Interview: Craig Brewer, director of Footloose (the remake)

I recently saw a preview for another remake of a movie I cherished as a child: Footloose. As with The Karate Kid, my initial reaction was one of disdain for Hollywood. And then I talked to the remake's director, Craig Brewer, whose own passion for the original film trumps mine, fifteenfold. Unlike other coming-of-age high school films of the era like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, which left Brewer dreading the transition from junior high to high school, Footloose felt like seeing his life story in a film. Between Lori Singer's racy woodland escapades, her pot-smoking boyfriend, and Kevin Bacon's rock out session in the warehouse, Footloose "both terrified me and excited me because I felt that the movie was speaking to my experience and no movie had done that to me yet." Brewer loved the movie so much that when he realized his VCR audio outputs could be connected to the audio input on his boombox, he wasted no time in recording and memorizing the entire audio track, dialogue and all. Brewer sat down with me to talk about the film, its soundtrack, and the genre of the remake.

BB: How did you get involved in making this film?

CB: Paramount was already down the road with a different version of it. It was going to be a little more like a dance celebration of Footloose. And they decided to change their mind. Adam Goodman, who's the head of Paramount, he came in and he was like, "You know, Footloose has a certain spirit. It has a certain heart. And we want you to tackle that, we feel you're the best person for that." And they knew that I was a huge Footloose fan because of my movies.

BB: But if you're such a fan of the original, why would you want to remake it?

CB: If I couldn't figure out a way to make the experience the way I felt when I watched it, there was no point in doing Footloose. But because I figured out my connection to it, a personal connection to it, suddenly all these relevant issues, current issues started leaking into the narrative and it didn't seem out of place. In 1984, there was the rise of the moral marjority and having Ren McCormack face off against Republicans, essentially, seemed very relevant at the time. Well, my movie is constantly talking about the recession. I'm dealing with working class people.

BB: Are you going to take on the Tea Party?

CB: Well, here's what's interesting. That's what people are reading into it. They're seeing this red state/blue state divide. And we were playing it for a bunch of international reporters and they were surprised at how much they loved it but they were more surprised that it was relevant. Because I think everybody says the same thing, and I kind of understand this because I felt the same way, it's like, "Why do Footloose again? It doesn't make any sense in 2011." And I can't wait for you to see it, because I actually think it makes more sense now.

BB: Really?

CB: No one's more surprised and relieved than I am, but I think that's really a testament to what Dean Pitchford did when he wrote it.

BB: You mentioned that Paramount had already been talking about it. Did Paramount see an opportunity in the rise of the dance/musical genre—Glee, So You Think You Can Dance, High School Musical, etc.—as a good time for Footloose?

CB: When they started exploring doing the remake of Footloose, it was right after High School Musical 3 had made a lot of money. And Kenny Ortega, the director of that movie, had brought Zach Efron in to do Footloose. That project was going for a while, and then there was a change in the management at Paramount. When Adam came in, he saw an opportunity to not necessarily go in a High School Musical direction, but stay a little bit closer to the original Footloose.

BB: And that's when they called you.

CB: I got to shake the Etch-A-Sketch. I said I'm not going to even consider this unless I have complete creative control. That means I don't want to be bound to the script that you did before, I don't want to be bound to the cast, I need to be able to completely rethink Footloose the way I would make it. What I ultimately learned was that I wanted to make Footloose. There were changes I wanted to make to make it more relevant and make the story more palpable to audiences today, more real, but I really wanted to do Dean Pitchford's story. I didn't want to reinvent Footloose in a way that would somehow take it away from its core story.

BB: I was reading a New York Times article the other day, and since you're a theater person you may know this, but they're remaking Porgy & Bess. Stephen Sondheim wrote this scathing letter to the editor about the remake.

CB: I haven't read it but I saw a blurb somewhere that he's mad at the Porgy & Bess remake, I think they even said "remake." What's his issue?

