Two artists, two generations, two Tennesseans offer their insights on the making of a film that’s ‘about something’
By John Beifuss
February 18, 2007
PARK CITY, Utah — Outside the entrance to the T-Mobile Cafe near the snowy foot of the Main Street business district, Sundance Film Festival paparazzi formed a wall of anticipation: Celebrities from the movie “Black Snake Moan” were inside, including Samuel L. Jackson and perhaps the festival’s most marketable photographic trophy, Justin Timberlake.
The two stars were eating salad, soup and sandwiches, and talking with The Commercial Appeal.
A Paramount Vantage release from Memphis writer-director Craig Brewer, “Black Snake Moan” was shot in the Memphis area in the fall of 2005. The movie will have its local “red carpet” premiere at 6 p.m. Thursday at Muvico’s Peabody Place 22. It opens nationwide March 2.
No Hollywood stars are expected to attend the Memphis event (although producer John Singleton will be in town, along with local actors and musicians). But all the big names in the cast — Timberlake, Jackson and Christina Ricci — were at Sundance for the Jan. 24 “world premiere” of the movie.
Born in Memphis and raised in Millington, Timberlake is arguably the biggest young star in the world at this particular moment of pop culture history (“Girls! Gossip! Grammys!” proclaimed a recent cover story about him in Entertainment Weekly). Nevertheless, he deferred throughout much of our interview to his senior co-star, Jackson, a man who commands respect even when dressed head to foot in a purple cold-weather outfit to match the purple lightsaber he wielded in three “Star Wars” films and the purple electric guitar he brandishes in “Black Snake”.
In Brewer’s film, Jackson plays Lazarus, a retired rural bluesman whose troubled life takes an unexpected turn when he encounters the bruised, bloodied and half-naked Rae (Ricci), a young woman with an addictive “itch” for sex.
In an extreme attempt to break the hold of “the devil” on the girl, Laz chains Rae to his radiator. Timberlake plays the nymphomaniacal Rae’s boyfriend, a National Guardsman named Ronnie who suffers from anxieties of his own.
Like Timberlake, Jackson, 58, is a product of Tennessee. He was born in Washington but raised in Chattanooga, from infancy until the age of 17. As a result, “Everybody knows that I’m a huge UT fan”, he said, backing up his words by citing stats from the Vols’ then-recent loss to Auburn.
The stars’ joint interview with The Commercial Appeal was conducted, tag-team style, with Jackson and Timberlake seated at a small table inside the cafe.
Q: Is there anything you haven’t been asked yet at Sudance about “Black Snake Moan”?
Jackson: Nobody’s asked me what it was like to actually be back in Tennessee working. I’ve only shot one other movie in Tennessee, and that was in Nashville, that was “Against the Wall” (a 1994 HBO movie about the Attica prison riot).
Being able to come home and work was kind of rejuvenating. I love working in the South. I’ve shot in Mississippi, North and South Carolina, but almost never in Tennessee. So being able to come home and work, being in a place that’s familiar, that felt familiar, that sounded familiar…
Timberlake: That smelled familiar.
Jackson: …Eating the food that I’m used to eating, it was great.
Timberlake: That’s why the first time I met Sam we got along so well. It’s like he’s a relative. When you meet someone from the South, it’s like they’re a relative.
Q (to Jackson): Were you into the blues before this movie? In particular, were you familiar with the North Mississippi artists like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside who provided some of the inspiration for your character?
Jackson: I knew all that stuff. Southern music has always been something that was in the house. It just never occurred to me that I was going to have to play it.
Timberlake: And you did, very well. (Jackson’s blues singing can be heard on four tracks on the “Black Snake Moan” soundtrack; also, a limited edition 7-inch vinyl single containing two of the songs is being released.)
Q (to Jackson): “Black Snake Moan” provided a part that seems more intense and demanding than those in some of your recent films…
Jackson: I did “Snakes on a Plane” as escapism. It’s the kind of stuff, I can go to work, I don’t have to get emotionally involved, it’s “Be afraid”, “Be heroic”, “Do your thing”….
(But) being able to explore the human condition in a very real, dramatic way is what art is supposed to be. It’s supposed to inform you, excite you and titillate you, in a way, and give you something to talk about… All these people (in a movie) — how did they get to this place? How do they solve their problems? Those things are interesting, and part of the lore of telling stories.
I grew up listening to radio with my grandfather. We didn’t have television, we used to listen to Andy Griffith telling stories on the radio, and listen to “Yukon King”, and all that kind of stuff on the radio. And my grandfather used to sit on the porch with me and tell me stories, make stuff up, scare me… So I view myself as a storyteller. As an actor when I read a script, I’m looking at the story, number one. … Then I find a character inside that story that is interesting to me, and sometimes it’s not the character they sent for me to read. It might be some other guy, I like what he’s doing in the story. I find myself wanting to continue the oral tradition that I grew up with, even though (film) is visual.
