In VIBE’s December ’09/January ’10 issue, hit filmmaker brothers Allen and Albert Hughes discussed their hit action film The Book of Eli. With the recent news of the two being sued for the film due to manuscript issues, here’s a look at the full article from the past issue.
Albert Hughes needed a break after directing his last film, the uneven 2001 Jack the Ripper thriller From Hell. So he retreated from the industry and moved to Prague, Czech Republic. There, he enjoyed a very bohemian lifestyle: lengthy dinners, making new friends, drinks at cafés, admiring the architecture and lots of walking. He also shot experimental non-character-driven short films that he kept secret. “I would walk around with my camera and backpack,” he says. “I always found interesting stuff out there and then I would come home and edit it.”
Basically, he lived like a post-film school expatriate. But it was a welcome relief from micromanaging Hollywood suits and, besides, he couldn’t find the right project. He needed a break from the business. And from his twin brother.
Across the pond, Allen Hughes was also retreating from the film industry—in a sleepy suburb east of Los Angeles. He too needed a break. While on the West Coast, he enjoyed the ideal suburban lifestyle: playing with his Dobermans, being a single dad and lots of hiking. He also sought out inspiration from a diverse cast of players. “I’m home for two weeks and then I’m like the wind,” he says. “I have associates and friends that range from pimps to dope fiends to CEOs. All I try to do in life is understand characters. If there is something interesting about them, I’m fucking with them, whether it’s in a fishing boat or back alley.”
Basically, he walked the earth like Caine from Kung Fu. But it was for the best. Allen Hughes was frustrated with micromanaging Hollywood suits and, besides, he couldn’t find the right project. He needed a break from the business. And from his twin brother.
FROM 2002-2007, the Hughes Brothers took what Allen calls “a twin sabbatical.” Living nine time zones apart, they experienced their first lengthy separation. “It was thirty years of being attached at the hip,” Allen says. “We had to see who we were as individuals.” For the record, Allen is the gregarious one, while Albert is more pensive. Allen considers himself “spiritual.” Albert is an atheist.
“Eventually it was going to bust,” adds Albert. “[It was] like, ‘We are grown men. Let’s take some time off.’”
The time off, however, stalled their promising film career, which began and (so far) peaked with 1993’s Menace II Society. It’s really their Illmatic, a perfect debut forever hovering over later efforts. “Until we eclipse that movie,” Allen says, “we haven’t done shit.” In the 17 years since, they have directed a disjointed, yet fascinating, Vietnam-era heist film (Dead Presidents, 1995), an acclaimed, polarizing documentary (American Pimp, 1999) and a macabre departure (From Hell). It’s not the most robust CV. For example, the notoriously deliberate Quentin Tarantino has directed eight feature films since 1993. Spike Lee’s made 13.
The Hughes brothers claim their hiatus wasn’t just due to personal issues. “We had a tough time because the things [studios] wanted us to make and the things we wanted to make were different,” Allen says. “They wanted us to make a cheesy action film.” Out of work and in limbo, they came to the conclusion that, as Allen puts it: “If you want to make movies that mean something to you, you might not be making movies.” To pay the bills, they shot commercials for Nike, Heineken and Ford and also executive produced the short- lived cable series Touching Evil. Then Albert left the country, returning to Prague where the brothers had filmed From Hell, starring Johnny Depp.
“[Europeans] appreciate simpler things in life and don’t get caught up like they do here,” Albert says. “America is so young that they feel like they can tell people what they can or can’t do. Yet they claim to be a free society. It’s not a free society. It’s a very Puritanical society.”
But in 2007, Allen found The Book of Eli script, which he thought could lure his brother back stateside. “It had a lot to say about humanity,” Allen recalls. “It had the perfect balance of quality, substance and big Hollywood moments.” Naturally, Albert passed. He was concerned with the religious aspects—the titular book, after all, is The Bible. “[Allen] was deflated,” Albert says. “I slept on it and had a whole dream about the movie. I called Allen up and go, ‘I get it.’”
Albert compiled a hefty look book, pitched Warner Bros. and, by the end of the meeting, landed the project. But the studio got cold feet. The Book of Eli is an $80 million post-apocalyptic action movie with religious overtones and nods to Japanese samurai films and spaghetti Westerns. Needless to say, it’s a financial risk, even with a bankable star like two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington in front of the camera and bold visionaries like the Hughes behind it. According to Albert, Warner Bros. was particularly spooked by the film’s religious aspects. “The studio gets a hold of the script [and] waters it down,” Albert says. “We didn’t recognize the script anymore.”
Alcon Entertainment, a production company with a distribution deal at Warner Bros., eventually took over financing for the movie. “[The Hughes Brothers] presented us with their vision and we were blown away,” says Broderick Johnson, co-founder of Alcon Entertainment. “For us, the spiritual nature of the film was a plus. That’s what makes the movie unique.”
Shot partly in Carrizozo, New Mexico, Denzel Washington filmed all of his own fight scenes, no small accomplishment given the physically challenging nature of Eli. As usual, Allen handled the actors and script, while Albert oversaw the editing, visuals and camera. And despite some initial rust, filming went smoothly. “I thought it would be a little nerve-wracking. It was great actually,” Allen says. “We could be at war with each other, but between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ there is not a problem.”