'Dragged Across Concrete:' S. Craig Zahler says the racism in his Mel Gibson movie will 'trigger' people

Sam Ashurst
Contributor

Dragged Across Concrete will be the most controversial film of the year, in pretty much whatever year it comes out (it doesn’t currently have a release date in the UK, but screens tonight at the London Film Festival).

That’s partly because it stars Mel Gibson as a racist cop Ridgeman who’s taken off the force after a citizen films him assaulting a prisoner, and the footage does the rounds on the liberal media. Gibson, whose own career was halted when his racist rants made it into the media, is an interesting casting choice.

It’s the third film from writer/director S. Craig Zahler, whose last movie, Brawl In Cell Block 99, was celebrated by the alt-right (receiving ‘4.5 Swastikas out of 5’ on a popular alt-right review site) and whose first film, Bone Tomahawk, was criticised for its colonial vision of Native Americans.

Concrete is his most non-PC movie yet, with racist lines, characters, and plot motivations mixing together to create a potentially queasy experience for anyone sensitive to the issues being discussed. But Zahler isn’t particularly bothered if people are upset at his movies.

“I said this before Bone Tomahawk came out,” Zahler tells Yahoo Movies UK. “Of the people who want to see a movie called Bone Tomahawk, 60% will like it, 20% will think it’s disgusting and offensive, and 20% will think it’s boring, and those stats hold with all of my movies. I take my time, there’s stuff that will trigger certain people and that’s fine, these are the pieces I want to make.”

We sat down with Zahler to dig deep into Dragged Across Concrete, which also stars Vince Vaughn as Ridgeman’s partner Anthony, and it turned into a fairly frank conversation about the writer/director’s desire to be kept separate from his work.

Here, uncut, is our discussion about racism, right-wing politics, and Mel Gibson.

The 75th Venice International Film Festival – Screening of the film “Dragged Across Concrete” out of competition – Red Carpet Arrivals – Venice, Italy, September 3, 2018. Director S. Craig Zahler and a guest. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Yahoo Movies UK: I’m going to be completely honest with you, if I’d interviewed you two minutes after walking out of Dragged Across Concrete, I would have asked you why you’ve made this racist movie…

S. Craig Zahler: Right.

However, after the film I had a conversation with a filmmaker, and a critic, and their perspective on the movie made me think about mine.

Right.

And it made me think that, maybe, I would have been one of those guys who said to Martin Scorsese ‘Why have you made a film celebrating gangsters?’ with Goodfellas.

Right.

‘Why are you celebrating capitalists?’ with Wolf Of Wall Street

Right.

I’m feeling and I’m hoping that this film is working in a similar way to those films. Can you talk a little bit about the intention behind the movie?

The intention behind the movie is to make an engrossing picture and build it with three-dimensional characters. For sure, you’re not going to be alone in whether you get past it, or ultimately land with feeling the movie’s racist – there are a lot of characters that have a lot of different viewpoints, and I don’t go out of my way to say some are wrong and some are right.

That’s something I wish I saw more of in movies today, which is less preaching and less messaging and more ‘Here are a bunch of people that are interesting, that are three-dimensional, and you might like them and you might not like them.’

There are people who walk out of this movie, as there have already been, who completely sympathise and get where Ridgeman and Anthony (Vince Vaughn) are coming from, and ones who think they’re disgusting racists, and people who are everywhere in between. Anyone is allowed to have that viewpoint. You’ve noticed that this movie has zero score?

Yeah, yeah.

And so it’s along those lines. I’m not really interested in leading the audience to believe something or to feel something.

If the sad scenes in this movie aren’t sad for you, I think it would be risable if there was sad music telling you it was so. If the suspenseful scenes aren’t suspenseful, I wouldn’t put suspense music in to tell you it was so, or to force it down your throat. If the horrific scenes aren’t horrific, if the comedic scenes aren’t comedic, the dramatic scenes aren’t dramatic, etc.

So it’s a similar sort of thing in terms of how I look at the characters. This is my third movie, but I look at myself first and foremost as a writer. I’m interested in writing stuff that makes me uncomfortable.

I’m pretty open-minded and have an interest in a lot of different things, and so it’s going to push buttons with people. Your reaction and whether it’s tempered or not, you’re entitled to.

It’s something I’m really comfortable with, and have always been, since film school when I made little shorts people yelled at me for making.

It’s just where I come from, I’m making what I find interesting and compelling, and certainly noble heroes with nothing but good intentions and no flaws is not really that interesting to me.

There’s so much in what you just said that I want to pick up on, what you say about not using music is fascinating, especially in terms of your overall technique. It’s a lot of static camera, there’s no god’s eye view… the camera doesn’t move.

If the camera moves, it’s motivated for you not to notice.

Exactly. So it’s like you’re distancing yourself from what’s happening, or being objective to a certain extent.

You could say distancing, I would look at it more so as I want people to be with the characters, and thinking about the characters.

It’s something I find a little frustrating – and maybe this is just the era where everybody has access to everybody – if a bunch of characters say some lines that are offensive or racist or provocative, there’s immediate call for the author to defend those, and I’m not going to defend those, that to me makes sense for what the characters say.

And if people draw conclusions about me, they’re welcome to draw them. But my hope would be not that people would think about ‘What is the writer/director trying to say?’ But ‘Why are these characters saying this? Why are these two cops talking to a half-naked woman in a room, the way they’re talking to her?’ And there’s a lot to unpack in terms of their motivations, and they’re not the same. Those two characters are distinctly different.

But, the focus for some people will be ‘How dare this writer have these people say this stuff?” And not, in a heavy-handed way, or in an obvious way, show us that they’re evil or they’re bad. They’re flawed human beings, and I don’t really write central characters that don’t have pieces that make sense. I understand those guys.

In what way do you understand them?

They don’t feel like they’re part of the world. They feel like the world has gone by them and they’re not happy with it. But Anthony’s not the same as Ridgeman, he might be in 20 years but he’s not there now, and he’s clearly a more open-minded person than Ridgeman is.

That doesn’t mean that he might not say something provocative or politically incorrect in his line of work…

Anthony’s line about ordering a ‘dark roast’ every Martin Luther King Day…

But then who is he in his private life? Is he the same guy? He isn’t the same guy. So those are the questions I wish more people would ask, as opposed to just of looking at 20 or 30 lines in the movie, and wondering ‘What the hell is this director saying, and what’s the axe that he’s grinding?’

I wish there was more focus from the people who are disturbed on ‘Why are these characters saying what they’re saying? What does this say about the world of the movie?’ But, everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

I said this before Bone Tomahawk came out, of the people who want to see a movie called Bone Tomahawk, 60% will like it, 20% will think it’s disgusting and offensive, and 20% will think it’s boring, and those stats hold with all of my movies. I take my time, there’s stuff that will trigger certain people and that’s fine, these are the pieces I want to make.

There’s the stuff in Bone Tomahawk that people had a problem with, Brawl In Cell Block 99 has the evil abortionist and it could be seen as a pro-life movie, and then there’s this film – can you see why people perceive you as a right-wing director? I can see where you’re coming from in terms of wanting the characters to speak for themselves, but there’s an oeuvre.

I can certainly understand why people see that. I’m not a political person, but these characters appeal to me.

Now, the exception I would make is, to me, Bone Tomahawk and this one have multiple viewpoints, and people condemning those viewpoints – Brawl In Cell Block 99 is the one of these three that has a singular guy, and I do the movies from the perspectives of the characters, so that’s what makes sense to me.

Bradley’s views are not my views. There would be some overlap and in most of the characters there would be some overlap, and in most of the characters there’s some overlap with what I think.

I understand what you’re saying, and I think it kind of holds with Brawl In Cell Block 99, but in Bone Tomahawk and Dragged Across Concrete, you get multiple viewpoints from multiple people, so you need to selectively look at some stuff and say ‘Oh this is what he really believes’ and disregard other things and say ‘Well, that’s just in there for whatever reason.’

People can look at it however they want, but my hope is more people will look into the characters and the world of my film instead of guessing at my intentions, because people aren’t guessing my intentions. I’m not politically driven.

The 75th Venice International Film Festival – Screening of the film “Dragged Across Concrete” out of competition – Red Carpet Arrivals – Venice, Italy, September 3, 2018. Director S. Craig Zahler and actors Vince Vaughn, Torry Kittles, Michael Jai White. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

What does drive you? Some directors go into it for money, some because they have a message, some do it because of the legacy…

I just love movies. It’s really simple. The ones that I love, Prince Of The City, Dog Day Afternoon, The Killing, Heat. Those are a bunch of crime movies that have something to do with the one you just watched.

Most of those aren’t politically correct, The Killing, which is maybe the best of these, is really not. That feels authentic to the concerns of those characters, and not the concerns of now. I’m concerned about making the piece that I want.

I had studio offers after Bone Tomahawk and Cell Block 99 and creative control is what I’m interested in. You’re seeing pieces that would never get through a studio system and look the way they do if I’d submitted to that, that’s the drive, to make stuff that I like. A lot of the stuff I like is from the ‘50s, the ‘60s and the ‘70s.

It’s an old-school vision of masculinity, what makes a man a man for you? Just connecting to those ‘50s and ‘60s movies, and how the men are in this film.

What makes a good person a good person? Again, my views aren’t the same as Anthony and Ridgeman…

I understand, that’s why I’m asking.

There’s some overlap. They’re lamenting the change of language, and I think that when language gets more specific, it’s better. With things like ‘We’re pregnant’ that they talk about, that’s something where, as a linguist, I’ve written probably 50 scripts and eight novels at this point in my life, if language is going to change, I’d like it to get more specific rather than less.

Their problem with ‘We’re pregnant’ – in terms of a man and his wife – is different to what mine would be, which is ‘What if the guy dies?’ She’s still pregnant if the guy dies. That comes from a completely different perspective to theirs. It’s not a feminisation thing, that term to me has a specific biological connection.

There’s a lot of exploration of language in this movie, and either people are being criticised for the way they speak, or they’re not given a voice – you talked about the opening scene where they pretend to not understand what she’s saying – can you talk about the process there, how do you choose which to criticise and which to not in that context?

I’m not coming from it from the standpoint of this is what I want to criticise or not. Most of my writing process is surprising myself, so I get in a scene, and then I see – and this probably goes back to my cool elementary and junior high days as a Dungeons and Dragons player, which is – put these characters in this world and see what they do. But you always need to come up with the door that they go through and what’s on the other side of the door.

These people in these situations, to me, it makes sense that they behave like this, but I’m not engineering it to say something. Which, again, is just the difference.

I don’t have an axe to grind, but I think not having an axe to grind and not having a message in today’s world is a message of sorts. People are going to walk out of this movie, and storm out in outrage, and people are going to adore it, and I’ve already seen both reactions, and that’s fine.

It’s the last part of the process. I no longer guide, I’m not sitting on their shoulders telling them how to feel about the movie. I’m not holding their hand. However they feel is valid, so if someone walks away as you did initially, and may still, and think ‘Wow, I think this movie is really racist,’ you’re entitled to that opinion.

I’m being open and honest, I’m not covering. My friend used a word that completely changed my perspective, he said ‘It’s not a lionisation’ and I thought ‘Lionisation… lions!’ – there’s a thread in this film involving lions that flipped my viewpoint.

I’ll let you explore it, I don’t like to explain my own metaphors. But…

But there’s something there, isn’t there?

Yes.

It seems to me like you’re driven by world-building.

Yes. Here’s the name of my heavy-metal band – ‘Realm-Builder’ – so, yes. The drive is to make things I like, I’ve had three albums come out in the last few years, two novels, this is now the third movie. I just want these rich imaginative experiences, and for people to engage in them emotionally.

If it’s a movie I want it to be entertaining and emotionally engaging, and then if you’re thinking about the characters in the world afterwards then you’ve made something rich and something that transcends the medium, which is when you try to do world-building, whether in a book, or an album, or in a movie, all of that stuff is that, because you’re wandering with the characters.

That, to me, is the diminishing returns of wondering about the author’s intentions, you’re not as focused on the work, you’re focusing on the guy. It’s the reason that there’s no music, there’s not a lot of overtly stylised stuff coming at you in the movie that would call attention to me as the creator, I want you to focus on the characters.

