Dialogue: 'Footloose' Director Craig Brewer on Remaking the '80s, Honoring The South and Growing Up on Movie Soundtracks

Dialogue: 'Footloose' Director Craig Brewer on Remaking the '80s, Honoring The South and Growing Up on Movie Soundtracks

Oct 12, 2011

If you were to create a wish list of directors to take on a remake of Footloose, Craig Brewer would probably rank somewhere near the bottom, if he made the list at all. He is, after all, the director of Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, both of which are about as far from a teenage, dance-themed empowerment fantasy as a film can get, not to mention the fact that both feature African-American characters, and Herbert Ross’ 1984 classic featured none. But this Friday, audiences will have the opportunity to decide whether Brewer was the right man for the job when his reimagining – his “revival,” as he calls it – of Footloose arrives in theaters.

Movies.com sat down with Brewer at the recent Los Angeles press day for Footloose, where the decidedly grown-up filmmaker, you guessed it, cut loose with a conversation about the challenges of remaking such a beloved film. In addition to talking about creating an ‘80s aesthetic in a contemporary context, he offered some insights into what attracts him to projects in general, and discussed how he plans to use experiences on past films to propel him into new ones, including a music-themed drama called Four-Four, and a big-screen adaptation of Tarzan.

Movies.com: I described this to someone as the best ‘80s movie made in 2011. How much of the aesthetic of this film was inspired by the original Footloose or ‘80s movies in general, and how many of those flourishes are just the byproduct of your visual style?

Craig Brewer: I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, because there will be some people that will look at my remake of Footloose and say it’s uneven, like it’s got cheesy moments and then it’s got dramatic moments. And then I thought to myself, yeah, but that’s the cinema I grew up on, and you know what? [Hustle & Flow] is that way. Black Snake Moan is that way. And I’m into those movies - that kind of audiences yelling at the screen and getting into it experiences. ’84 was a huge year for me; I was 13, the prime age to fall in love with movies. I had Footloose come out I think in February and then Purple Rain came out. And Purple Rain was the same way; there would be like incredibly cheesy moments, and musical moments that were incredible, but then suddenly he was hauling off and smacking Apollonia, or like his father kills himself.

Movies.com: There’a terrific magic-hour kiss in your movie that really looks like almost nothing else that filmmakers shoot today, but it completely suits the style of the ‘80s.

CB: That kiss, right? I’m looking at, how are we going to do the kiss? I’m competing with what Herb Ross did back in ’84 - and look, it’s gorgeous. Kevin takes Lori Singer into his arms. He kisses her. And whether they intended it or not, this cheesy ‘80s lens flare happens over their shoulder. It’s both murky and milky, and yet it’s gorgeous, and the way that the guitar comes in with “Almost Paradise.” How am I going to be able to top that? So I say to myself, well now I’m setting out to top it. I need to do something that has that kind of visual wallop to it, that if I wasn’t doing a remake, people would question, like okay, come on, aren’t you going a little overboard with the sunset through their mouths kissing? But I’m not with this, because I’m doing Footloose. And so to some extent, the remake gave me permission to be more myself or what I really want to be filming, as opposed to maybe like being a little more critical or art-house indie with it.

Movies.com: Because there are so many similarities between this film and the original, what were the things that you wanted to preserve? Especially since scenes like Ren’s angry-dance in the warehouse looks like it was choreographed almost identically to the original.

CB: It’s not so much that the choreography is similar, but the sequences are similar. Like he’s still going to go down the pole, he’s still going to go in that wooden chute and take his shirt off. Those are certain elements that I wanted to go through and keep. It’s not a shot-for-shot movie; I know that everybody keeps saying that. But I will say there’s probably, you know, I could count on one hand the shots that I wanted it to be exactly like the original. And for me, it’s a couple of things. One is that I think Herb Ross should get a little more credit for Footloose; he’s the director of the original Footloose. Everybody always says it’s Kevin Bacon’s movie and I’m not disputing that, but I’m a director, and I’m respectful of that original movie so much that I wanted to put some moments in there that were for Herb, because he’s no longer alive. We’ve dedicated the movie to him.

Movies.com: What were the things you thought you could maybe improve upon, or that you knew you wanted to change?

CB: Well, I think that it would be hard for me to be in a place where we demonize faith. There’s something about the original that kind of keeps that preacher in the villain category for a little bit too long. And I wanted to connect more with that character; I wanted to feel like I have something in common with him. And now that I’m a parent, I do. I can see me blindly signing some paper from my kid’s school if some kid were killed at that school because of XYZ, and now the following rules are enacted. I don’t care what the rules are, bring my kid home safe! That’s where I’m at now as a man and I wanted to give at least some insight as to why this town is starting to clamp down and pass all of these laws.

