Interview: S. Craig Zahler Talks Process, Violence & Why Vince Vaughn Is One Of His Favourite Actors
The writer-director of Dragged Across Concrete discusses the inspiration behind his latest film, what defines his distinctive work (which includes feature debut Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99), and why Vince Vaughn is one of his favourite actors.
Steven Craig Zahler has found a distinctive niche. So far, across his genre-defying trio of films – Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete – he has shown a willingness to combine an obvious joy of convention with the confidence to undermine expectation. It’s a sort of digressive narrative ambivalence pockmarked by graphic violence and casual, meandering conversation. What transpires is an immersive, unrelenting atmosphere emitting the dark side of human endeavour.
This culminates in Zahler getting away with “an old man eating a sandwich or a guy taking a bath and trying to read a book” he tells me, because it cuts through the dread he layers over proceedings. Sometimes humorous, sometimes horrific, always organic, the writer-director’s work is empowered by a distinctive authenticity that, while boosted by violence that would, if hand drawn, feel at home in a Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoon, is anything but gratuitous.
Head-turning, squirm-inducing, hide-behind-the-sofa sort of stuff but not gratuitous. It’s what surprises Zahler that appeals to him. That same attraction is what we – the audience – get a kick out of. “It’s a conscious part of the writing process,” he says. “I’m trying to come up with something that I didn’t expect. That can be a small comedic moment or that a character gets unexpectedly killed, so it can be a bunch of different things.
“Because the process is to surprise myself regularly, the violence gets more violent or things go far worse or far better for certain individuals and I think that’s one of the reasons they go a little further than they do in many movies in the same genre.”
Zahler’s films don’t fit the traditional moulds of the genres they take their cues from but the writer-director is happy to call Bone Tomahawk a western, Brawl in Cell Block 99 a prison movie, and his latest feature a crime drama. Something he doesn’t mention is horror, something that permeates his work in many subtle and not-so subtle moments.
“The atmosphere of my movies comes from the horror discipline,” he admits but adds that such elements are organic to the plot, not some divergence into dark fantasy. “For instance Bone Tomahawk has a handful of scenes that achieve a horror atmosphere where the violence is so strong that a lot of people call it a horror western, which is fine, but I always see it as just has some sequences of horror. Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete have some scenes like that too but that’s really me just willing to go very far and use a lot of different colours on the canvas.”
You can try to categorise Zahler’s films but Dragged Across Concrete, like the writer-director’s previous work, boasts a belligerence towards narrative convention that defiantly refuses pigeonholing. It ironically defines the undefinable. Pairing the star of his previous film – Vince Vaughn – with Mel Gibson in full-on grizzled and angry mode, this slow-burning crime-infused police versus crooks thriller sizzles with a bitterness towards life that excretes from every pore.
While there are obvious nods to various filmmakers in his previous work, this story of dirty cops and bank robbers has a definite Don Siegel sensibility. “I grew up watching a lot of crime stuff and reading crime books. I got into Jim Thomson when I was a kid, and when I was 13 years old there was some summers where I watched Prince Of The City more than ten times, and so my interest in that stuff has been there since the eighties, and I just wanted to do a piece like that.
Don Siegel movies, pictures like The Killing, all that sort of stuff, is the root of it. I wrote this one after I had made Bone Tomahawk and while I was setting up Brawl in Cell Block 99. Those two pieces were written in 2011; Dragged Across Concrete was written in 2016. My previous films had allowed me to see what kind of things I wanted to direct on sets and what my main interests were as a filmmaker and dealing with the performers and that whole thing.
“So [Dragged Across Concrete] came from both of those things; my interests in crime fiction – both movies and books – and then more specifically what I wanted to direct as my third picture – because this was written to be that.”
Dragged Across Concrete might meander at times, its sedate pace in the first half composed of seemingly incidental conversation, quiet introspection, and fleeting methodical violence. But it builds to a grand finish, the intricacy of Zahler’s detailing working harmoniously alongside the richness of his characters (even the ones that appear only minimally). It’s meticulous, much like the writer-director’s characteristic violence. He’s found a unique niche that is at odds with mainstream cinema but which, thanks to clear love of classical narrative, remains accessible.
“These are the things that make my material distinct,” the writer-director explains, exampling seeming incidentals: “Bradley talking about how he never gets the right milk when he gets coffee [in Brawl in Cell Block 99], Anthony eating his sandwich in the hole, Kelly Summer not wanting to leave her baby [both in Dragged Across Concrete].”
These are the eccentricities that make Zahler’s films tick. “To me I think this is what makes my work stand apart, and part of why I do it is to have these moments that other people can shy away from, or cut out, but, while I write very quickly, I spend a lot of time refining that script.”
I ask about the challenges of being both writer and director; the potential to have a rose-tinted view of the material letting indulgence get the better of him, particularly when cutting the final film. But he says much of the edits are made at the writing stage, adding that he’s a “pretty ruthless” critic of his work before the actors set foot on set. Indeed, only two “and a half” scenes from the script don’t end up getting into the final cut.
