As the director of an Academy Award-winning film about the emotional angst of a pimp (Hustle & Flow) and a controversial drama about a black man who chains a white woman to a radiator in a desperate bid to change her hard-living ways (Black Snake Moan), Craig Brewer might seem like an unlikely choice to direct a remake of a squeaky-clean 1980s blockbuster about a small town that bans dancing following a tragic accident. Yet the recent remake of Footloose feels like a Craig Brewer film. It retains the texture and steamy sensuality of Brewer’s previous efforts—thanks in no small part to spirited performances by Dancing With The Stars star Julianne Hough and newcomer Kenny Wormald—while angling unabashedly for a more mainstream audience. The A.V. Club recently sat down to talk to Brewer, Hough, and Wormald in a skybox at a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, where they discussed whether Footloose is a “post-9/11” teen movie, Hough’s predilection for “hairography,” and updating the film’s premise for contemporary audiences.
The A.V. Club: A good place to begin would be to talk about how you each got involved in the project.
Kenny Wormald: Well, [to Brewer] you were involved first. Oh no, [to Hough] you were involved first
Julianne Hough: I was there first. So I’ll start.
Craig Brewer: Julianne’s the vet.
JH: So I was hired, I think basically solely based on the dancing and singing, because it was going to be more of a musical style, West End stage performance. When that all went down, they decided to go in the direction of the original, and that’s when Craig came on board. I basically had to audition, not because I had to—I kind of did, but I really wanted to show that I could.
CB: There was a management change at Paramount, and there was the idea either to not do Footloose at all, or give it another take. Adam Goodman, who runs Paramount, knew me from back when he saw Hustle & Flow, when he worked at DreamWorks. He has a certain love for a type of movie, and he responded to my movies. So he called me up and he offered the movie to me, and I declined. As a matter of fact, I passed on it twice, because I think I’m of the opinion of a lot of people in America, like, “Why do you want to redo Footloose? The original’s perfect, just watch that one.” But the more I started thinking about it, I started seeing that there was a way to do it that could be respectful to the original, but, dare I say it, improve on it for modern interpretation. I began to see that the places where I’ve been living, and the films I’ve been exploring, have been dealing with a more Southern sensibility on things. There always seems to be this red-state/blue-state divide in the country that’s been since the Civil War and earlier, and just when I think it’s beginning to go away, it rears its ugly head again.
I began to think that there was a place for Footloose to get retold again, that there was actually a more conducive political climate, an emotional climate to explore a town that has experienced a trauma and a shock, and starts overreacting. I’d never want to be disrespectful and say that it’s a post-9/11 teen movie, but to some extent it is, because I remember a different kind of carefree life before all of that, and now I’m a parent, and I see myself lining up a bit more with Reverend Shaw and the parents if that means that my kids are going to be safe. What a perfect thing for teenagers to rebel against. So once I began to see a way, I called up Adam again, and said, “You know what? I’m in. I think if you’re going to do it, I’m the guy to protect the original, and the guy to highlight what I think was important in the original, and I think I can pull off these music sequences.”
AVC: The original took place in 1984, which was considered a great time of cultural homogeneity in America. It feels like we inhabit a different world now, and the film reflects that.
CB: Well, I think that it’s weird. I called up Dean Pitchford, who wrote the original, and I said, “It’s interesting, we just showed the movie to a bunch of international reporters, and they were all reading into it, saying, ‘Well, it seems like you’re taking on the Tea Party,’ or, ‘Or it seems like you’re kind of making a statement with this movie.’” And I didn’t really intend to make a statement movie, and Dean told me, “Well, I didn’t either, but in 1984, it was the rise of the Moral Majority, and people started reading political meanings into Footloose.’” Here’s this outsider performing, going up against a rather staunch, conservative town that wants to keep things calm and safe. Usually it’s an outsider who’s going to shake that up. So to some extent, we’re in similar times. I do think, though, that musically we’re in the same vein. Back in the day, the soundtrack was all over the map a little bit. And today, because of the way kids listen to music, they’re not so segregated as we like to think they are. Kids can listen to country music, they can listen to hip-hop and not feel like it’s stunty or off. They have a genuine—they have three thousand, five thousand songs on their computer. It’s not like in the day when I just had one cassette that I could fit in my Walkman.
JH: The more diverse the music is, nowadays, the cooler you are. Like, “Oh man, your collection was awesome!”
KW: As opposed to when I was in junior high, it was like, “Are you rap or alternative?” You could be only one or the other. Nothing else.
AVC: Craig, you share a screenwriting credit with Dean Pitchford, who wrote the original. What was the writing process like?
CB: What I did is, I called up the studio and said, “Could you please send me the script of Footloose?” And they sent me the script that they were working on that was more the musical celebration that they were going to do, and I was like, “No, you don’t understand me, I need the 1984 original Footloose shooting script.” And they actually had to go looking for it. It wasn’t as easy as you’d think. It’s not like it’s on some computer drive. So when I got the script, it was like a photocopy of an old production script. So I’m reading the original Footloose that has all the scenes that were cut from the original Footloose.
AVC: Was this when Michael Cimino was still going to direct it?
CB: Man, you know your shit. Michael Cimino was going to direct Footloose, and this was the draft that Dean Pitchford wrote that Michael Cimino was looking at before Herbert Ross came on. It had things in there, and I loved Footloose, so I was discovering all these things in the screenplay. One of which is, you know the famous tractor scene in the original Footloose? Well, it says in the description: “Ariel stands on the hill, and to signal the two tractors moving toward each other, she removes her shirt and waves it in the air.” Well I know, being that I watched the original, that that didn’t happen. Lori Singer kept her shirt on. She just used her hat. But I was like, “You know what? Dean Pitchford, you wrote it back in 1983, and I’m here to bring it back.”
So I took the script and, it’s funny, because I put everything out on these cards. I had 50 cards, and I would put new stuff on white cards, and I would put scenes from the original on blue cards. True blue, that’s what I called it. So I would look at my board, and it would be all these white and blue cards. To see, “What can I alter? What can I change to make contemporary? And also, what things can I move around?” Like just moving the wreck of the teenagers when they die to the beginning of the movie completely changes the way you view the adults in Footloose vs. the original.
AVC: It makes them more sympathetic.
CB: More sympathetic and also less religiously dogmatic. I think the original was all about saving your child’s soul.
KW: You relate to the adults when you see that.
CB: I’m a parent now. I get what they’re talking about. If somebody told me something might assist in the safety of my children, I might line up behind it.
AVC: So what was the biggest change? Where do you deviate the most?
CB: I’d say the two most important places are the reason for the laws, and the laws themselves. I think a lot of people out there on their Twitters and their Facebooks are saying, “What town in America could possibly ban dancing?” That’s not really what we’re doing. We have a litany of laws in our movie. There’s a dress code, there’s a curfew, there’s no congregating of teenagers outside of parental supervision, and you definitely can’t dance. I know there’s kids in Memphis, Tennessee where I live who get tickets for congregating in parking lots and dancing. They get broken up, and, like, “No, you can’t do that here.” So it felt like that was believable. I didn’t think I was having to do any suspension of disbelief on that issue. Then the other big change was Ren McCormack.
Ren in the original came to town and he was with his mother, and his father had left him when he was a kid. But I really wanted Ren to be alone. So we created this situation where Ren’s mother had just died of leukemia and Ren was actually her caretaker all this time. So when he comes into town, he’s just lost his mother. Ariel had just lost her brother three years ago, and Reverend Shaw lost his son, so it’s really about everybody who’s had loss in their life having to come to terms with their present. And then the last thing I’ll say, my favorite addition, is the character of Uncle Wesley, played by Ray McKinnon. I don’t know if you’ve seen the original movie, he came to live with the aunt and uncle, but they were very against Ren, and more so on the side of the city council, and more fearful. And you know, in the South, I just don’t get that. Because even if I have relatives, which they have, they have been critical of me… Back when I was a teenager, they were critical of what I was wearing, they were critical of the Prince music I was listening to, they were praying for my soul and everything like that.
