Cameron Frew talks to S. Craig Zahler about his latest film Dragged Across Concrete…
There’s a scene in S. Craig Zahler’s latest burner, Dragged Across Concrete, in which Mel Gibson has to endure Vince Vaughn’s languorous enjoyment of a breakfast burger, strung together by every thunderous crunch and sigh. It’s a rare moment of levity in the director’s filmography, but this is no comedy; like Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, it’s a brutal, but calculated production. He talks inspirations, casting and the legacy of his most memorable scenes.
First off, I loved the film. It blends the dark crime genre with buddy cop flourishes in a way I didn’t expect; where did the inspiration come from?
It’s funny, in my mind, buddy cop films are so light and comedic that I never considered this a buddy cop film. Although there are two groups of partners at the center of the piece: Henry Johns and Michael Jai White, playing the Biscuit character, and Ridgeman and Anthony Lurasetti, there wasn’t the idea to blend those two because I didn’t have that idea. I knew I wanted to do a movie that had a lot of relationships. A cop and his wife. A cop and his fiancée. A guy recently out of jail and his mother and younger brother. That guy and his childhood friend who is in the underground. I knew I wanted these different relationships, and also different facets of these characters in different situations. Also, that I wanted a large crime tapestry. But it wasn’t a conscious effort to blend the two. I can see why someone would think that’s where it landed or what it is, but again, the buddy cop picture is an altogether lighter experience, and I think this is a dark crime drama.
Casting Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as police partners is inspired; can you tell me more about the decision making process around that?
The decision making process was simple: I was shooting Brawl in Cell Block 99 with Vince, and was startled by how much access he had and how good he was. Obviously I knew he was a strong performer prior to casting him in the lead for Brawl in Cell Block 99, but when you work with someone you can see the other things that maybe aren’t shown in other movies or aren’t required in other movies. And the process with him on that movie was great, it was a hard shoot, and that entire movie hangs on his shoulders. And he did a great job there. I already had the script for Dragged Across Concrete –I wrote that maybe three or four months before we went into production on Brawl in Cell Block 99 – and as I got towards the end of the shoot, I started thinking about the character of Anthony Lurasetti for Vince. That wasn’t how he was written. Originally, he was written as a small guy. I think in some version of the script it mentions “he was noticeably short,” and he was a little less menacing of a presence and a little bit younger.
When I decided to go with Vince for that role, then, I needed a person who could hold the screen with him, with a similar amount of charisma, who could talk down to him when the scenes required, who could accept his anger when those scenes required, who really just matched him at a certain level. Who was seasoned, an older guy, and an embittered guy. Immediately I’m thinking, who could actually fit the bill of being the other alpha in this alpha dog stew? Mel Gibson came up right away. Again, different from what I’d originally thought for the part, but I thought, a great idea, and Vince had connections with him from Hacksaw Ridge and they were in touch. He facilitated the submission, Mel read it, and was on board. And we had a really good conversation, he came on board, and was a trooper. They’re both terrific in the picture. It was a hard shoot.
Throughout the film, we see Gibson and Vaughn’s characters carrying out very methodical, gruelling work in a way cinema often doesn’t highlight. Similarly, Bone Tomahawk is leisurely paced to great effect – do you have a love for slow-burn storytelling?
It’s interesting, “slow burn”. Apparently the “S” in “S. Craig Zahler” stands for “slow burn.” I’ve just come to accept that will be said in every interview. It’s not so much I disagree with it, but I always feel like – and maybe this is just my perception of the term – that “slow burn” means you’re following the fuse as it goes to an explosive moment. Which is still true, that is the case with all three of my pictures, that you’re following it along, but I suppose, the thing is, I’m equally interested in other stuff. Stuff like eating sandwiches, or, you find out your wife is cheating and you’re beating up a car. Or 90 minutes into the movie, here is a new protagonist, who is going back to work after maternity leave. I find that stuff just as interesting, sometimes more interesting, than the moments of violence.
I’m very interested in the minutiae of an individual’s existence, and certainly showing those things that you would normally excise from any decently length picture is something that makes this unique. Whether someone loves the movie, begrudgingly likes it, dislikes it, or hates the shit out of it, they’re going to remember watching those guys eat that sandwich. They’re going to remember a moment where a new protagonist, a female protagonist, is introduced to the movie 90 minutes in. These are unique experiences that are unique to this movie and I think give the movie, the world of the movie, the scope of the story.
My heavy metal band name is Realm Builder, and I’m very interested in world building in all the things I do – music, books, movies – and in this case, having all those other details tells you something. Vince Vaughn relishing that sandwich and Mel Gibson suffering, you see from that scene this isn’t the first time this has ever happened with those guys. You get a sense of their history, and you get a sense of their lives outside of everything that you’ve seen in the movie as opposed to these mannequins going through and pushing the plot forward in every scene to get to your thrilling point. I understand why people say it’s a slow burn, but that’s a catchall phrase for things that aren’t action packed that have this kind of stuff. To me it’s character focused and those moments of characterization are compelling as the moments of violence and the sequences that push the plot forward.
Thematically, I know you’re aware people say it’s “of the moment”. Is it a good thing, do you think, for political and cultural subtext to be added in discussions of Dragged Across Concrete?
