Shooting the 'Hard Time Killing Floor Blues'
Craig Brewer on 'Black Snake Moan'
I'm thinking it's well-nigh impossible to summarize Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer's wild and passionate follow-up to Hustle & Flow minus a crashing sonic background equal parts howling Delta blues, scaly king-snake preachings, and the implacable iron trust of whipcord links scoring dark, thudding grooves across Tennessee-shotgun-shack planking.
But, there's this: A doleful, woeful bluesman (Samuel L. Jackson); a sex-mad spitfire (Christina Ricci) dialed all the way up to die; and a single length of snap-taught forged steel running from busted heart to battered dream.
The Chronicle spoke to Brewer by phone in the weeks leading up to the release of his revelatory film, a fire-and-brimstone slab of deep-fried Southern gothic that wouldn't have been one bruised fender out of place at the local drive-in circa 1974.
Austin Chronicle: Black Snake Moan opens with a great credit roll that has Ricci's character, Rae, flipping the bird to a mammoth combine as she ambles down this dusty backwater lane. It's sublime in a terrifically kickass way.
Craig Brewer: I was telling [Ricci] at that moment, "Look, the whole town's trying to harvest you, and you will not yield."
AC: Did you have to pitch this film to Paramount?
CB: Well, it was while I was trying to get Hustle & Flow going that Black Snake Moan was born. At the time, I was constantly being flown out to L.A., but I didn't have any money, and we'd just had a baby I was sleeping on people's couches. So one day I'm on a plane, and I get this pounding in my chest. I can't get any oxygen, I'm shaking, the adrenaline's rushing, and I tell the stewardess, "I think I'm having a heart attack!" Instead, it was a panic attack, and they began happening to me all the time. My wife was having them, too.
So, one night when I was supposed to be doing a rewrite on Hustle & Flow, I put on Skip James' "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues," had a little whiskey, and saw this image of myself looking into my granddad's house out in the woods. There was this radiator there with a chain, and it was kind of uncoiling and running past me, and then here comes the panic attack! But as soon as the chain went taut and clanked up against the radiator, the radiator held, and that made the attack go away. That's where the central image of the film came from, and I wrote that script before I even shot Hustle & Flow.
AC: Watching the film, it's obvious you've got your Seventies exploitation drive-in antecedents down pat. Were those types of films a major influence growing up?
CB: Well, actually, I'm 35, so I came of age in the era of Betamax and the birth of the VCR. If I had to pick one moment that changed my life, as an adult looking back, it'd be Midnight Cowboy. There were two moments that just brought me to tears.
One was when Ratso Rizzo said to Jon Voight, "I can't walk. You know what they do to people who can't walk," and then at the end when he died on the bus and the bus driver comes back and says to Jon Voight, "Could you close his eyes, please?" And Voight closes Ratso's eyes and puts his arm around his dead friend. I was just devastated.
That was the first time I really began to care, deeply, for these characters that most people would cross to the other side of the street to avoid. It's through film, plays, literature, that we discover that we are not alone and that we are in fact much closer to these sorts of characters that we would like to admit.