Character studies: The Hughes Brothers

Oct 17, 2001 at 12:00 am

Nothing about the Hughes brothers is quite as simple as it first appears. The 29-year-old fraternal twins may direct their movies together, but they are strongly opinionated individuals more interested in speaking their minds than finishing each other’s sentences. They are also masters of contradiction, able to easily hold two opposing viewpoints.

One minute, the Detroit-born brothers (who moved to California at the age of 8 with their mother) are convivially reminiscing about their childhood and watching Sir Graves Ghastly and Ultraman on television. The next minute, they tackle the question of movie violence with the enthusiasm of passionate debaters.

Allen: Even people who say they don’t like violent movies are still fascinated with death and violence. Everybody is to one degree or another.
Albert: That’s why traffic slows down every time there’s an accident.
Allen: They’re trying to see who spilled blood over there.
Albert: In America, we are conditioned and groomed to violence, especially our generation. It’s all about violence here. What’s interesting is when we took From Hell over to Europe (at the Venice Film Festival), they loved the movie, but they were put off by the violence. They’re not into violence in Europe; they’re into sexuality.

But it’s violence which clearly fascinates the Hughes brothers, who made their names with Menace II Society (1993) and Dead Presidents (1995), startling and unabashedly violent portraits of the black underclass, followed two years ago by the disturbingly funny documentary, American Pimp. In between came several anti-handgun public service announcements, a subject which touches off another debate.

Albert: I’m really interested in propaganda, and even though we do violent movies, it would be kind of cool to go and convince people that it’s bad to shoot people.
Allen: They wanted us recently to do some anti-marijuana commercials.
We could smoke in the trailer and then go out and shoot.
Allen: But with all this stuff, handguns and drugs and whatever, if we as a nation were more responsible and more level-headed about things, we could handle all this stuff.

Like the cigarettes their From Hell star, Johnny Depp, smokes, the Hughes brothers come unfiltered.

“As much as they bicker and fight,” says Depp, “and give each other shtick, they really respect each other as filmmakers and respect each other’s arenas. Allen finessing the actors’ performance and dealing with script issues and Albert — more the aesthetic and the movement and emotion of the camerawork.”

From Hell itself exhibits the Hughes brothers’ contradictory impulses. On one hand, they were meticulous when it came to building a historically accurate movie set (10 blocks of the Whitechapel district, a notorious ghetto, were constructed outside Prague) and in detailing the way Jack the Ripper stabbed and mutilated prostitutes in 1888 London, a still-unsolved series of murders. Then again, they also took some liberties, especially in Depp’s portrayal of Inspector Abberline, a real Metropolitan Police detective.

“We had a weakness, we felt, in our other films,” explains Allen, “where our leads were the most uninteresting characters in the movie. So we wanted to make our lead, this time, one of the most interesting characters and keep people intrigued. And Johnny being who he is, he wants to do the same thing. He wants to do weird things.”

From Hell is based on a densely detailed graphic novel written by Alan Moore (Watchmen, Top Ten) and illustrated by Eddie Campbell (Bacchus), and the Hughes brothers drew key details from it (including the possible identity of the killer). They were fascinated by the convergence of events around the Ripper case, which inaugurated the public fascination with serial killers, fueled the spread of tabloid journalism, and established the new science of forensic pathology as well as the modern conspiracy theory. (From Hell follows the Masonic thread of the investigation straight to Buckingham Palace.)

What they got for all their attention to detail, “luscious” visuals and a sound scape Albert proudly refers to as “an auditory drug,” was another ratings battle with the MPAA. They trimmed one throat-cutting scene by “less than half a second,” Albert marvels, 10 frames out of 24, to get an R rating. But neither of the Hughes brothers is satisfied with what they perceive as a double standard. Arguing his case before the ratings board, Allen Hughes cited violence and gore in Steven Spielberg’s World War II epics.

“Those big moneymaking filmmakers,” says Allen, “they let get away with murder — literally — on celluloid. With us, it was always a problem. They try to say this to us, ‘Saving Private Ryan is a true story about soldiers and it actually did happen.’ And I go, ‘First, that story is actually not true, and secondly, these women actually did die like this and what makes their murders less significant?’”

Leave it to the Hughes brothers to give them hell.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]