The opportunity to interview director Craig Brewer came as a package with both the young Memphis-based filmmaker and his producers--the well established director John Singleton and former Columbia Pictures executive Stephanie Allain. Rather than de-emphasize this newcomer's singular directorial achievement in favor of a story about how his seasoned producers took a leap of faith by personally bankrolling this project, Brewer is presented here alone. The story of aging Memphis street pimp Djay (Terrence Howard) who strives to transform his experience into lyrical material for hip hop beats after he meets his old buddy Key (Anthony Anderson)--an aspiring record producer, Hustle and Flow recalls an era (the 1970s) and a genre (blaxsploitation) without really being about one or the other.
After meeting Brewer, seeing his debut DV feature, The Poor and The Hungry, and once Singleton was handed him the script for Hustle and Flow, he became Brewer's greatest proselytizer-and committed enough to finance this film with Allain when the studios passed on it.
The L Magazine: Did you do a lot of research into the world of pimps or did you know about it from the people you knew in Memphis?
Craig Brewer: It's a very strange place, but the thing is that if you were from Memphis, and you rolled in the circles I did, you'd find that Memphis is the biggest small town in America, and everybody's one degree from everybody else. You're not six degrees away from everybody. In order for me to make a movie in my region with no money, I really had to hustle. I knew car thieves and chop shop owners and bouncers at shake joints and dancers who I would have be in my movies. And these aren't like bad movies. I wanted to make art. I wanted to make a story. I just began rolling with a lot of these people and what I found was that, yeah, I did know a lot of DJays and Lexuses. A lot of dancers I knew personally and my wife knew personally where it's like they had about five years left. They were just starting to lose their tread and they were mad. Lexus was a character that I had a palpable sense of--I knew that girl. It's kind of right or wrong, but I also knew Nolas and Suges. And I knew Nolas because you almost want to give them a hug and go "oh, honey" because they're these kind of naïve country girls that run away from home and they come to the big city of Memphis, and they get under the thumb of some guy who just has a great way of talking and makes her feel incredible. I'm not writing from a place of progress with this movie. These are some deplorable, pathetic [people]. These are not self-possessed women or men. But I wanted to give them a journey where they discover dignity. Where they find that it's okay that they have their own voice. So yeah, I knew these characters, but when they come over to my house and sit on my porch and we have a drink, there's no judgment there. I can really see them as just people that I know, because they've helped me and we've known each other for a long time and I think that's kind of the difficult place that sometimes audiences find themselves in Hustle and Flow.
The L: But it's Terrence Howard's character that really has it wrapped tight within him.
CB: I don't really judge DJay. There's times where you're really feeling him and then he does something that absolutely enrages you. And you're like wait a moment, I just got a bead on this guy. I just liked this guy. Why the hell is he throwing this woman out with her baby? Because I see that, you know, and what happens is three weeks later, yeah, I talk to that guy and yeah, maybe a couple months later that event I saw that I didn't agree with, it's not like I'm suddenly over it. It's that spirit of my city that ultimately educated me into making "Hustle and Flow."
The L: What made you decide to give the film that very distinctive '70s feel and look?
CB: I'm just a big fan of that era. I feel like we're coming back with movies like "Sideways," but remember when Ned Beatty and Elliot Gould were stars? I just look at them, and go, what's Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt about with those guys? Really, it's because they're real, real human people with flaws, and I just felt that...also with more of the blaxploitation inspiration with it--those movies have a certain vibe and a certain music that comes out of my region with the Shaft soundtrack and Tough Guys and Truck Turner. You walk down Memphis and it's kind of like you're in a blaxploitation movie. I know guys with the pressed hair and the curls, and every morning, I take my son to the coffee shop, I go right down Vance and there's the guys on their Fords having their ladies curl their hair. No one's ever shined a spotlight on that guy on the corner and the stoop driving past in the neighborhood; you never seen him in a movie.
The L: You were pretty lucky to get Singleton on board--he seems pretty hands on in this film.
CB: It was invaluable because I had made a movie just on digital video. It was this feature length movie that I made for $20,000, but it was with a crew of two and I was holding the camera--if I wanted to move up five feet and get a close-up, then I'd just do the camera. It's not that easy with this big old crew and these big old cameras. John would just teach me little tricks like on how to get to the meat of your scene in the day; if suddenly there's rain and you're knocked out, do you have enough in the scene to cut it if that's all you have? You don't want to spend half the afternoon lighting the cup and then suddenly you don't have any room for the scene. There were just things like that in terms of making your days with a production of this size, which is still comparatively small compared to the movies that were out there, but even though this movie was between $2 and $3,000, 000 budget, which was 2 or $3,000, 000 more than I'd ever worked with. It was a new experience.
The L: Was he like a co-director?
CB: I wouldn't say he's a co-director but he was definitely over at the video assist, and every once in awhile, I'd hear him snicker or laugh or go "yeah" or something like that.
The L: Was there a time when you thought, "why shouldn't I let John direct this great script?"
CB: Yeah, I got this call late at night and I thought I was getting my walking papers from John. John called me up and he was like bummed, like we'd been everywhere over and over again. "We've done the best we can." I'm like well here's the moment where we part, and he was like "I'm going to greenlight this myself" and I was like "really?" and he's like "yeah, I'm going to put the money up myself and we're going to make the money." The L: This is pretty much the first film that John has made outside the studio system. CB: It's like the mere audacity that you would go out and do something like that. I would be at parties and would hear people say "John's financing your movie? So he found the financing?" Yeah, he's financing it. He put up his house. It was this moment of shock and awe at the same time.
The L: Do you think that stepping out of the studio system gave you more creative freedom?
CB: Completely. John was the studio. It felt like all the actors. We were on the East of the Mississippi. Hollywood could have been on Pluto. We never thought at all about Hollywood. We really were just making this movie, and you'll see that the cast is very close, because they went through great sacrifices just to be available for the movie, and also, I think they went through a great emotional sacrifice. Because I was new and I really had to protect my region, and had to protect these characters that I knew, it wasn't going to be as easy as showing up and standing on your mark, and just saying lines. I had to kind of work outside of people's comfort zone a little bit. For a while, Terrence and I were like two wolves growling at each other around a bone. You know how you do that with two dogs? You put a ball in front of them and they'll just try to psyche each other. That's kind of what me and T were for awhile, because he was afraid that I was going to be making something that was like something we've seen before in terms of the pageantry of pimps, and all of that kind of thing, and I was just as scared and I wanted to make sure that he wasn't going to do that and we were going to create a really authentic Memphis character. Suddenly, we both just grabbed onto the ball and we were like "oh, wait a minute. We're going after the same thing." And that's when we really began to create this character. The L: What did the Hollywood execs say to you when you talked to them?
CB: They really believed that this movie was specifically for an urban market. When you learn a lot about how Hollywood, that when there are predominantly African American casts that there are already avenues that they feel they know how to make money off of, and that's why they were asking whether Chris Tucker or someone more funny play DJay so we can laugh him instead of identify him. That broke my heart about Hollywood, because one cautionary tale was Ray. They were trying to tell me while we were trying to get the movie made, was that there's this disaster happening down in Louisiana. This $40 million, financed outside of the studio movie. Taylor Hackford is doing a movie about Ray Charles. No one we know is going to distribute or buy that movie. It's a disaster. And I remember me and Stephanie going, Damn!
The L: And now they’re all surprised at the interest in it?
CB: Yeah, now they are. And there's even a couple Hustle and Flow-like projects [I heard about getting underway].