The Hughes Brothers' Book of Eli isn't all post-apocalyptic Samurai sword action and ipods. Mixed in with the violence and sepiatones is one giant religious symbol that we just had to quiz the Brothers about in our exclusive interview.
We spoke to each brother separately — which is why a few questions are repeated below — but they each seem to have their own take on the religious, or non-religious, undertones that run through their post-apocalyptic film. They struggled with keeping the film from being one-sided while tackling the always difficult job of keeping Eli spiritual but not preachy. Warning some light spoilery talk.
Why did you want to make Eli? It's been many years since your last film. Why was Eli special?
Albert: I didn't get it right away, my brother did. And I said, "I don't know about the religious stuff or the spiritual stuff." And then I went to sleep and woke up after a few hours of dreaming about it and thought, "Okay, I get it." Creatively, I get it. Visually, I get it. Story-wise, I get it. It hit all cylinders. For some unexplained reason, in a way.
You just said that you had trepidation about Eli, and I read that the project went through a lot of rewrites, we're curious as to what went in and what had to go to keep you interested? What did you change?
Albert: It was more the things that came off as preachy. It's not about that. We tried to tone that down and make it about the mission, and the faith in that mission, as opposed to coming off righteous.
Eli really walks the line of being an evangelical film, versus a movie that's just about a mysterious new hope in a post apocalyptic world. So what had to go, in order to keep it from being too preachy?
Albert: It was more the things that the main character [Eli, Denzel Washington] should be saying, it could turn the audience off a bit, if they don't believe in that. The movie is not about that. So you want people to enjoy it, no matter what. And it's not about watering it down, it's just not that character.
Then why did you guys choose to have the book [that Eli carries across America and Gary Oldman's character covets aid him in ruling the world] be the Bible?
Albert: That was there when we got the script. That was part of the attraction to it as well. It's incendiary sometimes, depending on what you believe and kind of appealing because of the controversy in that and how you look at that. And how the story is constructed around it. If you do it right, if it's handled right, and how the audience will respond. If it's handled wrong then that's a bad thing.
And you felt it was handled right because they used the Bible?
Albert: I think the first draft was great, it just needed to be nuanced that's all, because it's dealing with anything sacred. If you talk about anything sacred, you have handle it right. You can't just go in there and make a movie and be careless about it because you are stepping on people's beliefs. You can't go into something like that being silly about it, no matter what you believe.
Did you discuss using other religious texts? Like the Koran or maybe the Torah? What about another literary work like Thomas More's Utopia or a classic Plato text?
Albert: No, we never thought about changing it. It was what it was when it came to us, and that was part of the appeal when it came to us.
This book, which isn't revealed to be the Bible before you see the film, but is clearly noted as the Bible close to the beginning, is being described in the synopsis as a work that "provides knowledge that could redeem society, and the source of all their pain knowledge," what is that knowledge exactly, and how is that more important than knowledge of building an irrigation system, or medicine or anything survivalist?
Albert: It depends on what you believe. It could be about irrigation, if you want that kind of irrigation for your mind. Some people need to read to stimulate themselves. It could be that book or another book. That character [Eli] believes that he was told to take it somewhere. I can agree with the intent of that question, you know? But as a filmmaker, you have to believe in the story and that translation. If you're making Lord of The Rings, you have to believe in Middle Earth. If you are making Star Wars, you have to believe that there are spaceships up there going around in space, even though it's not reality. You have to believe in the mythology of that movie in order to do it.
I'm just curious. For you, why was it more important to have a character carrying a book with a message of spirituality, versus a message of "This is how you purify water?"
Albert: I would say it's the same thing nowadays. Why is it important that people are holding that book in such high regard, or thinking that it should be spoken from, or told to others as opposed to building a church talking about irrigation? You can pose that question to anybody in any time period, post-apocalypse or now, about any religious text, or any text of any sort. "Oh, it's more important to survive. We need food. So why not build churches about survival and food?"
So I guess you could say that any form of learning is a spiritual experience or should be?
