S. Craig Zahler is a unique filmmaker, especially in a day and age where audiences get their ultimate thrill by watching a superhero save the world in a CGI heavy film. Not only does Zahler refrain from taking part in this world, but he goes above and beyond to ensure his films feel as authentic and as real as possible. Whether it’s limiting the number of cuts, spending a great deal of time on a scene that some feel has no impact on the story, or tackling issues that others shy away from, Zahler is determined to make films his way.
While promoting the Blu-ray and DVD release of his most recent film, Dragged Across Concrete, Zahler spoke to VultureHound to discuss the memorable sandwich scene in Dragged, working with Mel Gibson, his willingness to listen to ideas, and why he feels 2018 was the best year in cinema since the nineties.
I wanted to ask you about working with Mel Gibson, and I know you’ve had the same old question about Mel in other interviews, but what I wanted to ask you was did you feel like Mel was someone that would work well with your style of films because his films, especially the ones he has directed, are also quite unapologetically violent and edgy at times?
I wasn’t thinking at all in terms of our styles because I knew the style that I was going to make the picture in was very different from his. While the content of violence would overlap, Dragged Across Concrete doesn’t have a minute of score. Any camera movement that’s in there is supposed to be natural, not visible, and it’s just tracking with the character. It’s also very consistently shot with very few close-ups. So none of these are stylistic choices that he makes as a filmmaker, and I think he is a terrific filmmaker. He just makes stuff in a completely different style. So in terms of our styles, not so much.
I wanted him because I thought he would be terrific in the part, and he is. A year later, I still cannot think of a person that would have been better in that role. But it doesn’t have anything to do with him as a filmmaker, and he was very hands-off with the entire filmmaking aspect of the movie itself.
You’re someone who likes having creative control. Was there ever a concern about working with someone like Mel who has previously directed films and is, of course, a big star in his own right?
Not really, because everybody I had spoken to who had ever worked with him said that he was great to work with on set. Of course, you see what’s going on when things are getting difficult on set, but he was very hands-off with all that stuff, and I had no concern in terms of him trying to take over. In my first movie, I was loaded up with tons of experienced actors who had done a lot of films, and I was able to hold my own at that point. And with each picture, the proof is out there in terms of me successfully doing what I’m trying to do.
What I’m trying to do is not for everybody, but I’m able to deliver that. As people come on board, they’re generally believers in the script, and since I wrote that as well, there is a different kind of ownership that goes forward when you have written the piece and are directing it. There are not a lot of different interpretations coming at all the characters’ since I created all of them and chose the actors to go in their spots. Then, in directing those actors, there is a singular vision behind what they should be, and then that’s complimented with everything the actor brings forward. All of these people understood where they were coming from, they knew the characters, and accepted them exactly as they had been written, including Mel Gibson.
You’ve worked with a lot of top actors like Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell, and Vince Vaughn. Are you open to hearing their take on a character?
I’m open to anything that makes sense. Kurt Russell had some suggestions on Bone Tomahawk, but he also said: “If you don’t know what to do with these characters, with the way they’re written, then you’re a terrible actor and you should retire.” They’re very clear on the page. So if you’re on board with the project, you should know. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a discussion over one word or one line in certain places, or the staging of a moment of violence when you’re rolling around on the ground trying to figure something out.
I’m casting people who I think are talented and bring a lot. So there is a conversation for it. Probably the most noteworthy one of those was the end phone call in Brawl in Cell Block 99. Jennifer Carpenter wanted to know her side of the conversation, which was originally almost entirely off-screen, and the staging of that thing was slightly different. So she asked if she could see what her side was, even if we didn’t hear all of it. Then when I wrote it all out, I was really happy with it, and she really liked it. A lot of that wound up going into the movie. So I added in that page and a half of her side of the conversation, which is originally supposed to be a little more visually poetic but not with dialogue.
So that stuff does happen. But that’s the most significant one of any of the three pieces, and that actually helped that scene by having that other side. It’s one of my favourite scenes in all three movies, if not my single favourite scene in all three movies.
Wow. I must say, the Kurt Russell compliment must have made you feel good?
Yeah, and that was right away. Richard Jenkins also commented shortly after. He said: “These aren’t characters on the page, these are f****n’ people.” Again, I’m a novelist as well, so these scripts are dense, and there is a lot of information. So you have a good idea of what you’re supposed to be doing and who this person is, long before you have any conversation with me if you’re an actor who has received of one these as a submission.
There are discussions over lines here and there, but all of these drafts are online and on my website, and you can look at them, and then look at the finished movie, and they’re probably ninety-eight percent accurate in terms of lines of dialogue and what the characters are doing.
I said in my review of Dragged Across Concrete that the sandwich scene sums up this film because, with one scene, you question what on earth you’re watching, but at the end of it, you’re laughing, and you feel satisfied with the results. Would you agree with that assessment?
