Allen Hughes traverses ‘Broken City’ and reflects on the 20-year anniversary of ‘Menace II Society’

Bryan Enk
Movie Talk

Twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes make up the filmmaking team known as The Hughes Brothers, who made their feature film co-directorial debut back in 1993 at the tender age of 19 with "Menace II Society." Since then, they've made a name for themselves with smart, character-driven crime dramas such as "Dead Presidents" (1995), "From Hell" (2001) and "The Book of Eli" (2010), as well as the acclaimed documentary about one of the world's oldest professions, "American Pimp" (1999).

Now, Allen is taking on his first solo feature directing gig with "Broken City," a '70s-style crime thriller in which ex-cop Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) seeks retribution and revenge after being double-crossed and framed by Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), who hired Taggart to keep tabs on his possibly unfaithful wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). We spoke with Allen about "Broken City" (opening January 18), his working relationship with his brother, getting into the Guinness Book of World Records and the upcoming 20th anniversary of "Menace II Society."

BRYAN ENK: Your movies aren't simple; they have a really strong sense of time and place and very complex characters. I read somewhere that you like to put underdog characters into near-insurmountable situations. Is this something you've consciously sought for or has it just sort of organically developed over the years in terms of what kind of stories attract you as a director?

ALLEN HUGHES: It's interesting because it's the 20th anniversary of "Menace II Society" this year. I've been getting a lot of retroactive questions because, I don't know, you turn 40 and you have a little bit of body of work and you have to "take inventory," I guess. It was an organic process because of how my brother [Albert Hughes] and I felt growing up being biracial in Detroit, without a father in the house, with a single mother who was Armenian and who happened to be a radical feminist. She was head of her chapter of NOW [National Organization of Women], she was head of her chapter of ERA [Equal Rights Amendment], she was the President of the Rape Crisis Hotline on top of it ... we were always outcast and disenfranchised and discounted. So you always feel like you're on the peripheral of everything or that you've got to fight to get to the middle or even in the club. Yeah, that was organic -- it's now dawning on me, you know?

BE: You also have a knack for doing really cool visual flourishes as well, such as the close-ups of each character while planning the robbery in "Dead Presidents" and the frenetic editing during Ian Holm's final breakdown in "From Hell." Is that kind of stuff mostly planned in pre-production or does it sometimes happen spontaneously on set?

AH: Oh, that is so planned out. My brother is the more regimented "planner" of the two; he has acting ideas and character ideas and I'll have visual ideas as well, but he's the captain of that ship and I'm captain of the story/actor division. [laughs] He's very programmed in systematic and regimented ... hmm, I would compare him to the way Trent Reznor does his music, and I'm more jazz, I'm more fluid and improvisational. So those things are me and him coming up with a byproduct of ideas and then him taking it and mathematically working it out way ahead of time. And usually it's inspired by music, which is odd.

BE: I remember in "The Book of Eli" when Gary Oldman and his gang are opening fire on the house and the camera is just going back and forth and circling around and I'm thinking, "This isn't going to cut, is it?" That was so cool.

AH: That was one that Albert was very passionate about making sure that it was done and done well because it consisted of, I believe, five or six different takes strung together as if it were one shot.

BE: How did "Broken City" end up on your plate?

AH: My agent said, "You gotta read that 'Broken City,' it's kind of like a modern-day 'Chinatown,'" and I was, like, goddamn, that's saying a lot! I read it and I said, "I don't know if it's that, but it is great," it has a great narrative and very dynamic, interesting characters and plot twists and I was like, you know what? I gotta do this movie. I don't care if it makes a dime, it's ... this is me, you know? It's character and crime.

BE: Were either Russell Crowe or Mark Wahlberg attached to the film before you were on board or were you instrumental in bringing them in?

AH: It started with me, it was a spec script that was on the Black List, which is the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood, basically the caviar of scripts that haven't been made or even been picked up by studios sometimes. When I read it, Mark Wahlberg was just popping off the page and that had never happened to me before. We offered it to Mark before it was set up anywhere; he saw what I saw, he was very passionate about it. I asked him to come on board as a producer because he's very savvy and he makes tough calls. I needed a partner and was blessed to have him come on.

