American filmmaker S. Craig Zahler is back at Venice Film Festival for a second year running, this time with his Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn cop drama Dragged Across Concrete.
Screen caught up with Zahler at the festival to talk about working with controversial figure Gibson, getting projects made outside of the studio system, and why he won’t compromise on the runtime of his films.
To date, you’ve made two genre films, a western and a prison drama - tell us about making a cop film.
Everything I make as a movie, or write as a novel, is something I’m interested in as a fan. I like crime fiction, I grew up watching Sidney Lumet stuff. Here, I wanted to take an approach that I took more in Bone Tomahawk than Brawl In Cellblock 99, which is to show a tapestry of characters, to build a world that’s larger than the story.
You bought Vince Vaughn with you from Brawl, when did Mel Gibson become a part of the picture?
He was a very early consideration, and I thought a great choice for the part. On Brawl, me and Vince talked about the idea of him passing the script to Mel Gibson, with whom he had a relationship – Mel signed on pretty early and there wasn’t much convincing, he liked the material.
We brought the package together while I was in post-production on Brawl. I had five days off after QC on that film before I moved to Vancouver and started shooting this one.
The budget was about $15m, a big step up from my previous one, and we were able to get it packaged pretty quickly.
He’s been a controversial character, was that a concern for you?
I wanted him to be good to work with, which I’d heard he was – and he was. I don’t really want to discuss the personal lives of actors. I realise he comes with that history and there will be people who won’t get around it – that’s fine, you’re entitled to have your opinion on that.
My only real concern was that I didn’t want all the discussions about this movie to be about incidents in his private life eight to ten years ago. I want the emphasis to be on the piece we created, and his work in the piece, but if there are people who can’t get past that, they don’t have to.
Do you find it easy to get a film put together?
Bone Tomahawk was not at all. No one in the world believed we could do that for $10m and we did it for $1.8m. Kurt Russel, Richard Jenkins, they were coming in at essentially minimum wage for what they were doing. That took them having a lot of trust in me. Brawl came together the second that we had Vince Vaughn in it.
The most difficult thing with Dragged was the amount of creative control I required. The script was 162 pages and I wasn’t open to notes. We needed to find a deal where I could do a movie that was that long. A lot of financial conversations end when they know you won’t make changes – all my movies have been shot exactly as I wrote them. The options got narrower as we went. This was the story, if I hadn’t got it funded I would have made something else – there was never a two-hour version of this movie.
Everyone will be pleased to know that the next film I’m doing [Gothic orphan tale Hug Chickenpenny, based on Zahler’s own novel] – is 188 pages, and the one I just finished writing is 317. Clearly I haven’t learned my lesson. I’ve written 50 screenplays and eight novels, I don’t need to change what I want to make, I just want to make the best version.
That will likely be a limited series, but if you want to watch it all in one sitting, go for it.
Sounds like it might be one for a streaming service?
Yeah. That would be a good way to go about it.
Can you tell us anything about it?
It’s a western.
Presumably that approach means you can’t work in the studio system?
I’ve developed six pieces just at Warner Bros alone, as a screenwriter. Everyone that’s working on those, you start to lose something. They’ll tell you your piece is amazing and then, the moment they have it, will tell you how to make it amazing. You’re making hundreds of thousands of creative choices in a movie – there’s no one in the world who will agree with all of those.
The film has quite a complicated relationship with race, there are moments in it that make the viewer feel uncomfortable. Can you talk about that approach?
I don’t try to put out a socio-political message. I’ve publicly railed against ‘message’ movies, I think they’re didactic. For me, it’s about a bunch of people from different walks of lives who get pushed into certain corners. We have had plenty of films that say ‘war is bad’, ‘racism is bad’, ‘love is good’. That’s what blogging is for.
The effects of being a police officer, carrying prejudice with in you, and the damage that can come with it – that’s stuff I wanted to play with. I think there will be people who watch this movie and find the two cops repellent and people who find them relatable and sympathetic. That’s by design.
Do you think American cinema is in a good place?
I don’t. There’s independent stuff that’s more interesting, but I have a hard time paying attention to these swirling, pixel-salad blockbuster movies. The way they do the camera movements and how long the action sequences are, it loses the thread of the characters. I understand that it’s appealing to a different demographic.
I grew up reading comic books, so it’s not that I’m closed-minded to that. Studios are putting all their eggs in one basket. I was talking to a super successful producer about a $1m movie, which if it went well could make $3-4m. He said, ‘why would we make ten of those, when we can just make one movie for $150m?’ Even if they only double that money, it makes a lot more.
With the studios so focused on those blockbusters, could FAANG save the indie space?
I think they could. I would like to work with Netflix, they’re very upfront, they give you the money and give you creative control. I hope to be in business with them soon, I think they’d be a good partner. I was offered some studio stuff after Bone Tomahawk and my first question with anything is, will I get final cut? For me to even have a conversation I would need that, and most studios won’t give it to you.