Interview: S. Craig Zahler, dir. Brawl in Cell Block 99

American genre director S. Craig Zahler came to the attention of audiences and critics alike with his stunning 2015 horror western hybrid Bone Tomahawk. Zahler is back with another supremo slice of glorious B-movie pulp, in the form of Brawl in Cell Block 99.

Martyn Conterio: How detailed are your scripts? I ask because you’re a novelist as well as a filmmaker.

Zahler: They’re probably the most detailed scripts out there. I say this not because I’ve read a lot of other scripts, because I genuinely haven’t, but because everybody tells me that. I’m a novelist, but I do pull back on detail I would put into a novel. Like, a character reflecting on something…that’s too detailed to convey on screen, so I’ll pull away that stuff and I don’t put in camera angles, and I don’t like reading that in a script, because it takes you out of the story. I understand how that can be useful for people in the process, but my scripts are really detailed and dense. I was told by a guy who teaches scriptwriting they’re about five times denser than the densest script he’s ever read. They are huge blocks of text and, theoretically, if you had an entire crew who read the script, the details are there for everyone to do their thing. It helps.

MC: I imagine actors like your screenplays, with all that information available. It’s better than them asking you on set – “Why am I doing this?”; “What’s the motivation for this?” – you’ve given them everything on the page.

SCZ: Actors like my scripts. When we were doing Bone Tomahawk, Richard Jenkins said to me “These aren’t characters on a page, these are people”. It was a nice compliment from a terrific actor and it’s one I remember. I think that amount of information on the page is helpful to them and since I’m directing the film myself, it’s not going to be [some other director] like “Well, I think it should be [done] this way”. The way it was conceived is how I’ll deliver it. If we can find an interesting divergence in some way, I’m open to that, if it works, but generally the script is the plan.

MC: At what point in the writing process do you come up with these awesome titles? Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 and your new one, Dragged Across Concrete.

SCZ: Thank you for the compliment. I spend a lot of time on the titles and it’s a big problem I have with movies today. I say “movies today” but this shit’s been going on since the late 1990s…this coming up with simple, lowest common denominator, committee-in-a-room, who will okay a movie with a title like Arrival, Spotlight or Moonlight. But none of these titles tell me anything, they’re just generic. How many other movies or books or poems or songs have these names? It’s not unique to the piece. I try to come up with something that’s unique. Those movies I just slighted, I like them as movies, but the titles…I try to give you an image, almost like a preview does, that’s going to sit in your head and you carry that into the theatre. I take a lot of time and I can point to Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia as my favourite movie title ever. It’s like “How is that not going to be a bad-ass movie?” “Is there any chance I’m not going to want to see a movie called Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia?” There’s no chance in the world I’m going to avoid a movie with that name.

MC: It’s true what you say. When I first came across the title Bone Tomahawk, I knew I had to see it, before I’d even read the synopsis and cast list. A title that sticks or sparks the imagination is rare.

SCZ: And that’s it…having the name is the most important thing outside the piece itself.

MC: Brawl in Cell Block 99, as a title, also plants a sense of suspense in the movie. As a viewer, you wait and wait for the brawl to happen.

SCZ: In the case of Brawl in Cell Block 99, it’s a leading title. It gives you a little bit of “this is going to happen” but you don’t know exactly when or how. All the other shit that happens is unexpected, but you know it’s going to happen somewhere along the road. Maybe at the end, maybe in the middle.

MC: Which brings me to gore and practical effects. Are you worried it might turn into a gimmick or audience expectation, that a S. Craig Zahler movie must have insane levels of gore and violence?

SCZ: It’s interesting…I don’t carry in myself a lot of concern about expectations. At the risk of sounding really arrogant, I don’t think much about what the audience is going to want or what will work for them or won’t. I want the audience to like my movies, sure. It’s really gratifying to hear those responses at a screening and read those reviews it’s gotten, but I’m driven by the desire to make something that is specific to my taste. I spend as much time working on the drama aspects of the story as I do the extreme violence.

In terms of expectations with gore, in the context of Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, it was something to explore. Dragged Across Concrete has some but it’s less extreme and wasn’t conceived to be as extreme as Bone Tomahawk. In that one, the audience is brought to a precipice and shoved over. It’s supposed be traumatic. In Brawl in Cell Block 99, the violence is different, although similarly gory, it’s supposed to be about release and catharsis.

MC: You mentioned Peckinpah earlier, I look at your films and I’m reminded of that era of cinema, when people like Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah were around. Sam Fuller, too. Are they inspirations?

SCZ: Yeah. Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah are going to come up in any conversation. They’re among my favourite filmmakers. I like Sam Fuller, I just haven’t seen a large enough catalogue of his work, to draw comparison, but he probably would be, from the stuff of his I’ve seen and really enjoyed. But yeah, Don Siegel, I know all his stuff and same goes for Sam Peckinpah. Those guys…I’m a huge Sam Peckinpah fan but I’m not going to say I watch his films and tell you I see a lot of interesting female characters or relationships with women that I understand. Like, I don’t understand how the marriage functions in Straw Dogs all that well. That’s the stuff I sort of want to work as well as the violence. Sidney Lumet is probably my single favourite director. They [Lumet, Peckinpah, Siegel] were making movies in a time that was driven by the filmmaker and wasn’t all about the giant opening weekend, like your film has to explode out of the gate or else it’s a miserable failure, they made films that lasted. Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Prince of the City, Failsafe, The Verdict are films that will stick around, as opposed to Superhero Movie Number 17.

MC: Would you resist that kind of filmmaking, the summer blockbuster, superhero franchise movie?
SCZ: I was offered some stuff after Bone Tomahawk, studio pictures, and turned them down. My first question was “Do I get final cut and can I rewrite the script?” They said they were not interested in either, so there was no second question. I have so many stories I want to tell, doing somebody else’s material just doesn’t interest me.

Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn

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