In Brawl in Cell Block 99, Vince Vaughn, after finding out his wife is having an affair, assaults her car in a fashion that would remind anyone who owned a Sega Genesis or Super NES in the 90s of a bonus stage in Street Fighter II. Vaughn, who is mostly known for his roles in broad comedies, including the likes of Wedding Crashers and Old School, plays Bradley Thomas, a no-nonsense, towering figure with a large, black cross tattooed on the back of his head. Thomas runs drugs to support his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) who is pregnant with their first child, who they adorably refer to as “The Koala.”
He works for a dealer named Gil, who is working on developing a partnership with a Mexican dealer. Thomas is skeptical when Gil persuades him with time off after the birth of his daughter. The run goes bad and the Mexican dealer, unhappy, sends an employee (Udo Kier) to inform Thomas that if he doesn’t murder a man in the hellish Cell Block 99, he will do something best left unspoiled. What happens afterwards is not for the squeamish; as Thomas will do anything (and break anything) to make sure his wife and daughter are saved.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is one of the most violent films you will see this year. Arms get broken, so do legs, so do… never mind, you have to see it for yourself. Once you do, you might wonder what kind of man would think of this stuff; well, that man is director S. Craig Zahler.
His second feature after last year’s Bone Tomahawk, Zahler — who wrote, directed and even provided the score for this film — is someone who clearly is making the kind of movies he wants to make. We spoke with Zahler about how he goes about naming his movies, why he decided to cast Vince Vaughn to play his unstoppable, violent force and if he will ever make a movie that isn’t violent.
The Film Stage: I’ve noticed your films have unique titles. How do you go about developing these?
S. Craig Zahler: I spend a lot of time on the title for everything I do. I have a belief that the most important thing outside of the work itself is the title. Sometimes all you’ll ever hear of a movie is the title. That’s why, for the most part, I can’t stand the titles of movies today.
I remember one time I was at a multiplex and there was nine movies and most of the names of the movies were either one word or one word with the word “the.” To me a lot of the problem with that approach is that they are not memorable and they are not distinct to the movie.
I will call out last year Oscars winner Moonlight. I think the original name of that play was Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. That is an fantastic title, that title puts an image in your head and is really memorable. The title has two or three meanings and its unique to that piece, and then the movie came out “Moonlight.” I have no idea what this movie is about; is it about astronauts? Is it about vampires? I couldn’t tell what’s it about.
When I come up with titles, I want it to be unique to my movie. I can’t think of another Bone Tomahawk or Brawl in Cell Block 99 or Dragged Across Concrete [his next feature starring Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson].
So, we need to talk about Vince Vaughn. What made you cast him — someone who is more known for being in comedies — to play this hulking, serious, and violent character?
A couple of our greatest actors of the last few decades came from a similar place. I point to Bill Murray and Woody Harrelson as both being phenomenal dramatic performers; comedy is just as hard or even harder than dramatic acting. Everybody’s perception of the ability of comedic performers has been proven wrong repeatedly through the years. In the case of Vince Vaughn, because his most successful movies for the most part are his comedies, that’s what people know him for, but he has done dramatic stuff throughout this career.
What I saw was someone who can be real in the moment and that’s sort of a bottom line of an actor I can work with and one I cant. An actor can show you a lot of technique, show you his acting chops at all times and I can’t stop them from doing that, and get them to be real in the scene, which a lot of times is just doing far less acting. An actor who is determined to show you how much acting he can do at all times is maybe someone I wouldn’t want to work with. But Vince is very consistent in his work. I took a step away from the perspective of him and looked at whom he is and Vince looks like he’s not nice person. Vince is a really nice guy, but I don’t think if I saw him in the street I would think he’s a nice guy. Plus he’s 6’5″, so he’s imposing physically. So if this is the first time someone’s seeing him and then some guy told you, “Hey! That guy is a comedian,” you would probably wonder about that.
Plus, we got along fantastically from our very first meeting and he was willing to transform himself and do all the stuff that I wanted him to do. He brought so much depth to this performance and I m really happy with his performance. If anything, he overachieved.
One thing that stands out in your film and in Vaughn’s performance is the action scenes. Most action scenes we see in movies today are either in the John Wick gunplay style or the kind we see in superhero films. The action here is well-choreographed, gruesome, physical and also shot in a style that we don’t see too often, more like a Hong Kong action flick. Is that something you yourself just like shooting or is it a response to the way American action films are shot today?
It’s not so much a response, I’m not doing things to throw a middle finger at the industry. It’s just I’m doing things to my taste. To me what happens when you advertently stylish your violence, you’re using the cinematic medium in a way that calls attention to yourself. That can be great: slow motion does this, lots of cutting does this. The choices I make is to show the performers and let them do everything, and make the scene happen on a set. Like Fred Astaire in his movies: when you see him dancing, you see him from head to toe and you know he’s doing every bit of it. It’s harder to get and you need actors who are comfortable getting punched in the face, which happened to all of them — none of them badly. We were doing one of our first fight scenes and Vince got punched in the face. It’s gonna happen if you’re doing that and you’re committing to that level of energy. There’s an element of danger. A lot of people talk about finding their movie in the editing room. The movie I make in the editing room is the one I wrote and the one I shot and you know when you watch Brawl in Cell Block 99 that Vince Vaughn is doing every bit of his fighting. You know that that’s him. I’m happy we didn’t come out without anyone getting any serious injuries and happy we came away with action scenes that do not at all look like anything we see in contemporary American movies.
Both films you have directed so far have been noted as being extremely violent. Do you have any plans of directing a nice, non-violent drama in the near future?
I definitely see myself making all sorts of films. My next film, which I wrapped a couple of weeks ago, Dragged Across Concrete, is kind of the third piece along the lines of Bone Tomahawk: strong violence, complicate characterization, and men just being mean to each other. The fourth piece I’m looking at doing if everything lands correctly will be based on my upcoming novel Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child, which is the story of an orphan in a gothic landscape; the orphan is misshapen and it’s the story of his life. It will probably be a PG movie and be a different kind of experience
I enjoy the two movies I’ve made and this is why I do them, but at the same time I definitely have the desire to be a lot different and I also have the desire to make movies that are just as violent.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is now in limited release and hits VOD on October 13.