Born II Direct
The Hughes Brothers Interview
by Quendrith Johnson
Photo by Gregory Schwartz
Deja vu? Or deja two? That's what it's like when director twins
Albert and Allen Hughes -- who made a ripple in the public mind
with 1993's hard-hitting movie Menace II Society -- walk into
But it's really these multi-talented 23-year-olds who are doing
the double take. Allen and Albert mark the first time since director-brothers
Jerry and David Zucker, who actually formed a comedy co-directing
trio with Jim Abrahams, that the DGA has allowed a waiver for
siblings to take co-credit as directors. The waiver was granted
because of the Hughes brothers' prior co-directing experience.
However, the Zucker brothers, director siblings Reginald and
Warrington Hudlin, and low-budget director-brother team Jim and
Ken Wheat, are not twins. A fraternal pair, the Hughes brothers
are clearly of like mind on how a film should be made. They've
been a team since each stared through their first viewfinder at
age 12. As teenagers, they made music videos for rap artists such
as Tone Loc and Tupac Shakur. Then they made a creative segue
into the world of movies by age 20.
Their latest film, Dead Presidents, a Caravan Pictures set for
fall release, is part of a three-year, two-picture deal with Disney
garnered after their $3 million Menace turned into a $30 million
boon at the box office. It was a sizzling modern gangster movie
that many critics carelessly labeled as a "hood movie."
This time they're working with a $10-million plus budget. While
neither of the brothers write screenplays, they both helped screenwriter
Tyger Williams develop the story for Menace, and did the same
with playwright-turned- screenwriter Michael Henry Brown on this
film, a heist comedy.
Anchored in the Vietnam era, Dead Presidents tells the tale of
a promising young black man (played by Menace lead Larenz Tate)
who comes home from a tour of duty only to pick up arms once again,
this time as a disenfranchised citizen looking for a way to make
a living. "Dead presidents," a street term for the almighty
dollar, is "the phrase that pays."
The twin auteurs aren't interested in telling another archetypal
'Nam story. They hope the film's core theme will pique audience
interest: how circumstances can sometimes overwhelm someone. It's
an issue the Hughes brothers grappled with in part by choosing
35mm over a 9mm, and by studying the techniques of filmmakers
from Sergio Leone to Martin Scorsese. Brian de Palma's Scarface
ranks among their all-time favorites.
In night-owl editing sessions for Dead Presidents when this interview
took place, the Hughes Brothers broke their usual myopic concentration
in this phase of filmmaking to talk to the DGA Magazine about
working together, living apart and translating violence from the
page. They also indulged in a little gratuitous MPAA bashing.
How did you decide to split the tasks as co-directors?
Albert: Allen deals with the actors, I deal with the technical
side. Outside of that, we both do everything. I think it came
up that way because I went to film school (at Los Angeles City
College) and learned more of the technical side. Film school was
just putting names on things me and my brother were already doing,
different ways of doctoring up stuff. But even when we work together
on the set, we both have opinions on each others' area.
Allen: We go under "the Hughes Brothers." I don't know
what the whole politics were behind it, but [the DGA] was pretty
cool about it. We had to show our music video reel and how long
we've been working together. We also did an episode of America's
Most Wanted and some short films.
Walking through the whole process, what exactly do you have in
mind when you start a project? Do you both sit down and throw
ideas back and forth, ideas for shots?
Albert: We were basically living with each other in New York,
so we'd just talk about the script. For Dead Presidents, we shot
in New York and Florida. The real story took place in DC, [but]
we switched to New York because it was more visual. We picked
the location because our writer grew up in the Northeast Bronx.
It was much worse in Menace -- we were down in the projects. In
this one we were in a real bad neighborhood, but it only got out
of control once -- with Larenz and his fans, they were shaking
his bus. We were shooting up the street and he had to be bused
to his trailer.
Allen: On location, you have to figure it out right there and
rearrange it. Sometimes you realize you've lost a story point.
In this one, ideas were popping up right in pre-production. They
were some of the best ideas but you didn't have time to develop
them, to mesh them with the story.
