Q & A With Allen and Albert Hughes
The last time the words “a new film by the Hughes brothers” graced movie theaters, the country was on high terror alert, huddled in basements, and armed with radiation suits and shotguns. You see, this was way back in October 2001, a month after the single most catastrophic event to hit American soil had—surprise—made people a little leery of heading out to the multiplex, much less to see a dark, twisted Jack the Ripper yarn called From Hell. But Allen and Albert Hughes have never done anything the easy way.
After getting stomped by gangbangers during preproduction on their debut film, Menace II Society, walking a fine legal line while filming pimps for American Pimp, and turning a nearly decadelong layoff into one of the most anticipated movies of 2010, the Hughes brothers are forgiven for feeling a lot like Denzel Washington’s character in their comeback film The Book of Eli: wounded, isolated, but itching to kick a little ass once again.
INKED: How many tattoos do you guys have?
ALLEN: I have one on my right forearm that is six words, so I don’t know how many tattoos that counts as. They’re the 12 virtues of the Lakota Native Americans. I got the first six, which are humility, perseverance, respect, honor, love, and sacrifice. I’m suppose to get the next six on my left arm—truth, compassion, bravery, fortitude, generosity, and wisdom—but I don’t feel I’ve earned my way there yet.
ALBERT: I have one, on my right wrist. It’s very modest. It looks almost like a bracelet. It’s binary code for my daughter’s name. At first I thought I wanted the Armenian calendar, because we’re half Armenian, and I wanted to get each month tattooed in a bracelet form depending on how healthy I lived, if I deserved that month or not. But it turns out there are two or three different types of the Armenian language so I thought it was just too complicated. So for my first tattoo, I kind of tiptoed my way in.
It’s funny that you both feel you need to earn your tattoos. Allen, are you going to reward yourself with the other six words any time soon?
ALLEN: First off, I don’t like tattoos. I hate them. And there are certain ones that do look good on certain people, but that’s probably, like, one percent of the population. I never in my life was going to get one, but about a year and a half ago, it was, like, four in the morning, and I popped up in bed and something told me to put those virtues on my right forearm. So then I thought, Why don’t you sit on this for three months? And I did, and those words and that way of life, the indigenous cultures of America, are ways that I hold near and dear to my heart. So I was in Miami, and I’m sort of a wuss about this stuff, so I thought, Why not go to Miami Ink? Because at least they’re on TV and I can sue the shit out of them if something goes wrong. [Laughs.] I just wanted something simple, but leave it to artists to talk you into stylish fonts and shit. Before I knew it, I looked like a Latin gang member. [Laughs.]
ALBERT: I actually want more. I want sleeves. But there’s no way I can come up with that many ideas for tattoos. But Allen hasn’t earned the ones he has on him! [Laughs.] My daughter jokes to him all the time, “Have you mastered those virtues yet? How’s it coming?” It’s like an inside joke with us.
Was it as painful as you anticipated?
ALLEN: You know what was the funny? I got in the chair, and I sat down like that statue The Thinker, you know? And halfway through the artist was like, “Are you okay?” And I’m like, “I’m cool, man.” Because to me—as corny as this might sound—I felt like I needed to feel every word. So it didn’t feel painful. It was like a rite of passage.
ALBERT: It was right where I thought it would be. Not bad. It feels like a thousand cats licking you at once.
Your new movie, The Book of Eli, is set in a postapocalyptic world destroyed by nuclear war. How do you see us going out?
ALLEN: I think we’ll go out by our own hand. They talk about a super-volcano or a meteor or global warming … I don’t know, man. I look at shit and I’m like, We’re going to go out by our own hand somehow.
ALBERT: George Carlin once joked about all these people who are into “don’t pollute” and “world peace” and “no nuclear weapons” and “save the planet”—don’t they realize the planet doesn’t even think about us? We’re just a small little blip on the radar. The planet is just going to shake us off one day, no matter what we do. The planet is then going to rebuild itself and not even blink an eye. I don’t know how we’re going out, but we’re going out.
You started making movies when you were 12. What inspired you?
ALLEN: Cocaine. [Laughs.] No, no … although, after we saw Scarface, we did make movies about Cuban drug dealers and blowing shit up—it was all, like, Miami Vice, Scarface-based stuff. We’d get flour in the kitchen and act like we were snorting blow. Coke deals and gunfights going down. … That’s how our movie career started: with cocaine.
ALBERT: Our mother rented us a camera at first, and we started doing it as a hobby. The discovery of the tripod was big for us. We’d imitate shots from Bruce Lee movies, like Enter the Dragon. Then we saw Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle and we heard the whole story of him using credit cards to finance the movie. It was the first time we thought, Oh shit, we can do this.
If you’d known then what you know now, how would you approach your first movie, Menace II Society, differently?
ALLEN: It’s funny because we never really liked that movie. When we were done with it we were like, We have a piece of shit on our hands. People reacted to the movie the way we wanted them to react to the movie we had in our heads. I never understood until years later. I popped it in and was like, Oh shit, we were 20 when we made that, the characters are roughly 20, and we were living on weed and Taco Bell. We were living that lifestyle, minus the drug dealing and gangbanging. We were in that element. And there’s an urgency to the movie that I don’t think we could bring now. The lunatics were running the asylum.
ALBERT: Most directors, when they look back at their first movie, probably see it like a high school photo of themselves with pimples. It wasn’t the movie we had hoped to make. I think if we had to do it again we could do it more efficiently. And I think we’d deal with some of the violence a little differently. But that naivete kind of got us through that movie. We didn’t know what we couldn’t do.
Is it true that you guys once got into an actual fight with Tupac Shakur on the set of Menace?
ALLEN: We were good friends with Tupac at the time. We started doing music videos with him when we were all around 19. And he went out of his way for us to do his first three music videos. When I met him he was one of the funniest, sweetest, most sensitive people I ever met—he was a good guy. This was before Juice, when he wasn’t famous. He was just a budding rap artist. But from the moment he saw Juice, he changed. It was like a chemical imbalance. He just seemed ready to go to war about everything. Before you knew it, he had all these tattoos with “50 Niggas Deep” and “Thug Life” and a machine gun on his solar plexus. He just changed. He had this bravado problem—especially if people were around, he’d just be an ass.
So I tried to confront him and talk to him because we had decided to relieve him of his duties on Menace. And there are a lot of versions of what happened, but I had Tupac up in the air, and I was throwing him against a truck, and before I knew it, nine or 10 gangbangers had thrown me off him, and that’s when the ass-kicking really commenced. It was never Tupac and me. It was me getting my ass stomped out by them.
ALBERT: I went off to get the set police to help us. I got away from being jumped, but I did get chased all around downtown L.A. with three cars full of guys. I was smoking weed too. [Laughs.] Before, when we smoked, we never went out in public—we were too paranoid. And this was the first day I said, “You know what? I’m going to let my guard down and smoke weed and go out.” And I did and here this shit happens. I ran into a fire station and I was so freaked out that they were looking at me like I was crazy. And then the police showed up and had their guns drawn on me and everything. And I was high. I probably would have chosen the beat-down over that experience.
ALLEN: The good news was, I never knew that your adrenaline kicks in and you don’t feel any of that shit. I just felt my body moving in different positions and blood squirting out of my nose, and I was like, Yo, this is insane, because I don’t feel none of this shit.
Is it true you guys turned down doing an antimarijuana ad because you felt it was hypocritical?
ALLEN: No! Actually, we wanted to do it! [Laughs.] I’ll tell you why we turned it down, ultimately. We were asked to do a military commercial for the Navy and a Rock the Vote ad and then the marijuana thing. The first one was while Bush was in office, so I was like, “I’m not doing that shit.” And Rock the Vote—we wanted to do it, but at the time we weren’t registered voters and they were like, “You niggas ain’t doing this shit.” [Laughs.]
