S Craig Zahler: Cast in Concrete

September 1, 2019
Novelist, Musician, Cinematographer, Writer, Director, S Craig Zahler is a multi-disciplinary artist of distinction. Like a pulp version of David Mamet, Zahler continues to build on his uncompromising feature filmography with Dragged Across Concrete.

What made you want to write Dragged Across Concrete particularly?

I wanted to do a big scale crime piece and something that’s a little bit more in the style of my novels than Brawl in Cell Block 99, and that’s the ensemble piece where you really get a lot of different perspectives, a lot of different characters, how all of them interact and also do something a little bit more complicated in terms of plot.

Although, as soon as I finished it, I said, ‘holy crap, I’m going to be shooting a lot in cars’. And I already knew from my experience as a cinematographer how irritating that was going to be, but I wasn’t open to green screens. And so that was a huge time suck, but I wanted to do something like Dog Day Afternoon and Prince of the City; Sidney Lumet is my favourite filmmaker. And at the same time, show a lot more different colours and maybe not every scene drives the plot and just give a larger sense of the world. And so, it’s a little bit of Dog Day Afternoon crashing into Nashville and then, always in my crime pieces, the influence of Sweet Smell of Success, which is my favourite script ever.

What about The French Connection?

You know, it’s interesting, I re-watched that because I hadn’t seen that for a long time. It’s certainly not a movie I thought of a lot. And then I re-watched it and I think that the car chase is incredible. I wish the character stuff rang a little truer. I always feel with that movie it’s a good movie and could have been a great one, but when they’re selling the idea at the end that Popeye is so obsessed with this and he can’t let it go, I never felt that happening in the movie. I’m just told this at the end. But I love the looseness of it and the two cops together and their relationship and their comfort. And obviously some of the grey morality that they get in is there.

It wasn’t really an influence, though. It was just something where a couple of people had brought it up in comparison. People who were working on the movie. And I decided to re-watch it to see how much it did or didn’t compare. And I understand why it will come up in conversation.

There’s this interesting racial dynamic in the film. It’s a very complex dynamic you set up in the film but obviously Popeye had that racial element to him in the past…

Yep, and I see it, and I take it as a compliment. It was a movie I enjoy more as an adult and I really hadn’t seen it since I was a kid, but I can’t say that it was an influence because I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid and something like Prince of the City, I mean I’ve probably watched that movie 25 times and that was a big one for me since childhood. Just the different characters and some characters who are trying to better their lives but are making mistakes and getting deeper and deeper into the holes. And then the consequences of going against your best judgment or your oath.

Let’s talk about the racial dynamic of the film, because they’re [Gibson and Vaughn’s cop characters] exposed on a video for excessive force against a Mexican character. It shows how difficult police work is because they’re not beating him or anything. They’re slightly crunching his head and the guy’s got a gun. Where do you stand on all this?

I know people who are in law enforcement and actually there’s a parallel too. I know people who worked in an emergency room and at a certain point you’re exposed to intensely violent situations and danger and there’s a certain point where all of the people that you’re dealing with are the civilians and they are the other. And, in some of the scenes in the movie, you’re dealing with the desensitisation, like it’s not glamourising nor condemning because I’m not making this movie to make a political point. I’m showing these characters in this situation and you can see that where Mel Gibson’s character, and where Vince Vaughn character’s at in his career, that there’s a trajectory of the younger guy towards the older guy and is he going to become that guy? But they’re different in their views, are aligned with some things but are different elsewhere.

So, for me it was just interesting to explore. If you’re in the grind and on the concrete for that long and that many years, where are you and where is your sensitivity? And this stuff is really explored pretty deeply in the scene where Gibson sees his old partner, who’s played by Don Johnson, and kind of getting into it and who he’s becoming and is this who he innately is, or is this who the job has made him or is it a combination? Those are the sort of questions that I’d like to put out there and let people sit with. But it certainly doesn’t come from a place of wanting to condemn police officers, nor say that these are flawless people who don’t make mistakes.

I know people who are in law enforcement. You’re exposed to a lot of bad stuff and that doesn’t mean that you’re going to make the right decisions every day of your life. It’s a hard job. I wouldn’t want to do it. I’m making movies and writing books, playing albums.

Did having your existing relationship with Vince help bring on Mel in some ways?

