Their last big feature was “From Hell,” a gory and gothic period piece that starred a pre-"Pirates” Johnny Depp as an eccentric and slightly unbalanced investigator chasing Jack the Ripper through the rain-slick cobblestone streets of 19th century London. The 2001 film met mixed reviews and middling box office, and not long after that, Albert and Allen Hughes, once considered two of the more urgent and authentic voices in Hollywood, seemed to disappear.
“We took a twin sabbatical,” Allen Hughes says, laughing deeply. He sits in his second floor office at Albuquerque Studios. Behind him the January sun sets on low hills , casting lovely pastels. Allen’s twin brother, Albert, is downstairs poring over a shot list.
The Hughes Brothers are five days from starting principal photography on “The Book of Eli,” a $70-million post-apocalyptic western they are directing. The movie, scheduled to hit theaters in early 2010, stars Denzel Washington as the lone hero walking westward, carrying with him a book with the secrets for saving humanity. The film is being shot in New Mexico for its ethereal desert landscapes.
But before he gets into the new film, Allen wants to set the record straight about where they’ve been. “It got blown out of proportion,” he says, a little annoyed. “Someone told me that [my brother and I] got in a fistfight. I heard all these crazy rumors, and it just got worse and worse and worse.”
Though there was no single blowout, issues over girlfriends temporarily fractured their fraternal bond. Albert and Allen Hughes simply needed to grow up and apart, as they tell it. From 2004 to 2007, the inseparable brothers carved out separate lives -- Allen in a suburb east of Los Angeles, Albert in Prague, Czech Republic, where they shot “From Hell.” They would come together to do television projects or commercials for Nike, Heineken, Ford and other high-end clients. But trying to find work on another big-budget feature would have to wait.
It was a matter of finding the right script, getting over their personal and creative tensions, and then reselling themselves to Hollywood -- no small tasks. After all, it’s hard getting back into the warm embrace of studio executives when you’ve been mysteriously off the radar, even if you did come out of the gate at 20 years old with the success that was 1993’s “Menace II Society.”
A production assistant knocks on Allen’s door requesting that he come to wardrobe to see costume choices for actress Jennifer Beals, who just arrived on set.
“Yeah, yeah. In a minute,” he says, waving a hand.
The PA goes away and Allen finishes his thoughts. “You have two guys who are fiscally responsible and conscious and find creative ways to get things done. We come from the independent film world, and we’ve never stopped, not since we were 12 years old.”
Allen stands up. “This business is a great business, but it needs an enema.”
With that he hurries down the hall to wardrobe.
Bursting onto the scene
The Hughes brothers, now 37, grew up in Detroit. They moved to Los Angeles with their mother in 1981. When they enrolled at Los Angeles City College, they found a home in the communications department. Soon Albert and Allen were making short films and then music videos for Tone Loc and Tupac Shakur. That led to their first feature, “Menace II Society,” produced by New Line. Made for $3 million, it grossed $30 million, and along with Spike Lee, John Singleton and Charles Burnett before all of them, the Hughes brothers were helping to write a new chapter in African American cinema.
“Menace” follows Caine (Tyrin Turner), O-Dog (Larenz Tate) and their circle of friends and family in Watts around the temptations of guns, violence and drugs -- an unflinching portrayal of survival at the urban margins. The brilliance of “Menace” is its realistic portrait of time and place and its care in avoiding cliches. or easy outs. As critic Roger Ebert wrote at the time, “The Hughes twins, given a chance, reveal here that they are natural filmmakers. ‘Menace II Society’ is as well-directed a film as you’ll see from America this year.”
“These guys are the most underrated filmmakers in the business,” says director Brett Ratner, a longtime friend of the directors. “They never thought of themselves as just urban directors. They have taste, and they understand what’s special.”
After the success of “Menace,” the pair were offered lots of scripts. They chose to make “Dead Presidents” with Tate and Keith David -- an urbanized version of the classic heist movie. The brothers admit it’s uneven. They went out too soon with an inadequately vetted screenplay.
Then came their documentary “American Pimp” (1999), followed by “From Hell” (2001), and episodes for the TV series “Touching Evil,” on which Albert and Allen were executive producers. But they never quite fulfilled the promise of their first film.
“The Book of Eli,” from an original script by Gary Whitta with a rewrite by Anthony Peckham, offers another chance to make good on that potential. Sharing themes with Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” the film, set in the not-so-distant future, takes place after a tremendous calamity befalls human civilization. Traveling west through the barren landscape, Eli needs to reach San Francisco to keep his special cargo from falling into the wrong hands. There is an underlying gravity to what is in essence an action/adventure story. In addition to Washington, also serving as a producer, the cast includes Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Michael Gambon and Tom Waits.
When making a movie, the Hughes brothers divide directing duties along specific lines just as Joel and Ethan Coen or Andy and Larry Wachowski. Allen handles the script, actors, performance and producing. Albert takes the lead on the visuals, special effects, camera and editing. But what if they disagree?
“We each have complete veto rights in our departments,” Albert said. “If I come to the set and I don’t like a performance, and he doesn’t agree with me, I have no control over that. If he has a problem with a camera move, we’ll talk about it. But if I disagree, I prevail.”
Laying the groundwork
Being with Albert and Allen Hughes is like being inside the brain of a single creative force -- each brother being the hemisphere of one mind. Hearing them talk together is like eavesdropping on someone’s internal conversation. The dialogue can get passionate, heated and profane. Then, in a millisecond, it’s full of love.
The brothers are not sure if they are fraternal or identical twins. Albert is thinner than his brother and usually keeps a toothpick parked behind his ear. In a spacious corner office on the first floor he shares with his visual effects coordinator and storyboard artist, there’s a computer monitor to his left streaming old TV shows via Slingbox and a flat-screen TV on the other side of the room playing DVDs -- both with the sound off. House music plays quietly from his iPod. Pre-production on the film started in October. What many civilians and even some film professionals don’t realize is that before the camera is ever turned on the majority of creative decisions have been made, and they are often irrevocable. The choices may seem trivial, but accumulated they define a movie -- its tone, personality and soul.
Fight coordinator Jeff Imada enters the office and explains that the actress hired to play the head biker chick took a spill and needs to be replaced. Will the character kiss one of the other women? If so, this needs to be divulged to prospective actresses before one is selected.
Albert thinks for a moment and says no kissing will be required. “We grew up on that, man. I don’t need to see any more.”
When the Hughes brothers were kids their biological African American father left home. When they were 12 they discovered their mother, who is of Armenian extraction, was a lesbian. Albert describes a dominant memory -- he was at his girlfriend’s house when his brother knocked on the door, crying. “Since he didn’t say, ‘Mom’s dead,’ there was only one other thing: He caught her kissing another woman. I said, ‘Go home, I already know.’ ”
But being a visual guy, Albert also recalls the motorcycle one of the women in his mother’s circle rode -- it was purple, like Prince’s in “Purple Rain.”
Faith in the brothers
On any given day, there are several movies playing inside Albert’s head -- not just the one he’s working on at the moment. Amid all his other pre-production activities, Albert walks over to the TV that’s playing “Casino” and deconstructs a complex tracking shot in the film. A few moments later, observing camera tests out behind the sound stages in New Mexico, Allen asks Don Burgess, the director of photography on “Eli,” to explain a sequence in “Cast Away,” another film Burgess shot.
“The Book of Eli” is financed in its entirety by Alcon Entertainment, which is co-producing with Joel Silver. Silver remarked by phone that he’s used to working with brothers, having produced the Coens’ “Hudsucker Proxy” and the Wachowskis’ “Matrix” movies. Silver says Albert and Allen are “smart and very prepared. [“The Book of Eli”] is a complicated movie with a lot of visual effects. Also it’s a character piece, so it’s important for them to get the characters to work together. They have their hands full to make it look good and get everybody focused and do a good movie.”
Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson, partners in Alcon Entertainment (“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”), an L.A.-based production company that has a distribution deal with Warner Bros., said that “The Book of Eli” is their biggest film in terms of budget, production challenges and star power. Before they came into the picture with the financing, as Kosove explains, there had been concerns at Warners about the brothers and their film. Not so with Alcon. “We were blown away by their vision for the movie,” Kosove said. “And we pushed the green button.”
Despite their time away from the spotlight, Johnson says the brothers were still a draw for Alcon. “They offer a unique combination of visual hipness with a real creative passion. I was a fan of their earlier movies. They know what’s been done before, what hasn’t been done before, what conventions they want to try to avoid and which ones still work.”
Or as Ratner puts it: “Any schmuck can watch films. But Albert and Allen have taste, and they understand what’s special.”
A journey begins
Allen got an early peek at the spec script for “The Book of Eli,” not long after Silver and Warners optioned it. “Our agent called me and said, ‘You gotta read this.’ Around Page 42, the hair on the back of my neck stood up.”
The next day he phoned Albert in Prague. “I read it and called Allen and said, ‘I don’t know, man,’ ” Albert recalls. “I heard the wind go out of him -- whoosh. He told me to just go to sleep, think about it, and call him the next day. I had an eight-hour dream about the movie. I woke up and called Allen: ‘I get it, man. I’m in.’ ”
Three weeks later, Albert finished a 60-page visual book that expressed the brothers’ vision of the movie using photographs pulled from the Internet, drawings, stills from other films and a written “dogma” that describes their shooting style.
They knew they would have one shot at pitching themselves for the project. “We weren’t hot” around Hollywood, Allen admits. But armed with passion and Albert’s book, they went in to Warner Bros. Twenty minutes after that meeting was over, according to Allen, the studio was in active discussion with their agents. An hour and half later the deal was closed.
Little did Albert and Allen know, but the yearlong struggle to get the movie set up had just begun. First there were money issues. The studio was reluctant to give the project the kind of budget the brothers felt they needed. Then the writers strike happened. Energy and interest waned. Albert went back to Prague. Allen was getting depressed.
“I felt something come over me and oppress me. I was at the lowest. Then a spirit -- something I can’t define -- said for me to take a knee, as they say in boxing.”
Washington had been attached to play Eli, his price was set, and he was ready to go if all the details could be hammered out. Allen brushed aside any pride or embarrassment. “I called his cell and left a message. I said: ‘I need your help now. I need to see you. I think this is an important project with you as a producer and you as an actor. I’d like to sit down and tell you what I need.’ He called back a few hours later . . . and I missed him!”
When they did finally connect, according to Allen, the actor asked him to his house the next day and said to bring that visual book Albert had made. “The man can talk,” Allen says, “but above all, he’s a man of action.”
In the end, Washington, who was on vacation and couldn’t be reached for this story, offered to produce the picture and help make it all happen. “I felt him reach his hand out and take me and my brother out of the sea that we were cast out in,” Allen says.
Days later, as ash and smoke fill the air on the set of a monochromatic burnt-out forest, Albert and Allen take their places sitting in directors’ chairs next to Burgess in front of a high-definition monitor.
If there is any worry about this being their comeback movie, it doesn’t show on their faces. Washington, looking much thinner (he reportedly shed more than 50 pounds for the role) and wearing a gas mask, finds his mark. The brothers look over at J.P. Wetzel, the first assistant director, and nod. It’s the first take on the first day of a 65-day shoot.
“Roll camera,” Wetzel says.
“Speed,” answers the assistant camera.
Post-script: The Hugheses are now busy editing the results of their production work, which they say finished on time and on budget. The brothers are back in the action.