in the audience. Where I think the sparks fly is when producers sit down and create something, and if that means they hear a train go by or a baby rattling and they go, "Hey, sample that, off that end the MPC, let's make a beat, and you know what I was thinking about this today, and I wrote it down, but I think this could be a good hook, let's get some people together and make this work." It's the collaboration really that I wanted to see in movies, in this film in particular especially with the sudden rap sound.

Once the idea of a film is put together, let's talk about getting a distributor.

CB: I got hooked up with John (Singleton) through the woman that gave John his start and that's Stephanie Allain. Stephanie got my script and she shopped it around at different studios and, to be honest with you we really needed an anchor I think in the Hollywood establishment that people could go get, yes we trust this person to validate this work. John agreed with us that rap is in the south right now, that there's a huge wave of music that is coming out of the south right now where everybody that's hot right now is in my region. There's been no boys in the south, there's been no face to the south yet because of the whole language, there's a whole culture, the whole mood especially when you get in Memphis it has a very specific sound, a very specific culture, a very specific look, and we thought as a no brainer John getting involved in it, he thought that it would be a great movie and when studios weren't answering that call, John just said, "The hell with this I'm going to get the financing myself and make it my own." It's his first independent movie. It's his first independent production that he's every done. I mean there's no studio net underneath it.

Besides Anthony Anderson, who else is in the film?

CB: Well, the lead is Terrence (Dashon) Howard and he's remarkable; he's is incredible. He plays DJ the hustler that starts to rap and we got him with 3 6 Mafia and Al Capone in Memphis and he got the whole act written down and everything. The man just transforms in front of us into this character, and he is hot. This is just the movie that everybody's been waiting to see him do.

Yes, ever since "The Best Man", when he broke out and the scene stealer in the film, folks have been waiting to see when he would capitalize on that performance and that fame. As some would say, "You've got to strike when the iron is hot."

CB: I'm telling you he delivers a performance - but for one thing it's uncompromising - it's a cat that you cannot help but be fascinated with. You want to see where he is going with this movie. You want to see if he's going to make it, because it's all geared towards giving this demo to a famous rapper from Memphis, a fictional character that I've created called Skinny Black.

This movie is about all those guys -

CB: Demos - it's about that guy who says, "Hey man, check it out." It's there and some for the people on the outside and that's what DJ - the character DJ is doing in this movie, he has to get his demo, his work of his whole crew to this one day when he knows that this one famous rapper played by Ludicrous is coming into town and this is his, however unrealistic it may be his one shot. His only shot he believes.

So you have Terrence Howard, Anthony Anderson, and Ludicrous in the film. Who else is in the picture?

CB: Taryn Manning, Peter Maternas.

Yes, she was in Eight Mile.

CB: Yeah, she played Nola, his one snow bunny. And then the wonderful Taraji P. Henson.

Yes, I recently saw her in Hair Show.

CB: Yeah, she's so good. She's an amazing actress. Paula Jay Parker and DJ Qualls are also in the film. Do you know DJ Qualls?

Yes, he's that skinny cat that was in "The New Guy" with Eddie Griffin.

CB: He's great. Not to mention, let's see a couple of rappers, you got Juicy Jay from Futrix Mafia, you got Al Kapone and that's Kapone with a K from Memphis. You've got a great rapper from Nashville, whose going to make it big soon called Haystack, I don't know if you ever heard of him but he's great, and the great Isaac Hayes.

Is he doing the music as well?

CB: No, Isaac didn't do any music in it right now but we have the same people who did the Shaft film track, Skip Pits and Willy Hall. They're playing their instruments on our soundtrack as they did on Shaft, Chuck Turner and all - these are people that I know and have seen in Memphis. All those cats are still around so I called them up.

At this point it doesn't have a distributor, right?

CB: No.

How does it feel to have your first full production, I know you mentioned the $20,000 film, but here's a film now that will get attention.

CB: Yeah.

You have a lot more cats in there that are noticeable. You have a number of names behind the production. It's going to help sell.

