S. Craig Zahler is one of the most exciting writer-directors working today. His first two films, Bone Tomahawk and Brawl In Cell Block 99 were gutsy genre movies which also managed delivered great emotion and detail amongst the action.
Zahler is back with the great Dragged Across Concrete, a tough cop thriller starring Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn. Movies In Focus said that ”Dragged Across Concrete plays-out like a cinematic novel. It’s a film with little digressions which expand on supporting characters, unveiling who they are so that we get to know them and understand them” Read the full review.
I got the opportunity to talk with S. Craig Zahler about making Dragged Across Concrete, discussing how he gives his movies a sense of detail, his novelistic way he approaches filmmaking and sandwiches. Plenty of sandwiches.
You’re a novelist and your films have a very novelistic feel. Is this something you work at?
The novelist approach as a writer is something you’ll see because I write novels and because I take the time to do these things. I have equal interest in guys eating sandwiches and a mother returning from maternity leave as I do with all the violent bits, which is what I am better known for in certain circles, I guess.
You mentioned one of my favourite bits in the movie – guys sitting eating sandwiches. Most movies would cut that to a minimum and you dragged that out. I loved that.
That’s great to hear. That was always one of my favourite scenes and it was a really difficult shoot and there weren’t many scenes where we really played with the material, but in the script he was finishing off the last sandwich – that dialogue was written as it was and Vince really elaborated more and more and we leaned into it more and more with the idea of the saltshaker in his hand and it’s one of my favourite moments on there. That’s the kind of stuff that you get to experience in the movie where the guy driving it not only has final cut but is as interested in that sort of stuff as the action and the plot. It just tells you about the characters. There aren’t that many moments that come from my real life but that’s a little bit from my long suffering editor Greg D’Auria, who is stuck in a room with be for 8,9,10, 11 hours – depending on how long we’re going and I’d bring in these sandwiches and I’m in there for hours and hours and hours and there’s no rush. Sometimes I’d have a sandwich going for 4 or 5 hours where I would just allow myself a bite or anther two bites after we’d finished a scene or fixed a problem. Again, it tells you a lot about their relationship and their familiarity with one another. That’s the sort of stuff that everyone would cut, that every studio would ask for that to be cut and it’s a scene which comes up very, very regularly and it’s the kind of thing that I’m interested in which makes the piece unique. And certainly the people who aren’t that onboard with the experience – makes them suffer through it all the much more: ‘Oh, Jesus we got to watch these guys eat sandwiches’. So if you’re not that onboard, it’ll make it that much worse for you but if you are onboard then it’s a detail to relish. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Those are the best bits. It’s the same as Cell Block 99, where you stretch these scenes to where it’s beautiful. I’ll say it again, it’s the small moments like a novelist writing a novel.
Thank you. That’s the intention. To some extent it’s very clear when I’m writing books and making music and making movies. There’s a distinct thing that I want to do. If I just had an interest in making spandex superhero movies, I would have a lot of competitors and I’m not sure what I would bring that’s new and certainly the stuff I do isn’t for everybody, but those idiosyncrasies and keeping that stuff in is what makes my work singular – and again divisive but for those who like it, there’s a lot to relish.
I’m one of those guys who likes it! I’m Irish, so that shows you how far that aesthetic stretches.
I have watched Father Ted in its entirety many times and I think some of that humour trickled in there.
It’s the dark humour. Your films are dripping with dark humour. It’s dry, you know?
Yep. When you have the person who is oblivious that he’s the joker making it. This is one of the things to again, to refer to Father Ted, that Dougal is about 100% with his jokes through all three seasons because he’s just oblivious that any of them are jokes and they are elements of the person’s personality and that’s funny in the situation rather than ha, ha here’s a joke. So yeah, I certainly like the dry humour.
All your films have that humour. Is it difficult to write that and then get people to read it and know that it’s a joke?
If you have the right people then it works well. I was a huge fan of Vince Vaughn as an actor and a comedian prior to working with him and I thought maybe only outside of Bob Newhart, who is alive today and has the timing that is that good. He knows not to sell the joke better than anyone. A lot of times there’s a little malevolence when it reads a little more like a joke, he can camp it down even further so it’s not supposed to be humourless and I was working on those scenes with Mel Gibson particularly and the scene where he’s eating the sandwich and he’s watching a character smoke and he’s hit with the urge to smoke – Mel and I were speaking often about Buster Keaton. We’re both big fans of Buster and there’s a reason why Buster’s comedy ages better than any of the other silent comedians. I’m a big Harold Lloyd fan, not so big on Chaplin but I think that his films are really well made but I just don’t find him funny. There’s a reason why Buster Keaton is revived constantly in the theatres and why his stuff holds up so well. It’s the under-playing and all of that stuff. That is always going to hold and always going to last and be funny whereas Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler yelling their jokes and making their comedy faces – I wasn’t a fan when that was coming out and it certainly hasn’t aged for the better. Whereas the Buster Keaton stuff – nearly 100% years on and that shit is still funny.
Going back to the double team of Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn, surely that came from Vince being in Cell Block 99?
Correct. I had a great relationship with Vince and I saw how capable he was as an actor and how great he was as a human being and how hard a worker he is and I know that I wanted him to be Anthony in Dragged Across Concrete, which was a little different from how it was written. But once I knew I wanted him there, then I needed someone who could match him in terns of persona and charisma and intensity on screen and as a partner (a partner who has a senior role) and Mel Gibson was an obvious choice right away and I think he delivered a terrific performance and I think they have a wonderful chemistry. He works really hard and it was a very uncomfortable shoot.