The "Hustle & Flow" of Independent Film, Writer/Director Craig Brewer and Producer Stephanie Allain on Their Upcoming Film
by Ellen Keohane
For more than three years, Craig Brewer, the writer and director of "Hustle & Flow," couldn't get his film financed because, unlike the majority of his cast, he's white. "There were a couple of places that were very interested in 'Hustle & Flow,' until they found out I was white, and that was a problem," explained Brewer during a post-screening discussion with producer Stephanie Allain at the MGM screening room in New York last month. Following a nationwide sneak preview this past weekend, the film will be released on Friday (July 22nd). It stars Terrence Howard as DJay, a Memphis pimp with a conscience who dreams of becoming a successful hip-hop artist.
Brewer said he was told by the studios that he could only direct a black cast if his film was funny or action-packed, or if it had a big-name star. But he wanted to make, in his words, "a small, personal independent movie." "It's not a black movie for me. I felt it was a Memphis movie," said Brewer, who still lives with his family in Memphis, TN. Brewer and producer Allain were unwilling to replace Howard, the first actor to sign on.
Much of "Hustle & Flow" is based on experiences from Craig Brewer's own life. When he and his wife Jodi moved to Memphis in the mid-1990s, they didn't have any money. "My wife and I were really struggling," said Brewer. Jodi, a costume designer, started making outfits for strippers for extra cash, then worked as a waitress at a strip club and later began stripping there. (One of the characters in "Hustle & Flow" is a stripper and several scenes take place in a local strip club.) "Part of me thought, wow, this will be an adventure," said Brewer. "We started to roll with a very different element. At the same time, the lifestyle started to rob our souls a little bit."
Around the same time, Brewer's father, who had always encouraged his son's film career, died. With money from his inheritance, Brewer completed his first movie, "The Poor and Hungry" for $20,000 in 2000. Shot on digital video in Memphis, the film is about a car thief who starts to feel guilty about his chosen profession. Following the completion of that film, Brewer's wife became pregnant and he started working on the script for "Hustle & Flow."
"I had seen 'The Poor and Hungry,' and thought it was beautiful," said Stephanie Allain, who received the script for "Hustle & Flow" from a friend. Brewer had sent the script for "Hustle & Flow" to countless producers, and was about to give up on the project when he received the call from Allain. "I had to have it," she explained, "Good material doesn't come along very often."
Even with Allain onboard however, they were unable to get the funding they needed to make the movie. "It was going nowhere," said Allain, who sold her house to get some cash to stick with the project. After a fruitless two-year film financing search, Allain approached John Singleton whom she had discovered while an exec. at Columbia. "He was high rolling after doing '2 Fast 2 Furious,'" she said and after reading the script, Singleton called "flipping out." However, Brewer, Allain and Singleton still couldn't raise the money they needed and after one more frustrating year, Singleton decided to green light the project himself, from his own bank account.
With a budget of around $3 million, they spent a month shooting in Memphis during the summer. "We were all so inspired to be together and do this thing that we knew no one else wanted to do, but that we loved and believed in," Allain said. They submitted the film to Sundance last fall, and the festival loved it, she said.
Shortly before Sundance, Singleton decided to have a rough-cut screening for a bunch of people in L.A. he knew would buzz about the movie. It worked. Buyer interest grew. "And John was like, want to see the movie? And they were like, absolutely.," Brewer recalled. "'Buy a parka,' John said. 'I'll see you on the mountain at Sundance.' And it was driving people insane -- It was masterful in a real, ghetto type of way." One studio even made a blind offer of more than $3 million for the film, Brewer said, but Singleton said no. "And then that's when it all began. And it just spread and everybody started calling," he said.
Following the opening-weekend premiere at Sundance, where the film won this year's audience award, an intense bidding war began. In the end, Paramount Classics/MTV Films acquired "Hustle & Flow" for $9 million (part of a bigger $16 million package deal). "We felt like this was the one night we had been waiting for," Brewer said. "[It was] so fabulous," Allain added.
Brewer's next project, "Black Snake Moan," will also be produced by Allain and Singleton and will star Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci. The Paramount Classics film will also be shot in Memphis.