Vince Vaughn and ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ Director S. Craig Zahler on Making a Skull-Crushing Exploitation Flick
You’ve never seen Vince Vaughn like this before. Even if you were among the handful of viewers who stuck around for True Detective Season 2, nothing could prepare you for this Vince Vaughn: Brutal, hulking, and capable of insane violence. He’s always been somewhat intimidating, a factor that’s amplified to 11 in Brawl in Cell Block 99, the new film from Bone Tomahawk writer/director S. Craig Zahler. I spoke with both men a few hours after watching their film at an 8 AM press screening, which was one hell of a way to wake up.
If you saw Bone Tomahawk, you may have an idea of what you’re in for with Brawl, a contemporary, violent exploitation throwback in which Vaughn plays a patriotic blue-collar type forced to sell drugs to make ends meet. Through a series of unfortunate events, an incarcerated Vaughn must fight his way through the worst prison (it’s like a medieval Nazi torture dungeon) in order to free his wife from a vengeful drug boss. In direct contrast to his intimidating on-screen persona, Vaughn is warm and fairly soft-spoken in person. His director, on the other hand ... Well, let’s just say he left me with several concerns about some of the film’s ideas.
This is a really fascinating movie, and a pretty rough one to watch on a Saturday morning, what with all the gnarly skull-crushing. Are you the kind of filmmaker who deliberately tries to push your audience’s buttons, or is that incidental?
Zahler: I’m interested in creating unique stories and unique worlds. So I don’t really come from a place of “How is the audience going to react?” I like when people enjoy stuff. Reading positive reviews is enjoyable, but I write for myself, for my own taste. And certainly in terms of moments of violence, because I grew up a child of Fangoria and all that sort of stuff. I’ll concede that with certain moments of violence I’m trying to come up with stuff that I’m uncomfortable with, so after being a gore hound for 30-plus years, these are the results. But I am as interested if not more interested in all of the character stuff.
I spend just as much time there and dig just as deep. Actually, more time there and can dig very, very deep if I have the right performers, which I definitely did in the case of this movie. So I’m not really looking to push buttons. I know it can come out that way and certainly there will be people who use the term “gratuitous” for the violence, and that term can be used interchangeably with extremity. And if you feel it works for you and it’s part of the whole — which this whole is a bizarre whole — then I think it’s extreme and it’s different and it’s unique to this movie. But I don’t set out to push buttons, I set out to write a story that I find surprising and emotionally rich.
And how did this one surprise you?
Zahler: When I finished writing the script, and I don’t want to spoil anything for your readers, but certain dramatic moments at the end — that’s the payoff for the whole journey. Those are my favorite moments in the script and they’re my favorite moments in the movie, and the reason to go shoot a movie because then you get wonderful performers like Vince and Jennifer Carpenter, adding all of their skills and these layered performances and just building on top of it.
Vince, your transformation is astonishing. You already had some fighting experience, but I assume you had to go through additional training for this.
Vaughn: I definitely did prepare physically to get more muscular and strong, but in the right way for a guy who is a tow-truck driver. I wrestled younger and I boxed on and off my whole life and I do jiu-jitsu currently. But I had to just really shadowbox and get comfortable moving because I knew how Craig was going to shoot these fights and I felt like I just wanted to come in as fluid as possible, to be as if I was somebody who spent their whole life doing that.
There’s a natural dynamic between your character and his wife [Carpenter], but their relationship is kind of atypical in terms of what we’re used to seeing in movies.
Vaughn: The script was the best thing that I’ve read in forever. And I thought Bone Tomahawk was just brilliant and very unique. But in reading the screenplay, it was the scene after the car — this guy is really enraged and he knows enough to keep her away. He’s kind of out of control, but in control of being out of control, and I like that they decided to come together after that. It was surprising. I like that he took responsibility in the relationship. That it wasn’t a blame fest to her or that he was going to punish her for her mistakes. And it made me root for them and they felt very real. In a lot of screenplays people go out of their way to have a “save the cat” moment where someone does something that makes you go, oh I just love this guy and no one would do that. Here you felt like it was two people that are sober, there is clearly a lot of trauma there.
There is like a codependency of friendship as well as a sexual relationship. And I just felt like I kind of love these two after he says to her, “There has been a miscarriage and we both made mistakes. We drifted apart. Communication hasn’t been good. But let’s try.” And I thought, I haven’t seen this in a movie and I know that in life to be true. We all have friends who have hurt each other and done things and find their way back and you can root for them.
Movies tend to operate in an unrealistic moral binary where conflicts are either right or wrong, black or white. There’s a lot of moral complexity here, though.
Vaughn: For sure. There’s the Prince Charming version where some guy is going to choose you who is perfect, versus two people who are just trying to keep their head above water who are forgiving each other.
The best way to describe your character, as you said, is that he’s in control of being out of control. Even in a scene like the one where Udo Kier is giving you the most awful news, you have this visible self-restraint. It’s kind of unnerving.
Vaughn: I think even that first scene where Udo tells him what’s going on, you can see the visceral response but he’s really engaged. So he’s having to be intellectual and be kind of smart about it, but really it’s the most primal moment someone can reduced to.
It’s way more effective than having you just rage out.
Vaughn: I think under a lot of rage is pain. And vice versa, under a lot of pain is rage. I know people who are sad, sad, sad, they don't give themselves permission to say, “this is too much,” or, “I’m mad about this,” and once they do you’re like, wow. There’s a lot of power there. I’ve seen it the other way where people are really angry and then once they scream, they’re like, “right, sorry, I was afraid!” I think those are interesting bedfellows. I think you see [my character] duel with them a lot.
