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How Brawl in Cell Block 99’s director ‘made it happen on the set’

How Brawl in Cell Block 99’s director ‘made it happen on the set’


S. Craig Zahler’s philosophy about fight scenes, graphic violence, and Vince Vaughn boils down to one principle. Here’s how it made his latest film into one of 2017’s biggest surprises

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Writer-director S. Craig Zahler seems to think it’s pretty funny that people don’t know how to categorize his new film, Brawl in Cell Block 99. “All these reviews say, ‘It’s hard to classify it between the grindhouse and the arthouse,’” he chuckles. And he’s right, it is. But that isn’t a problem. For people who love to see some sophistication in their cinematic mayhem, it’s a major thrill.

The film recently had its American premiere at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, alongside other hyper-violent, cult-oriented splatter films like Revenge and Blade of the Immortal. In some ways, Cell Block 99 is a classic exploitation film, about a drug dealer named Bradley (Vince Vaughan) brutalizing a horde of criminals to get to the man who kidnapped his wife Lauren (Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter). But it’s radically different from any other film in that vein. Most grindhouse action movies take a sort of drooling animal pleasure in the fantasy of unbridled violence. Cell Block 99 treats it as a grim job for mature, intellectually balanced men. Bradley is drawn as a startlingly violent thug who’s well aware of his dangerous temper and his capacity for murder. (Faced with evidence that Lauren has had an affair, he calmly tells her to go inside their house and wait for him. Then he beats her car into scrap with his bare hands in a measured scene that’s startling, scary, and funny all at the same time.) There’s a calm deliberation to the entire story, even when Bradley is literally ripping someone’s face off. The combat in particular is ruthless, but beautifully rendered in long sequences that make it clear Vaughn is doing his own extremely convincing stunt work. He’s a revelation in this movie — hard, determined, intimidating, and just soulful enough to be a hero.

Cell Block 99 is headed for a limited theatrical run on October 6, and hitting VOD platforms on October 13. It’s hard to say how people will take it. Viewers looking for a high-speed revenge thriller like Taken may find it too thoughtful and character-focused, while people expecting a serious arthouse gangster-romance are guaranteed to be shocked by the film’s over-the-top, head-crushing gore. I recently talked to Zahler about how he achieved his grotesque effects, what he was going for with the film’s tone, and how his philosophy on fight scenes goes back to Buster Keaton.

The film has such a striking look, with the desaturated color and the extremely heavy blues and blacks. How did you achieve those visuals? Was it more in-camera, or achieved later with digital color grading?

So this is the second movie I did with cinematographer Benji Bakshi. We used the RED Weapon on this one. We used the RED Dragon on our first movie, Bone Tomahawk, and ultimately, I didn’t love that camera. It was visually noisier than I wanted, and I didn’t like where the blacks landed. Particularly on a wide shot with a lot of information, it got really noisy. That movie was shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This one was in 1.85:1, partially because it’s not an ensemble movie like Bone Tomahawk. I didn’t want it to be quite as wide. Instead of two, three, four people sharing the screen, a lot of times it’s just one guy going through things. Benji is really strong with lighting, and I used to be a cinematographer myself, so I have a lot of specific opinions there. We’re both real comfortable with going dark, and the Weapon handled that extremely well. It’s very sensitive. If you look at the blacks in the night-boat sequence in particular, they’re really rich. And most of it was in-camera.

There are, of course, all the things you do in coloring, to bring things out. We made the blues a little stronger in coloring to achieve this look. But Benji has often said I’m the one director who never says things are too dark. I’m comfortable with letting shadows cover things. It just makes everything more atmospheric. Certainly by the time you get to the third portion of the movie, the last major location, that’s supposed to feel oppressive, with almost a medieval-dungeon feel. Letting the visuals go dark was a way to mirror that philosophy.

The fights in this film are unusually direct and brutal, without editing tricks or doubles. What’s your philosophy on screen combat?

It’s consistent with what’s important to me about the style of the whole movie, which is, simply put, feature the performers. What this requires of me as a director is, “Make it happen on the set. Don’t manufacture this shit in the editing room. Make it happen when you’re there.” So these fight scenes are elaborately choreographed, but in a way I think hides the fact that they’re so choreographed. We show the performers and what they’re doing, and try to minimize edits. We feature the faces of the performers, so you know they’re really fighting. I don’t think anyone in the world is walking out of this movie thinking, “Oh, that was Vince Vaughn’s stunt double.” It’s not. It’s him doing every single bit of that fighting, and I’m showing it in a way that you can clearly see it’s him, his physicality, the way he moves. All of that is on display all the time. And you walk away feeling like you’ve seen a real fight, if it’s working for you in the right way.

This goes back to a discipline I would say begin with Buster Keaton, and goes to Fred Astaire and then Jackie Chan. These are obviously three really different types of performers, but you know they’re all doing their own stunts. Whether it’s Buster getting tossed out of the second-story window by his brothers, or Fred Astaire dancing in the head-to-toe shots which I believe his contracts mandated, or Jackie Chan doing these elaborate fights in one shot, you know these performers are actually doing these things. It’s not manufactured elsewhere.

So that’s my philosophy. I want to step out of the way of the actors and let them act. I don’t need to wait for a dramatic moment and then dolly into a guy’s face, and add dramatic music. To me, that seems small and heavy-handed, and not trusting the material. There are many terrific movies that do all these things and use all of these tricks — movies that are better than my movies. But it still doesn’t feel real to me. In the same way, there’s almost no score in this movie.

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The violence in the film, especially toward the end, is intensely shocking and graphic. Given that “do it on the set” attitude, did you stick with practical effects?

