Interviews · Movies

Interview: The Star and Director of ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’

Vince Vaughn and S. Craig Zahler descend into the mouth of madness for their prison brawl nightmare.
By  · Published on October 6th, 2017

Vince Vaughn and S. Craig Zahler descend into the mouth of madness for their prison brawl nightmare.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 holds its punches to the point of near confusion causing its audience to scratch their heads as to whether or not they’ve purchased a ride into the horror show promised by the conclusion of S. Craig Zahler’s previous film, Bone Tomahawk. Brawl takes its time establishing the relationships between the players, luring its audience into one particular sense of genre only to break its boundaries and plummet them into a hellscape of skull-crunching insanity. Vince Vaughn loses himself inside the behemoth body of Bradley Thomas, an underworld goon struggling to maintain his marriage in a life of crime. It’s a breakaway performance that certainly contains shades of likability glimpsed in previous roles but stands out as an intimidating film noir heavy with a soul. I had the chance to sit down with both Zahler and Vaughn to nerd out over Swamp-Thing, discuss the anger bubbling under the surface of sadness, and the “safe-ish” battle royale they were determined to capture on screen.

Red Dots

S. Craig Zahler: Is that a Swamp-Thing shirt?

It is. In honor of Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson who passed earlier this year.

Zahler: Yeah. Those issues are great. Growing up with the Alan Moore stuff, it’s hard to compare to that in terms of the writing, but Wrightson was the man.

For sure. A tremendous impact on comic book culture. (A moment of silence for the legend). I saw the film this morning. I think it’s definitely a film made for Fantastic Fest.

Zahler: Cool, thank you so much.

Coming out with Bone Tomahawk, that was a brutal experience, but what I appreciated so much of this one was the escalation that occurred. Not only of the intensity but also just how it cranked up its genre or descended into its genre. It starts off like this noir, heavy film, an underworld Richard Stark Parker kind of thing, then it descends-

Zahler: I’ll take that compliment.

… into hell. Why pick this sub-genre after Bone Tomahawk? Why go into this world?

Zahler: I’ve written a lot of pieces in the last, I guess, 11, 12 years. So this is a script I wrote immediately before Bone Tomahawk, one that I still had some control over and was able to get back. One of the things that keep me going, and it’s certainly hard after selling, at this point I think, 27 different pieces into Hollywood, selling or having them auctioned and seeing none of them made there, is exploring new stuff.

I remember when I started writing westerns, I’d seen maybe … I think it was 19 different westerns out of Film Forum revival in New York. So then after that, I said, “This is what works about this. This is a lot of what doesn’t work about this.” So not that long after I’d written a couple westerns, I got things going, there was a big retrospective at Film Forum of prison movies, and so I watched a bunch of them. I was like, “Well, this works for me here. This doesn’t.” But this idea of all of these guys confined, and certainly they all have interesting pasts in this world, is pretty compelling to me in terms of the pressure cooker situation.

But this really all came about when I’d figured out the opening sequence in who the protagonist was, with Bradley coming home after being laid off and learning what he does about his wife, dealing with his anger the way that he does and having the conversation with her that he does afterward. Kind of that, and knowing that I wanted that to get into a situation where he’s in a prison that gets increasingly more bizarre, was about what I had. It was the kind of thing where after Bone Tomahawk, I knew I would have some more resources and be able to better realize certain things. For my first conversation with Vince, it was terrific. He had a lot of trust in me. I remember the first rehearsals we had, just seeing as like, “Wow, he can like …” I’m doing an Udo Kier accent opposite him doing these scenes.

Vince Vaughn: You should do one now.

Zahler: (Dropping right into Udo’s signature voice) My Udo Kier accent is lamentably a scene I’m degenerate into. (Snaps back into Zahler) But I’m doing these scenes opposite him, and I’m seeing him snap to it and with such access to his emotions that I knew, “Oh, this is really all going to come together well.” But in terms of landing there. I like a lot of genre stuff. Pretty much all of my favorite movies are genre movies, and actually I kind of feel everything is genre. Just because you’re drama doesn’t mean you’re not genre. It’s like that’s your genre. You’re going to dwell in your emotionality and your self-importance in many of them. It was a situation where I knew I could realize it well. The budget was about twice that of Bone Tomahawk. I brought back a good chunk of my team from that one, and had the environments. I had a 100% control over the final cut and casting, most importantly, and had a lot of people who were willing and trusting to get it done.