You spend a portion of the movie resisting violent urges before you’re ultimately forced to unleash them. Was that as intense for you as it was for the audience?
Vaughn: To Craig’s point earlier, I think whenever something’s kind of original, you haven’t processed it a lot. It hits us quite strongly. I think it’s equal parts character, relationships and stories. It’s ultimately a morality tale. What happens when you make a flawed decision for something that you want? Those moments to me really came out of character, came out of drive. The movie and the script do a very good job of not telegraphing it, but he doesn’t want to do the [prison] boxing program. He doesn’t want to hurt people in the boxing ring anymore. That was something he did when he was younger, and he’s just a man on the other side of that who doesn’t see a value in it.
But yet, here he goes in these situations once he feels like he has no way out. A lot of that moment when he comes [to prison], he’s on a business trip. He’s there to get this thing completed. There’s no joy in it, there’s no celebrating of it. He’s got to get this stuff done and there’s a time constraint here, and this is just the language spoken in this situation. And as an audience member, to me as a person, I love the Brothers Grimm. I love mythology. I love those movies that do that, I love Peckinpah. So it’s a great telling visually, and otherwise, of the oldest things that have been going on inside of all of us from the beginning of storytelling.
What fascinates me the most is how Craig uses the language of exploitation cinema to tell a very contemporary story that is morally complex, so to speak. I have to assume you’re a fan of classic exploitation films.
Zahler: I am, it’s interesting. I’ve seen the word “exploitation” come up a ton all over the place and the reality is that I’m just writing what I find interesting. There’s no specific movie that this is an homage to, or that I would compare it to. I think some people use the term exploitation to make it safe for them to like something that is politically incorrect. I think ultimately that’s the tap dance that happens is using that — so it’s exploitation. I don’t think you’re gonna walk away and go, “Oh Vince Vaughn and the dude who wrote it just hate all of these people.” But I don’t care if you do.
Ultimately, this is the story about these people and if people want to start putting moral judgments on me for writing it, they’re welcome to. I’m writing a story that I find compelling and that has a lot of layers for all of the performers. But I’m not pushing an agenda and I’m ok with showing certain people and groups in a bad light, and it doesn’t really matter to me, so again, I think the exploitation aspect is — and that word in particular, like I don’t know who is being exploited. I’m writing a story and these are the characters in them. These people of this background happen to be good, and these people of this background happen to not be so great, but actually everyone is pretty flawed and even our protagonist is hypocritical.
I think there are some people, as you said, who mislabel films as “exploitation,” but I know what an exploitation film is — and you’ve made a movie that is wildly violent and rather transgressive for our current socio-political climate.
Zahler: Sure. We didn’t need another German character in there to balance out Udo.
He has the scariest line in the film.
Zahler: And again, when I wrote that — in my writing process, there’s this simple rule, which is “surprise myself every day.” I didn’t know he was going to say that until I wrote it. I felt it was kind of wrong and I felt really uncomfortable with it, and that’s why it’s in there. Same with certain bad things that happen to Deputy Nick in Bone Tomahawk — I wrote this and then I was like, “Well that’s definitely too far.” I’m uncomfortable with it, but it has this effect on me which, to some extent, is the effect it’s having on the characters as they are all dealing with it.
But yeah, it’s interesting. I’ll see the exploitation thing and I don’t take it badly. There was much discussion on Bone Tomahawk — was it a horror movie? Was it a pure western? Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but seeing that word repeatedly, I think it’s, uh [throws hands up] ... because it has been genuinely received thus far. People like it, but it’s not politically correct and it doesn’t make any apologies, and it does what it wants and takes its time and then gets pretty extreme. But if you throw it under that [exploitation] blanket, I think it makes it okay that there are no apologies in there and no balancing out. Other Korean character for this Korean character, other German character for this German character. I just don’t care.
Moving beyond genre classification, I think Brawl — or at least Vince’s character — shares some DNA with Rolling Thunder.
Zahler: Yeah, and that’s ... did Paul Schrader write that?
Zahler: And then he wrote Taxi Driver. Rolling Thunder would probably be classified as exploitation, whereas Taxi Driver would not, and actually there’s a lot more stuff to potentially take offense over in Taxi Driver, which I think is a terrific movie and one of the best movies ever made. But, yeah, it’ll hang out in that world. When I was talking about this movie before I wrote it, I wanted to do basically kind of a manly movie in a Death Wish, First Blood vein, something that would hang out with those. It gets a little bit more bizarre than those pictures do, but it’s hanging out there, and I enjoy Rolling Thunder so I’m happy to add that.
Vaughn: Like the songs he writes, that are in the movie, like the O’Jays… [Zahler wrote some of the original songs in the film, which were performed by classic R&B group the O’Jays]
I saw that in the credits and it kind of blew my mind.
Vaughn: The stand alones are beautiful songs. I think as much as he dives into the music in composing those, you do that with the characters, you do that with the way the fight sequences are shot. We actually see the fights as the actors are doing it. I just think that it’s unique that someone brings all of those different elements and combines them.
Having a hand in almost every aspect of a film is an approach you don’t see very often these days.
Zahler: Yeah. It’s enjoyable for me. It’s certainly thrilling to have the O’Jays sing the first soul song I ever wrote.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 hits theaters this weekend.