“It’s a man on a mission with something that everybody wants,” Allen Hughes said of the story for The Book of Eli, his forthcoming action film starring Denzel Washington. “It’s pretty simple. One man is trying to get something somewhere.”
In late March of 2009, Collider visited the New Mexico set of the film, and we were met by torrential waves of dust and debris that filled every last nook and cranny in about five minutes. Unfortunately, we were there for about ten hours.
Hughes, who is co-directing with his brother Albert, explained how the film’s postapocalyptic world came to look quite so unhospitable. “We allude to a nuclear war, he said. “We also talk about what happened environmentally; it’s a combination of a lot of things – diseases, famine, war. It started with a war and now the whole system’s collapsed.”
Albert, meanwhile, detailed the story’s origins. “[Gary Whitta] is from the video game world, and he probably liked a lot of the post-apocalyptic movies,” Hughes said. “I thought it was interesting, the kind of spiritual or religious angle he had on it. It’s not based on any particular thing that I know of, [but] I mean, it does hint towards a lot of other movies.” When asked whether the film had a Western influence, Albert indicated that they were shying away from direct references to films, much less familiar genres. Much more after the jump:
“That’s the thing the studio has been scared of, and Warner Brothers [has said] ‘it’s not a Western!’ And it’s not a Western; it’s set in the west, but it’s not from that time period. But at the same time, my brother and I have always been influenced by Sergio Leone, and originally we wanted to shoot this in Spain where those spaghetti westerns were shot. We tip our hat a lot to those Westerns, but we did the same thing in Dead Presidents, but that’s not a Western. There is some stuff, like there’s a bar that looks like a saloon, and there’s showdowns and stuff, but you get those in cop movies too.”
The day we visited the set, the Hughes brothers were putting together the pieces of one of the film’s biggest scenes, a showdown at a rundown old home that unspools in one uncut shot. Albert indicated he and Allen were interested in evoking some of the great long-take scenes in movie history, but wanted this sequence to be their own. “It’s influenced by all of the cinematic shots through history, like the shot Orson Welles did in Touch of Evil. Then you have Scorsese, of course, and you have Brian De Palma, and we’ve always done long shots. I showed Hard Boiled for one reason – there’s a lot of action in that two minute and 32 second shot. Some people misinterpret it and say “is that the shot you want?” But ours is more rugged and handheld and going through things, but [I liked] the energy of what he did there.”
Ultimately, Albert said that the film’s thematic ideas and its philosophical underpinnings are what separate it from the ranks of other postapocalyptic films, much less action movies in general. “I think that ethereal spirituality that it has, you know, like there are superhero movies that are mythic and you can stretch reality, and there is a certain amount of stretching going on here even though I think it should all be based in reality. But, by the end, there are certain things you find out and go, oh ok, that’s why he was able to do that, or that’s why this happened, if you believe that way, it’s a very, I hope, depending on what you believe you side with one character or another if you believe or disbelieve what he can do.”
In the film, Washington’s character’s companion is Solara, a plucky barkeep played by actress Mila Kunis. Kunis said that Solara was no mere eye candy; rather, she starts the film as a relative innocent, but grows up pretty fast when the bullets and fists start flying. “She starts off really naïve and really very young, and halfway through the movie by default she has no choice but to toughen up,” Kunis said. “She’s not a stupid girl by any means. She’s a really, really strong female, and just wants to observe and absorb everything that [the world] has to offer.”
Kunis said she’d glimpsed a few finished shots of action scenes in which she participated, and reassured us that the sequences were faithful to the dusty, uncompromising landscape in which we were currently immersed. “I saw some stuff and it looks pretty sick, I have to say,” she beamed. “It looks dusty, it looks windy, it uses a lot of guns and there’s a lot of things blowing up. I run a lot, I shoot my little automatic, and then things just blow up everywhere.” When asked whether it took a different kind of imagination as an actor to play Solara as opposed to a contemporary, normal character, she slyly responded, “welcome to Albuquerque! Do you think this requires any imagination? The places we’ve been shooting, it required zero imagination. 40-mile-an-hour winds, the dust, it’s not CGI. You’re kind of stuck in this world.”
Interestingly, Gary Oldman seemed to relish the opportunity to swallow clouds of dust – that is, after he suggested a few changes be made to his character, the villainous Carnegie. “I was intrigued by the script, although it had further to go,” Oldman explained as the wind whipped around us. “I think the character was very sort of one-dimensional. Let’s put it this way: [even] if he had cast Jerry Seinfeld, you would have known he was the villain by Page Two. So I knew they were going to do some work on the script.” Despite his reservations, Oldman said that collaborating with the Hughes Brothers seemed to promising to pass up. “I sat down with Allen and I just thought he was fucking great. I really liked him, he had a real take on what he wanted and what he was going to make, and I’m glad it worked out.”
Of course, Oldman’s no stranger to villainous turns, having played nefarious types in tons of movies throughout his career. But despite his facility with those types of roles, he says that the process is no different – and he feels no need to impose himself upon the production – in order to play a bad guy than if he was playing a good one. “Well, you have the script, and if the writing is good then the character’s there,” Oldman said candidly. “[But] then I came up with a few ideas. I remember walking onto the Batman [Begins] set for the first time at the first rehearsal, and Chris Nolan said to me, “are you going to do it like that?” I said, “yeah, I was thinking I would.” And he said, “huh. Alright, let’s do a take,” and Gordon was born.”
“With most of the stuff I’ve done, you’ve got your kitchen acting, you know, you walk up and down in your kitchen trying stuff out, and then you come to set. The Hughes Brothers were very trusting, which is very flattering, and it gives you great confidence. They are not closed to one idea; you can fire ideas at them, and if they think that your idea is better than their idea, they will go with your idea. I found them incredibly open.”
Now having made four films and a documentary over the course of the last two decades, Albert demurred when asked whether he saw real thematic or conceptual pattern emerging between the entries in their remarkably eclectic body of work. “Well, it used to be the underclass and the underprivileged, but now it’s either our main character gets killed or goes to jail,” Albert said with a laugh. “It was that before – these underclass characters – and in a sense it’s the same thing because it’s a very desperate world here. People are scrounging for everything that they have. But I think the only throughline is even in From Hell, which felt more like fantasy in some areas, that there’s a certain amount of reality.”
“That’s been a challenge for us,” he continued. “[To] make the audience feel that it’s real and be entertained by that reality, because if they believe it’s real, that could be scary in and of itself.” Scary remains to be seen, but dirty is undeniable.
The Book of Eli opens nationwide January 15, 2010. Bring some Handi-Wipes.