The Hollywood Filmmaker Making Movies for the MAGA Crowd
S. Craig Zahler talks new film ‘Dragged Across Concrete,’ starring Hollywood conservatives Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn, seen by many as a Trumpian right-wing fantasy.
S. Craig Zahler’s movies leave a mark. That’s certainly the case with Dragged Across Concrete, the Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99. The auteur’s latest, which boasts a title fit for a heavy metal album, has action that’s eye-opening in its ruggedness, and rogue-cop protagonists whose words and behavior tend to be ugly, intolerant, and politically right-wing. Amplifying the provocative nature of Zahler’s contemporary saga is the fact that Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn star as those wayward law-enforcement officers, Brett Ridgeman and Anthony Lurasetti, who after being suspended from the force for roughing up minority suspects, strive to get what they think they deserve by robbing a crew of bank robbers. Suffice to say, it’s a bad plan by bad men that goes very, very badly.
Making a 159-minute thriller with Mel Gibson as a crooked, racist reactionary who taunts immigrant women and espouses Fox News-ish gripes about modern liberal society was always bound to inspire a heated reaction, and Zahler admits he’s not surprised Dragged Across Concrete (in theaters March 22) has rankled some viewers. Nonetheless, given its focus on a third main character—Tory Kittles’ recently paroled Henry Johns, who gets a job working for the aforementioned gang—he contends that it’s a far more ambiguous and thorny story than some have claimed, and anything but a polemic.
In our extended chat, the gregarious, thoughtful and multi-talented Zahler discusses his own outlook on Dragged Against Concrete’s politics, collaborating with Mel Gibson, and the reason behind his work’s often-extreme violence—not to mention the original soul-funk soundtrack he co-composed for his new film.
Some critics consider your films conservative-oriented, and Dragged Across Concrete has only reinforced that view. Do you agree with those assessments about your work’s politics?
The last part of the artistic process is letting go of your work and giving it to people who have their own private experiences with it. I’m not politically driven; I’m not very politically interested. None of the stuff I write comes from the point of view that I want to push an agenda, or have a piece that is subservient to a single thesis statement that I hope will enlighten the world. I think Bone Tomahawk and Dragged Across Concrete have multiple characters and viewpoints, and I write all of my stuff from the viewpoint of the characters. If you watch Bone Tomahawk and say, well, what the author really thinks is what Brooder (Matthew Fox) thinks, then you’re going to come away with one point of view. If you think the author thinks what Arthur (Patrick Wilson) thinks, then clearly [you’ll believe] the author is Christian and pushing that forward—which is probably not the case with a Jew-turned-atheist such as myself. And that’s something I’ve seen in a bunch of pieces, that it was a Christian movie.
This is a thing I do as a writer: I put what the characters are doing and thinking on the line and in the piece much more than me putting out a single idea or a philosophy for people to latch hold of. Now at this point in time, people are falling all over themselves to make sure they aren’t labeled this or that, and I’m fine with whatever anyone wants to take away from my movies. I think with Dragged Across Concrete and Bone Tomahawk, it’s pretty hard to step away and say there’s this singular viewpoint from all these characters, and that all these scenes reflect it. In fact, I think it’s impossible. I think one needs to ignore a lot of what certain characters do, and then say, well, what these characters are doing and saying, that’s what the author really feels. So then what you’re doing is bringing in your judgment of the author, and looking for evidence to support it, rather than looking at the material that’s at hand.
In the case of Dragged Across Concrete, I think it’s a very complex world; there are a lot of differing viewpoints that show, yeah, a lot of different people have different struggles. I understand why some people would say that [my films are conservative]—because there isn’t a clear didactic, if not pedantic, agenda at the fore of these pictures. But I’m writing stuff that I find compelling, and I’m not going to stop writing a scene, or change a character’s ethnicity, or remove a line of dialogue, because I think someone might interpret it in a certain way, or be offended by it. I’m writing what I find compelling, and I think in the case of the first and third movies, you really get a lot of different viewpoints.
Brawl in Cell Block 99, which only has one main character, stands out a bit in that regard, yes?
In the case of Brawl in Cell Block 99, almost that entire movie is with Bradley (Vince Vaughn), and is with his viewpoint. So to me, that one is different, because you get fewer viewpoints; that one is much more about the journey through the penal system, and this character’s struggles, and mistakes, and attempt at redemption. So it’s different in that one. And I understood it a little more with that one. But it’s still not coming from a place of, this is what I’m promoting. It’s coming from, this makes sense for this character. But as people are completely within their rights to do, they can make interpretations of the piece and the author. My hope would be that people are thinking more about why the characters are doing what they’re doing, and why they’re making these remarks, and what this says about the characters and the world of the movie, than trying to guess who I am and what my intentions are, because that isn’t part of the movie experience. The movie experience is what you’re watching and what those characters are doing and saying, and what’s happening to them.