I think everyone should interpret the movie however they see fit. Every person will go into that movie and bring their own perspective. I’ve obviously read reviews where I feel that basically someone went in there with certain ideas about what the movie was going to say politically, and they were looking for them to be confirmed. And then certain things that didn’t line up with that were disregarded, or people decided to change their view after seeing the movie. Again, the political discussion of the movie I something that’s going to happen in a very highly politicized climate, which is what we’re living in now. I think a deep investigation. Looking at all the stuff there, you will see there are many points of view. This is something I do as a writer. If I was a political person, and was pushing politics with it, there would be a clear message as opposed to all this disagreement, where some people say “it’s completely this” or “it’s completely that.”
Art is open to interpretation from the viewer, and the person who goes into this movie looking to have their politics confirmed or denied may find what they’re looking for or they may not. Or, more likely, they look at everything and they’ll see things they feel line up with what they’re thinking and ones that don’t, because it’s different perspectives and I’m writing a bunch of contradictory characters who are in conflict with one another. That’s what leads me in the writing process. But for people who approach everything and look at everything through political goggles, they’re not going to make an exception here, especially as this deals with a number of issues that are big topics these days.
Questions regarding your feelings towards Mel Gibson prior to and during production are well-trodden so I won’t go down that route. But what I would like to ask is: do you think he could return to your films in a similar way to say, Vaughn, or Jennifer Carpenter?
I would happily work with him again if he fit the role. We’ll see if he’s open to it, and if there’s a right role for him. But, he was really good to work with, I think he’s incredible in the movie, and I would be happy to work with him again.
Dragged Across Concrete does have extreme violence but it’s employed in a very calculated way (for example, the bank scene). Whereas Brawl in Cell Block 99 has a thoroughly blood-soaked, bone-breaking second half. Can you tell me more about how you construct these kind of scenes?
The answers to pretty much every question with writing is: I’m getting into the mindset of the characters, and, what would they do? If you take a step back and look at all three pictures and the bloodier portions of those pictures, one has people out in the West dealing with cannibalistic troglodytes in a cave; one has a giant, musclebound bruiser locked in a close prison with people; and the third has people antagonizing each other over a massive space with long range rifles and handguns.
The setup of Dragged Across Concrete, and how a lot of stuff plays out, is at a distance, with more technologically sophisticated weapons. In so doing, the violence is going to be different. Obviously there are a couple of graphic moments in Dragged but it’s a different kind of thing. It’s immediate, moving on. You’re not going to have the same kind of “we’re caught in a toilet, scrapping it out” kind of violence you’re going to get in Brawl or Bone in this movie, where people are fighting from a distance and trying to move on from that space, whereas in Bone and Brawl they’re trapped in those spaces and don’t have those weapons. It’s a function of the story. It wasn’t a function of “I went into Dragged Across Concrete looking to do a less violent picture”. It just naturally evolved that there was going to be less extreme graphic violence. Though even still it has more graphic violence than almost any movie of this kind. It’s still a few shocks.
I first heard about your work shortly after Bone Tomahawk was released, and a video of the horrific killing by the cave-dwellers was spreading like wildfire online. Do people often talk to you about that scene, or any other specific scenes?
Yeah. In terms of very specific scenes, all these movies have them. The Deputy Nick scene in Bone Tomahawk comes up regularly. I’m proud of that scene. I’m prouder of Chicory’s monologue about the flea circus, and by way of comparison, also the final scene with Brooder and his horse, which I prefer. Believe it or not, there were more graphic moments that were supposed to happen in the Deputy Nick scene. We just weren’t able to make them all happen. I’m laughing thinking of one of the ones that didn’t make it in. We just technically couldn’t do it. So that comes up regularly. Again, I prefer the flea circus, and I prefer comedy moments and somber character moments.
In Brawl, Bradley beating up the car, that’s something that’s going to keep coming up, this is a memorable scene, and not something I’d quite seen before, and apparently most people hadn’t seen it before. I‘m very proud of that scene. Also, I don’t want to give away too, much but there’s a final phone call near the end of the movie that’s maybe my favorite scene in all three movies. I just think the entire movie and the weight of everything just lands on that. With Dragged Across Concrete, I don’t know that I’ve done more than a handful of interviews where they’re not talking about those guys eating the sandwich or Jennifer Carpenter’s turn as Kelly Summer. That stuff is coming up regularly. Obviously, the Don Johnson scene where they’re going through all those different topics have a lot of people talking and asking questions. Each movie has their own scenes. For the most part those are scenes that are not big plot scenes, they’re interesting experiences that’re unique to those movies.
What can we expect from you next?
Something pretty different! My hope is my next movie is Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child. This is the story of an orphan and the story of his life. It takes place in a slightly removed world from ours. It’s not modern day. I’m intending to shoot it in black and white. Although the major part of the cast will be regular human actors, including The Zahler Players – Vince Vaughn, Fred Melamed, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson and Udo Kier – the lead character, the titular orphan, will be an animatronic puppet that I’m working on with the Jim Henson company. So, a very different piece. Probably PG. I suppose it could get PG-13, but I think it’s really just a PG movie. It’s not a violent picture. It’s a very different story, the story of an anomalous individual, and I hope that I can bring it to life the way I see it in my mind. Because as it stands, the book is probably my favorite of all the pieces I’ve written.
Flickering Myth would like to thank S. Craig Zahler for taking the time for this interview.
Dragged Across Concrete is released in cinemas on April 19. You can read Cameron’s ★★★★ review here: