Interview: 'Footloose' Director Craig Brewer on Remaking a Classic
by Alex Billington
August 4, 2011
Everybody cut Footloose! When they released the trailer for the new Footloose remake, it didn't seem to impress many people. But I'm a believer. A few weeks ago, Paramount invited me to come see the finished film and interview director Craig Brewer (of Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan, seen left above), who it turns out is actually a big FirstShowing reader. Not only did I honestly enjoy the new Footloose quite a bit, but I'm now a big fan of Kenny Wormald, the new Ren MacCormack. Brewer is a huge fan of the original Footloose and truly wanted to make sure this remake, this new version, lived up to the original in every way.
It's a bit of a challenge to think about how to convince everyone that Craig Brewer has done a great job and that this remake is worth seeing. So I tried to focus on that in speaking with Craig, ask him about why this remake, why now, why Kenny Wormald, and how they pulled off such a stellar redo. The best part about it (and I literally just watched the 1984 Footloose the night before seeing the new one) is that it compliments the first film by being one of those rare contemporizations where this new version plays superbly today, yet could be paired with the original and not be considered any lesser. Just as the '84 version was a product of its time, this one is a product of our time today, but without losing anything that makes Footloose so great.
Let's get right into it. I started out with the question of why, as mentioned above, and I knew he's already heard that a lot, which is true but it turns out it's exactly what was on his mind anyway. Brewer answers:
"When I first decided to do Footloose, I realized that the one question I was going to get asked over and over again was why. You know what I mean? 'Why would you do this?' At first I didn't want to do it, probably for the same reasons that people, maybe having not seen the movie, are critical of it. It is a very special movie to me. The original is probably one of the most important movies to me in terms of the kind of filmmaker I've become."
"I had a lot of Willard's in my life and I felt like Ren McCormack. I had mousse in my hair and Prince in my walkman and I was sometimes wearing a phony leather jacket that I bought at Merry-go-round. I even had one of those Michael Jackson zipper jackets; I saved up on lay-away for it. But then I'd come to the south and all my redneck cousins would be like, 'Why are you dressed that way? What are you listening to?'"
"But as much as we were different, I felt like, ultimately, they embraced me as family. They would defend me. They would lay down their lives for me. And that was what I always loved about the original. I loved the relationship between the guys. I think that Willard and Ren are two of the greatest guys… I'm always in favor of their chemistry over Ren and Ariel. I think those two guys, everybody wants to have friends like that."
"And so I felt, okay, if that's what I've seen in Footloose, what I've always seen in Footloose, then I'm just going to make a movie that focuses on that. I think that I'll be able to handle the musical sequences because I enjoy doing that. And it's an honor to be able to do my own angry dance. It's an honor to do the final dance in Footloose, or to think of a new way to do 'Let's Hear it for the Boy', or to think of a new way to use 'Holding Out for a Hero' in the movie."
"I love being able to do that. But I had some confidence from Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan that I think I would be able to do that. But capturing the heart is harder. I think that that was the big challenge for me. I felt that once I knew that was my goal, then it was worth the risk. There was a tremendous amount of risk."
I then asked Brewer if this "was the film that you didn't want anyone else to make, you didn't want to get away, and you knew you had to make it." His response: "You just said it perfectly." I've heard other directors say this before and I think really means something. Zack Snyder said it about Watchmen, Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson, Kevin Smith, too. Brewer's definitely got the passion, but he knows there's a fanbase that hates this is even being remade. He continues:
"I didn't want anybody else to make it. I feel like I'm in a difficult place. And it's a place, I'll be honest with you, that I can't help it. I know I need thicker skin, but I get my feelings hurt, because I came at it very protective; very, very protective. So right now I've got a lot of Footloose fans of the original that they don't even want to think about seeing it, because how dare I remake something that was perfect."
"And I had a tendency to agree with them. This movie that I've made is not here to replace Footloose, the 1984 Footloose. It can't, that was lighting in a bottle. Things changed after Footloose. But I do think that Footloose, the way I've done it, is actually relevant today and reminds people who are fans of the original what they loved about the original. It's not just a song. It's not just a tractor scene. There's a heart there. There's spirit there that I think we've managed to capture."
"I wanted to protect it for fans. And, at the same time, I want to be able to tell them, 'I assure you, you can see this movie and enjoy it and love it, and it's not going to threaten the original.' I don't know if that makes sense, but it's my hope, my desire."
As if it wasn't obvious already, Craig Brewer knows his Footloose, and it means a lot to him. He describes himself as a "Footloose-ologist." I'll let him tell you: "I mean, I know everything about Footloose. That was before I started working on the movie… I literally know everything. I know all the music. I know every scene of the movie. I know the angles. I know stories behind the angles, everything." My question pertained to the movie being very similar in structure, story, even using some of the same dialogue from the original, but transplanted to today with a new group of young, attractive actors. Brewer explains those origins:
"So what I did was I do what I usually do. I get a playlist together, and I put the soundtrack for Footloose in there, and I also put some White Stripes in there. I also put some Big & Rich in there. I started to see the world that I would want Footloose to be in, mainly a small southern town…"
"There's moments in there where I'm doing a flip on the line. There's always something that's going to ring familiar to the original, but you may kinda go, 'I don't know if that's exactly right.' And then there's some where I want people to go, 'Oh my God…' But there's gotta be those in there because I think it would have been a wrong choice to completely rethink Footloose. I come from theater. I come from theater where revivals are encouraged. 'Okay, we did West Side Story back then, but you can do West Side Story again.' You can change up the elements of it but just stick to its core story."
"As long as you can tell a story that is going to stick to the core theme and stick to the core story, I think you're golden. With Footloose, I knew that it had to be a movie that I responded to, but I think we would have made a gross error if we tried to rethink it. Footloose, the story, works."
