Musicals require a very particular skill set as a filmmaker, and one of the frustrating things about trying to pick a director for a musical is that it's not something that everyone has the background for, and since musicals aren't as omnipresent a part of our film culture as they used to be, it's a lot harder to build that skill set with pratical experience. It's even harder to become really good at it, and I think that's why the moment someone has directed a film that is even vaguely dependent on music, studios immediately put that person in a box.
I get the feeling Craig Brewer is perfectly happy being in that particular box, and that music is his way into a movie in the first place. Last week, I spoke with Brewer about the film he's just finished, the remake of "Footloose." Brewer was a guest at BNAT, and a very approachable, outspoken film fan who has been carefully trying to figure out his place in the studio system. Brewer's first two films were strong examples of voice, and in both, music was practically a character. When we got on the phone, I asked him what his first reaction was when they brought him "Footloose, and what sort of opportunities he saw in the material.
"When they first brought up 'Footloose,' I said, 'Absolutely not.' I probably passed on it like twice." He laughter thinking about it. "We have a very good relationship with the head of the studio at Paramount, and Adam [Goodman] called me and was like, 'What are you doing? You know you're the perfect person to do this. The first film means so much to you.' And they wanted it done the right way. They wanted it done with heart, and with affection for the first film, and they wanted to give me freedom to make it my movie."
He continued after I reminded him of my original question. "I knew musically that it would be a home run for me. 'Footloose' is in my DNA. I grew up in the best time ever for movies and music. The '80s get a bad rap, but we had better music in movies then than we have sense. 'Flashdance' and 'Footloose' both had an edge to them. Those movies were a big part of me going into musical theater. I was a chubby kid who couldn't play sports, and the only way for me to meet girls was to be in the theater. And I did those musical numbers in those musicals. I did the dancing. And then I'd go home to the South from my home where I was living in Northern California, and I'd be hanging out with my cousins, fishing and riding around on four-wheelers, so the themes from 'Footloose' really resonated with me, because in my head, I was Ren MacCormack, and all of my cousins were Willard. The opportunity was more heart-related, more related to where we are in the country, where we're at a real division, and a time of overreaction. In a post 9/11 society, if you make me feel unsafe about my children, it's going to make me do things that I wouldn't have imagined when I was 17. And so I realized there was a chance to make it something that wasn't just a money grab, something that made 'Footloose' relevant to today."
That was all one breath, by the way. That's the way Brewer is. He's so incredibly energetic about what he's been up to, and so ready to defend his vision and his approach, and ready to show the world what he's done. "That always makes people curious or makes people laugh. 'There's nothing relevant about that film. What can you do with that?' And it's all about the overreacting I even find when Willard says 'I can't even bring a bandana to school because they think I'm in a gang,' that gets a laugh. That's one of those things that teenagers hear about that makes no sense. In this film, there's this one accident, and that changes the policy for how everything is done in this small town. And I don't mean to get too deep into this, but it's like 9/11. You can say that that horrible tragedy in our life may have led to overreactions in other areas. And that feeling is in our country right now."
He made sure to credit the ease of the process back to the studio. "I'm very pleased with Randy Spendlove at Paramount Music because we didn't have a music supervisor on this. I went in and told Randy what I wanted to do and what we'd need to do, and he got it done. Randy is the one who went to Nashville and said, 'Hey, we're doing 'Footloose,' and are there any songs any of you would want to cover?' And he found this girl, this teenage girl, Ella Mae Bowen, that made her own demo to do 'Holding Out For A Hero' that is very slow and full of longing and just a wonderful track, and so now this girl that no one knows about now has a major track in a major motion picture. I don't know if I'm answering your question, but I just try to have people I respect in the movie. Like Kenny Wayne Shepherd is doing some music for the movie. We've got Big and Rich. We've got David Banner. We've got Three Six Mafia. This are all people who are in my playlists, you know? It began when I was writing it."
We talked about the way young music fans today grow up exposed to so many more influences than we had, and we discussed why that might be. "Oh, yeah. When you can hold a couple of thousand songs. I had a walkman when I saw 'Footloose.' You just had two sides of a cassette tape. These kids now have thousands of songs at their disposal. They're going to be influenced by everything. That's one of the things I really love about shows like 'American Idol.' It's like, all of a sudden, they're singing Bacharach tunes. But I'll say this… 'Footloose' back in 1984 did have a very broad soundtrack. There were synthy songs, and Van Hagar, and songs with a country feel. The producers told me that people were scared about that, but I think that's one of the triumphs. That's one of the things that made it such a broad hit."
My feeling about finding someone to star in the film was that Kevin Bacon made that first movie into a real showcase for himself, and he was iconic in it. Anyone playing that role is going to have to deal with that comparison, and I asked what Craig looked for in the auditions. "The best thing we did was to go to a sincere person. That sounds funny, but that's the truth. When you do a movie like this, and you do auditions, you're going to have people who walk in and put on a real show for you. But Kenny Wormald walked in and he was just this very real kid from Boston who has a good heart. He's respectful. He's humble. He also has attitude where he needs to have it."
Brewer talked about the difficulties they had early in the shoot with Wormald's performance. "At first, he wasn't necessarily connecting. And I realized that it was something that had also happened with Justin Timberlake on 'Black Snake Moan.' And on that film, I went to Justin and was like, 'Listen, you and I are a lot alike. We both come from Southern families, and we've both worked hard so the Southern accent is no longer in our mouth all the time unless we're drunk or mad or hanging out with family because you're embarrassed and you don't want them all knowing that you're a Southern boy. Embrace your accent.' That's what happened with Kenny. Kenny was trying to hide his Boston thing. And the thing that I love about this, that I loved about the first film, was that this kid from a city can come to a small town in the south and eventually the culture there will embrace him. 'Kenny,' I told him, 'don't try to be anybody else. Don't try to be anybody else. I want you to be you under these circumstances. I need someone to be strong and confident because this is going to be a bumpy ride because people love Kevin Bacon in the role.' And it has been so far."
Finally, Craig steered the conversation, determined to really underline what makes his film different from the original. "What the original had was someone from the city coming into a small town. They never said where it was. Here, it's the small town South, and that's so different today. The southerners are always the first easy target to make stereotypes, and that's not the South I see. The South I see is far more integrated than either of the costs, yet we get saddled with being racists. You go to any high school here, and black is by no means a minority. That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to put Ray McKinnon, who is a fantastic actor from Little Rock who won an Academy Award for making his own short films. I wanted him to be in it. The extras are great. I didn't want any models. i wanted real Southern kids. White, black, and Mexican. And you're not really going to find one face of color in that original movie. Not one. Not even in the background. I think we made this authentic. The South is a place that earns your respect and vice versa, and you've got to bend a little bit to meet it."
With that, Craig had to go, but I'll say this… he is convinced he's done something special with this one, and the early screenings seem to be going very well. If anybody can pull this off, Brewer can, and we'll see if this is as completely in his comfort zone as I suspect it is when the film finally opens.
"Footloose" opens everywhere October 14, 2011.