Allen Hughes spent the past two decades as one-half of The Hughes Brothers. He makes his solo feature directing debut with Broken City, a political corruption drama that stars Mark Wahlberg as an ex-cop who does a favor for the mayor (Russell Crowe) by following the pol’s philandering wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The results are murder and conspiracy, with Fox releasing the Emmett/Furla Films-financed drama January 18.
Allen and Albert Hughes burst on the feature scene with 1993’s Menace II Society, a wildly profitable slice of violent inner-city life. Together they’ve co-directed the Vietnam-era crime drama Dead Presidents, the Jack the Ripper thriller From Hell, the documentary American Pimp, and most recently the post-apocalyptic thriller The Book Of Eli. They also direct commercials and videos under their Underworld banner. I’ve known the siblings for about as long as they’ve been making features, and always found them to be strong individuals. I never quite understood the alchemy that goes into a two-man directing team, or what happens when one splits up. Who better than Allen Hughes to explain?
DEADLINE: After directing movies all these years as a team, what was the biggest challenge in not being able to rely on Albert?
ALLEN HUGHES: The biggest challenge had nothing to do with the movie-making process at all. When we took meetings, there were two of us. This is a crazy town and there are very cunning people. As the old saying goes, two heads are better than one. There was a certain amount of respect they paid us because there were two of us. And there was a shorthand we had in breaking things down to the last compound, and factoring in every angle. It made quite an impression to have two guys doing that. That’s what was missing this time around, but I felt comfortable with the moviemaking process. It’s naturally a one-man or -woman gig.
DEADLINE: You built your careers as a two-man act. On The Book Of Eli or From Hell, who did what?
HUGHES: Everyone tried to boil it down to this: Allen works with the actors and Albert works the camera. Yeah, on the surface we divided it that way because it was how we learned to do it on the music videos early and it was efficient. It matched our personalities and kept things clear with the crew and the actors. He was way interested in the technical aspects of making the film and I was way interested in the characters and the personalities of the actors. But it’s a misnomer. Albert can work with actors and I know my way around the camera. My brother and I worked together for 20 years, and it’s like a rock group. Inevitably, you gotta make a solo album. That rock group that was The Hughes Brothers made a certain sound. And a movie that Albert Hughes makes solo, or Allen Hughes in this case makes alone, is going to make another sound.
DEADLINE: Those early movies the two of you made were filled with rage and sadness. How much of that came from twin brothers challenging one another?
HUGHES: Just like in a rock group, dysfunction works when you’re 20. Whatever you’re going through at the time, whatever angst you have, whatever disenfranchised feelings you have toward the world, even anger toward each other, you use it and it works. But that aspect of the game is a young man’s game. You have to grow up. We were able to do something unique which I don’t remember ever being done. The lunatics took over the asylum. With Menace II Society, we were making a movie about 18, 19, 20-year-olds when we were the same age. Because of that, we were in the moment. That added urgency to that movie, and a visceral nature that came out of us being 20. Now, here we are, 20 years later, I’m on my own, and I’ve made the first contemporary movie since Menace. Everything else was period pieces.
DEADLINE: The Book Of Eli was a real gem, the most polished film you and Albert made together. Does a high-water mark like that spur you to try it solo?
HUGHES: It made for interesting timing. Book Of Eli was the pinnacle of our box office success. We’ve always made money back for the studios and Book Of Eli did real well here and internationally. We’d do solo music videos from time to time, and it was always the plan to do solo movies as well, if he found something I wasn’t that interested in or vice versa. He found one, and I found something I was really passionate about in Broken City. It was more about that than brothers needing to grow apart. This was always in the plan.
DEADLINE: Even though Albert’s movie, Motor City, recently fell apart, there is certainly an opportunity to divide and conquer, and cover more ground the way Ridley and Tony Scott did at Scott Free. Like them, you and Albert also do TV, videos and commercials.
HUGHES: What Tony and Ridley accomplished is the benchmark, the dream, for us. Ridley and Tony figured out how to do their own thing, use the brother bond as strength. My brother and I are always going to collaborate, but it’s just now we’re in a new phase and the collaboration is taking on a different complexion.