When we spoke last year, you told me you don’t write from a political place. Yet Dragged Across Concrete often directly addresses hot-button contemporary issues. Were you looking to be more overly political this time out?
No. I’m not looking to address the ills of society, and I’m not looking to provoke. But probably in not avoiding things that may provoke, it winds up being splitting hairs in terms of what the difference is. I wrote what felt compelling, and when I was writing Ridgeman, this is an embittered guy, not really happy with his station in life, and with a heavy hand, and doing some stuff that he shouldn’t be doing, and he’s suspended—those are the repercussions for what he’s doing. Having a piece with these performers, about policemen who are stepping over the line and punished for it, certainly that’s something that is more of a national concern at this point in history. But again, not really my intention. I was writing cops, and they make one bad decision which leads them to make more bad decisions, and then how can they get themselves out of the hole that they’ve dug with all of these mistakes.
It doesn’t come from a place of me wanting to address society’s ills, or these are the important issues. It comes from a place of, I’m writing these characters—and to me they’re distinctly different, but I know a lot of people will lump them in as the same—and where are they at in this point in their lives, and what are they trying to do.
One question that seems to loom over the film is whether it’s celebrating its protagonists (and therefore validating their worldview), or critiquing them, given how things spiral out of control. Was that ambiguity important to you?
The reaction is generally positive; most of the reviews have been positive. The way I approach this stuff is really just, what do I find compelling? Everybody is different, and every reaction that a person takes away from the movie is valid for that person—that’s the letting go part of the process. So, again, I know what you’re saying, I understand why people are having these reactions. I wasn’t oblivious that some people might have these reactions when I made the movie. But I’m making the movie for myself, and I want it to be interesting. For me, there’s all this discussion and controversy, of course, when discussing the two leads, but there’s a third lead who I think is entirely sympathetic. He’s just not as famous and doesn’t fit in with the conversation this movie is provoking, because he’s not an actual part of that conversation. It’s a different perspective.
Both Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn are well-known Hollywood conservatives. Is it difficult to get a project off the ground in Hollywood with such openly conservative stars?
I cast Vince in this and offered him the role before Brawl in Cell Block 99 was done, and as soon as I put him in that role, which was a little bit different than I originally saw the character, just in terms of age and size and stuff, I thought, who would be a great match for him? We went to Mel Gibson, and that’s how a movie like this gets made. As soon as we had both those guys on board, we had different finance offers, and we took the best one and went and made the movie. So I guess the answer to your question is no. Having those two actors is what facilitated the whole movie getting made.
Gibson, in particular, evokes passionate reactions from moviegoers these days. Did you have any concern about approaching him for Dragged Across Concrete?
No. I heard he was really good to work with from anyone who’d ever worked with him. And my first conversation with him was really good, and I had a sense that this was someone who knew, when he’s the director, he’s the director, but when he comes on the set of a movie that someone else is directing—much less wrote and is directing—he was going to come on as a performer. He came on and did a terrific job.
It’s difficult not to think about another rogue cop played by Gibson—Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon—when watching Dragged Across Concrete. Was that ever a consideration for you when casting, writing or directing?
No [Laughs]. Again, when I wrote this piece, these cops were 30 and 50 and I was thinking of different performers. It was through my great working experience with Vince on Brawl in Cell Block 99 that I thought to put him there, and then go for a more weathered guy for the senior person. When I write stuff, I’m not thinking about performers, and then when I put the performers in it, I’m not changing the dialogue, other than if there’s a factual thing—I think I changed any reference to the age of these characters, because they’re older than what I’d originally written. But that stuff isn’t really factoring in. This movie is the script that I wrote, and I didn’t change it when he came in, and I wasn’t really thinking in terms of Lethal Weapon.
As with your last two films, Dragged Across Concrete has a straightforward genre setup, but you take your time with it, fleshing out characters and staging things in a detailed, drawn-out manner. When writing, what comes first—the mechanics of the plot or the characters?
