BRAWL IN CELLBLOCK 99

Much like S. Craig Zahler‘s previous film, Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 will be a divisive movie. Some will love it, some will hate it, but nobody is going to walk away feeling “meh” about it.

The film is anchored by Vince Vaughn‘s career-best performance as Bradley Thomas, an imposing hulk of a guy with a talent for bringing the pain. Bradley isn’t just a brute, though. The man has a moral compass that he has to obey, even if that means putting himself, his pregnant wife and the life they’ve built together at risk. However, that doesn’t mean he won’t unleash an ass-kicking when he has to. There is some brutal violence in this movie that would make even the most die hard fan of Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky nod in approval.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is definitely not for the squeamish, but the film has lots of character and dramatic complexity layered within the very pulpy premise of a bone-breaker having to do some brutal things for the sake of his family.

I was able to sit down with writer/director S. Craig Zahler and Vince Vaughn to discuss that complexity as well as building the character of Bradley (don’t call him Brad) Thomas. Both men had no trouble going into detail about the world and character-building going on in this totally insane film.

Now, I loved Bone Tomahawk, but I think Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a step up from that.

S. Craig Zahler: I agree. Not that I love Bone Tomahawk, but that I think it’s a step up! [Laughs] I was able to better realize this one. That’s the situation.

Vince, your performance is really strong here. You take a man of few words and express him through body language, facial ticks, subtle eye movements. Can you guys talk about how you built the character of Bradley?

S. Craig Zahler: I’d like to say something first on that. I knew that Vince Vaughn was a good actor. Obviously I wouldn’t have gone to him for the lead in this movie if I did. You say lead… there are lots of lead actors in movies, but there’s a difference here. He carries this. Every scene with, like, three exceptions, the weight of that scene is on him. I knew he was really good and I had a big transformation in mind, bringing together what I think is a naturally imposing aspect of his personality, the size and the way he carries himself. All of that stuff together.

I remember we started rehearsing and we’re doing all these scenes and I’m reading all the roles opposite him. As we were talking about it, I was stunned by the amount of emotional access he had. Like, we’re joking around about some scene in a Sam Peckinpah movie and then we start reading a scene and 20 seconds in he’s got tears in his eyes or the fury is there. This was something that told me we would actually get this movie facilitated in this time because he was that ready. At this point, I’ve wrapped my third movie and my second with Vince. I’ve worked with a lot of different actors, but that instant ability to access it and be 100% there is incredible. The consistency is also really good. I could have used any take in any scene, and of course I’m choosing the one that I liked the most.

We started having conversations about the accent and the consistency of it was an important thing for me. You see people doing accents all the time and they start throwing out words. All of these English actors doing American accents, and sometimes they get Academy Awards for them, don’t land correctly. They’ll have a couple of words that they buzz and it’s a gap in their performance. We started going through the script with a dialect coach. We were going through a page and there were some corrections. Pretty quickly he was getting it and then in an amazingly quick period of time, he just has the accent and it’s there and it’s locked in with a consistency that is again speaking to the high level of craft and work that he did.

Of course, there’s the shaved head, the girth of his biceps and all that other stuff really worked for this transformation. It’s a remarkable performance. The obvious physical transformation stuff is there, but then finding the subtlety and the cadences of his voice… It isn’t just that there’s an accent, it’s that all of the rhythms are different and the way he moves is different. The pain and where he pushes it and how he interacts with everybody… there’s just so many layers to his performance at all times. I’m thrilled. That was the make it or break it decision. Who I put in that role was going to determine “Does this movie work really well or is it just sort of okay and you’re waiting for some fight scenes to happen?”

When you strip everything else away, this is a very simple story. What makes it complex is the character work and emotional depth to this character. Is that what made you want to do this project, having that to work with?

Vince Vaughn: Yeah. I thought the script was tremendous. It was the best thing I’ve read and I love Bone Tomahawk. I thought, “This guy is playing records different from anyone else.” He’s not fitting into some kind of thing. That really impacted me. The character to me… The scene after the car being smashed, when he deals with his wife, Jennifer Carpenter, who is terrific, I was just surprised to find that very real. He took culpability as well and they got closer because of this experience. It felt like something you’d hear in real life. It’s sloppy and hurtful and sad. They’re both sober and there’s clearly a lot of pain. They found each other in this world. There’s a lot of hurt there, but they’re trying their best. That was a great starting point for the character. Then it was just being prepared.

