Craig Brewer has made it in Hollywood, but much of that success is due to a movie he made that no one’s ever seen. That film is The Poor and Hungry, and that film is deeply personal to the director. So much so he’s self distributing the film, and will let anyone watch it online for free. We had a chance to sit down and talk at length with Brewer about the film, about loving movies and about future projects. It’s a wonderful chat, so check it out.
But before we go any further, if you want to watch the film, you can right here:
Here’s our freewheeling chat, which — partly because this was done outside the confines of normal press — is just a blast, and Brewer is honest and fun to talk with.
The Blu-ray plays up that this was a regional hit, was it well remembered?
Craig Brewer: It’s really strange. It almost had an urban legend quality to it, a myth, because you couldn’t see it anywhere. And after Hustle and Flow, people would say “yeah, but I saw The Poor and Hungry” so that became a thing because there were only a few screenings of it at this one theater, and then it ran for seven weeks after it won the Hollywood Film Festival, and then it was front page news, so everyone was going to see it, but nothing happened with it, there was no way for anyone to see it, even if they heard about it. I had given twenty copies to a local video store, Black Lodge Video, and all twenty copies over the last ten years have been stolen, and that became a bit of a local legend. So this is the first time I’m getting it out there and anyone who wants to see it can see it.
What is the best way for people to get ahold of this if they want their own copy?
Craig Brewer: The best way to get it is to go to www.thepoorandhungry.com and they can buy the DVD or Blu-ray, they can get packages with signed posters and vintage T-shirts. The bar that we filmed the movie in is The P&H Café, and the P and H satand for poor and hungry, and it had a mural on the side of the building that has since been painted over, but we have a picture of us in our T-shirts. And we have these screen prints, these art posters that a local artist did name Lauren Ray Holberman, but to download the movie you can do it for free. You just send me an email and I’ll send you the link and you can watch it on your phone, on your tablet, whatever, for free.
You strike me as a laserdisc kind of guy.
Craig Brewer: I’ve got laserdiscs. My favorite thing to do when I come to LA is head right to Amoeba, and I give myself a hundred dollar limit that I always exceed. I try to buy some laserdiscs, and some VHS tapes.
Kicking it old school. When I listen to your commentaries, which I think you’re great at, if you’re a laserdisc guy you grew up on the Criterions, and hearing people talk about movies that way twenty years ago was revelatory. Nowadays it often sounds like contractual obligation.
Craig Brewer: I hate those, I really do, because there’s a lot of people out there like me, where commentaries are half their film school, and the other half is reading books and getting out in the field, but I remember right when DVDs started happening, I bought a DVD player so I could listen to filmmakers talk. If you put me to it, I could probably give you my top ten commentaries if you pushed me to it. But Robert Rodriguez, on all his movies, is a generous commentator. It’s like he’s a professor for people who don’t have any money and didn’t go to film school. And he was the first hero. But if you were into laserdiscs, you always wanted to track down that one Scorsese did for Raging Bull. There was always one.
Back in the day, the Criterion stuff like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, the big problem was that the sets ran $100-$125, and there weren’t a lot of rental options. Like the video stores days, you’d go to three or four stores to try and find one title you heard about that might be good.
Craig Brewer: VHS is interesting for me because in Memphis, Tennessee, in the nearby country areas their Blockbuster videos would clean out their foreign films after a while and the more interesting films because no one was renting them. So I would just go bin checking on weekends, and I remember one time I found Truffaut’s The Soft Skin and I squealed in the Blockbuster, and it’s like $4.99. My favorite commentary was L’Avventura, that’s a really good commentary.
I’m also a big fan of Michael Jeck’s commentary for Seven Samurai. It’s always good to hear someone passionate. The thing about going to the video stores is when you were digging for the obscure titles it was just as thrilling to find a copy of Contempt as it was to find Truck Turner.
