'Dragged Across Concrete' Director S. Craig Zahler Doesn't Want You Spoiling His Movies [Interview]

With only three movies, writer/director S. Craig Zahler has established quite a voice for himself. The Brawl in Cell Block 99 director's first three films are wholly uncompromising and polarize audiences in a time when so many filmmakers default to playing it safe. Few people are walking out of Zahler's violent pictures shrugging their shoulders without a strong opinion, that's for certain.

Zahler's latest and most accomplished movie, Dragged Across Concrete, stars Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson in an epic crime movie that depicts extreme violence and racism without ever moralizing horrific words and actions that already speak for themselves. Zahler – a director with a strong distaste for message movies – lets the terrible actions do the talking. He's not afraid to challenge an audience, for good or bad. When we recently spoke with the critically acclaimed director, we asked him about the varying reactions to his work and more.


I saw your film last week and it's my favorite of your three.

Thank you. Very, very nice to hear. It's my favorite of the three, but, you know, opinions vary, so nice to hear, thanks.

Can I ask you why it's your personal favorite?

It's the richest world. So, the name of my heavy metal band is Realmbuilder, and I write novels. I'm currently drawing my first graphic novel, and with Dragged Across Concrete, I just think it's the richest of the worlds, and also the most complicated, in terms of character and character relationships. So I just think that there's a lot there to inhabit.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Prince of the City, Sidney Lumet movie, and that was a movie I watched probably 20-something times as a kid. And this was a little bit me trying to get into that space of you're really living with these people and sensing the relationships prior to the movie beginning, and those who survive, what might happen to them afterwards, and really just getting a sense of how all these different people, you know, husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, close friends since childhood, working cop partners, inter-relate.

So there are a lot of different relationships that show a lot of different facets of these human beings. And that's something I was able to explore more deeply here than in Bone Tomahawk, and Brawl is pretty much a singular journey of a guy going through spaces, and there's the relationship with his wife that's complex, but other than that, because of the nature of that story, it has less in terms of those kinds of relationships. So, I am quite proud of that movie, it's just a different goal.

The script was 162 pages and you weren't open to hearing notes, which makes sense with this movie given its pace and rhythm. Is that why you weren't open to notes? 

Everyone does what they do for different reasons, and I got into the position of making my own features later than most. I'd written and sold more than 20 different screenplays, and you know, I'd written and had published some novels, made a fair amount of music, and had done all those different things. So when I arrived, even on Bone Tomahawk, I knew that the goal was make something that I am proud of, that I can sit with comfortably for the rest of my life, 'cause I don't know how many of these I will make.

So the first goal is to make something that I like, so I make it to my taste. And by the time I'm giving anyone a screenplay of mine, that screenplay is to my taste. So that's the goal. And the second goal would be that the piece succeeds in such a way, financially, critically, or otherwise, that I am afforded the opportunity to make another movie. So that's been the case thus far with these pictures, but with Dragged Across Concrete, there's no version of what I wrote that remains intact unless I have that kind of control, unless I have director's cut, because there is a two-hour version of this movie that would have a little bit more action, a lot of score, as this movie has zero score, and we'd get rid of a lot of scenes that are my favorite scenes.

Certainly the Kelly Summer digression with Jennifer Carpenter, eating sandwiches and biscuits, and in Henry Johns' (Tory Kittles) talking about their childhood after an incident later in the picture, like these are three of my ten favorite scenes in the movie, and these would not survive the process of, "Let's streamline it and have each scene push the plot forward," because to me, the plot is less interesting than a lot of the character details, and the moments, and the atmosphere, the plot is something everybody understands, and so you're aware if there is a plot point, or a turn in the scene, and that that scene is indispensable.

All three of my movies were shot with the script I had. The only changes were, you know, "This location doesn't work, let's combine these two locations," and really small things like that. If you read any of the scripts, you'll see that the movies are realizations of those scripts to a very high degree of accuracy.

Your movies are fascinating to me in that, they're the kind of movies that can say a lot about the viewer. 

Oh, for sure. And to me, that's cool. I'm not spoon feeding people stuff, so it'd be, "I love what he's doing. It's so different. I relish it," to the "I hate it. I can't stand it," to the "I like it, but it's indulgent and it should be trimmed up." All of these reactions are out there, and they tell me so much about the viewer, not that much about the movie. I'm very aware of this movie, I sit with every frame of it in the editing room, for every minute of the mix, and I wrote it, and I'm right there for every shot that happens, so I don't learn that much about the movie, but I ... you know, it is always interesting, and for the most part, enjoyable, to read the reactions.

