The Hughes Brothers like to make movies about societies on the verge of unraveling, whether it’s gangbangers' retaliatory hell in Menace II Society, the political paroxysms of Vietnam-era America in Dead Presidents, or the social rot of Victorian-era London brought to the brink by Johnny Depp's Jack the Ripper in From Hell. With their latest film, The Book of Eli, they’ve finally moved past “the verge of unraveling” and leapfrogged all the way to the postapocalyptic, as Denzel Washington roams a sere landscape protecting the titular religious tome with his life. We talked to the twin siblings by phone, separately by request (with their responses melded together here), and asked them about their approach to violence and using the Bible as a MacGuffin, and marveled at one of the greatest tributes to Gary Oldman that we've ever heard.
It’s been over eight years since your last film, From Hell. What was it like to be back on the set of a feature film after so long?
Albert: There’s a part of it that’s natural, like putting on an old pair of shoes, and then there’s a part of it where you have to wear in those shoes a little bit. You’re a bit rusty. The same thing happened with From Hell, because there was a five-year period from Dead Presidents. The first thing we said to Johnny was the same as what we said to Denzel: Just bear with us for a few weeks while we try to shake off the rust. Getting back, we just kept doing take after take, and I remember this one time with Johnny we did three, four, five takes, and he asked sarcastically, “Do you think you have it yet?” We were like, "Man, we probably should hurry up." Denzel never did anything like that. He’d do three or four takes. Gary Oldman, though, he’d be up for doing it seven, eight, nine times. He’ll go as much as you can take it. I like that kind of guy.
And it’s good to see him getting to chew a little scenery as a villain again after all these years. Did you have some of his earlier roles in mind when you cast him?
Allen: I think in the early nineties he was my favorite living working actor, back to stuff like playing Oswald in JFK. I remember the first time I saw it, I was thinking, How did they exhume Oswald’s body and reanimate him? And we actually had cast him in Dead Presidents to play a military chaplain who tells Larenz Tate’s character the difference between murder and killing. This was back when he was, uh, drinking, and the role didn’t happen because he went into rehab after that. I didn’t talk to him until we connected on this movie. But as I remember telling Gary, I saw Dark Knight with my son, and I’m sitting in the theater with the youth of America when Heath is basically slam-dunking on Gary and hanging off the rim with his nuts in his face, acting-wise, and Gary is just standing there like the consummate actor that he is, and playing his role as a straight man, and I just lean over to my son and grab his hand and say, “Gary Oldman invented that shit.”
The look of this film has somewhat of a Mad Max–ish aesthetic, but there are also a lot of Western elements in there. What visual influences were you drawing on?
Allen: We grew up with the Sergio Leone movies, and those influences are very obvious.
You had someone whistling the theme from Once Upon a Time in America.
Allen: What do people do when there are no radios? They whistle. And that was a haunting theme from my childhood. I think Planet of the Apes, The Road Warrior, and all the other obvious apocalyptic influences were there as well. And Albert will talk at length about the Zatoichi films, the blind swordsman films.
Albert: They always say that Sergio got his influence from Kurosawa and Yojimbo, but some of these Zatoichi films predate Yojimbo and I could see the influence on him. So that to me was a shock to me as a film fan. Sergio was an early influence for us, and still is to this day, but I saw all 26 of the Zatoichi movies and just fell in love with them, basically.
Also, while the violence in those Zatoichi movies is stylized, it still makes a huge impact, which is something that I’ve found to be true in your movies as well, especially From Hell.
Albert: At first when we were younger, it was more about shock value and jarring the audience in the same way cinema has been doing for 100 years. The trap we fell into then is we were happily into the slow-motion, stylized stuff. With Eli we set up a dogma of no slow motion for violence, let’s keep it real-time because subconsciously it makes the moment more emotional and more real for the audience. The stakes are higher. I think when we were younger we were more graphic and as we got to From Hell we got less so, but we found other ways to make it feel graphic. A lot of people looked at that movie and thought it was graphic, but the intent was to do a sleight of hand, and I think that it worked too well in a way.
There’s a lot in it that’s visually implied, which makes you think it’s more violent than it is. Like the shower scene in Psycho.
Albert: Exactly. The other problem is that we’re big into sound, so part of the mistake that we made in that movie is that we went overboard with the violent sound. When people hear a violent sound, you might as well just show them a picture of the violence.
Speaking of sound, I was impressed that the gunshots in Eli actually had that real-life firecracker-sounding aspect to them.
Albert: That firecracker word’s important. That’s something we always bring up to our sound guys. In the shoot-outs we saw when we grew up, and we’ve been caught in a few of them — not participating but hiding from them down the street — they always sounded like firecrackers. There were movies throughout our cinema-viewing history that we watched where we’d go, “Why does Rambo’s gun sound so fake?” or “Why does Schwarzenegger’s gun sound so fake?” So we said to our people, you have to go out there and get the sound of real gunshots.
This movie is nominally about religion, and you don’t really make a secret of the fact that the titular book is the Bible, but it’s also not really entirely about all that. I think I remember hearing Allen calling it a “sacred MacGuffin.”
Allen: It’s funny because I was trying to form that phrase for months and I couldn’t figure out a respectful way to do it. As you know, the old thing Hitchcock said, in the briefcase, it could be diamonds, it could be a bomb, it could be money. It doesn’t really matter. It’s the stakes, the MacGuffin, it’s what’s in that briefcase. With our movie, I think it was important that that sacred MacGuffin be the Bible, because it is the biggest-selling book of all time. That’s the biggest one, the most, for lack of a better word, commercial one. The most accessible one. So it was probably the most powerful one in terms of starting the debate, the discourse, over the themes we had.
It’s certainly the book Eli thinks is most important, but (Desert island question time!) if there were only one book you could save by trudging it across a postapocalyptic United States, what would it be?
Allen: Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
That’s a pretty heavy book. You’d have to lug it around on your back.
Allen: I’d carry it. That’s the one I want to survive. If the world’s rebooted from it, it’ll reboot not to HIStory, but history.
Albert: I’d go with a George Carlin book, or a Mark Twain book. Not a Mark Twain story, but one of his books of musings. Because I look at George Carlin as the modern-day Mark Twain. They’re both very cynical, but there’s hope and humor there. That or a book like The Art of War. Or a good copy of Buttman magazine, the heterosexual looking-at-women’s-asses magazine. Okay, end-of-the-world scenario, it’s Mark Twain, George Carlin, and a few issues of Buttman magazine.