Then we were approached about these marijuana ones and the problem I had was that it had parents coming to talk to their kid and it was like, “You shouldn’t smoke because this, that, or the other, and marijuana leads to this, and marijuana can make you do this, that, or the other.” I was like, “Yo, this is bullshit.” The script was basically “Drugs are for losers and people who have problems and can’t deal with their lives.” Tell your kids the truth: People do drugs because it’s fun. [Laughs.] I wanted to tell them: You’re at an age when it’s not optimal to be smoking weed—your brain isn’t fully developed yet. Wait until you get to college. [Laughs.] Be real with kids. If it’s cocaine or PCP you can say, “This shit is bad.” But with weed it’s more nuanced.
ALBERT: I wanted to do it, because I’m into propaganda. But we were always clear: We’ll do these, but we smoke weed and we don’t vote. [Laughs.] I’d do an ad for the Republican Party just for the challenge. I don’t agree with them at all, but I’d do it. But I won’t do a summer blockbuster. I do have some morals. [Laughs.]
Do you guys argue on set?
ALLEN: We used to argue more on set. On Book of Eli we got into two—I wouldn’t call them arguments—they were spats. “Put that there.” “Fuck you!” Very quick like that. But when we were closer—we used to live and work together, but that stopped after From Hell, we went our separate ways—there was more of that.
ALBERT: When people see it, they think it’s pretty vicious, but it’s not as bad as it looks. On Eli, he said something that pissed me off, I said something that pissed him off, and he walked off to a tent and just went into a tirade with one of the producers about me. And I’m in the next tent. I can hear the whole thing.
Do you have a weird twin connection?
ALLEN: Always. I was talking to our agent the other day and he said, “Does your brother know this information?” And I said, “I didn’t tell him, but he knows.” With twins it’s always in the silence, what you don’t say. It was funny—we did a lot of writing with Denzel [Washington], and he has twins. And he’d watch us bicker and shit and he would just laugh. He knew how to deal with it. His twins go at it pretty hard too.
ALBERT: It’s been there since day one. We had the same dream once, when we were still in the crib.
Did you guys witness anything during the making of the documentary American Pimp that you couldn’t show on film?
ALLEN: Ironically? The pimping—when it came to actually going down and getting the money from the girls and checking their “traps,” taking the money out of their hand, and discussing the business of pimping. I don’t know if people realize this, but in that documentary there is only one shot of a pimp taking money out of a ho’s hand. Legally, it’s a big-time felony, so we couldn’t show them pimping. So there was some sleight of hand in the filmmaking.
ALBERT: It was more like funny shit [that didn’t make it in]. One day we were playing PlayStation with a bunch of the guys, and there were maybe two girls hanging around, and one of the pimps was eating a bag of Cheetos and they kept falling on the carpet. Eventually I just said, “Are you going to clean that up?” And he said, “Aw, man, I’m going to leave that for the bitches to clean up.” It was just shit like that.
Have you seen anyone with a tattoo based on one of your movies?
ALLEN: No. I’ve seen people dressed as Dead Presidents on Halloween—and that surprises me, because that movie didn’t make $100 million.
ALBERT: I’ve never seen anyone with a tattoo, and I’m glad I haven’t. There was a really famous rapper—I won’t say his name—that I really respected back in the ’90s. Then he was in some magazine saying that his favorite movie of all time was Dead Presidents, and I instantly lost respect for him. [Laughs.] So if someone’s rolling around with a tattoo of that movie? We’ve got problems.
You guys haven’t shown much of an interest in doing big franchise movies, but just for the hell of it, what would a Hughes brothers’ Harry Potter movie be like?
ALLEN: Shitty. [Laughs.] Real real real shitty. Fairies and whatever the fuck they are. I can’t do that.
ALBERT: That shit wouldn’t even be released. Although I think sometimes what I would do with that, because it’s so corporate and it’s so big. The ironic thing is that I was a big Pippi Longstocking fan when I was a kid. And I can see myself doing a Pippi Longstocking movie. It’s laughable, but I could do it.