Popular Tennessee filmmaker discusses career, role of gays in the industry
O&AN's Kristin Keiper sits down with regional screenwriter and Memphis native Craig Brewer to discuss his journey into writing such influential films as Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan and to find out what the industry holds for GLBT writers.
by Kristin Keiper
O&AN: Growing up, where did the idea of being a screenwriter come from?
I always wanted to make movies and films, and that drove the writing. There were times when I’d make up scenarios and film them, really rough—no editing—pretty sloppy, and then I got into theatre. When you’re young there are only so many scene books and monologues, so I started writing my own monologues and scenes.
My father was a salesman for a shipping company, but was also really into theatre and films, so at a very young age, he gave me an allowance. So I didn’t have a job, or chores necessarily, but I had to write. He saw that it was something I was interested in, and because he was a businessman, he wanted me to be serious about it.
O&AN: What was the flavor of Memphis to you, and how did that influence your films?
I fell in love with Memphis as an older kid- maybe 12, hanging out with my grandparents out in the country. It wasn’t until I’d go into town that I saw there was a particular vibe there. I was constantly reminded about what music came from Tennessee.
I was raised on Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, Johnny Cash, and I knew it came from “home,” so music was the first vibe I got from the city. But it wasn’t really until I was older and would visit downtown Memphis—before it became the big tourist attraction that it is now—that I saw a particular celebration in not having a lot of money. If you look at how a lot of great work came together, it usually came from that kind of spark, of not having much, and trying to do something with it.
O&AN: Do you see any return to what you described in Memphis?
Having great talents with no money, just working hard to try and make it? Yes, and that’s what $5 Cover is all about. When I was going around Hollywood with Hustle & Flow as a script, a lot of people were really interested in it, they really wanted to make it, but I had this idea that I wanted local people to do the music in it. One group in particular, Three 6 Mafia, and Al Kapone, and other rappers, but a lot of people in Hollywood hadn’t heard of those groups.
Then Three 6 Mafia won the Academy Award, and people knew them, so I felt more empowered to go into the rooms of executives and say, “there’s more of these artists, trying to get into the very small percent that occupy an end-cap at Best Buy, than there is space in that end-cap.” Then I thought there’s probably a series or web-show where the only leads are musicians, rappers, band-members. Not actors.
Even if they’re not the best of actors, just have them play themselves in these loosely lined and improved scenarios. Let’s get to know them, and showcase their music. So each seven-minute episode has this music moment to it, and all 15 are now up on the web. We launched them throughout May, and MTV was so excited about them they put it on their station. And we’re hoping to go to other cities and do the same. It’s more of an attitude—you want to get the filmmakers and the crew, and the musicians of that community—to make that content. It’s not something coming from New York or Hollywood. It’s about giving the local community the tools to make this thing.
O&AN: Have you found that gays and lesbians have the same opportunities in screenwriting and other areas of Hollywood, and does sexual orientation even matter?
I won’t be the only one to tell you there’s plenty of gay and lesbian writers and filmmakers. I think the question is ‘how much do you want to make your sexuality part of your narrative and signature?’ And I’m very good friends with gay and lesbian filmmakers, and I find that that content is in their work, but how could it not be? If there is struggle for acceptance, if there’s not conflict with family friends and institutions. So a lot of the life experience they’re drawing upon is because of that, or a reaction to the passions and the problems that come with it.
If you remove anyone who wants to put a stigma on that, and they should not, but even if they do, if you remove that, essentially all movies are about problems with relationships, problems with family and problems with work. I mean, Black Snake Moan is about a nymphomaniac chained to a radiator, but it’s based on me being crazy. It’s about these panic attacks I was having, and wishing to be confined to a little safe space that I could function within.
I think the opportunity has always been there, especially in entertainment, I don’t want to say that there’s not discrimination, but I’ve grown up in theatre all my life. So I think I had an idea of what gay and lesbian was before I even knew the name for it. And once I knew, everybody I knew and loved and worked with, I’d go ‘oh, okay, I understand the category now, I didn’t quite have it articulated then.’ When you grow up in theatre, I was in the loving embrace of many great actors around me that I later learned were different from what I had come to learn was normal.
So it was a very nice way to know the people instead of the politics first. But I will say, where perhaps there may be an opportunity, or a little bit of a danger, there’s also a very powerful niche of gay and lesbian content. Much like an urban niche would be. What I mean by that is film genres that say to that community, ‘this is specifically for you.’ But being a niche, in an odd way, I don’t want to say it segregates, but it is contained. And I think that stories and points of view can extend beyond that.