One of my favorite parts of his remake was casting Kenny Wormald, a newcomer in the cinematic world, in the "Kevin Bacon role" as Ren MacCormack. He's damn good, I mean, this kid is talented and not only pulls off the role with as much sauve and sheer badassery as Bacon in the original, but will definitely be lining up for more after this. I mentioned him to Craig just because I think he deserves a compliment for finding him and choosing him over other actors. He brought up a good point regarding why it's necessary to find an unknown, and that sentiment is very accurate, as it was great watching Kenny for the first time.
"I'm so happy with the cast. First of all, the best gift that Footloose afforded is that Footloose itself was the biggest star of Footloose. So we could cast whoever we wanted! And it's such a rare situation because it's such a rare moment that you can see somebody in a movie for the first time. What a lot of people forget about with Kevin Bacon is when I went and saw him when I was 13, I didn't know who Kevin Bacon was. I didn't know any of these people. I know who he is now. It's because that movie launched him. But like you look at Kenny and he's the same way."
"I know that other filmmakers were attached to other versions of the Footloose remake earlier and there were other cast members attached. But I think it would be a mistake to go with an established star for Ren McCormack. Ren McCormack needs to be a stranger that comes from a town where everybody's afraid of him. But then you realize in the end that he's actually the most moral man and earnest man amongst everybody. And I think that the best thing for us to do is to find someone that personifies that. And Kenny is that guy. He is a great guy."
I asked Craig how he was able to put his own stamp on the film if he's staying so true to the original. Not that I thought he didn't put his stamp on this Footloose, but I wanted to know how he wanted to approach this as his film, as his new take on it. His answer quickly progresses into some interesting thoughts one of the big challenges with this film, which was contemporizing the dance ban story element. His explanation, yet again, gets very personal, showing truly just how connected he is to Footloose. Brewer reveals:
"It's two parts. First of all, I think that my movies are a lot like the original Footloose. I think that I like exploring music in a particular way where it's not like the movie suddenly stops and there's a music montage. I want the moment to be functional to either character or to plot, and Footloose did that in the original. Flashdance and Purple Rain did that in their movies. Those are the movies that really inspired me when I became a filmmaker."
"But really, I think the biggest hurdle for me was the whole ban on dancing thing. I knew that if I figured out a way that audiences could watch it and go, 'You know what? I totally buy this. I totally buy that this town is doing this,' I felt like I could make the movie. So to make it contemporary I think that I had to give people the reason for the ban upfront, whereas in the original they waited. They waited for like an hour to tell you what really went down So for an hour you just think that you're dealing with a bunch of religious nuts… And that's not really what our country is about right now. People would probably argue against that, but not really. Our country is very much into overreacting right now. And I think our country is into overreacting for the right reasons, but we sometimes do it wrong."
"I'm now a parent. I have two kids. When I was 13 and I saw Footloose in a theater, I didn't have two kids. I didn't even have a girlfriend. I'm a different man now. So I knew that if I could figure out a way to tap into that hostile fear of losing your child to something so senseless that I would see myself getting behind a bunch of laws that would make it so there would be no danger in their life. I feel like if I could just get that I would be able to do the movie. And I think we pulled it off."
Finally, I had to ask him about some of the crazier parts of the new Footloose, like instead of a tractor race, they race messed up school buses around a dirt track. Did this come from reality? Are there really school bus dirt races and why haven't I been to one before? (Let's make that happen!) Craig lives in Memphis, Tennessee and had some great stories to tell me about bringing some of his own reality into the film:
"Well, I live in Memphis, Tennessee and I go to NASCAR races… I go to dirt tracks a lot. There's a place called The Riverside over here in West Memphis, Arkansas. I go across the bridge, over the Mississippi river, and it's so great, man. You buy six beers, but they way they do it is they give you a 12 pack box. So they take out six beers and they fill your box with ice and the six beers. So you've got a cooler. You're just out there in the middle of the sun and you've got your own little cooler there. It's flying mud into the stands. And these girls will come try and get the racers to look at them. And they look just like Ariel. They've got these tight ass jeans and they look amazing."
"As soon as they called me to do Footloose, I said, 'if you let me set this in the South, it works. I can see Ariel hanging out with a guy that probably went to school with her brother when he was alive, and now she's messing around with him at the dirt track.' I can see her having going to church earlier that day. Because let me tell you, in the South we are a Saturday/Sunday culture. You party, you drink, you do all kinds of sinning all Saturday night. But then you go to church on Sunday and it's all forgiven. [laughs] You start your work week again and you start the whole thing up again."
"So to me, just like when I was watching Footloose back in 1984, it reminded me of Tennessee where all my family's from. Then I just realized, 'OK, I'm just going to do that. I'm going to put my reality that I see every day into this movie.'"
And it works, it works well because it's a very fun and entertaining movie, Wormald is a terrific Ren, Miles Teller is a hilarious Willard, and yet it retains the spirit of the original. Brewer also brings some of his own flair and style to the film, contemporizing it but still keeping it Footloose, through and through. If you're a fan of the original, there's no question you have to be there on opening night. And don't worry, just like Brewer mentioned, he hasn't ruined the original. If anything, this new one is paying homage to it in the best ways it possibly can. And you may find yourself a fan of Kenny Wormald, as I now am. Those are the best compliments I can give to Craig Brewer's Footloose, and I think he did a great job explaining his new take.
Even if you didn't care for the trailer, but are wondering if this is better than it looks, it is. Don't write it off just because it's a remake. Any/every Footloose fan must see this in theaters, no question. I'm now a Kenny Wormald fan and can say, having seen it myself, that Craig Brewer's Footloose does live up to the original.