CB: True. There were days on the set where I just said I'm the luckiest man alive because I just recently watched the making of Boys in the Hood and I saw what John just had to put up with just on the studio level but you know what, my producers, my financiers, were artists too, and it was a perfect environment for me to do my first movie, my first big movie, because John and I have a really healthy relationship. We really do love movies. We have a particular interest in the same things and so when I'll get down to something, just filming something and he'll say, " I think you need to take a about three moves ahead is what if we only have an hour left to film" To get to the meat of the scene, and he would be advising me in ways that I would be unfamiliar with because of this huge film, known as a motion picture, with unions and crews, and all that kind of stuff.

I mean, it was a fair balance. I understand what you need to get as an artist. Here are the parameters of production, and they just armed; it was a great environment, it really was. So I feel fortunate but you know what, I've been working really hard at this, the first movie that I did all by myself was with the Groove 2 and that's the movie that's Stephanie and John saw and said, "Oh my God, he's got to direct this" and I've been working really hard at writing, and John read my other two scripts and he flipped out over them and so I think we started a really great relationship together.

That's great. Now, I have to admit I didn't even know about this film except for the fact that this was the film that Anthony Anderson was shooting when he was arrested for last year for something he allegedly did with a female. Do you think that sort of news brings awareness to the film?

CB: Yeah. It's tricky, but I don't know the current status of the situation and that's all I can say on that and I'm not trying to avoid it or anything, but if people come to this movie to see Anthony because of that then I got to say, "Well you know what, it's a damn good thing it's this one because I think Anthony has done his most brilliant work in this movie." Anthony will blow people away. He is a confident professional. There's not a day that he didn't come on the set where he didn't shake every crew member's hand, every extra, made everybody feel incredible and then, I asked him to bring in this really compelling performance and he knocks it out of the park in this movie with this. I think it's really going to mess with people the range that Anthony has.

He is a great actor. Of course he's a great comedian, and we've seen him in many films, and he cracks me up, but people need to know that this guy can win an Oscar. He really could. I mean he's that good, and I was just honored. There was a day when he and Terrence were doing this scene and the whole crew was just tearing up; I mean just watching these two guys who've known each other for like 15 years - to knock it out of the park like they did and I don't know if you were involved in theatre but we had this thing called black box, it like read like, it wasn't like the big show, it didn't have a set but let's say you just wanted to act in something so you start with a couple of other cavities, let's just do, Glasman Andrew, let's do Memphis or something like that and so you put it out, me and you used to act together, it's like I got that kind of excitement, it's like man these guys, it's like going toe to toe with this, and I felt honored, so I hope that what people get when they come and see Anthony, God damn that's an actor.

It's been a while since we had a new director who did not direct a video.

CB: Well, it's funny and interesting you mentioned that. That's something that everyone on the film has already been talking about and I'm not saying that it's a crisis but I'm saying that there's a problem. Until I move - I still live in Memphis, but I came to Hollywood and I was surprised at how there are some that have remained segregated, and what I mean by that and especially for me from the south like it is jawing to be honest with you where because we may have a predominantly black cast and certain executives, certain people believe that the movie must be a certain thing in order for them to make money off of it, and it suddenly made me very depressed because I would have casting where I would see amazing talent and I would just say why aren't they in more movies, and if I look around, maybe there are movies, but it doesn't necessary mean that it's good roles, and it has nothing to do with the artist, I think it has nothing to do with the presenting of ideas or distribution and where there's a buck to be made in DVD and it's really sad because I think there are so many artists have so much to say, and so many actors and actresses, such talent and I think we just got to start taking the blinders off a little bit and really making some compelling stories.

That's really what it boils down to. One of the writers for the website recently wrote a damaging review for "The Cookout", and he took the gloves off. You've got certain people in this movie and a lot of them have clout, but they chose these scripts and obviously they look at the studio and they are looking to make a buck, and the studios are looking at what black films work and they want to make it cheaper so you get a dumb down version of what you saw that was a hit which is why we're getting sequels of Barbershop and the spin-off, Beauty Shop, which already many films with the same title.

Hollywood wants to stick to one genre and the with the 90s you saw the gang violence and with the late 90s it was the romantic comedies, and nowadays it's the Barber/Beauty shop genre. So, it's a question of what's hot these days.

