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Craig Brewer on “Black Snake Moan”

Craig Brewer on “Black Snake Moan” (photo)

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Sundance, 2005: Filmmaker Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow,” the brash tale of a Memphis pimp chasing his dreams of becoming a rapper, makes its buzzed-about premiere and is soon picked up for a reported $9 million, one of the festival’s biggest deals. Critics are everywhere from elated to affronted by the film, which isn’t sparing or apologetic about the grittier details of its hero’s life. Star Terrence Howard ultimately nabs an Academy Award nomination for his role, while Three 6 Mafia wins an award for the song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” Their performance is one of the most memorable Oscar moments in years.

Two years later, Brewer is back with a film whose premise makes “Hustle & Flow” look like “The Sound of Music.” “Black Snake Moan” stars Christina Ricci as nymphomaniac with a history of childhood abuse who turns up, beaten and half-naked, on the doorstep of former blues man Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson). He takes her in, cares for her, and decides to cure her of her reckless tendencies… by chaining her to his radiator. But despite its neo-exploitation set-up, “Black Snake Moan” is a surprisingly earnest tale of redemption and a make-shift family. I caught up with Brewer shortly before the film’s opening.

Where’d you grow up?

My whole family is from the Memphis area — all my people are buried there. I was born in Virginia, on an Army base, but we always spent our summers divided between the two grandparents.

I had this love of music, so whenever I would go back home my family would take me down to Beale Street, they would take me into Sun Studios, and I really started learning a lot. There’s a certain spirit that is in Memphis music where you don’t have a lot — you look at Stax Records and it’s an abandoned movie theater with all of this antiquated equipment. And all of those people are still around, and became friends of mine, session players who got paid to do the wah-wah in “Shaft” when “Shaft” happened — they don’t collect anything. When I started writing, I really connected to the plays that I grew up with, these Southern plays of extremities. I always loved Beth Henley [“Crimes of the Heart’], obviously Tennessee Williams, the books of Flannery O’Connor… I think that no matter where I was, I was always obsessed with Southern culture. And I’ve been living there now for thirteen years.

So you’ve done hip-hop, blues…

…And the next [film will be] “Maggie Lynn,” which is the outlaw country music movie about this woman with two kids who used to play with her brother and her daddy, when he was alive, at state fairs, mountain music type stuff. It’s me exploring if mothers and women can really take some time to be selfish for themselves — can they completely leave the role that they’ve been placed in? Can they ever stop loving that man that they can’t help but love? I feel that, especially in country music, with women like Tanya Tucker and Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, that struggle is ultimately what drives them to be great. I’m sure there are going to be plenty of people who say this is the atonement for [previous films’] treatment of women and all that kind of crap, but she’s a tough little girl, and on stage, she tells everyone she wants to put the cunt back in country, and she does. And for me it really starts with the music, and that’s why [“Black Snake Moan”] has more of a fabled tone… this is not a realistic movie. I mean, we don’t chain up our women, to my knowledge.

You’ve got such outrageous set-ups in your first two films — the elevator pitches would be something like “This one’s about a pimp, and this one’s about a nymphomaniac chained to a radiator.” Where are these ideas coming from?

They first and foremost come from the music — I’m in my car, listening to this stuff, and something will come to me. But really, I just steal from me — “Hustle & Flow” is about me, my wife, my brother-in-law and my sister-in-law after my dad died at 49, trying to make something good from the 20 grand I got from his inheritance. At the time I was working the night shift in receiving at Barnes and Noble, my wife was a seamstress — during the days, she made wedding gowns — but she got to know these strippers who were always coming in to get her to do costumes. So she started cocktail waitressing at this one place, she then started dancing.

And as much as we decided to be young and dumb, it’s really this kind of soul-robbing thing that you find yourself in, where you think, we’ve got to pull out of this life. It led to us knowing a lot of extreme people, but… they all really wanted to make a good movie for us. So with my first movie, “The Poor and Hungry,” we had pimps, strippers, drug dealers and car thieves helping me make this black and white movie about a car thief who falls in love with this cello player. We had to build sets in our shitty little house, we had a window unit that was the only air that we had, but the power of the unit, plus my Adobe Premiere cutting of the movie was too much, so I had just one or the other. We had to quiet down people next door if we were filming.