I start with both, but in a very general sense. This movie had a completely different third act with my original concept of it. And Bone Tomahawk, people who live, died, and people who die, lived. My writing process is to surprise myself daily. There are always surprises, and a lot of those surprises are a humorous moment, or a revelation about someone’s backstory, or a connection between two characters. That sort of stuff. And sometimes it’s a surprising death, or someone lives that you thought was going to die. In the case of this piece, I had the idea of Henry Johns, I had the idea of Anthony Lurasetti, I had the idea of Brett Ridgeman. I had those three people, and sort of what drove them, in terms of Henry Johns being just out of prison, and his mother is using again and prostituting herself; the bad situation at Ridgeman’s home; and the hope for a better future with Lurasetti and his girlfriend. I had all of that stuff, and then this general idea of where things were going to go, in terms of trying to rip off a drug dealer, and things not being exactly what’s expected.
Everything else is done day-by-day, because my philosophy is, if you spent thirty hours outlining a story—and I do not spend thirty hours—the first hour you’re writing is hour thirty-one, and you should be coming up with new stuff. So I don’t do a ton of prep. It’s more about general goals, and it’s one of the reasons my pieces work the way they do. The reason they’re consistently surprising to people, whether they’re the books or the movies, is because the characters drive the plot, not the other way around. It allows everyone to be smarter than I was 100 hours ago in writing the piece, and come up with new ideas. Certainly, in writing Henry Johns, he kept being a revelation more and more, so that—and I don’t want to ruin this for your readers—the trajectory of his character and what he does was discovered along the way, and for the audience, I think will be discovered along the way as well. One of my least favorite things about the press coverage thus far has been that this movie is talked about in terms of its two leads, but it has three—just one who isn’t as famous. I think Tory Kittles is a star to be discovered by many, if people check the movie out.
Your films can also be intense, to say the least. What is it about extreme violence that’s so appealing?
I was a child of Fangoria, so there’s that. I had pictures of Evil Dead eye-gougings and Day of the Dead disembowelings on my wall growing up, so I’ve had an interest in that stuff for the major part of my life. But actually, the better and more accurate answer is that it goes back to the process of surprising myself. Normal acts of violence, like you shoot that person and they fall down dead—I can’t even guess how many times you or I have seen something like that happen in a movie. So a lot of this is, I’m doing what I find interesting, and trying to do things that will be memorable.
Dragged Across Concrete has less extreme violence than the other two movies, because of the weaponry and the kinds of battle these people are engaged in. It’s very different than two people locked in a prison together; that’s going to be different violence. The acts of violence in this movie and the others reflect who those people are. Even the overkill of the robber in the delicatessen in Dragged, and his little shooting of the chips—I think things like that tell you about the characters. So you’re still getting character moments when it turns into gunfire. It doesn’t just turn into every other action movie with gunfire, and a lot of slow-motion, and making the guns look really sexy. It’s still about the people. The pace is more methodical. I actually don’t consider this an action movie, though it does have a lot of long suspense sequences.
You perform heavy metal with your band Realmbuilder, you wrote Christian songs for Brawl in Cell Block 99, and now you’ve written some of Dragged Across Concrete’s soul tracks, which were performed by The O’Jays and Butch Tavares. Is it an exciting challenge to not only score your films, but to do so in such wildly varying styles?
I actually co-wrote all of the songs in Brawl and this movie. My songwriting partner, Jeff Herriott, who’s a composer and a friend of mine for 33 years, he came into town and we wrote every song that’s in there. Actually, the one in the diner I sing, because I didn’t want to have some soul legend sing some song and then have Anthony and Ridgeman make fun of it [Laughs].
We sing the demos, we come up with all the beats and all the instrumentation, which is elaborate if you’re doing classic soul stuff, because it’s a rock band plus a string section plus a horn section plus additional percussion plus flute plus harp—it’s a ton of shit that you’re mixing together. All of the songs in both movies I co-wrote, and also wrote all of the lyrics. There are some terrible demos of me singing it, and then my songwriting partner, whose pitch is better, would re-sing it, and then we’d play it for a local soul guy out in Wisconsin—which is where the composer lives—and then we’d record proper demos. Then with those, we went to The O'Jays and Butch Tavares. That’s a real highlight. Also, I was like, well, metal and soul—let’s mix it up and write some jazz songs. So all the jazz songs in there are original as well. That’s probably the most enjoyable thing that happens during post-production for me: when I set aside some days to write basically a soul album and some jazz songs and other things. Even the music that’s on when they’re playing video games is stuff I wrote; that’s a synthesizer project we do. That’s a fun other outlet for me.