Interviews · Movies

How Craig Brewer Went from Couch Surfing to ‘Coming 2 America’

We talk to the filmmaker about his career, the truth about ‘Hustle & Flow,’ and his work with Eddie Murphy.
Craig Brewer Filmography
By  · Published on March 4th, 2021

Let’s jump to 2005. When Hustle & Flow came out that summer, I remember everyone talking about it, but as you said, opening weekends are sometimes tough. How was your opening weekend experience for that movie?  

Well, I’m glad you’re bringing that up because that’s something that I think a lot of people are shocked to hear me talk about because here’s a movie that we made that was kind of a miracle. John Singleton put his house up for collateral. He figured out a way to finance Hustle & Flow for $3 million of his own money, which is one of the biggest taboos in Hollywood. You never put your own money into a project. We finally get the movie made when everybody in Hollywood turned it down. We go to Sundance, right? We go to Sundance and Paramount buys our movie, essentially, for $9 million.

Then this movie that I thought was going to be available for DVD exclusively at Walmart is now playing in movie theaters. What people need to understand is that when it comes out in movie theaters, it doesn’t make the kind of money that you think it would make because they had to put $25 million into selling it, which means they pretty much have $30 million that they needed to make off of it, but that means almost $50 million to $60 million that they would have to clear off of it.

I remember the head of the studio, at that time, going, “Oh my God, I’m going to get fired because of this movie because it didn’t make the money that we wanted it to make.” That was my first baptism. John and Stephanie Elaine, who produced the movie with John, were good at providing some perspective during that time because the miracle was already done. We took something that nobody wanted to make and we made something. It was such a hit at Sundance. And in theaters, it’s also such a hit. But because of the way studios have to spend money to make people even know that something is out there, a lot of those wins from Sundance that had that kind of energy don’t pay off for them in the way that you think it would.

Now, since then, this is the perspective that Singleton told me about. I can almost feel him putting his arm around my neck as he would do. He was such a big brother, you know what I mean? He’s been that to so many people. He was just like, “Hey, man, this movie’s going to play on TV. It’s going to be a classic. Don’t you listen to any of those fucking number crunchers talking about any of that stuff. We made a movie, man.” Then it wins an Academy Award and gets nominated for one. Then more and more, it starts playing on TV. I can’t remember any of the hits from 2005 that made a ton of money, but I’ll be damned if I don’t turn on the TV and Hustle & Flow is playing.

So, John was ultimately right and the movie had its day. It had its day. It’s had its day every day since 2005, but it’s an interesting perspective for a lot of people to think about, that at the time of that weekend, Paramount looked at that as a loss.

Now you just remember the movie and how much people were talking about it. 

They were, yeah. Then after the win at the Oscars, I mean, most definitely. Of course, over-performed on DVD, but I just find it interesting because I’m now thinking a lot about the movies that I’ve made and how they’ve related to what was happening in the history of movies during my time in it. Like I can’t speak to making movies in the ’70s or ’80s or ’90s, but I did get to do that, like my first movie that you know, The Poor & Hungry, that no-budget movie for $20,000. Then to do that indie movie for $3 million, or under $3 million, that does the Sundance saga, the fairytale. Then to do that follow-up movie with Black Snake Moan and to see how 2007, suddenly movies took a hit. Suddenly if it wasn’t performing on a global level, people weren’t interested. I look at Black Snake Moan and I think it’s a miracle that the movie got made in general. First of all, because of what it was about.

I see the poster in your office. 

You put it on a billboard today, it’s just not going to happen. But then to get into television, and then even do a remake for a studio, and then there was that remake era where it was really intense. Everything was like being experimented with reinterpretation and remakes and everything. Then the other day, I went to the Ridgeway Four here, the Malco Ridgeway Four, which is a movie theater here in Memphis where I had to pay a thousand dollars to rent a digital projector back in 2000 to air my Poor & Hungry movie digitally in a theater. Now, I just went into a theater during a pandemic, no one was in it, and I’m in the same theater that I had to rent. It’s digitally projected Mank, which I can watch on my phone now. I’m just like, “Man, over twenty years, it’s just amazing.” Now I’m watching a movie that’s streaming on a platform on my computer over the web. I’m watching it in the same movie theater and going like, “Oh, I hope movie theaters can survive all this.

You got to do a remake with Footloose. How do you look back on that experience? 

I think that the recent joy that I’ve had with Footloose, which I’m very proud of, I’m happy that it got to be my remake. I know people were just like, “What? How would you ever make a movie like that after something like Black Snake Moan?” I was like, “They’re not entirely out of [being in] the same universe. You’re still dealing with a movie about trauma.” When I was younger, that’s what always impressed me about Footloose was it’s about young people dealing with trauma. You’ve got the preacher’s daughter whose brother was killed in a car accident. The movie I identified with making the remake of Footloose was Ordinary People, the Robert Redford movie with Mary Tyler Moore. It’s just like the family’s not talking to each other because they’re not dealing with something that was painful in their life.

It made sense to me to make it, but just recently, my thirteen-year-old daughter, I was having this conversation with her and a song from my version of Footloose on the soundtrack came on and she started singing it word-for-word. She goes, “Dad, I was always a little embarrassed to tell you, but I really love your version of Footloose. When I was younger, I would watch it over and over again. I would play the music and everything.” I was like, “Oh, good! When I was your age, that’s what Footloose was for me.”

It was just naughty enough, but also it gave you enough of that adult fix that you’re hearing about adult things and growing up and how scared you are when you’re a teenager and you’ve got to start feeling some of those emotions. Will Dad still love me and all that stuff that Footloose deals with. It’s like oh, good, my daughter got to experience that. So, now with Coming 2 America, like Eddie and I’ve always talked about, it was like man, I was in high school when I saw the first Coming to America. Of course, I want to identify with Akeem.