I met so many people who were all talk, who were all about manipulation, but were rarely about getting down into making something. And I had been like that. It’s part of the process — you’re cynical, you go see movies and the first thing you want to do is go to a Denny’s all night and go, “I could have done better than that,” and then that steam runs out and at some point you go, “Well, what am I going to make?” That was where “Hustle” came from. And where I always feel a little misunderstood — and I wish I could keep making movies so that people could see all of my work — is that I really think that because of the urban element of “Hustle & Flow,” people don’t see that I’m actually trying to make things about people and not about judging them so much.

And I do look at DJay and I really don’t think that he was thinking about the sins of exploiting women and it was something that I didn’t really want to…

Get into?

Well…I think that I could get into it, I just don’t think I had room. I mean, he ends up in jail, he doesn’t end up with a record contract, I was much more inspired by the movies of the 80s where it was good enough for Richard Gere just to graduate in “An Officer and a Gentleman” instead of shooting down MiGs in “Top Gun.” So I felt that just getting the song on the radio was a big enough victory for him.

But it’s ultimately a song about pimping.

You mean “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp”? Yeah, but then I look at that third song: “This is my life and it’s a battle within / I’ve got to survive, even if I’m sinning to win / But if I show no remorse I reap the devil’s reward / He said he’d give me riches and I’m looking for more.” And I know people have problems with rap and the misogynistic tones and the violence, but I think of the blues — “Wanna buy me a bulldog and chain it in my front yard, and that’ll keep my woman from sneaking off at night.” “I’m your back door man, I’m your back door man, the boys don’t know but the little girls understand.” For some reason we give those songs a pass…

Well, there is an element of persona [to hip-hop] — no one really expects Young Jeezy to be living on a pile of cocaine…

With five Bentleys outside? But blues, rhythm and blues and rock and roll have always been the artistic exorcism that dances between reality and fantasy. Sometimes I need to be — if I’m on my way to some meeting, I’ve got to blare some gangsta shit, and some of it’s about killing, and I really don’t feel an urge to go out and kill anybody. And I feel the same way about movies — it is a little bit like church. You’re in this dark theater, you’re all facing the same direction, you’re not really having any judgment on you for experiencing something. Now, I’ve never pimped in my life, but I have definitely felt like it. I have lied to people and manipulated them so I can use their locations, to make something that I thought was good.

Making a movie is a very vulnerable thing, especially in my situation — I’m not doing “Grudge” sequels, I’m letting everybody know, hey, this is from me. I’m not Sam Jackson, I’m that crazy girl at the end of the chain. She’s very much alone, she’s always been alone, and even though he does this thing that, symbolically, oh my god, he’s chaining a woman up against her will, he really is the only person in her life who’s not wanting something from her.

And I’m not saying he’s a saint, he’s got some good old fashioned male vengeance in him, he’s got a captive woman and his woman just left him, so he’s got some shit he has to say.

So how do you see exploitation films fitting into what you’ve made? They both seem to owe a lot to the genre.

Some of my more taboo movie experiences were when my granddaddy said “Hey, we’re going to watch ”Gator Bait,’ don’t tell anyone.” There was always something about those films that I knew I should like and shouldn’t like at the same time.

We have something in our culture right now that’s really interesting — we seem to be really preoccupied with young white girls going crazy and going out without any underwear and getting drunk. Whole days will be spent in the news cycle asking “What’s wrong with these girls?” And we’re fascinated by it. We’ll watch reality shows, and watch girls get in fights, and later going out to parties and making out in hot tubs, and I guess I wanted to see some old man saying “Cut that shit out” — because I felt like I was very much a part of it as well.

The exploitation element is always an interesting one to watch with an audience — when you start employing elements of exploitation, you, right or wrong, bring your audience into that culpability, into the guilt. My favorite moment in the movie is when Christina is almost completely passed out — she’s feverish, and [Jackson] is trying to pick her up, he’s trying to help her and in her fever, she lunges forward and kisses him, and the audience flinches like they were in a horror movie. Off of a kiss! I think that they’re caught in this difficult place, and I’m caught, as a filmmaker, in this interesting place of titillating them and terrifying them at the same time. I think that’s why that exploitation feel, I think, worked. I didn’t think it was, like, a frosting to put on the cake. I felt that if I’m going to explore all these Southern archetypes that I’m obsessed with, that includes that 18-wheeler mudflap silhouette, it includes that redneck fantasy. I mean, look at her shirt, for Godsakes. I’m giving you archetypes to say this is a fable.

“Black Snake Moan” opens in wide release March 2nd (official site).

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