When is it not enjoyable?

When people say things that are inaccurate. Or when somebody decides to give spoilers. And it can be on both sides, but a lot of people were so traumatized by the guy getting cut in half in Bone Tomahawk that they would describe the scene in their reviews, and this is something that happened as a major turning point in the shift in tone, so like 70% of the movie is over at that point. It's a real shift, and you're not supposed to know it, and that violence, unlike the violence in Brawl, is supposed to be traumatic.

And that's not enjoyable when I read people doing that or ... Again, it can be people who are enjoying the piece, or people who are not enjoying the piece, in which case then they'll list off everything that they find offensive or disgusting, right up to the end of the movie. I mean, I've written a lot of reviews of a lot of different movies in my life, and whether I love the piece or hated it, or had something in between, I was always conscious that not everybody reading the review is going to agree with me, and I shouldn't just, because I dislike the piece, spoil stuff that's towards the end.

So that stuff is very frustrating for me because I obviously spent a lot of hours of my life making this project to come to fruition, and so for someone who hates it, or who likes it, to kind of spill over in their review and reveal kind of everything, is frustrating. So that's what I don't enjoy. And stuff that's factually incorrect, you know, reading, "Well these things were definitely CG-involved in Cell Block 99," well no they weren't, because none of them are.

So when someone states something as fact, and they're actually incorrect, can be frustrating. But again, these are the minority. So the spoiler thing was really bad with Bone Tomahawk, 'cause almost everybody, either they would allude to it or they would describe it. This is very late in the movie and it's a surprise, or should be a surprise.

These reactions are also in the minority, but some people do politicize your work. When you see those conversations, does a part of you want to engage, respond, or just let them take away from it what they will? 

People just take away with it what they will. So the final part of the art of the artistic process is the artist steps away and gives it to the audience. I saw an interpretation of my second Western novel "Wraiths of the Broken," where I go into detail how it was an allegory for the Spanish-American War. I know nothing about the Spanish-American War. I see this stuff all the time with my books and my movies, where people say, "Well this is referencing this."

I just had an interview where someone did this, "You know, this movie feels really of the now, it's really contemporary," and I've had several of those conversations. Well, I conceived of it in 2015, so this is just stuff lining up, because I'm writing the characters this way, but I understand why people would land at that, and any opinion that someone lands on is valid to that person.

Oftentimes I won't agree with it, or I'll think it's partially correct, but they're entitled to their opinion, I mean that's where I come from. If someone thinks this ... you know, with Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, which delivered a lot of what I wrote, but I wrote a 2 hour 10-minute movie and it's 83 minutes, so a lot went away. But I've seen people say, "This is a hilarious satire debunking the alt-right," and I've seen reviews say, "This movie is the alt-right."

When I conceived of that thing, I'd never even heard the term "alt-right". I think I pitched that in 2011. I don't know if anyone had heard that term then, I certainly had not, but it doesn't mean that it's not valid. If someone walks away with "This is a hilarious satire of it," or "This is an endorsement of it," the final step of the process is with the piece of art and the viewer, or listener, or reader, or whomever, and it's whatever they feel is valid, and I'm sure they won't be alone, and they're entitled to that, they're entitled to that opinion. Certainly, I'm not politically-driven at all, so it's not a debate for me to get into. Probably wouldn't get into a debate about it even if I were because they're entitled to those opinions.

What's the difference between talking to press about your movies versus an average moviegoer? 

I think a lot of people who are in the press, by nature of what they're doing, which is writing a piece for hundreds, if not thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to read, they're very aware of the larger audience picture and what people may or may not think about something, and they're writing to that crowd, which is why I think it's insensitive when people just put spoilers, again, whether they like or hate the movie, because they are hitting a large number of people.

So there's always that question, not always, most of the time I'm doing interviews with the press, there's a discussion about larger ramifications and "What did you think about ... Where you concerned about offending this group? Were you concerned about including this group?" And all of those sorts of questions, whereas the average moviegoer sees it and then they're talking like, "Oh my God, that scene surprised me," or "Oh that shit with the sandwich was hilarious." And not worried as much about the larger ramifications or implications, or what someone across the country or in another country, or in the apartment next door might think about the piece, it's just their reaction to it.

So that's probably the biggest difference between just talking to a film fan about one of these movies, and talking to the press, because the film fan is just thinking about why they liked it, rather than the ramifications and larger implications of something. But again, they're thinking for themselves and whether they would watch it again or recommend it to somebody, rather than what they're gonna say to a hundred thousand people or a million people or ten thousand people online.


Dragged Across Concrete opens in theaters and on demand March 22.