It's been five years since the ascent of Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer hit a speed bump, when his risky third feature, 2006's Black Snake Moan, failed to make back its budget on initial theatrical release and his prospective fourth film, Maggie Lynn, was shelved during a film-industry downturn. (Black Snake Moan eventually got into the black and found an audience on DVD.)
By his own admission, the somewhat disappointing box office for Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan left Brewer with something to prove in Hollywood. He's been far from dormant in the half-decade since: making a successful foray into television by directing an episode of The Shield and helping launch the much-loved but short-lived series Terriers, creating $5 Cover, and pitching enough ideas and writing enough scripts to have an "in-development" section on the Internet Movie Database that's five titles deep. But, this week, Brewer finally returns to the big screen with Footloose, a new take on an '80s "classic" that Brewer has long acknowledged as an influence.
After a month of promotional screenings and appearances, deflecting copious criticism online, and presenting the film at premieres in Los Angeles and Nashville, Brewer will be back home for the film's October 14th wide release, continuing his tradition of celebrating opening night at Midtown's Studio on the Square.
With Paramount putting considerable marketing muscle behind Footloose and with early reactions probably more positive than many were expecting, it's unlikely it'll be another five years before Brewer's next feature — whether potential tentpole Tarzan, mid-budget road movie Mother Trucker, or something unexpected — hits screens.
On the eve of the Footloose release, the Flyer talked to Brewer about approaching known and beloved material, the film's defiant promotional strategy, playing the Hollywood game from a middle-American outpost, and what the future holds.
Flyer: You've undergone a massive promotional tour for Footloose at a time when advance screenings are becoming more rare. Why go so hard in the opposite direction?
Craig Brewer: Everyone is making up their own movie in their head as to what the Footloose remake is, and that's based, I think, off the history of the project. That's one of the reasons I turned down the job twice. I think I was with the rest of America. I didn't think it could be remade or should be remade. I didn't know how I could do the whole ban on dancing thing. And [Paramount] sent me the script they had been working from, and I didn't like it. But the head of the studio asked me to take a stab at it and come up with something.
Did they know when they approached you that the original was particularly important to you?
Yes. They knew that I was a Footloose, Flashdance, Purple Rain, Urban Cowboy-loving '80s dude. They knew that.
What happened was Adam Goodman took over the studio. He used to run Dreamworks, and when Hustle & Flow came out, he wanted to meet with me. So when he took over [Paramount] and wanted to take Footloose in a new direction, I was his first call.
I passed on it. They sent me the script. I passed on it again. But I hadn't talked to Adam. It had all been through agents.
So then I'm driving down to Louisiana for a friend's bachelor party, and we're driving over Lake Pontchartrain, right at sunset. And while I'm driving I get a call from Adam. He says, "Why are you passing on this movie again?" I told him my reasons. And he said, "Please understand, I don't want any other movie but a Craig Brewer Footloose movie. All these other movies where people are telling you [what] you can't do? I'm telling you you can do it with this. Any way you want."
He asked me to take the weekend to think about it. So I get to the bachelor party, and all night the guys are giving me shit about Footloose. We're going to strip clubs and bars, and they're singing "Let's Hear It for the Boy" and just giving me shit. So I get a little bit too drunk and we go back to the house and I go to bed. And I started flashing back to the bridge. And the passing trucks that were coming past me with these lights that would just ignite my windshield. It was right then and there that I saw how to do the movie. I remember sitting up and thinking, Oh my God, this is essentially about a town where some kids got drunk, got into an accident, made one mistake that not only ended their life but affected this whole town.
And that meant I could do the original dancing feet. I could be at a kegger party with Solo cups and beer kegs and just punch everybody in the gut and kill these teenagers so they could see the point of view from the parents. Right then I figured out at least a way to start thinking about Footloose differently. And from there, everything started falling into place. I thought that it could actually be relevant. There was resistance at first. But once I got into it, I became rather infected with the idea of redoing it.
You ended up with something that looks and feels a bit grittier than people will probably expect.
I always tell people the biggest risk I ever took with Footloose was taking it seriously. But it's also Footloose. We're going to put some cheese on the screen. I tried to approach it as more of a theater revival than act like I was rethinking the whole thing. So, I decided to change a couple of structural things and make the dialogue a little bit more me. But how am I going to do the "Let's Hear It for the Boy" montage? How am I going to do the angry dance? It's Footloose. I can't not do those things. But when I think of Footloose, the first thing I remember is the argument between Ariel and her father where she tells him, "I'm not even a virgin."
When you got the initial call for Footloose, it had been three years since Black Snake Moan. You had done $5 Cover and some television with The Shield and Terriers, but it had been a few years since you'd made a feature. Black Snake Moan was not a hit. You thought Maggie Lynn was going to launch, and it didn't happen. Did you really feel like you were in a position to turn down a major project like this when a studio was aggressively trying to get it made?
The good news is that I was in a position to turn it down, because I had written this movie Mother Trucker that the people at New Regency really wanted to make. But once Adam heard my pitch, he said, "We're making Footloose." I said, "Well, I've got to write it." And he said, "Fine, write it in six weeks. We're starting prep here." Footloose was going to get made. And once they heard my pitch, they saw that they could make a good Footloose. Once they saw that it was a movie with more gravity, they would not let me go.
You mentioned at one of the local screenings having to combat this "wall of hate" coming down. I sense in the promotional approach a mix of defiance and confidence.
When we tested the movie, we were doubtful about what we were seeing, because the numbers shot off the page. People loved it. But we were still in this cocoon. So we tested it again in a different part of the country. Okay, that was Pasadena. What does Kansas think? The numbers went higher.
I was always caught in the crucible between people telling me, "Footloose is a terrible movie, how could you want to make that?" and "Footloose is a classic, how could you blaspheme the memory of that movie?" So there was a perception either way that it had to be bad. But then there was what we had. There were audiences that came and wanted to have a good time, but then there were audiences that came with shotguns in their hand, ready to hate it. And they were won over.
When I hear people say Hollywood isn't original and isn't coming up with any ideas, it's the only time I get angry. Because it somehow absolves them from any part in it. I've made some pretty original movies. But nobody came to see those movies. You say that Black Snake Moan wasn't a hit. I can guaran-damn-tee you neither was Hustle & Flow. The studio called me the opening weekend and said, "It's a disaster."
America watches remakes. America votes with its dollars. I was on a panel and someone was throwing that at me, about Hollywood not coming up with anything original, and I said, "Well, what did you think of Tree of Life?" And they didn't know what I was talking about. They went and saw Captain America. They had opinions about that.
All of your previous features were very personal, even if in ways that people who don't know you might not recognize. This is your first adapted work. Was it important for you to find a personal way into it?
I had just done Terriers, but I learned a lot from doing The Shield. What I liked about doing The Shield was that it wasn't mine. I was there as a director to execute a vision. Something about that experience freed me, made me a better director. I think it even made me a better writer. So when I started thinking about Footloose, I got to all the exciting moments musically in my head — Oh, I'm going to do this with the angry dance or I'm going to do this with this drive-in scene. I had ideas for the set pieces. But I think that when people leave the theater, they're actually more drawn to the personal elements that are part of what you're talking about.
The reality is that I'm a father now, and I'm a father of a daughter. And I tear up at the gooey places in this movie that 10 years ago I don't think I would be tearing up. Because I think there's something about looking at your child after they've made mistakes and you don't want them to experience any pain. I had never thought I would connect with that material, but having those kids has changed me a great deal. And when I look at the other movies I've made, they were of a different time in my life. But now I'm a parent, and Footloose is a movie that speaks to that part of my life. When I do Tarzan, that's going to be about me and my wife. When I was doing Hustle & Flow, that was about me and my team trying to make The Poor & Hungry, and Black Snake Moan was about dealing with all the pressures those movies brought about and all the madness in my head. But Footloose is really about my children and what I want for them and for myself as a father.
You've been hired to write a script for the new Tarzan film and potentially direct if the script goes through. Did the Footloose project have any role in getting you a shot at Tarzan?
I'm sure that it did but only in the way that really matters here in Hollywood. I did a movie for $23.5 million. I was on schedule. I was on budget. And I delivered a movie for a studio that tested high, and now it's their turn to market it. I think there was a question hanging over me that I was unaware was there: "Can Craig do a studio movie and still be himself but also be able to wrangle the challenges of working with a major corporation?" You know, they're spending a lot of money on Footloose. Warner would be doing the same with Tarzan. And I think that the fact that I managed to do it has made a lot of studios realize that I'm someone they can call now on certain projects.
I think Footloose will do well. It doesn't even need to be a big monster hit. I made it in a price range that a lot of people in Hollywood find hard to do, but for me it was double the budget of Black Snake Moan. Because I was fiscally responsible with it, it's going to be hard, I think, for Footloose not to make money.
I know you don't know for certain what the future holds, but would you say that Tarzan and Mother Trucker are the projects most likely to get off the ground next?