BE: Is there a particular scene that you're especially proud of?

AH: It's the most unassuming one you would think. It's a scene with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Russell Crowe where they're at home. It was written in that they were in whatever the wealthy's version of a "bathroom" is, which is not the bathroom, you know; he's at his mirror primping and she's at her mirror and they're looking at each other in the reflection, talking with their backs to each other.

It ended up being a triptych mirror, Catherine's vanity mirror. I said why don't you two just start rehearsing this and I kind of closed the door and let them start working it out, then I came back later and saw what they were doing. What happened was I set the camera up wide and she's putting her lipstick on in the mirror and he's walking around in the background, you can see it in the mirror, and slowly but surely he gets to her and starts helping her with her necklace from behind and he grabs her neck and it's almost like he's going to choke her.

It was a wide shot and I slowly, slowly, slowly moved in -- one take -- Russell eventually leaves and it's a close-up of Catherine. It's like a minute and 20 seconds, no cutting, great script, two Academy Award winners and a director that just said, "F**k it." That's my favorite moment, I think.

BE: In comparison to something like "The Book of Eli" or "From Hell," what were some of the challenges on "Broken City" that were brand new to your experience?

AH: The biggest challenge was eight years ago this movie would've been made for $60 million and one would've had at least 75 days to shoot it. It was made for $40 million and I had 35 days to shoot it. Every day was a battle, because we just didn't have the time or the resources. And as it pertains to my brother, I was very comfortable in the director's chair by myself; it was taking meetings without my brother that was a little interesting.

BE: Is there a reason "Broken City" was a solo project for you, directing-wise?

AH: Well, from the beginning, we started doing a lot advertising together but when we started doing music videos, he did a solo one and I would do a solo one every now and then. With the features, from "Menace," from Day One, we always planned to go solo ... though I guess because we're twins it took a while. [laughs]

BE: You're working with composer Atticus Ross again on "Broken City." His score for "The Book of Eli" was fantastic; how did you come about to work with him?

AH: His first time composing anything was for a television show I did about nine years ago called "Touching Evil." It was groundbreaking what he did. I told him, let's do a movie; when I do my next movie, I want you to score it. And he's so ... I don't know what it is, he has a lot of pride, a lot of principle, so he goes, "I'm going to wait for you, 'cause I'm not going to do a s**tty movie." So when "The Book of Eli" came, it was his first movie. And in the same year, right after "Book of Eli," he won the Academy Award for "The Social Network." That's incredible -- his first year of composing for film, he wins the Academy Award.

And this soundtrack for "Broken City," is like Pink Floyd meets Nine Inch Nails. I like it better than "The Book of Eli." Way better.

BE: You mentioned "Menace II Society" earlier. What do you remember most about that experience?

AH: I remember not knowing how special that was. But it was just natural to us because we had been doing it since we were 12, we were just doing it on a higher level. We were doing music videos on a high level with notable artists, we were breaking artists like Tupac [Shakur] and we came up under NWA and Eazy-E and Dr. Dre, so this was nothing we took for granted but it was "normal."

A lot of friends over the years were like, "Do you realize how young you were when you made that, how significant it was?" Especially the last five years, I was like, "Eh, not really," because me and my brother, we don't think like that, you know?

And then the 20th anniversary is this year, and the most surreal thing happened: A manilla envelope came to my house and it said, "Do Not Bend." [laughs] I opened it and there were two certificates that said "Guinness World Record to Allen and Albert Hughes for being the Youngest Filmmakers to Ever Direct a Major Hollywood Motion Picture in History." It was gold sealed, it came with a beautiful letter, and I was like, "Okay, I get it." [laughs]

BE: Finally, what's next after "Broken City"?

AH: I'm doing a film based on a Korean gangster film called "A Bittersweet Life." It's a love story and then it becomes a vengeance story, and it's pretty ill. I'm rushing right into that one, and that one ... oh boy, that one's interesting. [laughs]