BB: They're redoing it. Adding back stories, changing the ending. And in the letter he says something that I think is a great way to frame the whole genre of remakes: "…but there's a difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting."

CB: I totally agree with him. I totally agree with that statement. There's a difference, there is a big difference.

BB: So how would you characterize that difference in relation to Footloose?

CB: No one that has seen my movie has had any complaint with the changes we've made in the story, including the original author, because we haven't done much changing. However, I think that studios, that's one of the first things that they try to do. They always say well, we need to make it relevant and we need to make it modern. And immediately I started fighting against all of that. Even the technology in my movie, I don't have kids on Facebook, I don't have kids on their iPhones constantly. Ren McCormack listens to an iPod, but it's one of the original old school iPods. We even use a General Electric portable tape player, you know the kind of the little handle.

BB: Yep yep.

CB: When I see those things in the movie I just smile because the first thing I think people when they try to modernize is to put all this gadgetry in there which is going to be obsolete in another ten years. There's a refreshing element to trying to stick to the simplicity that is Footloose and not mess with it too much. So I think the bigger question that everyone is struggling with is: Is this now the new normal?

BB: Is what the new normal?

CB: Like, are some of our classic movies and experiences from our youth now going to somehow be robbed and raped and re-envisioned whether we like it or not? It's a really interesting question because I think it's valid. I mean I passed on Footloose twice because of that very thing. But as soon as I saw a way to begin the movie and to put it into a context that I think people could understand, the process of remaking the movie and that I knew every frame of, that I knew every word from, really challenged me as an artist. And it made me think that maybe we've turned a corner that we can no longer come back from, that movies are now our new literary canon.

BB: What do you mean?

CB: I mean we read a lot, but now we can't help but have the imagery of movies and the experience of cinema now be part of our creative process, whether we like it or not. No one would give me any shit if I decided to do a Jane Austen book as a movie, even if there've been numerous versions of that book. You can always say, "Well, it's a book. It doesn't matter." But I can guarantee you there'd be a lot of backlash against me if I decided to make the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Even though it's a Broadway musical that existed in two different countries before the movie was made, it doesn't matter. People saw and love the movie of Rocky Horror Picture Show and they want to protect it, so people would immediately revolt against any sort of new reinterpretation of it.

BB: So let me ask you one question. If you're trying to preserve a certain timelessness by not making things too modern with the technology, and you are so in love with the original film, why redo the movie at all?

CB: Well, it's arrogant on all of our parts to assume that everybody knows Footloose and that everybody is as protective of it as people of our generation. I remember, I went and saw the Karate Kid. Now we may all have different opinions on whether the Karate Kid should've been remade or if the remake was as good as the original.

BB: I definitely have my opinions.

CB: I know and I've read it.
And all I'll say is, I went and saw the Karate Kid in Memphis, Tennessee, in the middle of America. It was an afternoon and the theater was packed with African-American thirteen year old girls and boys. The movie was coming to its conclusion and these kids were standing up and cheering. The girls were so in love with Jaden. I remember thinking, So what am I supposed to do now? Am I supposed to turn around to these thirteen year old girls and say, "I don't care what kind of experience you just had right now. You must love Ralph Macchio. You must watch what meant the world to me as a young man and it better make you feel like it made me feel. Otherwise, every feeling that you're having right now with this very effective narrative is for naught. I will not validate it." It's ridiculous.

BB: But why remake it? Why not write a different story for these kids that captures the same coming-of-age and political themes in a new context?

CB: The reason to remake is because we tell stories. And there has not been a movie that treats upon the themes that Footloose treats upon in a long time. And I'll be honest with you. As someone who's living in the middle of America right now, we could use a lesson in two extremes coming together, treating each other with respect, recognizing that the reason we came to such drastic opinions is because we actually, at our core, care, even though we've somehow gotten away from each other as brothers, to some extent. We should come together and get past our differences and go to the dance, dance our ass off, and realize that we're not going to die at the end of this thing.