And the other thing I wanted to do was, I don’t know if you’ve seen the original, but Ren McCormack comes to town and he’s got his mother with him, and the aunt and uncle that he’s staying with aren’t really supportive of him – they’re almost against him. And by moving it to the south, I wanted to play against a type that I usually see towards southern characters, which is that they’re intractable, they’re just closed off to anybody coming in with different views. Being part of family trumps all of that; I come from a small southern town in Tennessee, but all of my life like I’ve been in bigger cities. And when I would come home to the south for the summers, I always felt like I was Ren McCormack – I was like the city kid, and they were all of the country kids. But I guarantee you they would all defend me and fight for me; I was their family. And I wanted to show that with this character, Uncle Wesley, in my movie, that’s played by Ray McKinnon, and show that you can have a Christian that actually makes jokes about the bible and not feel threatened by it. You can have a family that’s going to support him, even if it may bring ridicule from the town. And that’s the south that I knew, that’s the family structure I knew.

Movies.com: Your first two films focused on stories involving African-American characters. How much was this a deliberate effort to move away from the perception that’s your wheelhouse?

CB: I think though that one of the first things I changed in Footloose was putting African Americans in it. If you watch the original, there’s just no faces of color in it, like nowhere – not even in the background or something. So it’s not so much that I’ve specifically said I want to make films within the African-American south, but if you’re looking at interesting characters and you’re also looking at strength and talent, you’re going to find in the African-American community, especially in the south, especially in music, especially in that culture.

So it’s not so much that I’ve been specifically wanting to be in that, it’s just that’s what it’s been. So when I looked at the friendship of Willard and Ren and Woody, and I see those three guys, like I see a guy that’s from Boston and then a white guy from the south and then a black guy from the south, it feels very real to me. It doesn’t feel like I’m stunting it at all, whereas I know there’s some people who go, wow that’s such an interesting dynamic that you put in there. And I’m like, you know, when you’re living in the south, white and black people are friends with each other, and you don’t necessarily have to explain it. We just are, you know? Whereas I think there’s a lot of cinema out there where it’s like, well, why didn’t you explain that? But I think the bigger issue – those are smaller movies, and this is supposed to be that movie where I entertain. And I remember going into the whole process saying, okay, just remember, Craig, you’re here to entertain, but don’t put a stopper on yourself. Still be the filmmaker you were.

Movies.com: Why do you think it is that you gravitate towards this milieu of films that feature music so strongly as a component of their storytelling?

CB: Well, I think I was raised with it, meaning I did a lot of musicals when I was a kid. I came from an athletic family, but I was anything but; I was much more into plays and musicals and everything. But my dad was really – he died in ’98 of a heart attack unexpectedly – but no matter where we lived, he was always reminding me where we came from with music. We were listening to Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Mitch Ryder, and at the same time, it was a big time for soundtracks, so we were listening to the Empire Strikes Back soundtrack. We were also listening to the Clockwork Orange soundtrack, which made me think like, oh, I love that song. Oh, you like that song? Okay, that’s Beethoven’s 9th. Here’s Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

So when I sit down to write something, I’m usually already listening to music, and so it’s already a part of it. I just finished a draft on Tarzan, and I had to make this list of music that at least got me into this mode, so even before I write I have to kind of pace my office – I have to kind of do my own angry dance, where I’m blaring music and just the attitude of that music is now just trying to get into my head and ultimately get into my work.

Movies.com: How consciously do you make choices that acknowledge what you’ve done in the past, or in a way that’s aware of how you might be perceived?

CB: I am aware of it, and it’s something I do worry about at times. It’s something I don’t want to run away from, because like I’d really like to make a soul movie. I’ve had this movie called Four-Four that I’ve had for awhile that’s about Stax and the sanitation strike and the assassination of King and how everything was really changing soul music at that time in 1968. So that’s something that I would like to explore one day. But I grew up in the theater, I grew up directing Shakespeare plays and Ibsen and William Inge, and reading a lot of books, and one of those books was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. And it’s not that I’m abandoning great music moments, I’m just going to hopefully have someone like Hans Zimmer or John Williams doing it. But I would like people to see another side of me that’s on a larger canvas that isn’t so specific to the south, and isn’t just so specific to music.

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