CSUN hosted an evening discussion with filmmakers Allen and Albert Hughes following the screening of one of their sophomore directing projects, ‘Dead Presidents,’ at the Alan and Elaine Armer Theater Feb. 14.
The twin brothers began by addressing the issue of black exploitation in films, and discussed the issues involved within the business of filmmaking, emphasizing those unattractive aspects that aren’t shown to students.
“The event went very well,” said Professor Nate Thomas, head of the film production option in the Department of Cinema and Television Arts. “The information they shared is the kind of schooling you can’t get in the classroom.”
Thomas asked the brothers why they had decided to make ‘Dead Presidents,’ a film about Vietnam veterans trying to adjust to American society.
Albert said that he thought they messed up the story, which they had found in a compilation of works about African American Vietnam veterans.
“We were reading Bloods, and found a great story,” said Albert, who feels they were too inexperienced at the time the movie was made.
However, the Hughes brothers both agree that their perception of the film is tainted because when they view scenes from the movie, they see them as they were when being filmed, and therefore, they can’t be satisfied with the result.
The brothers were disappointed by audience reaction to the movie when it was released in 1995.
“We got responses from black veterans who didn’t like it, and others who did,” said Allen.
They laughed as they recalled hearing that a woman had yelled out after watching the movie, claiming that the film was made by the Ku Klux Klan.
Another important issue they brought up was that students should not limit themselves by only making “black films,” something they broke away from by directing “From Hell,” (2001) starring Johnny Depp. This film depicted the hunt for serial killer Jack the Ripper.
The Hughes brothers said they disagree with the notion that if you didn’t live it, you can’t convey it. They want young African American students to feel free to work on a variety of projects.
“If you want to be respected as a filmmaker, then make films,” said Allen.
“Dead Presidents” was their follow up to “Menace II Society,”(1993) the Hughes’ first film.
“Menace” tells the story of a young African American struggling to escape from the violence in Southern California housing projects.
The Hughes brothers warned students interested in making films about making profitable deals. The brothers were unsatisfied with the amount of money they made on their first film.
Thomas said he “was glad because aspiring filmmakers got to know the truth about the intricate details involved with filmmaking. Students also got to see the realities of production, analyzing net profits versus gross profits.”
“They were very honest in telling students about the money they didn’t make,” said Thomas.
“Gross is what we saw on the return,” said Allen. “That was nasty, disgusting.”
Thomas explained the importance of knowing the difference between being a gross participant and a net participant, warning that gross results in zero profit for the directors.
“They were very honest with the issues of working in the business,” said Thomas.
With the release of “Dead Presidents,” the salary was much better deal for the Hughes brothers.
“Allen wished someone had opened his eye for the business aspect of directing,” said Thomas.
“Dead Presidents” had a $12 million budget, and the Hughes agree that it should have been $15 million.
At the end of production, the film had outgrown its original budget to hit about $20 million.
They also warned aspiring filmmakers about the expenses involved when filming in New York.
“You get screwed; you get no deals in New York,” said Allen.
The Hughes brothers said the film made about $27 million dollars in domestic profit.
Albert heard that the movie was bigger in France.
The brothers warned students to stand their ground, especially at moments when producers send their “number crunchers.”
The Hughes said that the “number cruncher’s” main purpose is to take money out of different budgets, deeming the funding unnecessary.
“In the end, all that money came back,” said Allen.
Thomas and students commended the brothers on their war footage in “Dead Presidents,” and said it was quite accurate.
Both Hughes’ attributed movies such as “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and several war documentaries, as their sources of inspiration.
An important aspect that they mentioned was the privilege of having the final cut, which allowed them to decide what would be edited, and what scenes would remain.
They admitted for the first time publicly that they put NC-17 footage into a rated R film.
One of the students asked how they deal with difficult actors.
Allen said that actors do get difficult. He said that you have to let them know what you need from them, and you have to insist.
They spoke about working with seasoned actors, using Johnny Depp as an example of an actor who wants to achieve what the directors’ want.