Albert and Allen Hughes, most commonly known as The Hughes Brothers aren’t your typical directing team. Not only are they brothers but they’re twin brothers, who both have a strong connection to their craft. The last time the duo directed a major film was 2001′s From Hell, a horror thriller that starred Johnny Depp and Heather Graham. Before that they helmed 1999′s American Pimp, 1995′s Dead Presidents, and their breakout debut in 1993, Menace II Society. Book of Eli marks their first feature of the new decade, led by two time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, and Jennifer Beals.
After speaking to both directors individually, I got a clear understanding of how they work. They have a gift that allows them to see things that the average viewer, or fellow filmmaker wouldn’t notice at first glance. Finding the truth in a story and making their audience believe it wholeheartedly is their mission, and they’ve stood buy that for almost two decades. Here’s our in-depth look into the minds of The Hughes Brothers…
The Book of Eli is an interesting story that crosses several genres. It can be seen as a religious epic, a futuristic thriller, or an old school Western. The screenplay was written by Gary Whitta, so we wanted to know how the project got into the directors’ hands.
Albert: It was done by Gary [Whitta], he sold a spec script to Warner Brothers and Joel Silver. I don’t think anybody over there read it but one or two people. It hadn’t gone out to directors, nobody in town knew about it. An agent called my brother and said we needed to read the script and I think his question was had anybody read the script and he said no. He jumped on and read it, then he told me to read it. I read it and called him back and said, ‘I don’t know because of this religious stuff. I’m kind of hesitant about that.’ He’s like, ‘Well, OK. Just sleep on it and call me in the morning.’ Then I slept on it and had a dream about the script, with the song from Nine Inch Nails playing in my head that he’d been playing in the car from the week before. And that song let me see the way into the script.
It’s been a long time since the Hughes Brothers did a film together, and with The Book of Eli their taking on a subject that always spawns controversy. Coming from the background of urban drama and horror to a futuristic religious epic is a tall order, and their reason for doing the film isn’t as black and white as some of their previous works. They had something to prove.
Albert: We had five years between Dead Presidents and From Hell, and eight years between Eli and From Hell. Just because I’m not necessarily religious doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in the story. I had to find my way in. And I also believe in propaganda too, like I would do a commercial for a Republican, just to jerk it off basically. Just to say, ‘Oh, I did it.’ Can I make people believe something, even though I don’t believe it? Do I have enough, not talent, but technique? Do I have the technique to sell somebody on an idea that is not something that I believe in? I may not necessarily believe in aspects of this story, but I’ve got to believe in this guy’s mission. I’ve got to believe everything about it just like if it was Star Wars. We know there’s no spaceships in outer space doing that, we know there’s no Hobbits in Middle Earth. For me that’s how, you’ve got to believe the story you’re telling.
Since faith is such a major part of Eli‘s premise, you might wonder how the directors plan on entertaining those who aren’t heavily embedded in any particular faith. Surprisingly, their perspective on the film doesn’t come from a religious point of view. They see the Eli as something much more.
Albert: I don’t think it’s about religion. I think there are some religious or spiritual elements in it, but you’re going to find something in one character’s mouth that you actually believe. You might not like that character, but if you’re a non-religious person, you’re going to find some character in the movie that makes you go, ‘OK, I believe in what he’s saying.” If you’re religious person, you’re going to find a religious character and say, “I believe what he’s saying.’ If you don’t believe in what any of them are saying you may just like the world. You may like the elements, because it’s more like a throw back to an old kind of Western. The very clearly defined good and evil. They both want something, but one wants it for bad, and one wants it for good. It’s like a classic kind of old, cinema story, and very simplistic in a way.
The actors used to represent that good and evil are Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman. Working with veterans of their caliber would be an overwhelming task for some, but the Hughes’ kept their cool under pressure. They found both actors to be extremely helpful in the filmmaking process.
Albert: You realize it when it’s on paper. You go, ‘We’ve got Gary, we’ve got Denzel, we’ve got wardrobe fittings, etc.’ But we’re not those kinds of guys that sit back and go, ‘Wow.” We’re too busy thinking about something else. We always get the question of, ‘Are you nervous?’ Never once in our lives have we ever had a bout of bad nerves. Stress, yes we’ve had, but not stress over like, ‘Oh my God is it going to work?’ We’re not those kinds of people, and when it comes to talent, once you get to know them and you get to know Gary and you get to know Denzel, you go ‘OK, he’s like a friend now.’ Now we’re over that. Now, that we’ve decompressed and we’re done with the movie, we’re like ‘Wow, we actually did a movie with Gary?’ It still hasn’t sunk in yet. They’re such good guys, and Gary has such a wicked sense of humor. He’s so talented, and Denzel is too. Denzel’s so smart, it’s like they only helped us. If you work with less experienced actors, you’ve got to carry a bigger load. Those guys helped us because they’re both filmmakers too. They’ve both directed, so it’s a plus in working with them.
The supporting cast was also filled to the brim with talented people. It almost got to the point where we weren’t sure who would pop up in the next scene. You have Michael Gambon, Tom Waits, Malcolm McDowell, Mila Kunis, and Jennifer Beals. We had to know how they wrangled together such a talented group of people.
Albert: I don’t have a [specific] memory, but I remember they all just started falling together. When you get Denzel in a movie people are like, ‘Hey, I’ll show up for that,’ you know? These English actors have been very nice to us. Those people show up and they work, then you call cut and they start cursing like a sailor. And they have character and have great stories. They want their curry and their tea and that’s it and they’re happy. It just fell together. Everything started to like fall into place and surprise us.