One hundred percent practical effects. There is nothing there that’s not practical. It’s the same thing: make it happen on the day, and figure it out. A couple of moments fell a little short, and we went back and did a little pick-up shoot after the movie was done. But it’s the same idea of how to affect the audience. My feeling is, if it’s a digital effect that doesn’t look entirely real, which is the case in $150 million movies, there’s nothing there, and you can feel it. If it’s a practical effect and it looks pretty good, but not 100 percent right, you can still feel there’s something real there. Maybe all the qualities aren’t completely right, the audience says, “That’s a little rubbery,” but there’s still something to talk about. Whereas when it’s digital and it doesn’t work, your mind goes, “Well, it’s all computers.” It’s a different thing on a subconscious level. It’s the same reason I try to have as few edits as possible in my movies, because every edit is a suspension of disbelief.

What did you have to do to get those gore effects to your satisfaction?

It was a troubled process, in terms of getting there. Eventually, we landed in a really good place, after we fixed some of the things that weren’t where they needed to be. That stuff is always tricky. But as with Bone Tomahawk, I plumbed the depths in terms of graphic violence, because I’m interested in seeing something new, something I haven’t seen before, something memorable. So when you’re trying to do something new, and then you’re trying to do it all practical, on the set, on the day, there are a lot of problems. There are moments of scripted violence in this movie where I thought, “I really don’t know how to do this.” It eventually involved breaking down shots in ways that bear comparison to magic tricks, in terms of only working from one perspective. “Okay, he’s going to break that guy’s arm, and we’re doing it in one continuous shot. So we need to get a third arm in there to break, and have a seamless change where the guy still just appears to have two arms. Figuring stuff out like that… I’ve now done three movies. I’m getting pretty comfortable with it.

The fight scenes are a different animal. This is where I think Vince Vaughn is phenomenal in this movie — dramatically, and then in a separate category for how much he transformed himself, and then in a third category for how well he does the fight thing. I didn’t know that much about his background when I cast him, but fortunately for me, he not only had a boxing background, he was a competitive wrestler in high school. He has a very good idea about how to weaponize himself, and handle other human beings. That made it possible for me to shoot the fight scenes in the style I wanted, with as little cutting as I can get away with.

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We had a lot of rehearsal. We went through the fight scenes again and again, and then again the day we did them, and depending on the shot, there might be three takes, or eight, or 10. And these are exhausting. You need people who are committed and fearless. It isn’t deadly dangerous, but pretty much everybody got hit at some point. There are just too many fists flying, and it’s too active for it not to get dangerous. Vince got punched in the first serious fight. He fishhooked someone else in another shot. This is going to happen — they’re slamming into each other too hard. There’s one shot in particular where every take, Vince got punched in the ribs. It was unavoidable. But in the end, we’re all really happy with how the fight scenes look, which is completely different from any other fighting in any other contemporary American movie. To get there, you need people who are willing to take the punches.

There’s a kind of intellectual remove in this film, a sort of intelligent, deliberate coldness. It’s strikingly different from the kind of panting, overexcited qualities of a lot of exploitation cinema. What are you going for with that tone?

I come at all these things from the perspective of the characters. And in this piece, there’s clearly a protagonist who’s driving through most of it. The experience isn’t cold for me, but do I have a comfort in what the performers are doing, and what was on the page, so I don’t have to sell it. Maybe it would seem warmer if there were a lot of music, or a lot of close-ups. What I’m trying to do with my style is just to keep it consistent, so it starts to become invisible, and you’re just there with the people. Consistency of style, I think, is as important as choosing the right shots for the right scene.

For me, it’s about spending the same moments on character beats that I’d spend on the violence and  the moments of comedy. They get the same focus, because I’m interested in all of them, and I want to give them an evenhandedness. I’m going to have the characters talk about their failing marriage for eight minutes, but then I might also have someone getting a beatdown for a similar amount of time. Whatever works for this story, I’m equally interested in it, be it a subtle dramatic turn or a comedic throwaway line. It’s all of equal interest to me, so I don’t want to lead people, or coach emotional responses. You’re either having them or you’re not.

This film feels retro and raw, like a 1970s exploitation movie, but its pacing and character approach are much more modern. Was creating a homage to past action movies important to you, compared to creating something you hadn’t seen before?

My drive is to create something I like. That’s where everything begins. I’m just trying to land in a place no one expects, to go further. With Brawl in Cell Block 99, I saw a bunch of prison movies at a retrospective in New York at Film Forum, and I thought, “What would I do differently with this genre? What are the strengths and weaknesses?” Prison is such a compelling place to set a movie, because you have a bunch of hard-edged dudes confined together, and all of them are going to have interesting backstories.

But when you say retro… certainly there are reasons movies were better in the ’70s than they are now, and one is because they had the time to digress and spend time on building characters, with scenes that don’t relate exactly to the plot. They’re moments you could cut out, because they’re not essential to the story, but they give you a better understanding of the character, and make the world richer. I can see thinking this movie feels retro, because there was a time — and I think it was a better time — when movies were allowed to breathe, and allowed to show you stuff that wasn’t essential to the plot. Maybe if you tested it with an audience, they would say, “Well, this is a little bit boring,” or “We don’t need that.” But the reality is, I don’t give a shit. I’m making it for my tastes.

Before Bone Tomahawk came out, I said, “Twenty percent of the people who see this movie are gonna say it’s boring, and 20 percent will say it’s disgusting, offensive filth. Sixty percent will like it.” The critical response has been much better than that, but the popular response, if you go to Amazon or IMDB or some place like that, I was right about the breakdown. And that’s fine. I’m not chasing the biggest audience. I just want to like my own movie in the end. And if it leads to the next movie, it was successful. Everything else is gravy.