DEADLINE: Why was Broken City right for your first solo turn?
HUGHES: The material plays to my strengths. Well, not my strengths, really, because I believe something I think Clint Eastwood said, and maybe it originally came from John Huston, but it’s that 90% of directing is script and casting. I found a great spec script called Broken City by a young writer named Brian Tucker. My agent sent it to me and said, you need to read this. It wasn’t set up anywhere, just a spec script floating around that had a lot of fans. In the first few pages I was like, this is really good. I read more and thought, this has a voice, and a lyricism to it. Mark Wahlberg’s face kept popping up while I was reading it. Not Leo, not Tobey Maguire. I got to the end and quickly attached myself and then the next move was, let’s go get Mark involved right now because for some reason this script is screaming his name.
DEADLINE: The trailer looks like one of those gritty, city government corruption dramas that Sidney Lumet did so well. Were there movies you grew up loving that this reminded you of?
HUGHES: The common theme was the 1970s, when Sidney Lumet was doing his best work, and when Roman Polanski made Chinatown. That was basically good old fashioned storytelling, fused with the urgency of the times. The opportunity to do the same with the urgency of our times and the techniques of modern cinema, this was what I saw. The other key is that the filmmaker recognizes this and gets out of his own way. That is something they did back then, and something I felt Fincher did so effectively on The Social Network. You just tell a great story and don’t get in the way, cast it right and subtly bring your style and technique into it. It’s funny you mentioned Lumet, because people have said that if Broken City had been made in the 1970s, it would have been a Sidney Lumet film. That is a great compliment to the piece, its narrative and characters.
DEADLINE: You think the better movies are the ones where directors don’t try to their stylistic signature on it, and just straight ahead tell the story?
HUGHES: Straight up. And that goes back to my brother and I, and how we learned to do it. We started with a lean, mean narrative and interesting characters. Then we added some color. And that was what I found refreshing about Broken City. It’s a fucking great script, and all I could do is fuck it up or make it better. Only two options for me.
DEADLINE: Lumet always had a strong corrupt antagonist. What was the challenge in getting Russell Crowe to sign on? He wasn’t doing a lot of movies at the time.
HUGHES: We had a heavy who is part King Of New York, part Gordon Gekko. It was a challenge to get Russell. We knew we needed a movie star, but Russell’s a different kind of movie star: he’s also a great fucking actor, you know. And there are all these legendary stories about Russell, so I was anxious to sit down with him and see how we would jell. We sat down and I saw the way his mind was working, the zone he was in as he was just getting into crazy physical shape. We went a few rounds and we were so clearly on the same page. There was a kinship there I didn’t expect. And the idea of teaming him with Mark Wahlberg had both of us excited.
DEADLINE: I’ve heard that Russell challenges his directors. True?
HUGHES: I found Russell to be very much like Denzel Washington was on Book Of Eli. As their director, you better know your shit and know what the fuck you’re talking about. You better be on your shit, every day, know what you’re doing all the time and have a point of view. He respects that. If you’re not coming with your A-game and you don’t have a point of view, you’re going to get obliterated. So I didn’t have that problem with him. Wait until you see his performance, man. It is an actor’s actor performance. My man is in a zone right now, and you could see it from the moment he showed up to the set.
DEADLINE: Wahlberg produced this with you, and he has emerged as one of the most successful actor/producers. When he has dual roles, how are his needs different than Russell, who comes at it as actor only?
HUGHES: Mark has a completely different nature about him. He’s coming into a zone himself, almost like Steve McQueen, and yet sometimes I took to calling him Stevie Nash on the set because he understands how to get the ball around. If he’s hot, he keeps the ball, and then he can be funny, or dark and edgy, ironic or whatever. But if someone else is hot, and it’s meant to be their scene, he bounces the ball over there and makes sure he supports them in the right way. I first met him before The Fighter came out, but I can see why he’s become a good producer; it’s very uncanny for a leading man to be as unselfish as he is. But maybe the reason I saw him when I read the script is, he has a lot of sides people have seen in different movies, but here it all comes out. There is an unpredictability, there’s an edge to Mark; there’s a side where he can talk shit like a black street hustler, which we saw a little bit of in The Departed. Then there’s a sweet side where when he smiles it’s like a 5-year-old on Christmas Day and he just warms everybody’s heart.