I’ve described Zahler’s characters as people who’d rather step on you than help you across the street. In Dragged Across Concrete we witness largely unlikable men; both those committing the crimes and those trying to stop them. There are no heroes and villains, no light and dark, only different shades of villainy.
But we care. We care for the brutal detective who’s sick of his work being undervalued and his family tormented by crime-ridden streets he has for years tried to clean up. And we care for the ex-con, recently released from prison, whose morals, despite agreeing to, and partaking in, armed-robbery, appear to be the most conventionally agreeable.
“Flawed characters are more compelling that flawless ones,” Zahler says with some enthusiasm. It’s interesting in today’s climate: to put forth all these flawed characters but not go out of your way to condemn them. That makes some people uncomfortable. All of a sudden they wonder if there’s some insidious agenda with the movie.
“But I don’t know that I’ve ever written a flawless character, and certainly with leads in ensemble situations there’s a lot of conflict between members of any particular group, so that is very appealing to me.
“People coming into a situation with a troubled past (that is probably half of the lead characters of the three pictures I’ve made so far), are also, in most cases, trying to better themselves. But they may be steeping on something that puts them on an even worse path in so doing.”
Zahler has managed to get the best of Vince Vaughn and again the actor excels in Dragged Across Concrete having previously starred in the director’s second film. What he particularly admires in the Hollywood star is an ability to get a lot out of a character without the sorts of prescribed acting techniques that may be taught in a classroom. It’s a natural skill – one that the director says both fellow actors Tory Kittles and Don Johnson possess – when a screen performer has confidence in getting a lot from very little.
“People like Bryan Cranston or Daniel Day-Lewis, guys like that, I never see them on screen without showing me a massive amount of technique or how much ‘acting’ they can do. For me that doesn’t radiate as genuine, that comes off as performance. If I’m looking at acting and thinking its ‘acting’, I’m looking at an actor delivering work and not really focusing on the scene.
“A lot of performers want to use that ‘technique’, maybe it’s why they got into acting in the first place or they feel they aren’t doing enough if they don’t use that ‘technique’, but there are scenes that don’t call for a lot and so being comfortable with doing very little when the scene calls for very little is what impresses me about Vince Vaughn; it’s terrific to work with people who are like that.”
And it was Vaughn who helped Zahler score a coup for Dragged Across Concrete with the casting of Mel Gibson; a helpful addition when raising the money to shoot the film. “He had the connection to Mel from working with him on Hacksaw Ridge. It’s hard to think of anybody better for this role, so he came up early in conversation and read the piece. He made some really nice comparisons to Don Siegel, he got the character, he got the picture and was on board from the get-go and we just went out and raised the cash with that package.”
Was there added pressure directing an actor in Gibson who is also an accomplished Academy Award winning director, I ask. Zahler admits the thought had crossed his mind: “You never know with someone who has that kind of experience; this isn’t like someone who directed a couple of episodes of a show he was in and now wants to take charge.”
Yet Zahler’s so confident about his vision – and knew Gibson was excited about the project – that such thoughts didn’t last long. “He let me do what I needed to do 100%. This is a terrifically talented director but a director whose style is opposed to my own; I mean in terms of slow motion, elaborate camera movements, a very pronounced use of score, I don’t do any of those things.
“If the camera’s moving its motivated by the character, but I want you to forget it’s a movie, I want to remove that cinematic aspect and for people to be with the characters.”
But the Lethal Weapon star and director-star of Braveheart was on hand to help out with the action sequences when needed. “His knowledge would help when we were positioning in a fight scene, he would angle his body, but it was always from the acting prescriptive.
Indeed, Gibson truly shines. Bedraggled and tired of a life that’s been fully lived (described by the actor as a “good soldier”), the untidiness of an unkempt and greying beard the physical manifestation of exhaustion doing the “right” thing.
There’s a bit of Riggs in there, if you were to strip him of every shred of humour and make it physically impossible to smile. Unpredictable and fuelled by rage, the actor’s police officer, Brett Ridgeman, is a man coming to terms with his fate; the unleashing of immoral characteristics that he must embrace and accept as having always existed in him.
He combines well with Vaughn in this neo-noir world, giving us one side of the opposing forces at work in Dragged Across Concrete. It’s an intriguing stage where everyone is a bad guy. A “stage” where bad things are going to happen.
I return to the violence in his movies and ask if the eccentricities found in his graphic depictions of fist fights and gun battles are another way for the director to shock himself.
“In Bone Tomahawk, the violence was traumatic, the stuff audiences don’t want to look at. In Brawl it was cathartic; you’ve been waiting for it to happen because people have been s****** on the character for so long. In Dragged it’s a mix of those things.
“But ultimately, I’m trying to surprise myself. Certainly there are easier ways to hurt one another than the ways that are in my pictures but I’m trying to come up with stuff that is distinct and will be memorable.”
Long may that continue.
Written by Dan Stephens
Dragged Across Concrete is out now in the UK on Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray.