Interview: The Book of Eli Directors Albert and Allen Hughes
by Alex Billington
January 14, 2010
About a month back, before Avatar had even hit theaters, I met up with and interviewed brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, the two filmmakers behind Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, From Hell, and now The Book of Eli. I really wanted to talk with them because after seeing Book of Eli I had so much to ask them about the style and the ideas in it and so on. The movie looks great, the story in it is awesome, and I had a blast watching it, so of course I wanted to talk to these guys. In the complete interview we also talk about where they've been, how they got Denzel Washington, and their filmmaker inspirations. Read on!
The Book of Eli is such a great movie, I can't suggest it enough. I talk about it more below in the interview, so you can hear more of my thoughts there. This interview does not contain any major spoilers, so you don't have to be worried. I think I've said enough, now it's time to dive in to my interview with Albert and Allen!
I saw your film, absolutely loved it.
Allen Hughes: Oh, thank you.
Albert Hughes: You're not lying to us? No, I'm joking.
No. I seriously loved it. I walked out, and I was just pumped up and really loved it. I actually want to see it again right away.
Allen: What was it that you -- not in any superficial way -- but what was it that made you react that way?
I just loved the story, watching it play out. The visuals are amazing in it. I'm a sucker for good, awesome action movies. And it was just cool to see it play out that way. And I think the twist, as well…
Allen: This is our first bit of feedback…
So actually, I wanted to start because the last feature film you directed was From Hell, and that was quite a while ago. And I'm just wondering how you got to this point. What's been going on in the years since then? And, what took so long?
Allen: Well, I think, it's a -- we've been saying this today, quite a bit. We tried to get five movies or five movies green lit roughly, I think. And much like this movie, I think the theme in all of our work is it has to mean something or say something, be saying something. It can't just be popcorn, you know? That's a little bit more difficult to get green lit, obviously.
And in the interim, also, we were shooting a lot of ads. And so you're making a lot of money, so you naturally don't have an inclination to pound the studio door harder, because it was the first time we shot ads like that. And it's stupid, stupid money. And we did a little TV. And we also did a little bit of separating and finding ourselves, for the first time as twins leading separate lives. So there was a lot of stuff that went on that eight years that was all positive stuff, you know. But that's probably the nutshell answer.
When you first got attached to this, was Denzel your first choice for the role? Was that immediately who you thought of? Or did screenwriter Gary Whitta even suggest it in the script?
Allen: I think the first thought was -- with these 20 million dollar guys, which Denzel is, who's going to get the movie made quickest? And whether it's Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp, all these names get thrown around. But the first one that we really knew we should go out to that it would really make the movie and put it in a different realm was Denzel. And that was the first person we really went out to.
Albert: Yeah, it's the power of Denzel. You don't even speak and you just feel his presence. And you need some strong guy. You can't have an effeminate heterosexual in that role. You can have a weirdo in that role. But there's something about the weight of him. He's a classic throwback to the movie stars of old.
I was really happy to see him in it. Especially coming off of his last few roles. It was just, his facial hair even, just how gritty he was, his fighting. And we haven't seen that from him recently. I was really happy to see him in it.
Allen: Yeah, it's something he hadn't done before. I mean, just the little simple things like him actually doing the -- not the cliché, "he did his own stunts" -- but him actually, even the underpass scene, the silhouettes.
Albert: Yeah, people probably think it's a stunt man. That's him.
Allen: That's really him in one take doing that. And looking like that and being a guy that's very gregarious and very social, not being social, you know… I thought that would be amazing to see him do this.
Yeah, it was great. What's the working dynamic between you guys when you're on set? Who's doing what? Do you both sign off on everything? Or is one of you doing more of the acting and one of you more of the set pieces?
Albert: You know, it's funny. When that question gets asked, everybody almost answers it for us. You already answered it, basically. No, I mean, when it comes to the set, he handles the acting. I handle the camera. And we both have vetoing rights in both departments to stop any on-going long argument taking place. And that came more out of personality and actually efficiency from doing the first movie and realizing what our strong points were, I guess, or what our real interests were.