Craig Brewer: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I remember seeing one of Hal Hartley’s first movies, not Trust, maybe Amateur, but I remember going to my local Blockbuster and finding Trust, and I couldn’t believe it. I can go to Target right now and buy Blu-rays and there’s no significance to them. I can’t tell you when and where I got that movie. But those previously viewed video cassettes, there’s this whole history with each one, and I couldn’t throw them away. While making Hustle and Flow, I just didn’t have any money, I’d written the movie and it took a few years to get the film going. So my wife and I had this garage sale, and I had five hundred movies that I had cut the sleeves and slid them into the black cases that Blockbuster would just give away, they’d stack them by their exit, and I would come in and take them all. So they looked amazing in these cases and I did this garage sale where I sold about 400, 450 of those VHS tapes so I could pay rent for the next two months, and we had a child, and I remember looking at those tapes leaving and it was so painful because I had such a relationship with them, but we just didn’t have a dime.
There’s such an intense fetishism that comes with loving movies, but of course it’s all trumped by money. What was the motivation for putting out The Poor and Hungry now?
Craig Brewer: I guess on a personal level I wanted to do right by this movie. I owed my career to it, it was a special movie to me, it was the one my father got to have any connection to before he passed away unexpectedly. And this is after I tried to make a movie in Memphis on film, and it completely fell apart, he read the script and just having my dad support me was this really special moment. He told me he really dug it, and it had been a while since he had been that enthusiastic, and so I would make it, and not worry about film, and getting a video camera, and keeping the crew really small, combined with a sudden death it was a unique time in my life, I felt like I had this mission given to me by my father, it’s very Joseph Cambpell, and when I think back on it I don’t think I’ll have an equal cinematic experience ever.
So for me, now that I have a career, I think it was this year I realized “I’m doing this now, I’m employed in movies and television and screenplays, and this movie started it all, this movie that no one’s seen. So when Footloose came along I had my assistant, who also produces movies for me, Erin Hagee, and a filmmaker friend of mine from Memphis, Morgan John, I kind of put them in charge of remastering it. I cut Poor and Hungry on Adobe Premiere, and I only had two 18 gig and two 9 gig drives, and it held exactly two hours worth of footage, so I would have to bring in the film that would make up the first ten minutes of the movie, cut it and then I would download that to digital tape, and then I would erase everything and start all over again on the next ten minutes, and I would keep doing that until I could daisy chain connect those ten minute pieces, so there was never any freedom to edit. So Morgan and Erin digitized all of my original tapes and they had to go through every single shot without having a time code. It would be like “her eye closed here, let’s find that moment in all of hours of footage.”
It took about two years on our scale to do this, and that meant getting a 5.1 sound mix, and Photokem over at Burbank, they did the Katy Perry: Part of Me documentary that I produced, and they’ve done all of my movies, and I was looking at footage of Perry on video, and thinking “why does this look so good” and they said they had a new process that smooths out the image and really makes it pop, and so they said “bring it over and we’ll do it for free for you.” And so it now looks and sounds better than it ever did. And I just want to get it out for as many people to see as possible, and I truly think for me it is my best film. I guess my soul is really connected to it, even though I put a lot of my soul into my films, and this one also has my blood in it. I had to do it right by it to move on with my career, I couldn’t let this sit in the shadows any more.
Craig Brewer: No I wouldn’t have. And it’s a little unnerving because I live in the same city that I was filming that in, and I was hanging out with a lot of filmmakers who all were going by the same method we were reading about in how to books and magazine articles about how Darren Aronofsky got into Sundance with Pi, and it was all about super 16, which was best for a 35mm blow up, and so a lot of my friends did that. But those who shot on super 16 always suffered for it and they could never get their movie to a place where it felt like a film. Because even if you shoot it on film, that doesn’t mean it’s going to make your movie better.
And so I think if I finished that, I would have become disillusioned with it all. With a camera in my hand, and seeing actors in front of me I could see truth and something happened to me, and when I look back I’m a little envious of the younger man and the film he made. And maybe I need to take a cue from him and put that camera back in my hand and rethink how to do some of those films I choose to make.