AVC: Do you come from a religious background?
CB: Yes. I was raised a Southern Baptist, and my whole family were Christians. However, my Dad was really into science and astronomy, so I felt very balanced. I still had respect for faith. I think that my family in the South would have defended me no matter what, because I’m their blood. And that’s something I wanted to see in the movie, that isn’t necessarily a Southern stereotype that they would just be like, “You’re not from here, are you? So we’re just going to be against you.” No, if you’re blood, they’re going to defend you and stick up for you.
KW: I love that change.
AVC: Kenny, how did you get the role?
KW: Well, I remember hearing that there’s other actors involved, and I was jealous, as a dancer and as a huge fan of the original. I was like, “Damn, I want that to be me. How come I didn’t get called in to audition?” Then things started changing and went in a new direction, and I just went in for a random audition with this casting director. It was me, her, and a camera, and just went through the process of auditioning, and finally got to dance for them after a few acting auditions. Once I knew there were probably 10 guys left, and they were probably all actors, that if my acting was up to par with my dancing, I would have a good shot at this. And I knew the other actors couldn’t dance the way I danced, so I was really focused on my acting, working with my acting coach twice a day, and really just hacking away at that.
JH: I remember having to audition with Kenny and another guy. And the other guy, good actor, but could not dance. But he got on his knees and leant back, and it was so uncomfortable. [Laughs.] But he tried.
KW: And then yeah, I was golfing with my friends, and I got a call from my agent-manager that we got it. I threw my golf clubs and ran around like a madman. It was the best day of my life.
AVC: Did you call your mom immediately?
KW: They were like, “You can’t tell anyone for four days, until Paramount does the press release.” And I was like, “Well, I just screamed it to the whole golf course.” They were like, “Cool, just don’t tell anyone else.” It was Father’s Day the next day, so I called my Dad. I’m like, “Listen, Dad, I booked it.” He was like, “What?” I was like, “Don’t tell granny, don’t tell Auntie, don’t tell anyone. I’ll lose the role if word gets out.” I put that on him. So I called him immediately.
AVC: Craig, how important was it for you to have dancers starring in this film, as opposed to actors you could cut in later?
CB: It’s a secret thing that my manager, whom I’m very close with, would talk about with my films. It was a joke for a while, but then I began to see what he meant by it. His big anthem is: head, heart, and hips. Which means my movies, I think, need to have a certain intelligence to them, they need to make sense, they need to take place in a palpable world where you can understand these people’s plight. But then there’s got to be an emotional core where people are making families where maybe they don’t have a traditional family. Hustle & Flow, in an odd way, is a family movie. It’s a pimp and these hookers, they are their own unit. Sam Jackson and Christina Ricci was a father-daughter relationship in Black Snake Moan. The heart of Ren coming into a family and also having a friendship with Willard is important, but I can’t help it, I shrug my shoulders, I grin when I say it, but we got to have hips in this.
Which means it’s got to have a little bit of sex to it. It’s got to have a little bit of the edge. I was telling my dad, when he was alive, when I was writing, he would always say, “It’s okay to push it. It’s okay to be daring. Because if you’re going to deliver Jesus, you got to have Judas.” So as long as you—like the old noir movies—you can go as far as you want, you can have the most deplorable characters, you can have good people doing bad things as long as there’s something at the end; there’s either redemption or punishment. [Laughs.] So Footloose is one of those movies, because I think when parents watched the original and when they watched ours, they’re kind of okay with their kids watching a movie through talk of sex, through Ariel getting beat up by her boyfriend, because by the end of this, they see that actually Ren is a moral man.
They really want their daughters and their sons to see what a moral person is. If there’s going to be a grievance against some organization, they’re not going to throw a rock in the window, they’re going to put on a tie, they’re going to put a speech together, they’re going to be intelligent as they go and make that fight. Same thing with his treatment toward women. Ariel offers herself up to him in both films. She’s like, “Do you want to kiss me?” and he’s like, “Someday.” As much as there’s plenty of young boys out there who are going to be like, “Are you an idiot? Look at her! She looks so amazing! Go for it!” But Ren treats her with respect. He goes to her dad. He asks if it’s okay if he takes her out to the dance. I think that’s why Footloose gets a pass on some of those grittier, harsher elements.
AVC: How did your friends in the independent-film world respond to the news you were directing Footloose?
CB: My friends, my family, and strangers, they were all like, “What the hell are you doing? Why are you doing Footloose?” And it always existed in this odd crucible of people saying, “It’s a classic, it’s brilliant, how dare you redo it?” to others that are saying, “It’s crappy, it’s stupid, it’s silly, why would you want to redo that stupid, silly movie?” Both kind of pissed me off, because I really think that the original Footloose was a wonderful story. I equate it to Romeo And Juliet. It’s a clean, clear narrative that people can’t help it, they’re responding to it, because it speaks to some experience that every human has. But to say that it’s like, “a classic,” yes, I agree, I understand that. But it’s also arrogant of people of my generation to say that the way they saw it was the only way to see it. Is there a danger of messing that up? Yes, but I think we needed to go into that movie with that burden on our shoulders, because it made Kenny better, it made Julianne better, and it kept me on my game.
AVC: But can’t you also say there’s an arrogance to, as you say, improving on something, to messing with it, to giving it your own take?
CB: Yeah, but it’s what we’ve been doing in literature, it’s what we’ve been doing in cinema forever. I got into an argument the other day where somebody said, “You know, it’s just ridiculous that your movie is coming out on the same day that a remake of John Carpenter’s The Thing is coming out. Like, why do they need to remake John Carpenter’s The Thing?” And I was like, “Now are you being funny, or are you just misinformed? Because John Carpenter’s The Thing is a remake.” Then his eyes got a little glassy, and then he realized, art is about taking from your past, standing on the shoulders and maybe doing something new. I’ve done two original films. No one was chaining maniacs to radiators.
AVC: What do you see as the commonalities between your three films?
CB: Well, let’s look at Black Snake Moan. Black Snake Moan is about a girl who’s had a tragic life, a lot of trauma in her life. And what does she do? She starts sleeping with a bunch of guys, and bringing a lot of attention to herself, and she’s primarily acting out, because she doesn’t have anybody who’s primarily giving her some guidance. Ariel stands in front of a train. In the original movie, she’s straddling two trucks heading toward a semi truck. She tries to kill herself twice in the movie. She’s having premarital sex. We could look at it and be titillated and interested by it, but Ariel had a trauma in her life. And there’s many people who start doing things that they shouldn’t be doing because they’re in pain. I felt like that was a common thread to my other movies. And also the whole idea of music being this redemptive agent. This idea that you can actually exorcise bad demons out of you by playing blues music, drinking really great beer, and just dancing all night. There’s something that makes you a little bit… We call it Saturday-Sunday in the South, where you stay up all night drinking and smoking and sinning, but then you can wake up and go to church the next day, and then start the whole cycle again.
AVC: So what has been the best and worst part of this experience for all of you?
JH: The worst part would probably just be the people who have their own opinions before they’ve seen it, preconceptions of what it’s going to be, and don’t want to give it a chance. And I’m sure we’re going to get a lot of that. So that’s the worst part of it. But at the same time, it’s kind of the best part, because the biggest reward in that is to see their minds change. And we’ve seen that in screenings that we’ve done. Then also, for me, I want to be an actress. I’ve wanted to be an actress for a long time. I know a lot of people know me, and discovered me, as a dancer, and I’m grateful for that, but that was a tool and a way for me to get experience and meet people and to become an actress. So this role, for me, was strictly that. I toned down my dancing. My hairography, as we talked about.
CB: And no one’s a better hairographer than you. I was in the mix stage and I told everybody about this term I learned from Julianne, and she said, “It’s hairography.” I said, “Watch her, it’s incredible.”
AVC: So what does hairography mean?
JH: When I’m dancing to be sexy. Whipping your hair, there’s nothing sexier than that.
CB: And you are wonderful at it.
JH: And also, though, I did it to get my hair out of my face when I would be moving.
KW: In the coolest way possible.
JH: In the coolest way possible. So yeah, so to tone that down, though. Obviously I still wanted to look good when I was dancing, but to tone that down and really focus on the acting side of things, that was the most rewarding thing for me. And to hopefully prove and show people that I want to be around for a long time, and I didn’t want to make a movie just because I could.
KW: I think the best part and worst part for me was the same thing. The best part was getting to learn from Craig and Dennis Quaid, and getting to learn from the experience, and by the end I felt like I had figured something out. I was like, “Wow, I can do this. I can act now, I feel like I can go on and do more films.” Which is also the worst part, because by the end, I felt good, and I was like, “Shit, I want to shoot the whole damn thing again, because I’m now in the position where I feel confident.”
CB: And that’ll never stop. Because as a director and as a writer, you do the same thing. You get to the end of it when you’re directing it; you realize everything you should have done in the screenwriting part. You’re editing it, and realizing everything you should have done on the day when you were directing it. And then when you’re seeing it in front of an audience, you’re like, “Okay, should I have done this, that, and the other, or not?” And out of all the movies, I don’t know what it is, I’ll always sit down and watch our Footloose. I cry, I get excited, I cheer, my heart pounds. I really enjoy it. There’s a part of me that, over my other films, I can really kind of separate from myself, sit there, just go, “Wow, this movie still works.” This storyline, this music, when Kenny Loggins comes on at the beginning, you should see an audience react to it, and I’m right there with them.
LH: Even when we were watching it—because they surprised us, they took us all to dinner and stuff. We thought we were just going to dinner and they were like, “Well, we actually think you should come over to Paramount and watch the film.” We were like, “What?”
CB: It was just six of the young actors; it was their own screening.
LH: So we went over and watched it, and we were screaming at the screen and stuff, but there were moments where we kind of just got lost in it. I know, for me, being a dancer and a perfectionist, I used to watch all of my performances and critique the crap out of them. So to get lost in this movie, as somebody who’s never been onscreen that way and stuff, it’s kind of a testament to how great-feeling this movie is.
CB: The best and worst? I’d say the worst is what happens to every filmmaker when you’re at the halfway point of your movie. Where you’re wondering, it’s almost like a parent feeling, it’s like, “Am I giving my best to the child? I had the dream of what I wanted it to be, but now the rubber’s hitting the road, and I’m now shooting what I have, and am I doing the best?” And there was this moment, and my wife of 17 years, she’s really good at this, where I call her and say, “Oh no, I’m wondering if I’m messing up Footloose.” And she’s like, “But you usually call about halfway through the film and you have this doubt. Just trust in yourself, trust in the cast, trust in the story you want to tell, and move forward.” And so the best part for me was the first time I sat with an audience that had no benefit to enjoying the movie other than enjoying the movie. They weren’t actors, they weren’t studio execs, they weren’t anything like that. They were a genuine audience that wanted to see it.
And there was this moment, where I felt like, “Oh my God, I think we have them. I think they’re really into this movie. And I think that we’re changing people’s minds that were cynical at the beginning of this movie. It’s the littlest of things. There’s a kiss in this movie that’s just beautiful. It’s up against the back of the sunset. I remember seeing that moment, with the sun peering through you guys’ lips, and the guitar strum of “Almost Paradise” comes in, and I look at the backs of heads and I see women and girls just kind of turn like the RCA Victor Dog. Then I was like, “Oh, look, we got them, we got them. I think we pulled this off.”