BB: So coming together through dance is really at the heart of the film.

CB: To me, that's what the whole dance thing represents in Footloose. They did this ban on public dancing—in my movie it's more about unauthorized dances or unauthorized gatherings or anything like that—out of a reaction to a horrible wreck, where a graduating senior class has about 200 people in a town and 5 of them were just killed in a car accident. That happens every year. It's relevant every year. That's something that's part of youth, that one time where oh my god so-and-so over in gym class, he's dead. It happens every year. So are we supposed to just kind of tune that out and go "nononono wait wait wait you guys gotta watch Footloose, and you have to love it the way I did!" I understand the protectiveness of it, but what if you actually figure out a way to do it right? And what if you do it in a way that is meant to be more of a companion, a celebration, and yet at the same time a re-examination of it?

BB: And you think you've done that with Footloose.

CB: The problem that I think everybody has is that there have been some remakes that have absolutely sucked. And I think the reason why they did not work is because they didn't tap into the spirit of the narrative first. They were going after a money grab, they were going after a title grab, and as strange as this may sound, believe it or not, as much money as I'm sure Paramount will make on the remake of Footloose, when Adam Goodman and I were talking about this movie, it was not coming from a financial place. We really wanted to somehow make a teen movie that had the values of Footloose, that had the danger and grit of the original Footloose, and not do a High School Musical. Not do a Glee. I want to mess with some of these kids, I want to do what the movie did to me.

BB: You want your audience members to be 13-year-old you?

CB: I want 13 year olds to see this, and they're gonna fall in love with Ren McCormack, they're going to feel conflicted about Ariel, they're going to be conflicted about Reverend Shaw and his rules, and they're going to go through their catharsis and they're going to go to the end of this movie and they're going to dance their ass off. And I'm telling you, I'm sitting here as a fan of the movie that wanted to protect it, and I wanted to make it as a celebration of the original, and I'm relieved to tell you we did it.

BB: It feels like this movie isn't really for me, or people like me, anyway. It is for pre-teens and teens of today.

CB: I would say that the experiences I've been having with the movie would say that's not true because the movie's entertaining. The movie is for all ages. The most incredible thing to see is actually when mothers and daughters come to see it, when women in their 40s and their teenage daughters are coming to see this movie. I see the mothers leaning down to their daughters and saying "That's the original bug!" or "That's the angry dance when he takes his shirt off and goes backwards!" They're seeing these things that they know completely and yet their children are seeing it in a new light; or sometimes, and surprisingly, for the first time.

BB: The mothers?

CB: I thought Footloose was a little bit more well known than I think even you and I would presume. It's incredible how many people have not actually seen it. Or they know the song, they know the images that they've seen on VH1 Behind the Music or a Remember the 80s special or something like that, but they actually haven't seen the movie.

BB: But your version seems to successfully resonate with your audiences?

CB: I think if there's one thing that America is really into right now is overreaction. We are really a culture of overreacting, but we do it from a place of sincerity. We do it from a place of still caring for our fellow man, but I think that we go too far and I think sometimes it takes an outside view, a stranger, to say "I know that these laws make sense to you as parents, but my right to dance is mine because we need to celebrate life. We're only gonna be teenagers for so long, soon we're gonna be grownups. This is our time to do this, to be this." And I think that's a very relevant American theme right now that I think teenagers are feeling right now. I know this sounds really silly, but I truly believe that we need Footloose right now. We need to remember the ideals of Footloose, and we need to celebrate that friendship between Ren and Williard. And I'm not reading like way deep in this to get people to come and see it, I'm still making an entertaining movie, but the biggest risk I've taken is that I take Footloose very seriously.

Photo: Paramount

Previously: Director Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow , Black Snake Moan) talks to us about his latest project: the MTV online series $5 Cover [Boing Boing TV]