Can you talk about your relationship with your producer Dallas Sonnier, because you talked about your desire for creative control and obviously that’s something he gives you, and it seems like your priorities line up, to a certain extent...

Sure. He was my manager for a while. I was at a point in Hollywood where I’d sold 20 screenplays, I have six sitting at Warner Brothers alone, and not seeing any of them get made. I was talking about making a low-budget horror movie with him and my agent, and they said ‘Well, at this point you have all these westerns that have received accolades.’ I had the one that set up my career, a couple of western novels and an almost-going TV show with Starz, and I pushed forward.

For me to get into this situation of making a movie, I just needed this kind of control. A script for me is about a month, a book for me is four, four and a half months of work, but a movie is about a year, with a lot of drama. And the proportion of managerial bullshit, to creative choices, is not great – I mean, that’s the reality of what you’re doing.

So for me to get involved and put a year of my life into one project, at the expense of ‘I could write a novel, do an album, do two other screenplays,’ I need that kind of control, I couldn’t get to the end of this process and have someone say, ‘You need to remove XYZ’ that I really value. I just don’t want to be in a position where I need to defend that. So I need to go forward with this kind of control, or I get a lot of satisfaction from writing books and making albums.

And Dallas has talked about targeting people outside of the big cities, so, Trump supporters and blue collar workers, as an untapped market – and I’m not necessarily connecting those two, but the alt-right are also drawn to your movies. How do you feel about your audience?

I want people to enjoy the movie, but I make movies for myself. It’s what I do with everything. He’s a producer, he’s coming from a different place.

I legitimately want to get my creative things out there, so a movie that’s going to be seen by millions, or a book of mine that might be read by six thousand people, or an album that might be heard by a thousand people, I’m putting in as much effort and heart into each of those, The durations are longer, depending on the project, but I’m not thinking about the audience or the market very much.

Certainly people from all over the spectrum have enjoyed my pictures and people from all over the spectrum have been bored or disgusted by them.

I don’t really come at it from that perspective, but it’s not surprising that the people who enjoy them, tend to really enjoy them. And the people who don’t are climbing their angry towers and blowing the bugle of indignation, and that’s fine.

If I was as a committed to world-building as you are, I’d want to create characters, for the challenge, who are as far away from me as possible.

Yes. And you’ll talk to actors who say the same thing. Why I’m not political is because I’ve been writing people from all over.

The script that set me up in Hollywood certainly felt very far left to people. It’s probably not surprising that was the one that got me my three-picture deal at Warner Brothers. It was this cautionary tale about revenge and it was a western.

The reason it lands there is because that was the journey that made sense for the lead character. When you write all perspectives and think about where everyone is coming from, from my perspective, you start moving in from the sides, and you see where people are coming from.

I’m not writing Ridgeman and Anthony thinking ‘These guys are assholes’ but I’m aware that people will see them that way, and that’s fine.

What did Mel Gibson bring to it?

It was a really good process. Vince Vaughn put me in touch with him when I gave Vince the role, before we even finished Brawl On Cell Block 99, and Mel said straight away ‘This feels like Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah’ and I said ‘Continue to name my favourite directors.’ He knew it was that kind of thing.

When we sat down and talked about it more specifically, he brought up Lee Marvin in Point Blank, and for the comedy stuff we had a lot of conversations about Buster Keaton, we’re both huge Buster Keaton fans.

You see a lot of stone-faced stuff in Dragged. It was terrific working with him. His voice is incredible, and there’s a lot of dialogue in here. So his comfort with the cadences of the dialogue and the richness of his voice, and the subtle interior work that he’s doing, really brought Ridgeman to life.

This is one of those roles that after I’ve seen him do it, I couldn’t imagine anyone else. When I wrote it, I had no actors in mind, but he really owns this character. He was really professional, really good to work with, and I’d work with him again.

Siegel and Peckinpah didn’t really care what people thought about them.

Yeah, they’re those guys. My caring is that I wish people looked at the movie more, instead of trying to figure out who I am, because I’m not… I do these interviews, then I go back into my writing cave and live my nocturnal lifestyle.

Dragged Across Concrete screens tonight at 8.45pm at Vue Leicester Square


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