Talking about that opening sequence when Bradley destroys that car. He comes off as a real threat in the first few moments of the movie, but what I appreciate about the film was how by the time we get to his final moments … I was like tearing up in this really horrendous situation. That connection with Jennifer Carpenter’s character was there. How do you put on that skin, this incredibly confident bruiser at the beginning of the film, and eventually peeling that back to seeing a real human being there?

Vaughn: In the piece, the first thing that struck me when I read it was that scene that follows the car. You get these two wounded birds who have really been through a lot of trouble.

Severe, yeah.

Vaughn: Yeah, totally. And I was surprised that it actually brought them closer together. That would not be my expectations from most things that you read, right? You’d have her do something amazing for him, or him for her, and now you’re rooting for that couple. But if I look at real life, like this was a real life … They were going to try to pick up and do the best they could based on circumstances. And I think I like Bradley because he took some responsibility within a conversation with her, and that was impressive to me. So there was an intelligence to him, and a kindness to him. And I just believe this to be true, we were talking about it earlier, but I think underneath a lot of rage is a lot of pain. There is a lot of hurt once you get past the anger, but I think it works the other way too. If you’re really angry, if you’re really sad, sometimes there’s anger under there that you’re not allowing yourself to feel. I think what happens is it’s clear in the writing he doesn’t want to join the boxing program, he ought not to hurt people. You see him interacting with his coworkers when he gets fired, he’s finally … He obviously has good relationships because his one friend comes and says, “I’ll let you know if there’s work.” So he’s obviously someone who treats people with consideration, and he just puts himself in this circumstance.

He’s incredibly reluctant in so many ways.

Vaughn: It is a morality tale. He can’t get a break and so he’s going to do something and put his head in the sand, although he can’t put his head in the sand because he’s the guy on the bench, so he’s responsible. But then once the stakes get upped that his family’s in jeopardy … Again, I think it’s the writing which I find really makes you take more responsibility for it. The gentleman who’s kind of hard-wrung Bradley, the guard, and that is revealed that sort of tough love. “Oh, I’m sorry, you’re having a bad day. I’m just trying to encourage you because I think this might be good for you.” And it’s at that moment that you wouldn’t want something to happen to that guy, right? You’ve set him up perfectly to that point. Okay, if someone’s going to get hurt, this guy’s been kind of a prick. Yeah, he would maybe deserve it, but the moment he decided to be more dimensional and considerate is the moment that-

It’s too late.

Vaughn: Something has to happen. All those things were just really informative to the person. And to me, I think, all this stuff comes from character. Even in the fighting, it comes from this place, so I think that time that we get to learn, and those choices that are made, reveal what’s at stake and who this individual is. And it’s not obvious because Craig doesn’t write obvious. Here’s a guy who everyone treats bad and he’s justifying for simple revenge. Or here’s a guy who’s done everything right, the world is wrong. He’s culpable, and people are culpable. You’re constantly going back and forth, and it becomes a more complicated journey.

Sure, but also as an audience member, the buttons that Bradley obviously has, when they get pushed, you’re just waiting for that button to go off. The idea of Bradley being his name, not Brad. As a Brad myself, I totally understand it because I hate it when people call me Bradley. They make that assumption. Because he’s so confident, because you’ve seen his skills so assured at the beginning of the film, you still feel pretty comfortable that Bradley will succeed, will prevail, to some degree. Until Udo shows up. Now, just the look, the cross on the back of your head, the shaved skull, the muscle. I mean, getting into that skin, that has to do half the job for you.

Vaughn: Yeah, you just have to commit to that. You got to feel strong, and get strong, and get comfortable with the fighting sequences because they’re not going to be faked, you’re going to do them, and you got to … There’s a little bit of an execution of them. There’s a lot of people going full speed, and not everyone is perfect at it. You got to dive into that mindset. But again, it comes from your purpose, which is this is about his family and the things that he wants, and just coming from that point of view. So there’s a sensitivity, there’s a … underneath this rage, and now it’s business and this has to happen, and there’s no joy in Mudville, right?

(Laughter) Sure.

Vaughn: And we’re going to take care of this. This is what has to happen. Even when he says, “I know what I did.” I don’t want to give away too much, but he’s like, “You stupid asshole. I’m frustrated that you made me kill you in this moment, but I’m going to move past it now because time is pressing.”

