Interview: S. Craig Zahler, writer and director of Dragged Across Concrete
Two decades after completing film school, and a prolific number of scripts and novels later, S. Craig Zahler has now become one of America’s key genre filmmakers. With Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, a Western and a prison film, respectively, Zahler’s bizarre combination of intense, pulpy violence and meandering, almost meditative character digressions has set him apart from other writer-directors working today.
For his third film, the appropriately titled Dragged Across Concrete, Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn play an ageing cop-duo who are suspended after a heavy-handed interaction with a suspect, and plan to rob a gangster to make up for their sudden lack of funds; a heist that gradually gets worse and worse for the pair.
As with Zahler’s previous films, amongst the grit and violent displays of machismo, the film has lengthy moments of character exploration one tends to find lacking in other genre films. Sam Howlett spoke to Zahler about these moments that define his style, how he found the perfect cast, how he picks his titles, and what he’s up too next.
Dragged Across Concrete is an amazing title that perfectly sums up the film, what made it the right title for you?
ZAHLER: The title for my pieces often comes really really early in the process. In this case I had the general set up of the story, albeit I had a completely different third act, and knew that I wanted the title to be something immediate and grabbing. I try and do that with all of my titles. I think the hallmark of a good title is to come up with something that immediately puts an image in your mind, to come up with something that’s unique to the piece, which is obviously not the case with many movies coming out today, and to come up with a title that has more than one meaning. Those are the thoughts and it came to me pretty early on, and there are obviously multiple literal scenes of that title in different ways and there are the other metaphorical ones. Dragged Across Concrete is just an image that gets to people and I think if you hear it before seeing the movie it will put an image in your mind. The idea of a strong title for me is one that stays with you, is unique and creates an image on its own, it doesn’t have to be explained.
A lot of the cast of Dragged also appeared in Brawl, what was it about this cast that made you want to reassemble them here?
ZAHLER: What happens on the set is you become very comfortable with your material and also with who you love working with. During my second time out, with Brawl in Cell Block 99, I was struck immediately with Vince Vaughn and how good he was to work with, how much range he has, and how much near-instant access he has to different emotions; he’s an incredible performer.
Don Johnson is someone I grew up wanting to be, as a kid from Miami in the ‘80s. I wanted to hear him deliver my dialogue, and he was the voice in my head in terms of the cadences and the quality in the voice.
Jennifer Carpenter is just a super, terrific performer in terms of depth; I don't know how many people are working at quite the level she is. You can keep adding little bits for her to do and her performance in Dragged Across Concrete in that sequence is a real tour de force, that’s some incredibly difficult stuff, she has to go very deep pretty much at all times.
And then there’s Fred Melamed, who’s been in all three of my movies, and whose performance as Sy Abelman in A Serious Man is probably my favourite movie character of the last 20 years, so I was a fan of his and he handles my dialogue extremely well. Udo Kier is just the Udo-enigma that is Udo Kier, and great to work with. My second time out more people believed in me, I had more resources and I was able to pick a lot of people who I had my eye on for quite a long time and then I had great working experiences with them, and looked at the next piece and ask ‘well are there roles for them in those movies?’.
There are scenes in this film that take up a lot of screen time but add nothing to the plot; Vince and Mel eating sandwiches in the car, the lengthy introduction to Jennifer Carpenters character, they remind me of the scene in Brawl when Bradley (Vince Vaughn) slowly and violently dismantles a car in anger – what do these scenes mean to you?
ZAHLER: You’ve just picked out three of my 10 favourite scenes across my three movies. Those scenes are the scenes that make the pieces deeper. They’re not the scenes that make the piece advance two more blocks on the avenue of plot, they’re the scenes that tell you who these people are before the movie and who they are right now, and allow the viewer to make extrapolations of who these people are and really get a sense of the lives of the characters outside the world of the movie. When you watch that sandwich scene, you know that it’s not the first time with these guys, it’s probably not the fiftieth time with these guys; you get a real sense of shared history with them. And then with Bradley dismantling the car in Brawl in Cell Block 99, it shows a strength of character that he has that much anger, which is terrifying, but also that he would not direct that at a woman, even a woman who he just found out cheated on him – those are the things that make my pieces stand out in addition to the violence, which is often discussed. These sequences are closer to my heart and really are what make my movies, and my books as well, a bit further afield from what is expected.
What can you tell us about your future projects?
ZAHLER: All five of those actors mentioned earlier from Dragged… (Vince Vaughn, Don Johnson, Jennifer Carpenter, Udo Keir and Fred Melamed) actually have roles in my next movie. Tory Kittles, who is terrific in Dragged Across Concrete, has a very big role in what I hope will be my fifth piece, a limited series western. One of the leads is for him, and the other is for Don Johnson. You find the people that you want to work with and when they deliver consistently, and if they match the characters, I think it’s nice to reinforce that relationship, and you also just really know what you’re going to get on set and have an idea with what you’re going to be dealing with in the editing room.
Dragged Across Concrete
Director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) takes us back to the glory days of '70s cop movies with this explosion in slow motion.
Three intertwined stories build to a bloody conclusion: two cops (Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn) caught on camera brutalising a suspect hope to redeem themselves by intercepting a heist, perpetrated by career-criminal on probation Henry (Tory Kittles). Needless to say, things go awry.
Focusing on character and mounting tension, as well as rhythmic, memorable dialogue, Zahler makes every punch count as we reach the charged finale of this unfiltered take on the cop thriller.
Dragged Across Concrete plays on our screens from Friday 19 April