Director Craig Brewer made a big splash at Sundance back in 2005 when his first major feature, Hustle & Flow, won an Audience Award. That film, about a Memphis pimp who tries his hand at the rap game, later turned more heads when its signature track, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” earned Three 6 Mafia the Academy Award for Best Original Song, the first ever to be awarded to a hip hop group. Brewer followed up in 2007 with another gritty tale set in the South, Black Snake Moan, starring Christina Ricci as a battered nymphomaniac and Samuel L. Jackson as the troubled farmer who rescues her from the side of the road. Though it didn’t prove to be quite the critical darling that Hustle & Flow was, Black Snake Moan saw its fair share of supporters, who touted its blend of strong acting, skillful direction, and fantastic use of a killer blues soundtrack.
With all that in mind, it was a bit puzzling to some when it was announced that Brewer’s next film would be a remake of the 1980s pop culture classic Footloose. Ostensibly a teen movie about dancing, Footloose seemed out of place for a filmmaker who had previously focused on pimps, prostitutes, and nymphomaniacs. RT recently had the opportunity to chat with Brewer, who not only gave us his Five Favorite Films, but also went on to explain passionately why he signed on to the Footloose remake, what he changed in his version, and how it does, in fact, fit within his wheelhouse.
Matewan (1987, 100% Tomatometer)
First of all, I would say John Sayles’s Matewan. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it — and by the way, you should, because it’s a really incredible film — but it was one of those things where my Aunt Mary Jean from Knoxville, Tennessee sat me down and said, “You need to see this movie.” It’s by the same guy who did this other movie called Brother from Another Planet, but this movie’s really one of the best strike movies. It had James Earl Jones, Chris Cooper in his first movie, and Mary McDonnell. It’s got an incredible cast, but it’s just got a lot of soul. It’s really one of my favorite movies.
The Blues Brothers was a big movie for me, because I was about 13 to 14 years old, and it was my first introduction to James Brown, my first introduction to Aretha Franklin. I knew about Murph and the Magic Tones, which was made up of Booker T and the MGs, essentially. Steve Cropper and “Duck” Dunn, the two guys in there, they were two members of Booker T and the MGs, and then the drummer, you know, he’s got one of my favorite lines in movie history; his name’s Willie Hall. There’s this great line where Willie Hall goes, “Jake, Elwood, you’re out of prison, things are lookin’ good for you. You got the money you owe us, mother f***er?” That’s Willie Hall. He actually plays at my kids’ birthday parties here in Memphis, Tennessee. But, it was a movie that just had the… I mean, my dad and I watched that, and the whole scene where the nun is just beating them up; I’ve never seen my dad laugh so hard. It’s an electrifying, fun movie, and Steven Spielberg makes a cameo at the end of it.
I would say that Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration was probably one of the most influential movies for me to be a filmmaker. I had seen a lot of how-to movies in the past, but there was something about how unapologetic that movie was to be filmed on a video camera. They had all these rules because of the Dogme 95 rules, where you couldn’t have a tripod, you know, you can’t bring in lights, you can’t use props that aren’t already there, you can’t use music, and I thought, “Well, this movie’s going to suck.” I went to see it, and I was riveted, and it was like that moment where I kind of sat at a coffee shop — I saw it in Washington D.C., I was there on a trip — and I just sat there thinking, “The only reason you’re not a filmmaker right now is because you’re not going out and doing it, because these people just made something with a camera that’s sh**tier than yours, and it’s brilliant.” So, “The only reason you’re not a filmmaker is not because people aren’t giving you money, or giving you a break. It’s because you’re not good enough, or you’re not doing it.” So that was a very important movie for me.
You ended up making your first feature, The Poor and Hungry, in sort of the same fashion, didn’t you?
Oh yeah, that was the movie that kicked my ass. I made my first feature in 1998, or I started making it in 1998, and then I saw The Celebration, and I was like, “I’m doing my movie wrong. I need to just celebrate the performances and make them good, not try to bring in a damn dolly track just for the sake of bringing in a dolly track. I can’t even afford a dolly track. Why would I want to do it?” So that was a really big, important movie to me.
The Bridge on the River Kwai was one of those movies that my father and I watched for the first time, and he prefaced it by saying, “You’re probably not going to like this movie now, but you’re going to understand it later.” [laughs] And I remember watching it with that I mind — because I was young — and now I’m at the end of… You know, my dad is no longer with me, and I look at Alec Guinness’s character in it, and I now understand him. Where, at a point earlier in my life, I didn’t understand him — I was like, “Why is this guy building a bridge for the enemy? Why would a person get so obsessed with this just to try to keep order?” — I now understand it. It’s one of those movies that means a lot to me, because it was the first time that I think my father showed me that movies can actually speak to an ageless part of your soul. I remember the first time I saw Unforgiven, and I thought it was going to be like this big Western shoot-em-up, and I was like, “Man, I didn’t like that movie at all.” Then, I was at work the next day, and I thought, “I can’t stop thinking about that movie. Maybe I saw it wrong.” And now it’s one of the best movies ever. Bridge on the River Kwai was the first time I ever realized that.
