Writer-director S. Craig Zahler ('Bone Tomahawk') shares new details on his latest film
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (out in theaters Oct. 6 and on demand and digital HD, Oct. 13) stars Vince Vaughn as a former boxer named Bradley Thomas, who loses his job as an auto mechanic as his troubled marriage is about to expire. At a crossroads in his life, he feels that he has no better option than to work for an old buddy as a drug courier. This vocation improves his situation until the day that he finds himself in a gunfight between a group of police officers and his own ruthless allies. When the smoke clears, Vaughn’s is badly hurt and thrown in prison, where his enemies force him to commit acts of violence that turn the place into a savage battleground.
“We see him living a better life, where he’s purposefully turning a blind eye to the problems that he facilitates with his job,” says writer-director S. Craig Zahler, whose debut film was 2015’s Kurt Russell-starring cannibal-western, Bone Tomahawk. “He eventually gets into a gunfight during a drug deal situation, and that lands him in jail, and his life only gets worse from there.”
So, exactly how much brawling is in the film?
“There is a quite a bit,” says the filmmaker. “But there is, as with Bone Tomahawk, a similar emphasis on character. I’m not in any hurry to get to the brawling, but when you land there, you will know it, and it happens for a fairly sustained period of time. Vince Vaughn was so committed to this movie and he happens to have some boxing experience which really really helped. He was skilled enough that [we could film] a shot where it was going to be five hits exchanged, 10 hits exchanged, 15 hits exchanged, 20 hits exchanged, with no cuts.”
Vaughn’s costars include Jennifer Carpenter (who plays Thomas’ wife, Lauren), Marc Blucas, Udo Kier and Miami Vice actor Don Johnson. “There’s a higher-up in a prison named Warden Tuggs and Don does a fantastic job in bringing this character to life as someone who handles different people as an animal handler would handle different animals,” says Zahler. “I grew up in Miami in the ’80s and, if you were in Miami at that time, Don Johnson was walking on the plateau of God-hood. It was a terrific thrill to be working with him. He had everything he did when he was younger — he’s just as good-looking, just as charismatic, his voice is slightly richer and better — but then it’s all the refinement and subtlety that comes from the experience he has.”
Brawl in Cell Block 99 will receive its world premiere at the upcoming Venice Film Festival, which is both a thrill and a trial-by-travel for Zahler, who is currently shooting his third film, the Vaughn- and Mel Gibson-starring Dragged Across Concrete in Vancouver.
“We are still shooting then,” says Zahler. “We wrap, I immediately get on a plane, I fly 14 hours straight to Venice, I’m there for press, for the premiere, and then I get on a plane, fly for 14 hours, and go back into production. But I have to go. It’s a dream come true.”
Ahead of the Venice premiere, the Cell Block 99 team has released a new poster for the film featuring the shaved, and tattooed, back of Vaughn’s image. The image is both eye-catching and a little alarming, no?
“I like to show what’s in the piece and/or of interest people in the piece,” says Zahler. “And to me, that head, and that cross on the back of the head, and the question that you just asked, is the question that I want people to ask. I want people to be interested in what this is, and, also, it’s very tight on his head, and it should give it a sense of how close-in this movie is. The cameras are close to these people. You’re in it with these people, and so you’re in it with that person, but you don’t yet know who that person is. This is a Vince Vaughn you’ve never seen before.”
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is produced by Jack Heller and Dallas Sonnier. The film is also screening at the Toronto International Film Festival and Fantastic Fest, prior to its theatrical release by RLJE Films.
See that new poster, below.