Craig Brewer first rocked Sundance in 2005 with "Hustle & Flow," a rap underdog story that took home the festival’s audience award. Now he’s back with "Black Snake Moan," a tale of sin, redemption and the blues starring Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, and Justin Timberlake.
In "Black Snake Moan," a troubled bluesman (Jackson) tries to save a promiscuous woman (Ricci) by chaining her to a radiator. What sounds on paper like a lurid schlock-fest on paper is a surprisingly moving and occasionally funny drama, featuring edgy performances from its leads and a profound sense of place.
Brewer is a filmmaker with a love of music, and with "Moan," he delves into the mythical land of the blues. Brewer talks with Rotten Tomatoes about making movies in Memphis, the joys of exploitation films, and selling one’s soul to the devil.
Craig Brewer on the set of "Black Snake Moan."
Rotten Tomatoes: You really have a thing for combining the mythology behind various musical genres with film.
Craig Brewer: It is a thing for me. I think that with "Hustle & Flow," the mythology of rap is — well, hell, it’s the mythology of Sundance, if you think about it. It’s the way out. It’s the way in to the business. It’s the big dream. And the mythology of blues is how to get through pain, and how to get through truly feeling alone and abandoned.
RT: You also seem to really want to shoot movies in your hometown of Memphis.
CB: There’s part of me that wants to do it for my community, and build a film community there. But really, it’s more selfish. It inspires me. I can’t really see myself doing the kind of sexy, crazy juke joint scene that I have in "Black Snake Moan" on a L.A. soundstage with extras out of central casting. I just don’t think they’re going to be able to understand the kind of rhythm and soul that Memphis and Mississippi has. I’m very inspired by the region, and it stars snowballing into everything. Meaning, I want to have it take place in juke joint, so I gotta go look at juke joints. So we go into the juke joint, and it’s like, "Oh, look, they have aluminum foil over the windows, and they’ve got broken jars upside-down for light sources. Oh wow, that’s how ours needs to be." So it just keeps me fresh and keeps me sharp and keeps me at home, more than anything. What else I’ve seen a lot is duct-taped-up microphone stands. And just because I’ve been around it so much, I had to have it in the movie.
RT: With "Hustle & Flow," you said you wanted to take character actors, and give them roles that were different from what they’re known for. In "Black Snake Moan," you’re working with established stars. Did that present a challenge for you?
CB: No, because with "Black Snake Moan," I wanted actors to work outside of their comfort zones, and I don’t mean that in a kind of way where it like I’m trying to push them, like they don’t normally do that. It’s just that there’s only so many roles out there, and I think that Christina, when she read the role, she saw an opportunity to make an iconic character. She wanted to build it from the ground up. I want to have that kind of relationship with actors, where they know, "OK, Craig’s doing a new movie. That means I don’t have to look the way I’ve looked in the last five films. I don’t have to sound the way I’ve sounded in the last five films. I can go out on a tightrope and challenge myself and take more risks." I like working with actors. I know Sam Jackson’s a huge movie star. Same with Christina and Justin. But I like working with people, and those were the right people to work with.
RT: So, did any blues singers actually sell their souls to the devil?
CB: (pause) Yeah. Yes. I think that Tommy [Johnson], Peetie Wheatstraw, all those cats that said they did believed it. I know it may have been a little bit of something to put on the poster, but man, you talk to people in the south, and they’re like, "No. He sold his soul to the devil. We remember it. He sucked, and then he was incredible." If you’re talking about that stuff, you’re basically talking about faith. And when you’re talking to people who truly believe that there is the devil out there, that he will meet you at the crossroads at the stroke of midnight to tune your guitar, they believe it.
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