Q (to Timberlake): You met (“Black Snake Moan” producer) John Singleton at Sun Studio when “Hustle & Flow” was shooting? (Timberlake was in Memphis at Sun in 2004 to participate in events connected with the 50th anniversary of Elvis’ first recordings, the so-called “birth of rock and roll”.)
Timberlake: They were in photography for “Hustle”… I was excited. I had met John before, and John’s kind of a no bull guy, so for him to be that excited about Craig, I was like, “Oh, this must be the truth”. So… I didn’t care if it was good or bad, I was just excited they were doing a movie in Memphis. So when I saw it, and it was such a great film, I knew at some point I would not forgive myself if I didn’t get involved with Craig.
You know, what I’ve noticed about Craig in these two films, and knowing what Craig’s got in the pipeline, there’s a certain feeling here that he captures, a certain type of humidity you get in the South that is enough to drive a man insane….
And it’s interesting the way people react to Craig’s films. The (making of the) movie starts in Memphis and goes through Hollywood and comes back to the South, but it keeps the heart and soul of the South. It’s not just what he’s saying but how he’s saying it. …
Jackson: There’s an authenticity. There’s a pace and a familiarity that you don’t get in a lot of films. Folks don’t understand folks sitting on their porches and people driving by, honking, toot-toot. …
Timberlake: I bought my house in L.A., and all my friends that I had gained in L.A. over the past four years are like, “Are you crazy? You’re 15 minutes from Hollywood!”, like that’s too far. And I’m like, “Where I grew up, I was 30 minutes from a Wal-Mart”. So it’s all relative.
Q (to Jackson): You’ve made many, many films (83 since 1987, according to the Internet Movie Database). How was Craig Brewer — working on only his second big feature — as a director?
Jackson: You go into projects, and there’s a process. Number one, it’s his story. He’s telling a story that he wants to tell and you’ve got to respect that. He hired me because he can think of a couple of things that I can bring to the story that would make the story come to life and put it on its feet. We met, and he sat and he watched what I wanted to bring, and we talked about what I wanted to look like and how I wanted to physicalize the story. And when you hire someone like me, you know you’re gonna get a lot of stuff. I come with a big bag of tools. And I bring a lot of things to the role that even he didn’t know he had written, just because I’ve been on the planet a little longer and I know who those guys (in “Black Snake Moan”) are. My grandfather and my uncles could be those guys. Those are the guys who worked the land. I used to spend my summers on a farm in Georgia, so I understand working the land, the mentality of guys who work with their hands, who are close to the Earth and close to the people who are around them. …
Timberlake: As soon as you meet Lazarus, there’s nothing green about him. He’s lived a full life already, and (Ronnie) needed someone like Sam to be able to put someone as crazy as Christina played that role in her place.
Q: Do you ever feel frustrated that when you create a performance, in music or acting, the audience can never experience or really understand exactly what you intended, that what you’re trying to communicate will always be open to interpretation, by audiences and also critics…
Timberlake: I’ve been doing music for 10 years and I’ve been in the business for 15, and I’m 25, I turn 26 this month. (Timberlake’s birthday was Jan. 31.) And already I know that you can’t predict the outcome of things, you can’t predict the future, but if you’re inspired by something, that’s grounds enough to do it …
Jackson: You do it and hope for the best. But one thing to say, audiences get it. They want the visceral thrill of what’s going on, they want to see the picture, they want to hear the music, they want to move to it, they want to feel it. Critics think that they have an obligation to dismantle it…
Timberlake: To criticize — “critic” is short for criticize. That’s what they get paid to do.
Jackson: They have an obligation to dismantle it and break it down, but (the audience) just needs the visceral thrill of it. Everybody has things that they like and don’t like.
Timberlake: Music even more than movies, I think. Try to explain to someone who was born in the 1920s about Elvis Presley or the Beatles or the Stones, they would call it crap music.
Jackson (to Timberlake): You don’t want to be compared to Sinatra or Tony Bennett.
Timberlake: I don’t want someone who the only thing he listens to is the E Street Band to come to my show and critique my music. I make music for my generation. It’s more personal to me with music (than acting) because I am the “screenwriter” — I’m the songwriter, I’m the director, I’m the producer. To have someone criticize the music who is two generations removed from the audience. …
Q: On the other hand, “Black Snake Moan” explicitly tackles subject matter that is ripe for analysis and “dismantling”. It deals with religion, race, sex…
Jackson: Yeah, I want people to see this film because it’s about something. It’s not just popcorn fare. It’s about human beings in a dilemma trying to solve a problem, and hopefully somebody will see it and be helped by it if not just entertained…
Timberlake: I was just happy to be able to show a bit of range, to be challenged to play something that was more than ‘Just come in and make a joke’… So I’m incredibly proud.