I would say my number one movie: Purple Rain. I could probably teach a semester of film studies on the first eight minutes of Purple Rain. And if you watch that first eight minutes, you’re going to see why, because the way the music — it’s like the extended version of “Let’s Go Crazy” — the way it’s cut, continuity completely goes out the window. You’ll be on stage with Prince, but then you’ll cut and you’ll see him getting ready to go on stage, then you’ll see him at his house, blowing out candles. Then you see him on his motorcycle coming to the club, cuts to him on stage in the club, cuts to Apollonia coming into town… By the end of that eight minutes, you know everybody’s character, you know their relationship to each other, and the music never stopped. It’s a dizzying… I think you see three tongues within the first eight minutes. You know, Apollonia’s boobs were like an atom bomb going off in my world, because up until that moment, I wanted to marry women, like, “I like that girl. I would want her to be my wife and have kids with her.” But then I saw Apollonia, and I was like, “I have thoughts now in my head that I didn’t have before, and feelings that I’ve never had before!” The same poster that I got at a fair in Vallejo, California of Apollonia in a bikini is up on my wall here in my office, and people still come in here and go, “Damn, I had that poster on my wall!”
Next, Brewer talks at length about the why he chose to do Footloose, and why he made some of the changes in his version.
RT: Let’s talk about Footloose.
Craig Brewer: You know, I kept Footloose out. I kept it out, but I would put Footloose up in there. Really, Footloose is one of the most important movies of my life.
No kidding. Alright, well, let’s get the basics out of the way: how did you come to work on the Footloose remake?
I got a call. I got a call from Adam Goodman, head of the studio. [laughs] He was like, “You gotta do Footloose.” I had passed on it already, because — I’m sure, like a lot of fans of Footloose — how can you possibly dare to think that Footloose could be redone, and why would you want to do that? He said something to me that really clicked. He was like, “Well, listen, I think that you’re the person to do it. I think that the kinds of stories that you’ve been wanting to tell and the movies that you’ve already made actually are in the spirit of the original.” And they were very protective of the original; they weren’t in it just to make a money grab off of the title, because this is actually one of Paramount’s smaller movies. So they really wanted to do it for the heart, and they put that in my court to run with.
I knew that if I figured out one thing, that it would all click into place, and that is the big MacGuffin, which is the whole, “How can you do a movie about a town banning dancing?” When I figured it out, I called up Adam, and I said, “Okay, here’s how the movie begins,” and I started telling him the movie, and within 10 minutes he’s like, “You did it. That’s how we’re going to do Footloose.”
In the original movie, they don’t talk about why the town banned dancing until about an hour in. Up until that hour, we as an audience believe that it’s about Hell, like, they don’t want their kids dancing because they don’t want them to burn in the fiery pits of Hell, right? That’s kind of what you’re feeling. And then later you go, “Oh my god, there was this bad accident that killed the preacher’s son, the older brother of this girl that’s kind of suicidal, screwing around with guys she shouldn’t be screwing around on.” To me, that is more relevant than Heaven and Hell. To me, I feel we’re in a country right now that overreacts for the right reasons. We overreact in the wrong way for the right reason. We love and we care for our kids, we want the best for our fellow man, we don’t want harm to come to us. Therefore, the following laws need to be passed, so we don’t even have the risk of this happening, ever.
I felt that if I could, at the beginning of the movie, give some context to this town, then the religious part of it would be taken out of it, and therefore I could focus on the religious elements in the movie that I think are better applicable to a modern South. I don’t like demonizing religion. I grew up with faith in my life, I grew up in church, and I’ve criticized it. I mean, you’ve seen my movies; it’s not necessarily like I’m a Christian poster child, but there’s Christian themes in all of my movies. I mean, Black Snake Moan, I got the idea for that from the book of Genesis, you know? And so, I wanted to make a movie where, to some degree, you understood where Reverend Moore was coming from. You know, I’m a father now, so I saw where he was coming from, and I knew that if I just, at the beginning of the movie, established that, where the one thing where people were like, “This just makes no sense. Why would you have a law banning dancing?” Well, let me tell you, when people watch the first five minutes of the movie, I think they get it, and they move past it, and they’re able to enjoy the movie and actually find that it’s relevant to this day.