Yes, for sure. We were probably in the last week of Brawl in Cell Block 99 and I knew Dragged Across Concrete was going to be my next movie and that I was giving Vince the part of Anthony; Vince whose middle name is Anthony. And we had a really good talk about the piece and Vince was interested in playing the role and Mel was on the shortlist of people I wanted, and Vince already had a good relationship with Mel and passed the script along. And Mel had read some stuff of mine before and was interested in me as a writer in any case. The channels were open, but definitely Vince made the final connection and it’s part of how we got going as quickly as we did. We were basically setting this movie up and had it rolling when I was at the beginning of the edit of Brawl. And I had five days off after I’d finished QCing Brawl in Cell Block 99 before I moved to Vancouver to start shooting Dragged Across Concrete.

You must be exhausted.

I am super exhausted. I’m going to take some time off after this because the space between Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, I wrote four scripts and a novel and did an album [Zahler is in the metal band Realmbuilder]. So, it’s been over four years without time off. I’m going to take a little time off before I get to the next one.

Mel is obviously very famous for Lethal Weapon with a very different type of cop, but a very famous buddy cop story. Here, though, he’s not very likeable.

Mel’s a terrific performer and I think you see the wear on his face. This is someone who really has access to a lot of emotions. The Lethal Weapon character is bigger and with higher energy.

I’m comfortable with the idea that there are people that may never like this character. I think he’s interesting and all of the things that he does in the movie make sense, at least they do to me. But I’m okay if you don’t like him. And I’m okay if you don’t like Anthony, his partner, played by Vince. They’re written to be interesting and understandable. Certain people are going to relate to them more than others and certain people are going to be really put off by what they do. And that’s a way you can watch the movie and it can work that way.

When you say, ‘By what they do’, do you mean in the sense that they decide to rob a drug dealer?

That and just the way that they’re dealing with witnesses right at the beginning. In their opening sequences, they’re not kind. And this was one of these things where like I said, people who work in the emergency room or walking a beat; the desensitisation, you’re exposed to all of this stuff regularly and it’s the civilians versus us attitude.

You have a lot of night sequences in the film. Was it tough to shoot?

It was a tough shoot from every single point of view. There were a lot of concern with the amount of night stuff and I don’t want to spoil anything for people who haven’t seen the movie, but there’s certainly a chunk of the movie, the last 30-40 minutes. Most of it is night and I wanted to have the atmosphere of night. It was something everyone was concerned with partially because we were also shooting in Vancouver and the nights were short. So, we were shooting a lot of French hours, which is when you just shoot straight through and you don’t take a break. Which is preferable for me in any case, but it was hard on a lot of people. I’m nocturnal by nature.

What about the language of the script? For example, he calls criminals ‘imbeciles’, which is a perfectly legitimate, but quite an unusual word to use. And you have a lot of exchanges that are very singular. It’s not realistic, but heightened dialogue.

I always look towards my favourite screenplay of all time, Sweet Smell of Success; I would not describe the dialogue in that as realistic, nor the dialogue in The Killing, a Kubrick movie. And I know Jim Thompson did a pass on that. And for me, I want it to be interesting. There are things that are the most direct way of conveying something, and then the more interesting ways. All of my pieces have a lot of circumlocution and coming at it in indirect ways.

I wanted to give a jargon that the police use, and the jargon that Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) and Biscuit (Michael Jai White) use in their world. Just different vernaculars to different places. When Fred Melamed walks onto the screen and welcomes Kelly Summer (Jennifer Carpenter) back to the bank, the manner in which he speaks is, I mean, talk about singular!

That character could almost be from a Coen brothers film.

Yes. It’s me trying to make stuff that I think is interesting. I always wonder about when the movie is subtitled, how much of the metaphoric language and indirect way of speaking is stripped away.

Going back to casting, do you think Vince and Mel had any hesitations playing these characters?

Vince was on board right away. Mel read it, said a lot of really kind things and brought up filmmakers who were certainly influences like Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah right away and was really good to work with.

The Beguiled is my favourite Don Siegel movie.

Do you want to do another movie with Vince now, to make it a trilogy?

I’ve written my next one and I’ve written the fifth one. The next one is Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child. A gothic orphan tale, very different than the first three. And he has a big role in that. That guy has so much range and people are seeing it more now than ever and you will get to see another very different facet of his work.

Dragged Across Concrete is in cinemas August 29, 2019

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