I think film school is important for getting the tools in people’s hands and making that first whatever, but I think it’s also like sex in that when you haven’t done it, you create this idealized version of it, but when you get down to it, you just need to f—. You gotta get over your preconceived notions. And I’m guessing that abandoned work was deeply personal, but I think one of the strengths of The Poor and Hungry is that it has a chop shop, and I’ve never seen one of those in a movie before. That’s something fascinating wrapped in this film noir narrative, whereas I’m guessing the first film was more of an expression of self.
Craig Brewer: When you’re shooting on film it’s so precise, you’ve got a focus puller, and the actors have to land on their marks or they’re out of focus, so a lot of what you do is you’re definitely creating something, and you’ve got a dolly move, and those the are tools I use on all my films, but they can get in the way of storytelling. And when I had a camera in my hand, and I had some actors, and we went into a strip club that was operational, the owner said “you can shoot, the girls said they don’t mind, and invite me to the premiere.” And so there I am, doing it, shooting between dancers, and shooting that chop shop sequence, I told the guys I bought a car and could you do what you do, and my brother’s going to move the light around once in a while, and I’m just going to film you doing this. That experience just electrified me, and we created a mantra on this film “actor doesn’t follow camera, camera follows actor.” We would set up the scene, and I would witness it, and I’d worry about how it would cut together later.
Craig Brewer: So you’ve heard me mention Purple Rain before, have you? Have I mentioned it? I could teach a college course on the first eight minutes of that movie. I see it more in Hustle and Flow in that what I always loved about Purple Rain, I was a huge Prince fan and in 1984 you kind of got over Michael Jackson, not completely but you wanted to grow up and you wanted to snicker at Darling Nikki and singing about masturbating with a magazine, so when I went to see Purple Rain in the most racially diverse audience I’d ever been in and Prince is kind of being an asshole, and I remember that thinking “why is he being so mean?” And his mother’s being beaten by his father, it’s serious. He looks so much like Prince, even though they call him The Kid, he’s Prince and I always wanted to like Prince and be his friend, but then I see him being complicated, I see him hitting Apollonia after she gave him the guitar, and by the end of the movie, I understood that this is a person who’s in some sort of artistic crisis, and he has questions if he’s even capable, and how much of your father’s sins do you take with you, and how much are you going to accept in your life as something you can’t change, and I think that’s what made me fall in love with it.
I think that’s also what made me fall in love with Footloose when it came out. People dismissed it as popcorn, bubblegum ‘80s big hair movie, I still saw a movie about trauma, and a family that’s struggling with faith and their belief in god, and how to let go of pain, and it’s in these ‘80s movies. I challenge anybody to come up with something as emotionally riveting to teens as it was to seeing The Breakfast Club when it came out. Back to The Poor and Hungry, I would say that I think it has some of those things I love, like how do you take working class people and make them look epic and the problems that they’re having and the goals are going for, seeing them as big as science fiction and fantasy but still relatable, but I think there’s definitely something, because those movies are in me, and along with Rocky were huge influences.
The funny thing about Footloose is that people think it’s about dancing, but that’s just a sliver of the movie. I think people remember the music videos instead.
Craig Brewer: I totally agree. I remember talking to the studio when they wanted me to make it and I said “I can do this? I can have these kids smoking pot, and abusive relationships with Ariel’s boyfriend” and they looked at me a little strange. They’d forgotten that all that stuff was mixed into Footloose.
Also, the thing about John Hughes is that everyone tries to do him without transcending him, they’re trying to do John Hughes, but they’re not evolving the ideas. We need our new Weird Sciences, our new Sixteen Candles.
Craig Brewer: Amen.
Craig Brewer: It’s hard not to get depressed after watching really great television. More and more it seems great storytelling has completely migrated to episodic television. It’s now no longer a dirty word, if anything it’s a standard that people are trying to achieve. “If only this movie was good as Breaking Bad, if only this script I want to do could be as compelling as the characters on Boardwalk Empire.” Right now I’m so swallowed up with shows like Boardwalk Empire or House of Cards, I got excited by that. As for movies, I’m trying to go back and watch the Lon Chaney silent films, I’m finding them demented and refreshing, and to be honest, I don’t think I saw a lot of them and now after I saw this movie He Who Gets Slapped, it shook me to my core, and I’m hungry to watch all things and everything Lon Chaney.
Do you need to be left alone to watch these movies?
Craig Brewer: I think that’s so important with silent movies to have that. You can’t have any distractions to go into that world. But seeing that movie, it just chilled me, seeing something that crazy and compelling so long ago, how did they get away with this? But the more I read and hear about him, there was a definitely this feeling after world war one, with people who were wounded, and the psyche of the country and what they were going through, and he would put himself through to create these characters for these films, it’s pretty impressive.
Back to the television thing, you had Terriers, and maybe that will come back, and you did an episode of The Shield.
Craig Brewer: I did, and I did a pilot for a show that didn’t get picked up called boomerang, but boy was it good. And in another month I’ll probably start thinking of some television ideas. I’d like to do my own show, write it and show run it at some point. I feel like television is Everest and all these filmmakers are out there, but television is the standard where you can’t phone it in, you really have to work hard on it, and I’d like to have that challenge in my life.
We’re also at this point where it used to be that if a television director was doing a movie it was a “oh well, whatever” where now you’re doing television, Rian Johnson is doing television, and now talent filmmakers are doing episodics, and they tend to be really good episodes.
Craig Brewer: I remember there used to be a clear divide between television and features. And so when I met Shawn Ryan, it was kind of a fan meet and greet. He was a fan of Hustle and Flow, and I loved The Shield, and when we talked I realized he was kind of auditioning me. He was asking how I shot Hustle and Flow, and I was asking how they got their camera to shake and move all over the place, and I asked if there was some sort of methodology to it, and then he dropped it on me “do you want to do the third to the last episode of The Shield?” Frank Darabont was going to do it, but now he’s got to make a feature. And I was like “are you kidding me?” It was one of the most incredible months of my life because I was a fan of the show, and I knew it was the end of this family, and then I got the script and I could believe the direction it was going in, and before I shot my episode I was told how the last two episodes would go, but the actors had not been told, and I had to know because of how it would come together, but I remember hearing about what happened at the end of The Shield and I was trembling. It was such an exciting movie.
The tragedy of Shane…
Craig Brewer: I was doing this scene with Walton Goggins and I really love the guy.
He’s such a f—ing animal, he’s so good.
Craig Brewer: So we do this scene, and he killed it, he was really strong, but I said “Hey can you do this scene, I’m wanting a little more hopelessness or misery.” And he was like “I don’t know, I’m feeling this.” And I couldn’t tell him what I knew. So I said “I know you’ve been doing this for seven years, but just humor me on this one, I can’t tell you why.”
I was so happy for him, he didn’t have a big role in Django Unchained, but he had a moment or two where I was like “I want to see more of him on the big screen.” But then when you’ve got his character on Justified, I wonder if he’ll have a chance to play something that good on the big screen. I don’t know. I should probably ask you what’s next and wrap it up.
Craig Brewer: I’m currently working on this script I want to do at Paramount, it’s called Gangster Princess of Beverly Hills. It’s based on this Rolling Stone article, and it’s an incredible story about this Korean heiress who said she was the heiress of Samsung, and that she was caught with five hundred pounds of high grade marijuana in her jet, and then learned that all was not what it seemed with her. And when I got the article I really connected to it because I was in to noir movies like Sunset Boulevard and The Bold and the Beautiful, and I wondered if there could be a noir-like tale, but with these young women, and getting into trouble with these very dire consequences. So it’s been interesting.
You’re in the script stage right now?
Craig Brewer: Yup.
You can watch The Poor and Hungry right now.