Allen: Interestingly enough, I called one of my producers and said, ‘If we don’t get Michael Gambon, (because it was going to fall apart), in this movie you’re not a real producer.’ I just idolize that man, and not a lot of people don’t know him by name. And Jennifer Beals was challenging because I had someone else in mind, and she auditioned for the part on tape and really went for it. Her audition was uncanny and uncomfortable and I was like, ‘What is this?’ It made me uncomfortable, and I didn’t like it. And I went to sleep and I went ‘You know what? She’s doing something over there.’ What was so rewarding with working with Ms. Beals was I love when you don’t recognize something and you’re like, what is this? The story is they told her at the airport, she was in contention for that role, and she just broke down and cried and told her agent, ‘You know if I don’t get the role, tell them thank you just for even putting me in contention for it.’ And there was another huge actress [in waiting], but I heard her hunger. I know to be an actress is tough alone past 30, but to be a Black actress over 30 is incredibly tough.
Even though Beals has a small, supporting role in the film, she made a major impact on the directors and the rest of her co-stars, most notably Washington.
Allen: She showed up [in a scene], and it was at the door when he [Washington] said, ‘I like your perfume.” there was that moment and she said ‘It’s the shampoo.” Denzel never compliments anybody and he was like, “Did you see that?” Because she did it like 3 or 4 or 5 different times and I was so proud of her because here’s a woman, she’s 45. She started at 18, she looks amazing, and she ceased the moment.
Speaking of Denzel’s input, his action scenes in this film can not be ignored. The actor’s in his mid-fifties and pulled off a few action scenes, that a 20 year old would have problems doing. According to the directors every piece of footage that shows Eli battling it out with the bad guys is all Washington. No stunt double required.
Allen: The thing with him is you always hear, “I did my own stunts. I did my own stunts.” That’s one thing. He did his own fighting, and it was one take. That thing in the underpass? That’s one shot with no cuts all the way through, and even the one in the bar, we shot it as one shot. So he trained for 6 months. I laughed everyday because he had a body double, or stunt double and all he did was sit in his trailer and read a book. Never came out, not once. Maybe for a long shot walking. He came out one day. Denzel did everything, and it was beyond stunts. It’s like I said, he had to lose 60 pounds. Then he had to go in and train with Jeff Amata who did the Bourne movies. And Bruce Lee’s right hand man Dan Inosanto went down there in Marina del Rey, and trained. I saw him doing stuff blind, with the sticks!
Since this was their first experience working with Washington, they got to see his work ethic first hand. They learned that he is much more than just an ‘actor.’
Allen: Denzel, he’s such a gifted man. It was the first time he made me understand why some men like Marlon Brando would consider it an insult just to be an actor. Denzel finally made me realize what it is, because his gifts are so much more. He just really has an intuitive gift of understanding everything. And he’s very quiet, and zen about it, although he very gregarious don’t get me wrong. He’s obsessive like me and my brother and he got way into all that.
The makeup department for Book of Eli worked overtime to give all the characters a distinct look. Their skin is burned and damaged to show that their world has been ravaged by the sun, it was great to see a post apocalyptic movie where the main characters didn’t look pretty, but were believable.
Albert: We try to do that with every movie, but when you’re dealing with actors sometimes you can’t get away with that as much. I remember on our last movie the studio was like, ‘Nope, you can’t put that dirt on Heather Graham’s face.’ You can’t do that, you can’t do this. Then it starts to look uneven you know? We try to treat them all the same in this movie. But you’ve got to show that some characters are women, as always in cinema. Even Sergio did that, Sergio Leone had the women look great, but the men were just dirty and sweaty and funky and as long as the audience feels that, you may be able to get away with one pretty girl or pretty woman in better make up, hopefully.
The Hughes Brothers have tackled a lot in their careers, so the big question is what’s next? Could we see another gritty drama in the future, or would they like to expand more into the action genre? Allen is interested in going in a direction that will not only challenge him as a filmmaker but also as a man.
Allen: I want to do a Last Tango in Paris. I really want to do one of those. I want to do it with an actress though, I don’t want to make it about a man. I want to make it real erotic, a cinematic movie, about a woman exploring her sexuality. Because I know that I would be uncomfortable doing it, so it’s a challenge, and plus we need it.
When you spend a good chunk of your life living together, working together, and sharing the same gene pool it’s hard to find the right balance with a person, especially if their your twin. We found out how the brothers have managed to have such a successful working relationship without it crossing over into their personal lives.
Allen: We have a tough relationship because we’re twins. We’re not just siblings. Siblings someone’s older and it’s, ‘You shut the fuck up because I’m older motherfucker,” you know? That’s something that’s established. Even the youngest is brighter and the oldest is more physical, there’s something that’s established. With twins, your mother pours the same amount of Kool-Aid from day one. So it’s a democracy, and directing is not about democracy, it’s a dictatorship. It’s tough, it’s difficult.
Albert: When it works, when it’s clicking, and you’re in sync and you’re thinking alike and everything’s going off without a hitch, there’s no other feeling like that. It’s almost like a drug, and you’re constantly chasing that dragon. There’s a lot of bad here because we’re brothers and we’re fighting all the time, but there’s that big good at the end if we just stick it out. Just stick it out.
Book of Eli opens in theaters nationwide on January 15, 2010.