An Intimate Conversation With BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99’s Vince Vaughn And Craig Zahler

In which Scott chats with the madmen behind Fantastic Fest's gnarliest film.

How y'all doing?

Vince Vaughn: Good!

S. Craig Zahler: Great!

I just talked to Udo (Kier). He's an interesting cat, isn't he?

SCZ: That's an understatement.

(To Vince Vaughn) Y'know what, I just rewatched Old School not long ago.

VV: Oh?

Yeah, and now I'm wondering if you'd have done something like Brawl In Cell Block 99 back around that time, had it been offered.

VV: That's an interesting thing to bring up. I remember when Todd Phillips came to me with Old School, we had a problem because the studio didn't think I could do comedy.

What?

VV: Yeah, they said they didn't think I could do comedy and (Phillips) had to show them, like, that I'd been on a late night talk show, to show them I could be funny.

What about Swingers?

VV: Right, well, that's what I thought. But Swingers was a cult movie that went on to be very popular, and we didn't have that (level of awareness) at the time. Or the box office. So, for whatever reason, it just wasn't on these people's minds, and Phillips really had to go to bat for me to get that movie. And of course that turned into Wedding Crashers and Dodgeball and a bunch of other things. So, as an actor, if you're not generating material, you're sorta dependent upon a filmmaker bringing you opportunities.

It's interesting here because when Craig came to me with this opportunity, I was like...wow, this was one of the best things I'd ever read. And Bone Tomahawk was the most interesting, original film I'd seen in years. I was like, this guy's got an original voice, he has something to say, versus someone who's just trying to do what everyone else is doing. So, I was thrilled to have this opportunity. And when I was younger I used to box, I did Jiu-Jitsu, so I've always participated in martial arts or fighting even if it was just recreationally. I was thrilled. 

Your last two high-profile gigs - this and the most recent season of True Detective - were both on the sinister side, versus the string of comedies you had been making. Is that just what you're feeling these days, or is that just what's coming to you?

VV: Nah, I think I've just gotten back to the kinds of things I wanted to do when I was younger, things I'm more interested in. Even Hacksaw Ridge, with Mel (Gibson) coming to me with that and asking if I wanted to play this drill sergeant...look, it's been a great opportunity as of late to do things a little differently. It's been fun. 

(To S. Craig Zahler) Now, do I call you...Craig? 

SCZ: You can call me Craig, you can call me Zahler. Most of my friends or anyone other than family calls me Zahler, but you can go by Craig.

Right on. Vince mentioned the Brawl In Cell Block 99 screenplay earlier, and I wanted to ask about that. I've read your last two scripts, and I'm always struck by how hyperdetailed they are. They read more like novels than screenplays. What's the intent there, especially if you're directing?

SCZ: Well, there are many long and too complicated answers to that that would probably mirror the scripts (laughs). But I'm a novelist, and when I was in film school, a lot of my orientation was in animation. So I've always been detail-oriented, and in the case of screenplays, certainly there's a standard and you're supposed to refrain from a lot of detail or putting in a lot of beats - maybe you can put a camera direction in there - but what I always try to do is create a vivid experience, in anything that I'm doing. By putting in all those details, I think it becomes a more vivid reading experience, and this can kinda attest to the quantity of material that I've sold that when people look at this they're like, "Maybe we shouldn't have a scene where there's a nine year old girl face down with needles in her back", but they bought it.

A lot of those sales - which I think are currently up to 27 different pieces floating around in the Hollywood toilet - is a result of what you're talking about, about how vivid they are. In terms of a script I know I'm going to direct versus one I'm just writing to sell, I just have one style that I'm trying to sell. They could always be longer than they are, or have more detail than I provide, but in terms of selling it and creating a vivid experience...well, assuming your crew knows how to read, now they can be like, "Oh, that's what color THIS is supposed to be, or that's what color THIS outfit is."

I guess this next question is for both of you: is filming in a prison environment as oppressive as I think it is? Seems like it'd be a huge bummer.

SCZ (to Vince Vaughn): You wanna answer this?

Yeah, especially you. You're in cells and in chains and all kinds of shit.

VV: I think it's useful in those moments. Sometimes it wasn't. When you're playing this kind of character you're supposed to be prepared, and you work with whatever's around you. The more authentic the environment, the more it helps. Some of the places we shot - like the courtyard scenes - weren't actual prisons. They were just aesthetically interesting and affordable.