I have three scripts out there that are ready to go. There's Mother Trucker at New Regency, Tarzan at Warner Bros., or the possibility of Maggie Lynn at Paramount.
Oh, so you think Maggie Lynn is something that could still launch at some point?
Maggie Lynn was always in need of a music model that wasn't Country Strong. What Paramount wanted was what they have right now with Footloose. It's not all cowboy boots and pedal steel.
You jumped a level in terms of project size with Footloose. Obviously, if you do Tarzan that's another big jump in scope, but even if you do one of the other films with a studio it's going to be a significant project.
Given the potential for these higher-profile projects and given the increased difficulty of filming in Memphis and in Tennessee even when the material might be conducive to that — do you see your career moving in a direction now that will make it difficult for you to remain in Memphis?
Well, it's not going to be harder to stay in Memphis as a husband and father and Memphian. I'm there to live. That's my home. Everything about my professional life that pains me, living in Memphis manages to soothe me. In other words, let's say this Footloose comes out like my other two movies and gets polarizing reviews and the box office isn't what they wanted it to be. I wouldn't feel like a failure in Memphis.
I'm still seeing the same people at Cafe Eclectic for breakfast. I'm still bumping into the same people at the Hi-Tone. I still see the same people on my neighborhood block and parents of my kids' friends that aren't people who read the trades that day and know exactly how much I failed.
The flip side to that is maybe Footloose is a success and I get a lot of people saying congratulations and that's really great. But what I really like is hearing people say we think it's great what you do for Memphis. We like that you're still here. That means a lot to me.
But the city itself? The vibe of the city, in terms of the way it handles day-to-day life as well as creativity, makes me who I am. And I just feel a lot more mentally comfortable being in Memphis than I would being in Hollywood.
But how many name directors, filmmakers that casual filmgoers would recognize, don't live in Los Angeles or New York? It must be a small number.It's a very small number. That's why I feel incredibly lucky that I've managed to do this, that I've figured out a way to do it. It's very difficult. To live somewhere other than those two entertainment business hotspots is tricky to do. But agents use the fact that I don't live there to get me a lot of meetings very quickly. "Hey, did you wanna meet with Craig about that thing? Well, he's in town. You've got to do it this week."
So I come in. I do my meetings. If I get a job, I go home and I have a very clear, regimented way that I write scripts at my office and it works. Then I have to go off and make the movie and that's when I kind of lose myself to the Memphis world for a while.
Footloose opens at multiple Memphis locations Friday, October 14th. Brewer says he plans to greet audiences and sign posters during opening-night showings at Malco's Studio on the Square.
For some interview outtakes — including Brewer on Twitter as therapy, his goals as a new member of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission, and the local projects he's developing via his BR2 production company — see the Flyer's pop culture blog, "Sing All Kinds," at memphisflyer.com/blogs/singallkinds.
The Early Return
Most Footloose reviews will be coming in this week — read ours on page 46 — but the first reviews to trickle in are probably a pretty good indicator of what to expect: a smattering of dismissals surrounding plenty of "better than we expected" notices. A sampling:
"Thoroughly winning ... Brewer, who previously put his high-intensity spin on Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, displays his coolest moves in the way he smartly unties this Footloose from its 1980s moorings. He matter-of-factly integrates the townsfolk. And he establishes a timeless zone in which children of all colors always yearn for freedom, and wise parents learn how to hand over the dance floor to the next generation. A-"
— Entertainment Weekly
"From start to finish, Brewer's remake exudes the look and style of its forebears: semi-awkward dance choreography, clunky dialogue and an obedience to formula that borders on cliché. But somehow, it works. Updated for the Step Up crowd and shellacked with a country sensibility to cover all available teen demographics, Footloose should play well over its opening weekend, but it remains to be seen whether fans of the 1984 original will rally around the new version, or rail against it." — Box Office Magazine
"Footloose is an anodyne example of Hollywood's fixation on remakes but it is slightly better than I expected."
— Sydney Morning Herald
"[Brewer] doesn't crank out dispassionate work, he crafts films that give a shit. It is [such a relief] to see someone coming to previously told material, but with a genuine desire to update and make it live as vibrantly if not more so than the original."
— Ain't it Cool News
"The original Footloose felt like an especially cheesy time-capsule refugee almost from the instant it hit screens in 1984, yet here's a near shot-for-shot remake that adds little to the old formula. This new, unimproved Footloose slathers on drippy nostalgia then feverishly attempts to bottle it up, adding high quantities of teen angst and fructose to a fizzy concoction."
— Detroit Metro Times