Well, it’s one of my five favourite scenes in the movie, so for sure, I’d agree with that. It was a hard shoot (laughs), and there were many miserable days and a lot of crew people who did not survive the duration of the shoot. But the day we did that was one of the few enjoyable days (laughs). Vince, Mel, and I were having fun with it. It was kind of growing more and more elaborate. For instance, the salt shaker was not in the script. It was something that came in after we had done a few takes. Vince just asked for a salt shaker and told us that he would bring it up at some point.
It’s the kind of scene that studios and a lot of people would remove from the movie, and possibly not even shoot for the movie, yet it comes up again and again. Probably ninety percent of the reviews, if not more, discuss that sequence, and it’s not a moment of extreme graphic violence or people saying things that are politically incorrect or provocative. It’s a boring character moment that turns into something else the longer you’re there. It’s like the minimalist philosophy of play something four times, is it boring? Well, now play it eight. Is it interesting yet? Nope, it’s still boring. Now play it sixteen. Still boring? Go to thirty-two. It’s a little like that idea because you’re sitting in that space, and by the time that thing ends, you’re smelling that sandwich.
Like we see in that sandwich scene, the takes in your film are very long. Did you come to the conclusion that you wanted long takes during your days as a cinematographer?
No, not so much as a cinematographer. It was a gradual apprehension over time of the idea that a cut is a suspension of disbelief. I’ve said this before in a couple of different interviews, but it doesn’t come up that often, and I don’t know that I’ve heard anyone say this, but it’s just a belief of mine that every cut is a suspension of disbelief. If I could figure out a way that wasn’t kind of a gimmicky long take of having my scenes come out perfectly in even fewer shots than I have, or one-shot, I would go for it.
Now I’m very picky with performance and tempo of dialogue, and all of these things. The amount of rehearsal that would be required would kill some of the spontaneity, and thus, I don’t know if I will ever achieve the goal of having a lot of long takes and having most of the dialogue scenes without cuts. But I feel whether you’re conscious of it or not, every time there is a cut, there is a suspension of disbelief. This is not something you would experience in reality. These perspective changes, jumping forward in time, all of this stuff seems to underline the fact that you’re watching a movie. Certainly, it goes hand in hand with the amount of score that you hear in Dragged Across Concrete, which is zero. There is probably three minutes of it in Brawl, which is a two hour and thirteen-minute movie, and there is a little bit more in Bone, but that was to cover up some weaknesses in scenes and locations that I don’t think quite landed.
It’s all in aid of this idea of getting the filmmaking aspects out of the way, so the audience is as close in with the characters as possible, and not thinking about a cool looking dolly shot or music telling them how to feel, which makes them aware that they are watching a movie unfold before them as opposed to reality.
That makes sense, and in today’s day and age, it’s becoming a rare thing to see such long takes. Most of the time, we see ten million cuts in one scene.
Right. And some of it is just you’re forced to make those decisions on the set and get it to land that way. Whereas if it’s a million cuts, you can make all those decisions in the editing room, and shoot it in a hundred different ways.
It was a breath of fresh air watching Dragged Across Concrete a few months back because it was so different from the films we’re getting on a regular basis. You said in an interview that you didn’t think Hollywood was in a good place. Do you think we have too many superhero films in today’s market?
Well, anytime I’m quoted from an interview, I always like to point to the full interview. Sometimes it’s not even transcribed. I think mainstream U.S. cinema and the stuff coming out of the studios, yeah, that is an action factory of superhero movies, and previews where I can’t even pay attention for all of the swirling, CG confetti going on in front of my eyes. It’s hard for me to even watch things like this because they don’t engage me. They’re successful, a lot of them are. At some point, you’ll probably have a couple of two/three hundred million dollar films flop in a row, and that’ll be the death of the studio when something like that happens.
The reason I say that there is a longer answer to that is I think 2018 was probably the best year in movies since the nineties. I thought Mandy, First Reformed, and The Favourite were terrific. Creed II, I think came out that same year, I thought that was really good. That’s more good movies coming out in a year, than in any year since the nineties. I think the blockbuster machine that Hollywood has become is a little sad. Instead of spending all your money on a two hundred million dollar – cars are exploding, and people are flying around, CG pixel salad kind of movie. They used to invest in a bunch of different movies. There was a space for the twenty, thirty, forty million dollar crime or drama movie. Those come out occasionally, but when those come out through the studio, they tend to be very heavy-handed, Oscar based kind of movies that are pushing some very heavy-handed, and obvious message.
In that way, I don’t think U.S. cinema is in a good place. When I see a new movie, and I watch the previews, I rarely see one that I would be interested in seeing. It’s just so much of the same stuff, appealing to the same demographic. I’m not a part of it, and that’s why I’m making my different things. I’d love for more people to see my pieces, but I’m content if I’m able to make the movie that I want to make because that’s the goal. It’s not about making a ton of money and getting awards. It’s making the piece I’m proudest of.
Dragged Across Concrete will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on August 19th. You can order a copy here.
Featured Image credit: Photo by Joel C Ryan