Twins Allen and Albert Hughes made a major leap into the entertainment industry with their debut as twenty-year-old creators and directors of Menace II Society, a realistic look at inner-city life that premiered in 1993 at the Cannes Film Festival. They went on to direct Dead Presidents with Chris Tucker and Larenz Tate, the documentary American Pimp and From Hell starring Johnny Depp.
Their newest venture, The Book of Eli, is set in the not-so-distant future, 35 years after a war that has left the world in ruins. Walking through the wastelands of what used to be America is Eli (Denzel Washington), a man with a mission, fiercely protecting the last copy of the Bible known to man. Only one other person, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), understands the power Eli holds, and is determined to make it his own.
What was it about this project that attracted you?
Albert Hughes: Initially we got the script when nobody was attached. It was low on the radar. I read it and it was the scene where the character of Carnegie talks about it’s not just a book, it’s a weapon. That’s when the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is deep. This is saying something.’
When did Denzel get involve and become a producer on this?
Allen Hughes: Denzel got involved three months after we got attached. Warner Brothers had this list of twenty stars, maybe five real viable ones, and we had this meeting and brought up Denzel.
I remember reading the lines in the scene with the roadside bandits, he would get ready to kill them and he would start quoting scripture from the Bible, and it was striking and it sounded cool, but I couldn’t imagine any other actor pulling that off. So we threw Denzel’s name on the table and they reacted immediately to it.
Denzel read it and he goes, ‘I’ll do this movie, but they’ve got to make me a partner, a producer.’ Normally, if an actor said that I would take it as a threat, but I think with Denzel, he’s so astute when it comes to scripts, characters and filmmaking we really welcomed a godfather in that way, so that how that started.
Is he one of the reasons you were able to get Gary Oldman for this?
Allen Hughes: One thing about Denzel when we were working with him on the script, he plays all the characters, he flushes out everything and the one thing he kept saying was, ‘This bad guy’s not right and the good guy is only as good as the bad guy.’
Albert Hughes: I remember at one point he was like, ‘Gary Oldman would do it like this.’ And the funny part of it is, the way that Denzel acted out it was the way Gary may have done ten years ago, and when he got to the movie Gary [did it a little differently].
Allen Hughes: And I said, ‘Why don’t we try to get Gary Oldman?’
Albert Hughes: What Denzel envisioned that Gary would bring to it is exactly what he did, and then some, because Gary was so hungry to jump into a meaty role. He’d been playing Commissioner Gordon, and Heath Ledger was eating the scenes up, and then he did Harry Potter, these youngsters forgot who really invented that crazy, quirky bad guy. He surprised us all.
Do you think the movie is controversial?
Albert Hughes: Well, you look at faith and you go, ‘What’s the box office going to be on this?’ Or, ‘Are we offending people?’
Allen Hughes: Or you look at the positive side, ‘Look what Mel Gibson did with faith (in The Passion of the Christ)’
What was the biggest challenge for you?
Albert Hughes: Working with my brother (they both laugh) No, I think it was shooting in New Mexico. It’s a very beautiful State, and I’ve never seen the earth meet the sky in my life, but it can be beautiful, birds chirping, very still one second, and all of a sudden the wind blows up and the camera starts shaking.
Allen Hughes: Sometimes the dust storms were so bad you couldn’t see in front of you, there were 65 mile an hour winds. We had to shut down production when it happened.
Outside of mother nature, I think the biggest challenge would be walking the fine line of spirituality and religion.
Even though the movie is post-apocalyptic how do you think it relates to society now?
Allen Hughes: I think it resonates with what’s going on in the world right now. In America, in the Middle East, whenever anybody takes that book and wants to do bad with it, somebody takes it and wants to do good with it, you’ve got whack jobs out there killing abortion doctors over what they’ve interpreted out of that book, and you’ve got people on the streets helping homeless people over what they interpret in it that was good.
Albert Hughes: I think another element to the movie is how important history of any sort is, it’s a sacred text. I love words and how important words are, and how this relates to society right now.
We all need to be cognizant of preservation, not just of nature, and this hip thing that everybody’s going green, which I agree with, but we should also be very conscious of preserving everything that we can in these times, post-9/11, where we as a nation I think really feel our vulnerabilities like we never did before. We felt like Superman before, we felt like we couldn’t be touched and we got touched that day, that’s what hits home with this movie.
All this is precious; everything is precious, let’s start acting like it is.