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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 a room.

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 Dead Presidents.

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 have control.

Albert, what does "complete creative control" mean to you?

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 videos.

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. It's limiting.

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 not cheesy.

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 upside-down.

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 release date.

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 consulting anybody.

Quendrith Johnson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and screenwriter.

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