CB: Yeah, and it's ever changing and its so funny because it's weird because I don't live in Hollywood. I live in an area of the country where people have a lot of preconceived notions who don't live there and let me tell you what people refer to as urban movies here in Hollywood and when I go to the theatre it's right down the middle, back and white. It used to be a gimmick to have a movie where black and white people came together on something. I've even had executives like in my movie - -the movie I made before this one - there was like a white car thief and black car thief. They were like just talking to each other on their way to steal a car. I remember this one guy said, "Why didn't you explain their friendship?" and I was like what are you talking about? I was like well, you're in the south, you get a white person and a black person, why are they friends? Are you serious? I would get that a couple of times. But you know what, America's past it in many area especially in music. There's a lot more opportunity to break into so many different audiences, and maybe I'm just talking from like my part of the country but it's like I don't believe that there are only certain movies for certain audiences anymore. We're hungry for anything compelling.

That's basically what it is. Everybody just wants to see a good story. No matter what it is. Obviously there are some folks who want to see their own type of films, but then they say, "Hey, give me a good story with a twist and I'm hooked." Don't give them a story where they can see the end miles away, whether if it's a love story or a thriller; let them find the spot where it's unpredictable.

CB: Yeah. The one thing that John really came to our aid on was we could have made this movie elsewhere and saved a lot of money but John was really big on - no - Craig wrote a Memphis movie and this has to take place in Memphis. So we actually ate some costs to make sure we could film in Memphis and why is that important because I think that the regionality of the film is as just as much as any of the characters are, and it's something that I think that we take for granted a little bit. It's funny, but I remember talking to some guy in Colorado about Boys in the Hood and he was like "Yeah, you mean the one that took place in the Compton area" and I was like yeah, "John's offices are in Lamer Parkway right off of Crenshaw" and he said, "But I've never been to LA." "Boyz" is just a regional movie. It was LA. It was a South Central LA and because it was made as if like this is what we're dealing with in our region, then everybody in America just decided to just dive into it as if it was like okay I'm going to go to this place. We tried to do that with this movie in the south and it was still important to do that.

I mean, it's weird because I'm a white guy. When I first taking the script around, people were curious because I had a predominantly black cast and I said that what you got to remember is that I'm not making a black movie, I'm not making a white movie, I'm making a Memphis movie. I want to be a blues filmmaker. I believe in themes that are very raw. What I mean by raw is not dirty or nasty but it's people who have like a hunger for one thing or something that they must have; because in my region that's where all the music came from, from Funhouse to BeBe King to Isaac Hayes to Otis Redding to 3 6 Mafia. It's like the Mississippi River, it's like just right down the middle of the country, it's just a feeding music through pain and conflict and hunger, and that's what we wanted in this movie, to have that musical strand, that spans throughout all the decades of music in the south and mix it into one movie and it's just perfect. I'll never forget this day. Isaac Hayes and Ludicrous was standing right in front of me and I started putting on the song "Walk on By"just to get this casting crew hyped and I turned to Isaac and I go, "Hey, have you heard Ludicrous' first song?" I was drinking a beer and Isaac's like, "No, what are you talking about?" Ludicrous is like all smiling, saying "Yeah, I sampled "Walk on By" for my first song on Chicken and Beer." Isaac didn't even know about it but here I am. Here's Ludicrous and here's Isaac Hayes and the music is still flowing. One generation to the next. It was a real great moment for me as a guy from the south.

What's the next step? Marketing it, taking it into festivals?

CB: You know, we're going onto festivals and John's ready. We got our jobs all set out. I'm getting a great movie together and John is getting ready to sell a great movie. What's great about it, John's really a gun swinger. I mean, there is no net. It's his money and he is going out there himself and getting people hyped on this and that's why people really have to come out and support us because I walk around, and I'll be taking to some important players in Hollywood and they just go, "You mean John did this on his own?" It just doesn't get done like that. And then John, his task is a huge - it's a stork, it really is, this isn't like necessarily a slam dunk, it's not like we're making like a sequel to a beauty shop or something like that. I mean, this movie is about a dirty south rap, with a street hustler and his girls trying to achieve a 15 year old dream. It's a great movie but it's not necessarily something that every studio would come clamoring to. They're going to come clamoring to it see it because they're just going to see how great it is, but John's going into the festivals without a distributor and he wants everybody to see it with an audience because it plays great in front of people.