Zahler: Just one thing to your point, in terms of the shaved head, and the cross, and the muscle, doing half of the work. It’s a sum of the work. It does the work on that poster, and it does the work for screen grabs, and does the work for an immediate thing, but in terms of, and this is something I saw right away … Vince and I talked about him working on an accent, and I saw how quickly he started absorbing this and getting that, and what that did to the vocal rhythms that he has, and just the cadences of everything. There’s a lot there, and then there’s a lot just in the physicality, which isn’t just the muscle and the shaved head, and the cross. Just him physically moving in one shot to another shot, just walking and living the life that he’s lived, and all of that informing him moment to moment. This is to me one of the great screen transformations of recent years.

But a lot of it is also just the subtlety and nuance scene after scene. Just conversations with Lauren, who’s very, very skillfully played by Jennifer Carpenter. You can just watch that and there’s so much in there, just in terms of layers of hurt, and pushing it down, and him being a man in these situations, but there’s a vulnerability while trying to push things forward, and find a solution and be a problem solver. It’s just fantastically layered work, and I’m thrilled with his performance and at the accolades that he’s getting. But again, the shaved head and the cross, and the muscle, those all are part of it, but if none of that happened and he did the work that he did with accent, and the physicality of the way he was moving, and finding those rhythms, and doing the fights, and then finding all those moments in the drama, the transformation would still but there.

Can we talk about those fights for a second?

Zahler: Sure.

In an era where action films are heavily cut, extreme close ups, I was stunned by how far back the camera was and you’re view of the fight. That must have been tremendously grueling.

Zahler: I’ll let you (nodding to Vince) speak, but it’s yes for both of us on that.

Vaughn: Well, Craig had a real aesthetic and idea, so I really have the benefit of not only reading the screenplay and loving it, but really appreciating Bone Tomahawk, so I was thrilled and had a lot of trust in Zahler, and still do. So I would try to understand it. For me it’s about comprehending it in a way that I can connect to it, and then just dive into it. But it is like a kind of thing where you want to land your plane when everything’s happening. You don’t want to peak too soon. So there’s a getting used to it and a rhythm. Had a very good stunt coordinator, Drew …

Zahler: Yeah, Drew Leary.

Vaughn: Would kind of be able to work in what Greg wanted. And then you got to go for it, and there’s that sense of … Part of what I found with myself doing was to some of the other actors, who weren’t necessarily as comfortable with fighting stuff, was getting to a place of all of us to say, “We got to go here. This is …” I don’t know. At some point we’re not going to work it out intellectually perfectly. We just have to commit and be safe-ish with each other, but push ourselves in this moment here and get there. And everyone played ball and got into that, and I think that’s why you see a lot of the connectedness on screen.

It certainly succeeded for me, and the crowd that I saw in this morning was darn right shocked by the first arm break on.

Zahler: And one of the things is showing this stuff in an atypical fashion. Something I don’t hear a lot of people talk about, but every edit in the movies is the suspension of disbelief. If at a critical moment of violence, or a critical turn in the performance, you have to cut to it, even though people aren’t consciously aware of it they just suspended disbelief. So finding those moments and showing an arm break, or a really dramatic turn, a beat change, and showing that without an edit, and having it happen in the shot where it usually doesn’t happen, or it’s manufactured by cutting to it. Even though I’ve actually never heard anyone talk about it, there’s a suspension of disbelief because you’re moving through space and that’s the entirely opposite process of how we did the fight scenes, which comes from the tradition that started with Buster Keaton and then went to Fred Astaire where in his contract he said, “You have to see me head to toe in every shot to know that there’s no trick photography.” And then it went to Jackie Chan, and it’s this thing where undoubtedly you walk out of the movie and you know Vince did every bit of that fighting. There’s not a question of it.

So there’s this other intangible thing where it’s not like, I don’t need to show you that I can shoot something in slow motion. I don’t really do that stuff. I don’t need to show you that I can manufacture all of this cool stuff. And I enjoy the highly choreographed and stylized John Woo kind of gun fight. I grew up on that stuff and really relish it, but it’s not what I wanted to do here. I really wanted to feature the performers, and fortunately, I had a very skilled center to all of it and then different people of different calibers coming in, but they were all game. And they all got hurt to different degrees in all of these fights. Thankfully nobody badly hurt, but it’s a different thing, but it shows on screen. It feels like something different, it feels like something real.

Red Dots

Brawl in Cell Block 99 lands in limited theaters October, 6th, but will arrive on VOD and expand to further cities on October 13th.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)