While the weather in New Mexico created a number of difficulties during the shooting of “The Book of Eli,” director Albert Hughes revealed that the erratic climate did give the film one great, unplanned moment. “You know that scene where [Eli] mercy kills the guy on the ground, and then, all of a sudden, the wind blows up and the camera is shaking or whatever? You think it’s effects, but that actually just came out of nowhere. We just kept rolling. Denzel just took it. ”
Albert and his co-director/brother Allen spoke to CBR News about the challenges of the film, working together, and bringing high profile actors Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman to the project.
Continuing with the theme of filmmaking challenges, Albert jokingly added to the list, “Working with my brother.” The two have been partners since they created “Menace II Society” together in 1993. They also directed 2001’s “From Hell,” adapted from Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s classic graphic novel. “The Book of Eli” is their first feature film since that time.
When asked how they share directorial duties, Allen responded, “That’s probably the most asked question over the years, but it never gets satiated for some reason. It’s such an intangible [thing].” “I wonder that about the Wachowski Brothers and the Coen Brothers.” Albert added, “It’s like a two-headed mutant monster.”
While Albert spearheads the visual and technical aspects of their films, Allen focuses on the actors’ performances and the movie’s story. That’s not to say that they work completely independently of each other. The brothers often overlap and comment in one another’s specialized era. “There are heated arguments and friction because he’s thinking one way and I’m thinking another,” Albert explained. “I’m trying to make a pretty picture. He’s trying to make a pretty performance.”
Both admit that while collaborating on earlier films, the tensions fueled grudges, especially as they still shared a home and were unable to get time away from each other. Now, though, their heated discussions can dissipate within seconds. “[‘Book of Eli’] was the first movie where we didn’t fight,” Albert said. “We were at war a lot,” he joked. “But it was a subterranean war.”
Avoiding potential battles may seem like it may have been the hardest hurdle for the directors to overcome, but Allen considers the spirituality of “The Book of Eli” the greatest challenge they faced. “You look at [the concept of] faith [as presented in the film] and you think [from a business perspective], ‘What’s the box office going to be? Are we offending people or what’s the line we’re walking here?'” It was also a concern of Warner Bros President Alan Horn. “He’s very wise and a very thoughtful person. Their concern was over the faith, and that was paramount with them.”
Albert offered, “Or you look at the positive, like, ‘Look what Mel Gibson did with faith.'”
The story’s exploration of the concept of faith was the aspect that most appealed to Allen when he first read Gary Whitta’s script. “It was the scene where Mr. Oldman’s character, Carnegie, talks about how [the book of Eli was] not just a book, it’s a weapon. That’s when the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I was like, ‘Wow, this is deep. This is saying something.’ That’s what got us.”
While the true nature of the book is not made clear until the end of the film, its subject matter is discussed throughout. “During the development stages, that was one of the things we tried working on,” Albert explained. “It said [what it was] in the script. [We felt] the audience doesn’t need to know it that early, so we tried to pull back on that a bit and reveal it slowly.” For the directors, the exact nature of the book is not at the heart of the film. “The story, to us, is not so much about that as it is about one man. The book is an old Hitchcock-MacGuffin thing,” Albert stated. “It could’ve been a book about the plans for a bomb. If a good guy has it, he knows he keeps it secret. If a bad guy takes it, he’s going to build a bomb. It very easily could’ve been a different book.” Allen added “The movie is about personal faith and purpose when all is lost.”
According to Allen, Denzel Washington came onboard three to six months after the brothers signed on to direct. Allen’s inspiration to suggest Washington for the role of Eli came from an early scene in the script itself. “[Eli] would get ready to kill them, and he would start quoting scriptures from the Bible, and it was just…it was actually quite striking and visual and it sounded cool, but I couldn’t imagine any other actor pulling that off,” the director explained. “So we threw Denzel’s name on the table. [The studio] reacted immediately to it.”
Washington is credited as a producer on the film and became deeply involved in the development of the story. The Hughes Brothers were amenable to the actor’s input. “I think with [him], because he is so astute when it comes to scripts, when it comes to character, when it comes to filmmaking, we really welcomed a godfather in that way,” Allen said.
During story meetings, Washington would act out different parts and pitch out new lines or ideas while in character. It was during these sessions that the idea of approaching Gary Oldman came up. According to Allen, Washington would suggest ideas for the Carnegie character saying, “Gary would do it this way.” He would then proceed to do a pastiche of an Oldman performance. At some point, the directors finally said, “Why don’t we try to get Gary Oldman for the role?”
Oldman had grown wearing of playing screen villains and spent the last several years in lower-key roles. “He had been playing Commissioner Gordon, and Heath Ledger was eating the scenes up, and [in] Harry Potter, these youngsters forgot who really invented that crazy, quirky bad guy thing that was him,” Albert explained. “What Denzel envisioned that Gary would bring to [‘Eli’] is exactly what he did, and then some, because Gary was so hungry to jump into a meaty role.”
When talking about how the film relates to people in the here and now, Allen pointed to its theme of preservation. “I think another element to the movie is how important history of any sort is; sacred texts. I love words, how important words are. We all need to be cognizant of preservation. Not just of nature,, but we should also be very conscious of preserving everything that we can. All this is precious. Let’s start acting as such.”
Looking forward, the Hughes Brothers are seeking out new scripts, having no intentions of letting another nine years pass by without a film. “We’re reading a lot. No more hiatuses, that’s for damned sure,” Allen said. “We want to work.”
Warner Bros.’ “The Book of Eli” hits theaters on January 15.