Albert, do you set up the shots?
Albert: Yeah. Allen looks at the monitor. We actually worked
with color monitors this time, which helped us a lot. The depth
of field is different. A lot of big directors don't work with
color monitors. I talked to the crew members, who'd say they'd
never seen a color monitor before. I think it's pretty helpful
to color balance things. You can do it by eye.
Allen: We have two monitors.
What about infighting? How do you keep emotions in check about
what you're doing when it's not only your brother but your twin
that you're dealing with?
Albert: We had some knock-down, drag-outs on Menace. But we worked
it out. On this film it wasn't as bad; we knew we had to move
on. If we're arguing about ideas, that's one thing. But if it's
about principles, that's another thing. It's much better since
we don't live together anymore.
Do you choose the DP and crew members together?
Albert: I pay more attention to it because these are the people
I'm going to be working with more. My brother works with the actors
in rehearsal while I'm talking to the DP, costume designer, production
designer. I watch films; we do general interviews. We both have
the final say.
How did you put Dead Presidents together?
Albert: I read the short story a couple years ago. I thought
it was nicely structured. Allen wanted to do another project,
Public Enemeez [now shelved]. We were kind of being pushed into
it, and he stuck to it to the last minute. But I wanted to do
Allen: It's colorful and musical with the '60s clothes, and everything.
We were more intrigued by the feel of the times.
We didn't deal with racial things too much, just a little bit
in Vietnam. We tried to make it more of a personal thing. Anthony
[the main character] didn't have to be out there doing the Martin
Luther King thing, we've all seen that before.
Is there an allegory? In Menace, there's that scene where Larenz
Tate as O-Dog blows away a Korean grocer; in Dead Presidents,
Kirby was in the Korean war, killing Koreans sanctioned by the
government, then Anthony is in Vietnam fighting the "Asian
brothers," as it says in the script.
Allen: I think the interesting part was all these black men going
to war when all these same men didn't have full rights. It's something
we subtlely touched on.
Black men have always had to do these things: fight on the front
lines and come home to virtually nothing. Kirby went to Korea.
Then Anthony went to Vietnam, and it was the same thing. They
come back to nothing.
In the character of Anthony, like the lead in Menace, there is
a kind of downward spiral.
Allen: I remember growing up, there were those times when I thought
I could go this way or I could go that way. In high school, I
thought if one more cop pulled me over for no reason -- if one
more thing happened -- I would have gone that direction, become
insane. I would have gone down that path.
Albert: During this film, we had to look at it like, 'Okay, these
moments have to stay this way, in order for this moment to pay
off.' When you're telling a more structured kind of story you
have to follow some basic rules. I feel like it was more fun making
this film than Menace. But in the end result, every ten pages
was action or violence in Menace, because we planned it like that
so you'd feel uneasy the whole movie.
Are you saying that violence is an easier way to structure a
story? That makes it move?
Albert: I guess it's a device that worked for us in the first
movie. We're totally scared of boring people in the theatres.
You want to wake people up. It's not easy to shoot violence. For
this movie, the violence was different. It's more graphic, lots
of bloodletting but not as shocking.
How does violence on the page translate to the screen?
Albert: We worked with the writer. In this one, Michael Henry
Brown came up with the head being cut off. He knew what we were
turned on by and used it well.
You base it on news events, documentaries, you talk to people.
All that aside, if you've never experienced a violent situation,
all you have to know is this: whatever you see up there on the
screen in a $30 or $40 million movie -- don't do that.
Do exactly the opposite of that. Make it horrific, disgusting
and entertaining; but make it sick. So you won't want to duplicate
it in real life.
Allen: We like unorthodox, sloppy fight scenes.
Can you describe shooting the pivotal heist scene in Dead Presidents?
Allen: It was like below zero out there, in Brooklyn, and we
both had severe flu. We were very stressed. We had six or seven
days to shoot this whole big heist scene. We went to the studio
and said we had to go over [the alotted time]. We weren't getting
what we wanted. It was our first time doing a big action sequence.
I think we wrapped it up in 11 days.