Albert: No, not really, I agree with your intent behind your question, I'm not trying to be vague. It depends on who the person is and what their want is. Let's say they found water. Then what? They may need to feed their soul, and then what?
Let's talk about the other characters and their reaction to the book. The reason Gary Oldman wants the Bible so bad is because he believes it will help him rule, can you elaborate on that at all, or on his character's convictions? Why does he believe this will help him, what leads him to believe that?
Albert: Well I think if you applied it to nowadays, even misguided people who truly believe in one word over the other, think that their word is better than another person's word and they want to build a bomb and go run into a place and kill people. I think his character realizes how powerful that is. It's so powerful that it makes people even kill themselves over one word or one type of faith. His character says, "Ha, I've never seen anything that powerful that can move people to do things that are crazy, or move people to do things that are good." Depending on how you use that tool, which his character considers is a tool, you can either use it to manipulate in a good way or manipulate in a bad way, or not manipulate at all.
In the movie they state that all the Bibles, and a lot of other religious texts, were burned after the "last great war," because many people believed that religion was a catalyst for this war. If religion didn't help the people of Eli's fictional past, why do you guys as filmmakers think it will help their future?
Albert: You have some very deep, profound psychological questions there! You're applying logic to something that there is no logic in. That's part of my struggle. If you apply logic to a faith based religion — any of them — it will slowly start to fall apart. If you apply logic to Star Wars or Lord of The Rings, it will slowly start to fall apart. But if you go into it as a movie experience, as entertainment, [as] a mythology, and you don't look for the holes, and you go and believe then that's a different experience. But you're like me, I can tell by your questions. [Laughs] I can't even answer that. I can't answer some things in all of the movies that we've made. Ok, there's a good point in that. I wouldn't call it cynicism, because I'm a very cynical person, but there's that side of me where I say, "Well if it caused the problem then why do you think it's going to help anything?" Well there's those people that use it to cause problems and those that use it to solve problems. That's the only thing logically that I can say to myself to help me with that.
One of the great things about post-apocalyptic films, whether people want them to or not, they usually make some sort of social commentary about today's times, be it our dependence on oil, electricity, our dependance on paper currency. What do you think Eli is making a social commentary on?
Albert: I think it's people and what people do. George Carlin had this great quote, "the concept of people is great, people just fuck it up." People with too much time on their hands, too much money in their hands and maybe too much religion on their hands can do some pretty sick and crazy things. And that goes for now and the future. For me personally, I come from the cynical side of things, [so] ... some of your questions are the same questions I had. So that's how I went into the movie, thinking like this.
I've seen the posters of Eli with the words "deliver us" in the background and couldn't help but think of Moses...
Albert: There's a lot of that in there. That's marketing right there. I think they did a great job of marketing. Then there's the passings that came from Kung Fu. He's a monk but he's not preaching to people to act, he's preaching people more to be a pacifist. There are these great wanderers who impart wisdom — to us Eli was more of a pacifist. He's delivering certain information. Some people have brought up Moses before, because he's delivering certain information behind a certain faith or belief in something. But to us, he's more of a Monk. "I'm going here to do this, but if someone gets in my way I'm going to have to use violence but I'm not going to throw the first punch." And that was the sort of stuff we grew up with. Even Clint Eastwood's The Man With No Name, he wasn't looking to shoot somebody in the back. Somebody always brought it to him first.
He's definitely not very religious, he sees someone get raped and murdered and doesn't do anything about it. Why have that duality — is it because he's only human or is this the state of a modern day prophet? Is Eli a modern-day prophet because he is flawed?
Albert: You have some very deep, deep questions. No I wouldn't consider him that at all. No. I think it's more subtle and not so on the nose.The deal is I want people to go into the movie and read into it what they want to read into it. There are certain things that are ambiguous about certain questions that I have the answers to for myself, but I want the audience to make up their own minds on. You can't give the audience all the answers. Some people think you should, but you shouldn't, and that's what an audience should do, answer that question for themselves, not as the filmmaker. Through the years I've been more frustrated with director's commentaries and things like that, "why are we explaining a film, nobody had to explain films in the past." You shouldn't have to explain anything — poetry, art on the wall, a movie, whatever it is. You shouldn't have to explain yourself. But here I am, being a hypocrite.
Allen, your brother mentioned that you brought him this script. Why did you want to make Eli?
Allen: It spoke to me because when I got to page 45 and Carnegie [Gary Oldman] said "this is not just a book, it's a weapon aimed at the hearts and minds of the weak and desperate. It will give us control," I said, Oh my God, what is this? There are certain things that are inexplicable I just knew in that moment that I had to do it. This is so important. There are things that I can't even articulate that this movie is doing, what it has to say about human beings. We all see things through our own emotional principles and disposition. Using that book — one of the biggest selling books of all times one of the greatest influences of other literature of all times as well — it just made it that much more impactful and powerful.
Let's talk about that line. How is The Bible a weapon?
Allen: Carnegie is just talking about bending humanity to his will, he knows how powerful those words are and he wants to be the ruler, he's not talking about physically killing people. He's not a bad guy in the traditional sense. He's trying to restore civility, for lack of a better word. He wants civilization to be civilized. And he's demented, obviously, and he's distorted and demented, he's delusional. But I think he's in it for the right reasons. Jim Jones was in it for the right reasons, and then thousands of people ended up dying from poisonous Kool-Aid. That's what happens with that shit. Doctors do it all the time, they get god complexes.
I read an interview with you guys in Maxim, where it mentioned that a lot of audience members might think that this is Mad Max meets The Passion of Christ, and that that is a wrong assumption to make. Why?
Allen: Yeah I don't think that [describes] the movie at all. I don't believe you can even make comparisons. First of all, Passion of the Christ is an anomaly, it's a one all. That will never happen again. That was a situation that no one ever would have foresaw. I don't think you can compare any movie to that movie. Whether you loved it or it wasn't your cup of tea. As far as Mad Max, I prefer Road Warrior. Our movie has a bit of Road Warrior in it.
Was it important to make Eli flawed?
Allen: It was very important, if you are a believer or not. I can only speak to if someone is a human being and they are blessed, there's something about them that's magical. Whether it's Michael Jackson, or your neighbor that every time he comes out, certain birds appear. I don't know how to explain it. But the point is they both are human beings and have flaws. And if you don't show that, how would someone relate to them?
What had to be cut to keep this film from being overly evangelical?
Allen: I think it's definitely very difficult to walk that line. Even with the music, if you play one note while he's talking about the Bible it can become very Christian. Music can do that alone. If you play it one way, it can be very corny [and] Christian. If you play it [a different] way, it can be very nondenominational or spiritual. So I went to test, and I made sure, sonically speaking, that the movie is about oneness. It's about accepting the common human spiritual condition. And let's not split hairs over who God is or what God is, we're all going to assume coming in, even non-believers, that there's something going on. There's some energy, life force or interconnectivity we all have. We're all related, we're human beings. I paid close attention, and Albert, to what we were editing out and putting in. And what you were hearing, and what you weren't.
It is a dangerous walk, but I believe and I know in my heart it was the best hands it could have been in, because you can't buy us, and you can't make us do anything for money or politics. We're not going to move, unless something moves us.
What was the message of Eli?
Allen: I think the bottom line is, these words, whatever the sacred text are, in our lives as human beings, it's precious. All of it's precious. The things that matter most — our water, our history, our lives, our families, our souls — it's all precious, and we need to get back to the elemental fundamental appreciation of that.
Do you think Eli will be seen as a Christian movie?
Allen: We specifically directed a movie to pitch you the way a book — like the Bible, or the Koran or the Torah, or any sacred words — that whatever you bring to it, that's what you're going to come out of it with. If you're that dogmatic about what your thoughts are about things and you want to have preconceived notions, then one will come out and say "this is a Christian movie," and they'll either be happy about it or be pissed about it. But if you're open minded and you sit back and watch it, maybe watch it again because there are so many subtle things that are happening that are worthy of a repeat viewing. I don't think you'll walk out with that feeling at all.