But Eddie and I and Akeem were all parents. It’s more than thirty years later and the world is scary and what are the choices that we make now as opposed to what we think we would have made when we were seventeen, you know? To me, it felt like I had a way into Coming 2 America that felt in line with where I was in my life.

Where did Black Snake Moan come from? Where were you when you wrote that movie? 

Well, you have to remember that Black Snake Moon was not written after Hustle & Flow was made. It was written after the script was written. For a long time, I couldn’t get Hustle & Flow going. It was probably a good three years that we were trying in various ways to make Hustle & Flow. I remember having to go into the script and sometimes it was set during winter and sometimes it was set during summer because it was another year. We missed the summer, now it’s winter. It was kind of depressing. I would have to come out to LA sometimes. They would fly me out from Memphis and I started having really bad anxiety attacks. This is, I guess, like 2003 or 2004. This is before I even could make Hustle & Flow.

I then decided one night I was just going to write this image that I had in my head. I had this whole image of the radiator. It seemed almost a little like a horror movie. There was a chain around it and something was yanking on it, you heard screaming. I knew there was something like juicy and drive-in by way of a gator bait, sweaty, sexploitation, horror feel to it, but the more I started thinking about the story, the more I was dealing with my own problems at that time and how I was feeling rather untethered. I was all over the place and I couldn’t get grounded. I couldn’t really find peace.

So, I think that those feelings steeped themselves into the script. So, when Hustle & Flow took off, I remember everybody going, “Do you have another script?” I was like, “Well, here’s the thing that I was going to abandon Hustle & Flow and just try to go off and make with my video camera in Memphis, Tennessee, just go out into the country and do this bluesy movie called Black Snake Moon.”

I remember, I’ll never forget this, I was on a plane coming back from Park City and I could see somebody who had a copy of Black Snake Moon and they were reading it in the plane seat, like three aisles in front of me. I remember passing it and going, “How did that get out?” It started to get out there.

Then after Hustle had that buzz, Sam Jackson read it. He was in and John Singleton was like, “This is our next movie. We’re going to go right into it.” That’s how it all came about, that crazy-ass movie.

You began your career writing and directing, but with Dolemite Is My Name and Coming 2 America, other people wrote those movies. Were you always open to directing material you didn’t write?

I actually found great peace in putting down projects that I had written that I was trying to get going and was finding that there were walls. I remember one day telling my agency, “Hey, everybody stop fighting for me right now. I want to go to work on someone else’s vision.” That place was Empire. The work I did on Empire, I felt, started training me to be a writer again, and then also trained me to be a much better director. I don’t mean like a director in terms of vision or concepts. I just got good on the bricks. I felt like I knew how to make movies suddenly. After you make ten episodes of television, it’s like, “No, you’ve got these hours.” It’s like, “You’ve got a problem. This actor isn’t going to be there.” “How am I going to do it?” They’re like, “I don’t know, but you’d better figure it out.”

There is no calling up some studio guy saying, “We’re going to need another day or you’re going to have to talk to her agent.” No, they gave you your limitations and you need to deliver that episode, come hell or high water. That really got me in fighting shape, I think, to take on Dolemite, but what it also did was it allowed me to go, “Ah, that isn’t really quite Lee Daniels. Let’s sprinkle some Lee Daniels on this scene.” You know what I mean?


“Let’s shake it up. Let’s shake it up a little. This is too tame. We’ve got to goose this.” That felt good. So, when I got the script for Dolemite, it was like, “Thank you for handing me Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander.” We collaborated up to the final cut. We’re trying to make another movie right now and work together again, but that to me felt like I could be creative in a way that I could be armed with other creative people and I wouldn’t feel so alone.

Right now, I am writing a script that I would like to direct. I’m very excited about it. I think that there’s a big chance that it’s going to get made. Yeah, it’s actually been very helpful to me to be writing and directing with other writers and with other people’s material.

Do you ever consider making another $20,000 movie in Memphis?

I dream about it all the time. As a matter of fact, if 2020 wasn’t the way it was, I had an idea that I was just going to go out and do that while I was editing, but the pandemic happened and that put a quash on things. Because it would have been twenty years after I did it for Poor & Hungry. I do think about it. I’m fortunate I now have some opportunities where I can probably get to work with some of the actors and actresses that I’ve always wanted to work with in a movie of mine, but I also am equally excited to take a phone out and maybe do something like Tangerine but on the streets of Memphis.

You mentioned your couch surfing days earlier. There are a lot of creatives on couches right now. Any advice for them? It was worth it, right?

It’s so funny because I think I just read recently that George Clooney invited all his friends and gave them all a million dollars and paid their taxes for it. I remember saying to myself, “Man, I’ve had that fantasy over and over and over again, that one day I could help out the people that helped me out by just sticking it on their couch.”

Oh yes, it’s absolutely worth it and I miss it. I miss it because you really feel it when you’re putting it out there like that. There’s no other time like it. I’m sure there’s a possibility that I’ll have to hit the bricks again and go door-to-door trying to sell movies to do, but man, there’s nothing like that struggle time because then you know when it starts happening, you know that there’s nobody that’s going to ever make you feel like it was handed to you.

I get it. I understand the loneliness that artists feel when they’re working toward something and they’re knocking on all these doors. Sometimes you do feel dirty. Sometimes you come home and you’re like, “Am I really going to make a movie with that guy? But goddammit, no one’s giving me money.” You wrestle with your soul a lot on your friend’s couch. You’re doing some serious soul searching, but I think it’s the best time for an artist.

Coming 2 America releases on Amazon Prime Video on March 5th.

Pages: 1 2

Related Topics: , , , , , ,

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.