You know, before I saw your film, I actually did rewatch the original Footloose, and this was, in fact, one of the problems I had with the original. Watching yours, I was surprised by how much this change altered the tone of the movie as a whole, for me.
Right, right. I’m glad you got to see them back-to-back, and I wish more people would treat this remake that way. I’m not here to replace that movie. I really want it to be a companion piece. That was the 1984 version of these things. You know, Dean Pitchford, who wrote the original, he’s co-screenwriter on this, because I really wanted a lot of the story to remain intact. I had great respect for the original Footloose; I’m not going to rethink it. I don’t want Ren going to bars, or Afghanistan to teach people how to dance; I want the same story. But it felt like in the South, now we get to deal with things that everybody at least thinks about with the South, this polarization, that they don’t want people coming in and telling them how to live their lives, you know, or changing what faith put in place, the whole red state/blue state thing. And now, I feel like our times are more polarizing than ever, because of those things. So I felt like, if I could just get on board with that element of it, then it was going to be a movie that doesn’t seem out of place next to Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan.
Yes, at first glance, people might look at you directing this film and think, “Wow, this is a huge departure for him after Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan…?
And what do you think, after having seen it?
After having seen it, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, because it’s got that musical element, it’s got the Southern setting, it’s got those themes of morality and redemption, which seem to exist in all of your films.
I totally give that to the original, though. That’s what people don’t realize. If you want to understand where Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan came from, I grew up with Footloose. I grew up with Flashdance. I grew up with Urban Cowboy. An Office and a Gentleman. These movies of the 1980s that were kind of “pop” movies, they had a hard edge to them. You know, Prince hauls off and smacks Apollonia after she gives him a white guitar. You know, Ariel takes a pipe to her boyfriend’s truck. These are some tough movies; they don’t make teenager movies like those any more. People are afraid. If Footloose, the original, came out today, I think it’d be rated R. It’s got kids smoking pot, it’s got underage sex, you got kids in bars drinking beer, and luckily, Paramount allowed me to keep all that. I was like, “Can I at least have it be as taboo as the original that plays on VH1? I mean, I’m not even going to do anything extra, but can I at least do what Footloose did?” Because that alone, people forget, was kind of hard. I think that they remember Footloose through watching music videos on VH1 “Remember the ’80s” or something like that, but I saw a movie that was kind of hard. Let me tell you, I remember the gasp in the theater when Lori Singer said, “I’m not even a virgin.” I remember it. People were like, “Ohh!” And now, they do the same thing this year. When I watch this version with a big crowd, an audience, “Ohh!” And it’s like, “Haven’t you guys seen Footloose? [laughs] Haven’t you seen Footloose? Don’t you know this moment happens?” They forget, like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe she said that.”
Speaking of which, it struck me how similar your film is to the original in some respects, and yet how it manages to avoid feeling outdated. Was it you who was responsible for bringing on Dean Pitchford?
Yes, yes. I had lunch with two people after I decided to do it, the first being Craig Zadan; he’s one of the producers on it, and he produced the original film. I said, “Listen, I know everybody’s wanting me to update and change it up and all this kind of bullsh**, but you need to know from me that’s not going to happen completely with me, because I love Footloose, and I think that there’s a way to show Footloose to a new audience — and to its old audience — to say, ‘There are certain things that you loved about it, and it’s not just Kenny Loggins singing that song. You loved Willard. You loved the friendship that was happening between these guys. We all want to feel like we could be chubby, or skinny dorks, and at the end of that movie, we’re dancing, and people are cheering and applauding and cracking up, because that’s what the spirit of Footloose was.'”
And then I met with Dean. Dean read the script that I wrote — and I was very nervous about Dean reading it — and I said, “Dean, look, they tried to remake Footloose a couple of times, and the scripts that they made… No disrespect to them, but it was just a different direction than I wanted to go in.” You know, they were changing things about it, and I told him. I was like, “Listen, I took your original script, and I made my version of it, but it’s you and me, buddy, and if you don’t like this script, then we’re not going to make it.” But he was very emotional about it, in a very good way, and he said, “I see that you loved its heart.” And we just recently screened it for him, and it was probably one of the greatest nights of my life because — it’s weird — I met a man who was instrumental in my growth; he just didn’t know it. [laughs] So I had to tell him that; I was like, “Look, you need to know. I know you’re looking at Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, but Footloose made me who I am. This is my way of saying ‘thank you,’ and I hope that you approve,” and he loved the film. I think I made the right decision, just like I think J.J. Abrams, when he did Star Trek, he made the right decisions. We need to give places in this movie where people can feel like they’ve seen things from the past, of the movies that they love, but it’s in a new version that feels relevant and cool.
Footloose (2011) opens on October 14.