In pre-production, he's still dealing more with the casting and acting. And we're both dealing with script. And we're both dealing with hiring the production heads. And editing, on this movie we couldn't do it this way because of visual effects. But usually, he spends a month doing performance pass. I spend the next month doing the technical pass. The final month we spend together fighting on what's better, the performance or the camera. And then, he'll usually start taking the lead in the sound, mix and music at that point. And then, we'll both go into the sound mix together. That's the longest I've answered that in a while.
Allen: You know what, that's good. You boiled that shit down.
Albert: I wrote an article in MovieMaker Magazine where I outline this very detailed. It's handwritten by myself. Not handwritten, typewritten.
Well, I ask because it's rare that we see directors as brothers or just working together as two people. I mean, we see a lot of partnerships in the screenwriting side. And I think it actually benefits the writing to have two people working together. And obviously from what I saw, having the two of you definitely helped the film.
Albert: The Coen brothers do it really well.
Yeah, exactly. That's an example of a fantastic duo. You guys are an example of fantastic collaboration. And that's what I mean. I'm just curious to see how exactly…
Albert: You asked that question. We were saying this earlier. I wonder how the Coen Brothers do it? I wonder how the Wachkowski's do it. I just wonder… It's the same fascination we have when we look at them, it's like, "Well, who does what? How do they do that?" And I saw one show once where they both were editing back to back, the Coen Brothers. And one's picking the takes that are good. And when he's done picking them, he hits a bell and dumps it off to his brother. And his brother starts editing it. "Well, that's interesting."
Yeah, that's interesting. I want to talk a little bit about my favorite scene in the film, which is the house sequence. I don't know what to call it…
Allen: George and Martha's.
Yes. And I loved the style and the shooting and the action. This is what I want to talk about further. Just going in and out of the houses in the one take. Where did this idea come from? Was it something you just thought initially, like, "We should go for it and try to pull this off?"
Allen: You see, I'm looking at him when you're talking about that.
Albert: Well, I remember the -- when we did this book where we pitched ourselves on the movie, that was one of the first shots that we came up with. And I just wanted to feel like the motivation was that you hand the camera to a 12-year old action fan. And what would he do with it? You know, he has no sense of danger. He's going to go all the way up to the gun and see the muzzle flash, because he wants to see that. And then he'll go through the hole in the wall. And I wanted to feel like that.
But at the same time, there's that cinéma vérité kind of hand-held rough, documentary style. And I remember during pre-production, me and Allen and Denzel, and Allen's telling me, "Are you sure we should -- maybe we should spike it up and make it more classic." I go, "Listen, if we just get it to 70 percent, the music and the sound and the effects can get it into the 90's." And then, Denzel was even questioning. And at one point, I guess, he told Allen, he was, like, "You know what? Just let him…"
Allen: "Let's let this joker do his thing."
Albert: "Let's let him do his thing." The fucked up thing about something like that is that if you fail, you fail miserably. You can come in at a B or a C+ and you can be fine, maybe. But it also goes back to cinema history, with Orson Welles and Hitchcock doing these long takes. And Scorsese -- and on every movie we've done, we've had one.
Allen: The one thing I do want to point out, though, the reason why I sponsored it from day one. It was what Gary Whitta had written. And it was originally ten times more insane than what it was in the movie.
You should've shot that!
Allen: The description -- but me and him both share one thing in common. And, I guess, the metaphor would be boxing and the perfect boxer -- most of these high-octane filmmakers today are throwing combinations the whole fight. Or they're throwing haymakers the whole fight. And it's nice to just shoot something in a classic stroke and just jab, jab, jab. And then to come out to box with something like this, because it means more. Instead of a movie where everything, every second -- like, last summer, the biggest movie every -- just "boom!"
Albert: Forty-five minutes of action. There's no time to get a sense of your emotion, you know?
Allen: So if you look at the underpass scene, if you look at the bar, the fight in the bar, if you look at George and Martha's. Or even the thing out there with Mila with the grenade and the thing flipping over, they're all spaced out. They're all different. They all have their own little thing. But when Eli gets shot, everything has its own combination. And everything in between is just setting the jab up and just nice classic…
Albert: For lack of a better term, almost lulling you to sleep. Stylistically, like -- not to sleep entertainment wise, but, like, "Okay, okay," then "boom!"