DEADLINE: The last time I sat down with you and Albert, you guys weren’t in a prolific period. You went nine years between From Hell and The Book Of Eli and you were talking about living in Amsterdam and catching up on life. Is that still a priority or are you ready to step it up?
HUGHES: See, you’ve got me handicapped because you have history with us. You know, it’s funny that people always ask, ‘what are your greatest influences in movies?’ What they forget about us with Menace is, we were 20 years old. We had some pretty extraordinary experiences leading up to Menace, but we were boys. We hadn’t lived life. The bottom line is, we both needed to go out, seek out people and experiences, so that eventually life became the great influence to the moviemaking process. It took us quite a few years to get to the point where I feel I’m set. I’ve got all the ingredients I need to tell stories for a long time. I’ve sat with enough dynamic people from all walks of life, from winos to CEOs. I’ve spent time communing with so many colorful, interesting characters all around the world that I feel the next 20 years is about making movies. It’s time to tell these stories. That’s where I’m at right now. I don’t want to go to Fiji, I don’t want to smoke no joint on somebody’s yacht. None of that stuff, no more.
DEADLINE: I’ve heard you don’t have to go to Amsterdam anymore for that. Everybody else in Hollywood gets those prescriptions for medical marijuana.
HUGHES: [Laughs] I don’t even want to smoke weed no more, so that’s where I’m at.
DEADLINE: Like you said about Menace, you were young and I’m sure much of your style was raw and instinctive. You’ve matured. When you go back and watch that film, do you miss the youthful energy, or cringe because of the inevitable mistakes first-timers make?
HUGHES: I think ‘ouch’ when I see Menace. But I also appreciate what people appreciate about it, what you just said. Unlike athletes and rock groups, where your prime is in your 20s, a filmmaker’s prime starts in their late 30s. Same as for a writer. They really hit stride in their 40s and 50s. You look back at Menace and go, ‘oh, we were fortunate enough to keep our heads on right that we got lucky with that one.’ I can only liken it to Michael Vick. You can only scramble so long and you have to get your Tom Brady game on, relax and gain poise in the pocket if you want to win games. For me, being a veteran in this business at 40 years old is mind-blowing anyway. To have the vocabulary, the understanding and the wherewithal now, along with the foresight and the insight and ability to reflect back…I think my best work is in front of me. But I’ve been at it 21 years and I can’t be running up and down the court slam dunking and holding my nuts every time. Now, you just get the ball and score and keep moving. That’s the change in ideology and methodology from when you’re young and dumb. But I think it worked for Menace.
DEADLINE: What specifically caused you to say ouch on Menace?
HUGHES: We were two kids who had a grasp of film technique and cinema, but had never made a movie so there were some moments that were corny or false. There were some moments that acting-wise were inconsistent. But I also saw the promise in Menace. I’ve never felt this way before, but frankly, I think Broken City delivers on that promise. There are none of those ouch moments, where I say, ‘that acting is kind of shoddy,’ or ‘I could have done that.’ But Menace was a $2.5 million movie with kids who had never done a film before.
DEADLINE: Maybe that collective blissful ignorance of rules was one reason that film was such a punch to the nut sack?
HUGHES: I think it captured a spirit of something that transcended its inadequacies. Even though it’s different, Broken City was done in a smart way, for $35 million. For a crime thriller with Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Barry Pepper and Kyle Chandler and my god, the great Jeffrey Wright? They just don’t make them like this anymore.
DEADLINE: Will you stay a solo act for the next film?
HUGHES: Yeah. Hopefully, the next one will be Bittersweet Life at New Regency. It’s based on this great Korean film, a gangster film, a vengeance story. I’m excited about that.
Here is the latest trailer for Broken City: