S. Craig Zahler interview: Brawl In Cell Block 99, Bone Tomahawk

Writer/director S. Craig Zahler talks to us about his films, his approach, and Ridley Scott adapting his work…

I loved Brawl In Cell Block 99, the second feature film from novelist and filmmaker S. Craig Zahler. His first? Bone Tomahawk. I love that too, for the record. Zahler already feels like a very different voice in American film, a man content for his budgets to be low and control over his material to be high.

He spared me some time for a chat to talk about the film, his approach, and what he feels about Drew Goddard and Ridley Scott adapting one of his books.

I came out of the movie being glad that a grown-up was allowed to make grown-up films.

It’s not easy to go forth with the attitude of I’m making the movies that I want to see, and that maybe the majority of people who watch movies aren’t going to be interested in what I do. But let’s find a way to do mine well, and successful enough so that I can do another one.

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But I’m not chasing the biggest audience. I’m chasing self-satisfaction, and then the opportunity from it to make another one. That’s kind of it! Grown-up movies are those things, and there aren’t tons of them these days. When they tend to be grown-up they also tend to be self-important and message-heavy, which to me is a bigger turn off than chasing the biggest audience. I’m not going to the movies for a lecture.

Early in the film, there’s a conversation scene between Vince Vaughn where you see how hard the character of Bradley is trying to hold his natural aggression in. I know much has been made of Vaughn’s performance there, but Jennifer Carpenter is extraordinary I think. Can you talk about her work there a little?

Thank you for saying this. I will say that the expectations I had for this movie have already been exceeded in the critical response, and the response of the crowd. But maybe my biggest area of disappointment is that people aren’t talking about Jennifer Carpenter in every single review.

She was originally cast as the lead actress in Bone Tomahawk as well, and the schedule didn’t work out. She, like Vince Vaughn, is in the third movie I wrapped three weeks ago. She is maybe the most incredible performer I’ve dealt with in terms of her amazing access to emotions, and her ability to just layer stuff. In a recent Q&A we did, she said a lot of people require a lot of me in my role, but that I required her to be an Olympian every day, and the hardest days of shooting she’d ever had were each day on my movies! It’s just that I see she brings more. I could take some shots and go through frame by frame the different layers that she brings to life. I think she’s phenomenal. She has a role in my fourth film too, that I’m discussing.

The film has stuck in my head a lot, and it was her performance that really came through. Maybe not initially, but it’s what soaked through when I was still thinking about it the week after. The film doesn’t work if her character doesn’t work.

That you’re thinking about it, and the character a week later is very nice to hear! Thank you!

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I’ve read a lot of interviews with you and inevitably, justifiably too, you’re asked about the violence in your films. On my way out of Brawl, I did wonder if I’d actually watched a film with that many minutes of violence in, it’s just that the violence had real impact?

I love the film Drive, and there’s a moment in the lift there where Ryan Gosling is simmering. It’s only a minute or two that scene, but such is the impact of it, it feels so dominant. I wouldn’t be surprised in the case of Brawl if there’s only about 10 minutes of violence in it?

It’s in that ballpark.

There was a lot of discussion on this with Bone Tomahawk of course, and that has some very extreme scenes. These are a little more protracted, so maybe the number is closer to 15. The number depends on what you define on violence or action. But far more time is spent with the characters, the spaces they’re in, the textures of those spaces, the atmosphere in those spaces.

If the violence has the right amount of impact… the stuff I’m trying to come up with, for you to remember, that all of course comes from writing it. It surprised me when I wrote it how much anger is coming out of this guy. I started figuring out at the start in the scene with the car, when I saw how loaded he was. Then you get a scene when he’s beaten down for so long, and you know how much anger is in there, and that has to come out.

But if people are this good at committing acts of violence and have this much anger, it doesn’t turn into a 20 minute fight scene. When your intention is to kill somebody, and you look like Bradley, and have the capabilities of Bradley, that fight isn’t going to go on that long!

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Vince Vaughn, much has been made of his extraordinary work here. But I’m curious with the before of the process though. I was wondering what you spotted in his earlier work that, with due respect, I don’t think Vince Vaughn had spotted himself? And I say that as a fan of his. Was there something early you saw and went ‘okay, that’s the character’?

A couple of things. I never thought ‘that’s the character’, and that’s what I didn’t want. For instance, a character closer to this guy is someone like Woody Harrelson. His head is there, his accent is naturally there. I’m a big Woody Harrelson fan, but he would be the normal choice here. When you’re trying to make something unique, which I’m trying to do with all my pieces, and I took some guy who’d played a character close to this one before…? I’d lose the unique experience of watching this character, the physicality, the muscle, the very layered internal work. The conflation of all of this stuff yields a character we’ve never seen before. If Woody Harrelson came in and did this, he would have done an excellent job, the transformation isn’t as big. That was the thing with picking Vince, that transformation would be there.

I knew with Bone Tomahawk, people would come out talking about the violence, but those who really enjoyed the movie would say look at these characters. Look at the dialogue. Look at the acting. Look at the slow mood of this whole thing. With Brawl, I knew the violence was there. But I hoped that people would come out and say ‘holy shit, this is a completely different Vince Vaughn’.

To answer the other part of your question about what I saw in him, what I saw was consistency.

That’s interesting.

There are actors who are good in some movies, and bad in others. There are actors who are usually bad. There are actors who are usually good. For the most part, Vince Vaughn whether he’s in a movie with a lot of good performances, or a mixed bag, he lands. And his focus is good, and he doesn’t feel the need to show all his chops, for lack of a better word. To an extent I wasn’t exactly sure how deep it went. I knew he could be real in the moment, was incredibly charismatic. I knew he was a big guy. I knew if I saw him on the street I wouldn’t think that guy’s a comedian. I would think that’s a menacing looking dude.

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Some of it is I just saw him in the real world as a dude who isn’t the guy you see in his movies. Then I met him and we got along, he was terrifically nice. We’ve already made another movie together, so there’s no bigger compliment I can pay than he was the lead in my next movie! And I offered it to him as we were wrapping this one. But I saw the consistency in his work, and to me knowing that he could be real, and the way that I see real, I like to see someone who’s comfortable being in the scene and focused, and not showing a lot of technique.

The first day, within hours of our first rehearsal, I stared reading scenes with him and I saw him snap to it. Drawing from this access to emotion that he had. I knew that by the halfway point of our first day of rehearsal – I was doing these scenes opposite him – and I saw this was an actor who I thought was very good, but I realised he’s a top tier exceptional actor. Seeing him getting accolades the way he has, it’s the most satisfying compliment. Those actors you take under your wing and create the characters with them together, they’re children of a sorts! Seeing him getting the praise he’s getting is fantastic. There’s just so much he’s doing in that movie that’s worthy of notice.

You mentioned rehearsal, and I wanted to talk about that, as it seems a lost art! John Badham, in his books on directing, talks about how rehearsal is seen by “bean counting production executives” as either an “arty perversion designed to cost them money” or “an opportunity for an actor to undermine the script”. But when I was watching those early exchanges, you clearly had actors who knew their characters inside out. How much rehearsal was involved there, and how important is it to you?

It was different for each film for me. Absolute insistence for me.

With Bone Tomahawk, the main cast was there five days early, and we spent four days going through it. Rehearsal is different for different actors. We’re essentially doing a table read where we’re going through it. They’re mostly reading. But it’ll start to come off the page a little more.

What I want to have in the relatively low pressure of rehearsal is let’s discuss everything. Make sure it makes sense for everybody. The answer to what’s my motivation for every character in every scene is something I can supply. That they understood where their characters were coming from. I do understand why someone would write that rehearsal is a place where actors could potentially undermine a script. Your script needs to be solid for this to work and in my case it’s easier because I wrote it. I know why I made all the decisions I made in it.

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There’s not arbitrary stuff. Because I write from a place where I want, I’m thinking of the characters, the best they can do to better their situations. It’s always driven by the character stuff. I know writers who come up with the plot, and then do things to get their characters to facilitate the plot. They’re going to have a tougher time slotting it into place.

Sitting down with Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Carpenter and going through the scene you mentioned. I’d given each of them a biography, going through the life story of that character from early childhood up until the day before the first scene in the movie. They had all of that from me. We went through the scene in the living room after Bradley’s little dance with the car. We discussed all these moments. Even if Jennifer’s doing a table read, she brings it at a pretty high level. All of a sudden, the table read – and it’s just the three of us – starts to turn into a pretty intense rehearsal, to ensure the moments land correctly. Discussing why she’s staying a distance for the duration of the conversation, working out where his attention is.

Of course when you get on set and you’re dealing with the elements of location, sorry we can’t have you sitting on this chair, you need to move there for this reverse shot… all of this crap comes into play, but we’ve already gone through the scene. In the case of that scene, maybe six or seven times just reading through it. And then after reading through it, talking about it after. You can do that stuff, and then when you land on the day of photography, everybody feels comfortable. You’re not figuring it out for the first time.

It’s something I like to do with everybody. You don’t always have the option. If an actor is flying in the day before his or her first day, it can be tricky. In which case you might go through a couple more takes before finding the right stuff.

Rehearsal is key. I remember talking to James Tolkan, who played the piano player in Bone Tomahawk and had an amazing role in the Back To The Future films, and I bring up Prince Of The City with him. I bring it up because Sidney Lumet is my favourite director, and I asked him what it was like working with him. He talked about it being an actor’s dream, and one of the reasons why was all the rehearsal that he did! So you’re not opening up the hood of the car right before you’re doing the grand prix!

The Badham book makes a specific point about Sidney Lumet, as it happens. That the reason Lumet could film his movies in half the time was he’d done loads of the key work in the rehearsal room.

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That makes sense.

Brawl In Cell Block 99 took five weeks to shoot, Bone Tomahawk was four. Don Johnson [who’s in Brawl In Cell Block 99] worked with Sidney Lumet, and I never stand in video village when I’m filming, I’m alongside the camera. I want to see it large and be right there. And we cut, and I go and have a conversation if I’m going to give them some direction. I’m right there, not in another room watching a monitor. I said to Don Johnson “Is it okay if I do this?”, and he said “Actually, that’s where Sidney Lumet would stand”, which I did not know! I was like yep, that would make sense.

I used to be a DP, so I know what shots are going to look like. I trust my DP so much, we’ve already done three movies together and he’s my guy. I look at the shot, the lighting, and go this is right, I’m comfortable with it. Now let me focus on the acting. If you believe in a script and you get the right performances, your movie is going to be good!

I haven’t enjoyed a Don Johnson performance so much since Tin Cup, which felt like the only mainstream romcom in the 90s that felt like it was made for grown-ups!

I’ve never seen that movie!

Ah, it’s great! Before I’m chucked off, can I just ask though: because your work is so authored, will you only direct your own scripts? And how do you feel when you get news of Drew Goddard and Ridley Scott adapting Wraiths Of The Broken Land, your book?

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Two different things. I’ll answer the second bit first!

I’ve sold or had optioned 26, 27 different pieces in the Hollywood system. Honestly, at this point when another A-list director comes aboard a piece of mine, my excitement level is pretty contained! I don’t believe it’ll ever happen. I’ve watched so many come and go. I’ve had three drive-bys with DiCaprio along, with Tom Cruise. It’s a long list of people who also made pieces of mine. We’ll see what happens. I actually haven’t read Drew Goddard’s version of the story, I hear it’s pretty faithful. He was hugely complimentary to me. It made sense that I’d write the screenplay to my own book, but that was the winning combination for the studio. So I can see why it got set up that way. But my enthusiasm is contained for anything I’m not controlling, because I don’t believe in it until they’re rolling now!

Eventually I think some of these things will get made, but I don’t spend a long time thinking about it. And how many pieces is Ridley Scott currently committed to making?! So there’s that.

In terms of directing other people’s stuff, not as a feature film. The time commitment is way too long. From conceiving to writing to pre-production to production – that has been brutal for me thus far – and post-production… by the end of this process I’ve put in 2000 hours, and I’ve so many stories I want to tell. It’s hard for me to get as excited about telling someone else’s story.

The exception is that the idea of going on a television show, for a shorter period of time and working with people I think are talented, that holds some appeal to me. I know there’s a new Star Trek show, and I’m a Star Trek fan, given an opportunity to go in and direct something like that? I’d probably take it. I was a big Parks & Rec fan, The Office. To direct an episode of a comedy, something dramatically different, I’d enjoy that.

But for a 2000 hour commitment? It’d need to be something I’ve written. I’ve got six different projects I’m currently talking about as movie number four for me, so I’ve got enough there!

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Well, you’re in the UK right now, so it’s Doctor Who over Star Trek. But thank you so much for your time.

Brawl In Cell Block 99 is in selected cinemas, and on premium on demand services, from today.