Right.

SCZ: One thing, and I don't wanna give too much away to anyone who hasn't seen it, but there are different prison environments in the movie. The most realistic one, which I detail in the script, is where Vince starts his journey, that shows what would be the most likely prison experience. We were in a real prison for that, and Vince was able to use the walls and pound on everything the way he did - all of that's different than recreating it on a set. You've also got those doors, which make the sounds that they do, and that kind of thing adds to the atmosphere and brings out those details. 

The structure on Brawl In Cell Block 99 is similar to Bone Tomahawk in that it ramps up as it goes along. I take it you're a fan of the slow burn.

SCZ: It's interesting - that term's probably going to be used for most things that I'm interested in directing, and in a way I think it's sort of a misnomer. Some people might look at these movies and say those super violent moments are the explosive moments, but other people won't find those moments to be culmination moments, or delivering what they're most interested in. The first dialogue exchange with Don Johnson is a memorable one. A lot of the exchanges between husband and wife are, to me, just as important as the moments of violence. All the arrows are pointing to this and that's where the plot goes, and a lot of people in the audience will be waiting for (the violence), and maybe for them the the experience will be "slow", but I put as much effort and have as much interest in those nuanced moments of drama as any of the violence. It's an equal focus. I'm interested in exploring depth and layers in both.

I do this with graphic violence, as well. When you're trying to show the audience something new (in terms of violence), it can get extreme. But when you're doing it with drama, this is why you see lots of discussion - on this movie and Bone Tomahawk - about, "Where do they fall on the grindhouse to art house spectrum?" It's because I have an equal interest in both.

When I first read the Brawl script, I remember thinking, "Well, there's no way they're gonna get all this into the movie, it'd get an NC-17", and I only recently learned you're releasing it in a limited capacity, and unrated. Was that always the plan?

SCZ: Yeah, for sure. The situation on this movie and with Bone Tomahawk was, I knew I had final cut. But whereas the violence in Bone Tomahawk was supposed to be traumatic and, for the most part, not enjoyable, the violence in Brawl is supposed to be cathartic. You've been waiting for hours to watch this happen! It's a different experience. And so, for that to deliver - after you've watched people shit on this guy and put bricks on his back and hobble him and shackle him for 100 minutes - for there to finally be a release, it needed to go so much bigger and so much further than you would typically expect. It was hard for me to see this as an R-rated movie, so...yeah, that was kind of a given from the outset.

Vince, what about you? The first time you read this, was any part of you taken aback by how gruesome it got?

VV: No, I really liked it! It came across my desk and my representatives were like, "Mmmyeah, I dunno, this thing's really violent. I dunno if it's our next thing." Then I read it and I was like, "What?! This thing is awesome!" To Craig's point, what got me hooked on it was the early scene where he comes home to Jennifer Carpenter and has this interaction with her, and it's surprising, the way that scene plays out. You know the guy's really violent, he's clearly separating himself from her because there's a lack of confidence in control...but then they have this conversation that's very tender and accepting, and that felt very real to me. I could fill in the specifics and say to myself, "These are two characters who are wanting to be sober. There's clearly some real tragedy here, and there's a support system here between them." It's somber, y'know? 

Sure.

VV: They're like two plants that haven't gotten enough sunlight and they're just trying to be kind to one another. I found myself rooting for them in a way that I don't normally root for this kind of onscreen relationship, because it wasn't done in a way you'd normally see. There was no "save the cat" moment. It was much more human and complicated than that. The other thing was, after (my character) makes this hard decision for the greater good of his life - which I think are shared goals, for most people, wanting to have opportunities and a family and things like that - he decides to go down a road that's not healthy for others -

Hahaha, "not healthy for others."

VV: Well, yeah! It's unethical and violent, but he's forced, once he's made this decision. There's that scene where (my character) looks over and sees this addict on a bench, who's clearly struggling. I like that after he's made the choice to (live a life of crime), he's held accountable for it. He sees him very clearly, and yet he's still gotta make his drop and go about his day. He's constantly evaluating these moments and his choices in a way that I think most of us would. I found that to be very interesting. Also, I had the luxury of seeing Bone Tomahawk, and I loved the performances and pacing and tone...I mean, I loved it. And yeah, it's violent, but it really does come out of the characters.

Brawl In Cell Block 99 is now open in NYC and Los Angeles, and hits both VOD and Digital HD on October 13th. You definitely want to check it out.

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