Before director Allen Hughes began to describe to me his jazz-inspired approach to making movies, he introduced himself with a smooth yet unintentional rhyme, “I just got home from a month on the road, my battery is low, so as long as we can go, we’re gonna rock and roll.” I caught up with Hughes to discuss his latest film and solo directorial debut, Broken City. The film is his first feature without his twin brother, Albert. Together, they’ve been making movies as The Hughes Brothers for over 20 years, starting with their breakout, 1993’s visceral urban saga, Menace II Society. The film earned them international acclaim and a Guinness World Record as the youngest filmmakers break into. They were 20.
Broken City is a high-tension ex-cop drama, corralling a group of stars to play roles they seem destined for: Russell Crowe as the manipulative mayor of New York who hires Mark Walhberg’s Billy Taggart, an ex-cop with a troubled psyche and thick outer-borough dialect, to spy on his wife, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. Perhaps it was the thrill of going home for the first time in a month, or the freedom of doing an interview solo. Either way, Allen opened up to candidly discuss the challenge of trusting your audience, the crutch of violence in films, and those pesky critics and their damned Rotten Tomatoes.
Broken City is very much a neo-noir. What attracted you to that genre?
It’s interesting because lately I’ve discovered that it’s just in me, there’s something natural. About a year or two ago I went to my agency and said, “You know what? I can’t do an action film, I can’t do a sci-fi film. I’m a crime and character guy, so let’s look for crime and character films.” And crime and character is usually noir-ish. It’s not that I’m even a cinephile of noir, it’s just something natural.
What’s your favorite film of that genre?
One of my favorites is Asphalt Jungle by John Huston. That was Marilyn Monroe’s first role. It’s a heist film, very much film noir. Very edgy, very dark. Cinematography is excellent; characters are excellent.
New York City is such a huge part of Broken City, it almost seems like a character itself. What was your approach to making a New York film?
The first thing that struck me was that New York is the greatest city on the planet and the most photographed city on the planet, and that made me anxious. I went into a personal thing where I was just like, Let’s shoot New York as if it was Billy Taggart, Mark Wahlberg’s character—let’s shoot it through Billy’s eyes. That’s why there’s those shots of looking up on the bridges, looking up on Grand Central Station. And there are these shots that are sexy, but they feel a bit like you’re grounded and maybe a little bit oppressed.
Talk about your directorial approach when working with actors. I hear you tend to give them space. What’s it like putting so much trust in your actors and loosening the reigns?
Well, I think it’s great when you hire great actors, but it’s more of a challenge when you hire newcomers or young actors. John Huston once said, “I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my career to have control of my casting so I haven’t had to do much directing.” So when you cast great actors like Russell Crowe or Jeffrey Wright, Mark Wahlberg, Catherine Zeta-Jones, these people are great actors or great story tellers so they bring a lot to the table.
You seem to also trust your audience to pick up on the subtle clues and plot twists in Broken City. What was it like to create a film that requires so much attention to detail from the audience?
That was the toughest thing for me, and I didn’t expect it. Every day was brutal for me because you have so many details, nuances, and plot twists. Also the viewer has to be viewing one thing, Billy has to be seeing another thing, and then there’s this other element of, you can’t have the movie be too far ahead of Billy, or you’ll make him look dumb.
A lot of people right now are up in arms about violence in movies. The violence in Broken City, however, seems to have more weight to it compared to other films. How do you feel your film fits in with the conversation about violence in film?
I think whenever it pops off, it’s very realistic and there are immediate consequences, long-term consequences. And whenever it pops off I don’t throw it out like maybe a Tarantino film would. Real violence is random and it’s over very quickly, and its effects are devastating. I think even in the way the movie opens up you see what my approach is. You see the aftermath of something that happened. You don’t even know that Mark is a cop at first. It was my intention to figure out a way to keep people intrigued and on the edge of their seats without the crutch of using guns. That’s a tough challenge for me because I’ve always been able to use that crutch, and it’s like a comedian cursing versus a guy that can get up there and be as funny without cursing. So that was my challenge.
Do you see yourself making completely non-violent films in the future?
Oh yeah, I think the psychological ones are more terrifying. If you look at some of Hitchcock’s best work, whether it was Vertigo or Rear Window. These are movies that don’t involve much violence it’s just psychological pressure mounting. And there are some action sequences but not really.
If your brother was making this film with you, what do you think would be different about it?
Probably it would be more programmed. The way we work is more of a stylistic, systematic thing. You can feel that hand; it’s a very distinct signature. I’m more of a fluid guy, I’m more of a jazz guy, not musically, but the way I work. I just want to feel things and they don’t necessarily have to be plotted out and planned. Things would be a lot more heavily planned, but I don’t know how that would affect the film. We’d gotten to a point where it was like, I think we know what our strengths are and what our weaknesses are and I don’t even know how it would be.
But you be will working together in the future?
Oh yeah, we are definitely going to be working together and we’re always collaborating on everything, whether one is directing or the other is or both. It’s gonna be different, that’s for sure.
Tell me about the Guinness world record. How does one go about getting one of those?
Well they’ve got to fill that book up every year. They were tipped off by the 20th anniversary of Menace II Society. What a shock that was. That was surreal.
Did you get a trophy?
You get this official document, it’s almost like you’re graduating from Harvard, with this platinum seal on it. There was a lovely letter that came with it, very detailed, welcoming us to the freak club, which we already knew we were freaks. But now we’re certified freaks. I gave it to my mom, she’s framing it and it’s hers. I took it to the woman that’s truly responsible for it.
Has your brother seen the film yet?
Nope. He says when people ask him that he says, “Well I just say he hasn’t invited me.” And I’m like, you live in Prague you son of a bitch, half way across the planet, how am I gonna invite you to a screening?
Are you worried about what he thinks of it?
No, not at all.
So who is your biggest critic?
Me. Screw it, there’s not anything someone can say that I haven’t already heard. I’ve had so many scabs and wounds and open sores. Broken City is the one I’m most proud of and I don’t have as many “ouch” moments. And that goes to critics in general, I just talked to my son and he was telling me about stuff that critics wrote that are coming in. I’m not reading Rotten Tomatoes. First of all, critics, see the movie twice. If it’s not a complete piece of shit, see the movie twice before you critique a movie. These guys and ladies are so disrespectful. I am my toughest critic but these guys are very disrespectful.
Do you think that “fuck it” attitude comes with time or with the product?
It was there from the beginning. In the beginning we were blessed enough to get rave reviews from every critic, and then once we didn’t get them, I realized while looking at my heroes in cinema, Francis Ford Coppola, Scorcese, or even Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott with Blade Runner, these guys never got great reviews except for a few exceptions. They’re always mixed reviews. I resigned myself recently to, you’re never going to make a movie that’s got 96% Rotten Tomatoes and who gives a fuck?
Who reads Rotten Tomatoes anymore?
Those people in the business who are like, “Well you know, Rotten Tomatoes says…” who gives a fuck? Those movies that have scored 96 tomatoes, that’s fucking impossible, that’s Lawrence of Arabia. What movie scored 96% percent? I’m not even gonna name the movie that did, there’s two or three of them. That’s fucking ridiculous.