That brings up a question I wanted to ask about just the script and developing that. Once you got it, was there much you went in to change and work on from your standpoint?
How many changes were there?
Albert: It went through a lot of changes. I think, if you saw the first one, you saw that it has the same skeletal structure. But it was more of a…
Allen: And spirit.
Albert: And spirit. It's more about taking out the overt, kind of, him preaching to people. Him saying, "I'm on a mission from God." When you're killing somebody and making them repent and quoting scripture, it was just a bit too much. There's a fine line with that religion that, you can't do that really. And even with what we made, you never know if you've done the right thing. You just try to walk that line where -- I'm not saying we're trying to offend people or not offend people. It's just that you have to handle with care. And we thought the first script wasn't handling with care, really.
That's interesting. Another thing I wanted to ask is about the look and the style again. It's just, I think it has such a distinct look and such a distinct style. And I'm wondering where that came from, and how do you develop that? Do you sit down with the cinematographer and talk to him about the color and the look?
Allen: Absolutely not.
Albert: No. You do later, yeah.
Allen: Yeah, later.
Albert: No. We're the type that we have our ideas set, and we're not indecisive people. And we've heard a lot about directors from our people that we work with. They go, "Most directors are indecisive." We're, like, we can't imagine being indecisive. So we have our plan before we hire our DP or anybody. And, of course, they bring a lot to the table. But on this movie, it was like From Hell and Menace and everything else.
You get a pot and you start putting ingredients in. I like the '70s movies the way that they desaturated those old prints, the blacks are strong. It's a little grainy. The highlights are going out. You throw that in there. Okay. I like Zatoichi. Boom, throw that in there. I like spaghetti westerns, throw that in there. I like that Tampax commercial I saw last week. Throw that in there. And you start to mix it in, mix it together. And sometimes an ingredient that doesn't work will jump out of that pot and say, "I don't belong in this movie." Even if you try to force it in. So it's just, me and him getting together and talking about what we like.
Allen: And I think having a keen sense of -- and something we've always innately had in us, which is respecting the history of cinema. And not in a fanatical way, either.
Albert: No, not at all.
Allen: And knowing where our place is and what we want our place to be. So you have to look back and go, "What's been done? What works? What doesn't work? And how can we add to this and bring something new to this?" And with that said, we also based a lot of it -- we met with a scientist who was the leading guy on what would happen after a thermal nuclear holocaust or war, whatever you want to call it. There were three definitive books written on it. One was on what would happen to human beings. And one was the environment. And one was nature and animals. And they were done in the '80s. So between a pop culture cinema and scientific reality, we melded it all together.
The last question I want to ask, touching on a little bit of that, is your inspirations. What films and what filmmakers have been most inspirational to you in your life and in your career especially?
Allen: You know what? It's interesting, because the most obvious ones, from Steven Spielberg, obviously, early on. To…
Allen: Coppola, Brian De Palma, Scorsese…
Albert: Sergio Leone.
Allen: Sergio Leone.
Albert: Howard Hawks.
Allen: I don't consider ourselves -- and I'm speaking for my brother right now -- we're not cinephiles. We're not the guys that will rattle off a list of Fellini films or Euro whatever the fuck, you know. But we do consume them, don't get me wrong. But the cinephiles are cinephiles, and filmmakers are filmmakers. So I think our greatest inspiration is right out that window.
Albert: I mean, just looking at people.
Albert: And then, like I joked about the Tampax commercial. It's, like, you know…
Allen: Those little things.
Albert: Just little things you look at, and you go, "Wow. The way they lit that tree in that Tampax commercial, we've got to do that."
Allen: It is little shit like that, though, it really does come down. Like, "Tampons, they're for everyone."
Albert: Well, thank you.
Allen: Thanks, Alex. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. It really means a lot to us at this stage in the game, especially.
Thank you to both Allen and Albert Hughes and everyone at Warner Brothers for putting this together. The Book of Eli finally arrives in theaters this weekend so be sure to go check it out!