Craig is a great problem solver. He’s very bright and he’s very considerate with the way he does it. He’s able to help you understand things. He’s very good at giving explanations that help you connect to it in a way that is visceral, so a lot of it was that I had good support from him. With the accent and those kinds of things, he gave me permission to really dive in and I felt safe that I could take these risks and feel that I had a good backstop behind me.

Then you just get to a point where you’re so off the table with all of it, that it’s not even something you’re thinking about. Now you’re just able to get into those scenes and see what happens. The fighting stuff, too, all came from such a great character place. I found, for me, that when I was able to connect to a point of view that I had in the fights that the fights went better for me.

S. Craig Zahler: When we’re on take 9 and he’s been punched in takes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8…

Brawl in Cell Block 99 Review

Vince Vaughn: You get to a point where you’re surfing. Let’s just go, let’s just ride it. And it feels that way when you’re watching. There’s a danger to it, but you get to an emotional place where you do the scene from. You’re just on the edge of emotion. I think that’s Bradley. I always remember when I was younger you’d see kids act cool and they were boring to me. Then you see kids with families from steel towns and these kids are trying not to be mad, they’re not trying to be cool, they’re trying not to lose their temper, they’re trying to stay calm. That’s very different than acting cool. It’s fascinating.

I think Bradley is a matured version of that. He’s kind, he’s considerate, he wants good for others, he wants good for himself, he doesn’t want to hurt anybody. He’d probably avoid a fight if he could. I could see a scene where obtuse or inconsiderate people would mock him and he would probably humbly try to move away if he could.

But underneath that is a guy who has such a well of hurt and pain in his life. He’s trying not to be that, so when it tips it becomes very unsettling. This is not someone proving something to himself. This is someone taking out the garbage. This is someone doing the basics. “I’m going to eat, I’m going to take a shower, I’m going to break your arm, I’m going to break your head,” right? It was all there in the design.

There’s a scene early on that really locked the character into place for me and that’s when he chooses to go back and help the police in the gunfight. Bradley was free and clear, but he just couldn’t let these cops be slaughtered even if that potentially means he loses everything in his life.

S. Craig Zahler: Yep. That’s the crucible of the entire picture, that one decision.

You don’t seem shy away from shades of gray when it comes to your characters and Bradley’s a perfect example of that.

S. Craig Zahler: Right. Someone who has ideals and a code, such as Bradley does, doesn’t mean he’s going to follow it. There’s a sequence, and Vince talks about this a lot, when he’s moved into a better life and is in a nicer vehicle and about to go home to his nicer house… he’s in his nicer vehicle and he sees a drug addict outside. He’s listening to a religious song on the radio, he’s aware of it and still (delivering drugs). We see that when he makes all the wrong decisions it gives him a better life and all the right decisions make things worse. All of that stuff I find much more interesting than good vs evil and the noble guys making all the right decisions. Playing in that gray area is the most fun space.

Can you talk a little bit about how you strategically place the big, gory payoff moments? Structurally it’s interesting to me how you use violence to punctuate certain moments in the story.

S. Craig Zahler: It’s interesting. People will use the term “slow burn.” Certainly if you’re just waiting for the carnage then this is going to be a slow-going experience for you. I’m just as interested in exploring all the dramatic moments and the comedic moments as I am the moments of graphic violence. In all cases, when I’m writing and conceiving it it’s just creative exploration.

Like, the conversation that Bradley and Lauren have after the sequence where he beats up the car is me exploring. I’m going as deep there as a sequence in a (John) Cassavetes movie. I’m really into that stuff and that informs what I do in sequences like that in terms of exploring it, not just giving you a moment. You see them arriving and having an arc. There are multiple beat changes and different perspectives from different emotional spaces during the course of a scene like that.

So, when looking at the movie as a whole when it gets to these moments of violence from a violent character who has been oppressed for the whole piece those need to be on a grander scale for me to feel satisfied. I’m not even really thinking about the audience. This is for me to be satisfied. This dude has had bricks put on his back and has been shit upon for the duration (of the movie), so when it comes out it needs to be something almost elemental in terms of the force of what’s going on. That sort of explains why we land in those sequences that are explosive in going past what is typical.

***

Brawl in Cell Block 99 opens on October 13, 2017.

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