When you feel like you're not getting what you want in a key
scene, how do you try to salvage it?
Allen: On the set you just do it again and again. If you're really
open with actors, like I am, you say, "Don't be afraid to
tell me your ideas." That's how it was in Menace, how it
was here. We learned a lot about coverage on that movie. This
time we had the budget.
Do you feel there's a lot riding on Dead Presidents?
Allen: I think so. I didn't feel that way going into it. Now
it's like, "It's their picture. Complete creative control.
Nobody can tell them what to do." On Menace we had to be
put in a room with these executives who had dumb ideas, but at
least it incited certain things. Now, [even] on the poster, we
Albert, what does "complete creative control" mean
Albert: It means a hell of a lot. You don't realize what [power]
you have until somebody starts to attack you.
Allen has said he believes that sound is 50 percent of a movie,
do you agree?
Albert: I feel like half of the biggest directors don't even
realize that sound is half the movie. It has to be. There's dialogue,
sound effects, music and sound design on top of it.
I think more established directors don't pay too much attention
to the details, they shove it off to some company to do it. They
think about sound as far as dialogue and little details. But you
can take it so much beyond that. We realized this doing music
Coming off something like Menace II Society where it really became
part of a public dialogue, are you thinking now that you have
to keep making films just like that?
Albert: We don't want to be second-guessed by people, as far
as saying, "Oh, it's another hood film, who cares?"
Or they say, "It's not positive." We're not out to make
positive films, or preach and propagandize to the Black community.
Was it a struggle to be recognized as joint directors?
Albert: No. I acknowledge that most of it was just people going,
"Look, they're 20 years old; they're black; they're twins."
How do you feel about that?
Albert: They can look at it like that, but in the long run, if
we stick around, that's all out the door. I have enough confidence
in myself to know there are certain things I can achieve in filmmaking.
I know I have a long way to go and a lot to learn. But I know
where I stand.
You've probably already heard this a lot; critics have this way
of saying "there's New Jack City, there's Boyz N the Hood,
there's Menace II Society..." After Dead Presidents, how
do you envision the next picture? Are you going to take these
gangsters into another arena?
Allen: We're interested in the criminal element, whether it's
a gangster, pimp, drug-dealer, whatever. We're interested in the
underworld and the underclass. There's too many movies about cops
saving the world, which isn't true. There's too many movies about
good prevailing over evil, which isn't true either. More times
than not, there's evil kicking good's ass. Not that you can't
walk away, walk out of a movie feeling good. But we have to figure
a way so people aren't walking out all choked up over it. So it's
Do you feel you're going to have to move beyond gunfire?
Allen: I don't think me and my brother get into gratuitous violence;
I think if we do it, it's where it needs to be felt. As far as
this whole MPAA rating thing, I think directors should get together
and protect the rights of the creative vision. We should stand
up and fight.
I remember on Menace, they [made us] cut our bullets out, and
the same thing they cut out of our film, they let Cliffhanger
do. I think it was the hood thing, the realistic thing, the Black
thing. It was too real for all these people. Cliffhanger isn't
real, but I remember walking out of Rambo when I was twelve; we
went out of there and bought every gun we could buy. After Platoon,
we were going to buy more guns, but that really turned our stomachs
In Menace, there's a scene with [Samuel L. Jackson] table-shooting
a guy. [The MPAA] said it was too violent; I cut three gunshots
out of the whole thing. I mean whole gunshots. And then they came
back saying it's still too violent. I said, "Okay, I'll cut
another one out, and tone down some of the sound design."
If we didn't change it this time, they said we'd get an NC-17
rating and it would take three months to appeal. We'd miss our
What would be ideal?
Allen: How about consulting with an audience? Maybe they should
go to some of these test screenings and ask, "Do you feel
there's too much bloodletting here?" They don't really talk
to anybody except their little secluded group. Now it comes down
to this -- they say, "When he gets shot, show the bullet
going in but don't let anything come out." Don't show the
blood leaking, or any of that Peckinpah shit. I think MPAA has
taken it upon themselves to form too many conclusions without
Quendrith Johnson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and