Eric Tate and Lindsey Roberts in "The Poor and Hungry"

Interview: Craig Brewer Reflects on the Days of Being “Poor and Hungry”

Craig Brewer still likes to tease his friend Harry Knowles about the first time they met, hours before he would premiere his first film “The Poor and Hungry” in the Ain’t It Cool News head honcho’s hometown at the Austin Film Festival in the fall of 2000.

Knowles, like hundreds of others, was at the Arbor Theater that night for the regional premiere of “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” when Brewer approached him as he did everyone else with a postcard for his movie, which was playing just after.

“I was such a big fan of Harry’s, and I was so intimidated to go up to him,” Brewer recalls. “I finally did and said, “Hey, after this movie, the movie I made called the ‘The Poor & Hungry’ is playing,” and he said, “Thanks, but I won’t be able to stay.” When I came out of the bathroom [in between movies], there was like maybe five people in the audience. I just remember being so deflated.”

I remember there being a few more people than that since I was one of the ones who stayed, but then again I knew what Brewer had on his hands. As a writer for my college paper The Daily Texan, my Memphis-bred editor had handed me a VHS tape that he thought might not be too bad since he knew of the hangout that the film takes its title from. It turned out to be far better.

A raw yet soulful drama about an introverted strip club bouncer named Eli (Eric Tate), whose interest in classical music leads him to pursue a cellist named Amanda (Lake Latimer) and perhaps a more legit life than the one he currently carjacking and bumming around town with a street hustler named Harper (Lindsey Roberts). “The Poor and Hungry” bore all the idiosyncratic charm of Brewer’s later films such as “Black Snake Moan” while feeling even more naked due to its scrappy production, exposing the day-to-day grind of those living in the margins who barely survive with their dignity and drive. The “digiflik,” as Brewer likes to dub it, was also a particular revelation as one of the first movies shot on digital video (on a Hi8) where the camera didn’t feel like a function of the budget, but actually complimented the subject at hand, capturing Memphis as the writer/director knew it with its grit intact.

For years, “The Poor and Hungry” only existed in my mind (and the homes of a few lucky, lightly larcenous locals in the River City, as Brewer will later explain) after its festival run and an eight-week run at Memphis’ Malco Theaters where it became to the city what Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” had become for Austin. Yet its obscurity was in direct contrast to the trajectory of Brewer’s career after a copy of the movie along with the screenplay for his next landed in the hands of producer Stephanie Allain and eventually John Singleton, who would fully finance what would become “Hustle and Flow.” Thirteen years later, Brewer is self-distributing Blu-rays, DVDs and even a digital copy he’s giving away for free as an app of the movie he still considers his best and took the time to reflect on the tragic circumstances it was born from, how Katy Perry inadvertently helped save it and the importance of his local indie video store.

You’ve said this is your best film. Why do you feel that way?

There’s a lot of special circumstances around it. It’s the last film that my father got to read and it was at a time when I had tried making movies, but I was really going about it all wrong. I was trying to spend too much money and listening to too many people saying it had to be on film and everything [else]. But my dad really encouraged me, and it was actually right before he suddenly passed away to shoot it on these small camcorders and try to learn how to be a better filmmaker instead of thinking about what festivals needed. He was right.

What a lot of people need to know is that “Hustle and Flow” is about me making “The Poor & Hungry.” I was a lot like DJay. I was seeing other filmmakers in other films, and all I would do is get negative about it. I’m like, man, I could do that. That movie sucks. It’s only when you start making a movie yourself that you realize you rarely will say another movie sucks even if it does, because you’re just like, man, these things are miracles when they get done. You can be watching a piece of shit, but you’re like God bless these people. They got up out of their house and they went out and made something — anything. That’s the spirit that “Hustle and Flow” is doing with music and when I look at “Poor & Hungry,”  it challenges me. It says, when are you going to make one of us again? Just something that maybe is very small, that still has a compelling story. It doesn’t have to cost a lost of money. You don’t have to think that it has career-altering ramifications.

It took a long time for me to make that movie. It was about two-and-a-half years of filming it and cutting it together myself, but I really feel it taught me a lot of lessons that I’m still using in my career today. The only difference is, no one’s ever seen it. People always ask me about the movie, and they ask me how to get it, and I’ve never had an answer for them.

When I went out to shoot “Footloose,” some friends of mine worked on remastering the whole thing. I [actually] had to cut the movie back. I had two nine and two 18-gig drives that can only hold about two hours’ worth of footage, so I would have to edit the movie in 10-minute chunks and then dump that 10 minutes to digital tape, erase everything that made that 10 minutes every 10 minutes or so in the movie, then string the final 10 minutes all together. I could never go in and lengthen a shot or tighten anything because I just didn’t have that much room in my computer. Morgan Jon Fox, a friend of mine, went through and digitized all my original tapes, then without any time code had to sync it up to the original movie, so I could actually have some control over sound when we remastered it. It was a long process to get the movie to a place where people could see it. Now, it’s finally out.

Since this was really in the first generation of full-length digital films, was degradation an issue?

I actually owe Katy Perry a thank you for making “The Poor & Hungry” better because I produced the “Katy Perry: Part of Me” movie and we were weeks before locking picture when her brother found an old VHS tape in his closet that had Katy singing in church when she was five years old. It was exactly what we needed to tell the story of her growing up, so when we were over at Fotokem in Burbank, who has done the digital intermediate process on my movies since “Hustle and Flow,” I’m looking at the [great quality of the] footage, and I’m like “This can’t be.” They’re like, “Yeah, we just this new process that really does a good job of taking old NTSC and giving it that film look but at the same time, it takes some of the jagged lines that happen and smoothes them out.” When I mentioned [“The Poor and Hungry”], they said, send it on over.

It looks fantastic on Blu-ray. Did I do it in hi-def [originally]? No, but after we put it through this process I think it looks really incredible and it’s also in black and white, so there is a certain aesthetic that makes you forgive anything that may not be crisp hi-def. I just think it plays. It’d be different if I were making a movie that took place with lush landscapes, but this is a movie about a bunch of car thieves and strippers and hustlers.

Watching it now, I was struck in particular by the scene in which Eli is putting together a model of a Cadillac car late at night with classical music on in the background – it seemed analogous to making the film since it’s delicate and yet at the same time, cool and funky.

You bring up something like that, and this is what makes this movie different from my other films. Immediately, I’m thrown back to when we were filming it, and there were just three of us in a room. It was just me, my brother-in-law and the actor Eric Tate [who plays Eli]. My brother-in-law said, “What’s this guy do when he comes home to calm himself down?” I remember Eric saying, “I used to make model cars.” So we went out and got it, we hung a light over it, and I think it’s one of those beautiful parts of the movie. It just was really three guys sitting around trying to be creative. I haven’t had that kind of intimate feeling with cinema in a while.

Now if I get an idea, you got to run it through some people — When can we schedule this? Is so and so available? Whereas we were just a couple of guys wanting to make something, and you could just make it suddenly. Still, it was hard to make films on film. It was expensive; the post process was really frustrating. You had to send off your film to get developed, and then they would put it on videotape so you could edit on videotape. Then they had to put a video keycode burn-in on your movie, so you’d have to cut your movie on video, then you had to make an edit decision list, and then they would go back and cut negatives.

There were just constant barriers being turned up in front of you, but then movies like Bennett Miller’s “The Cruise” —that movie rocked my world. I was like, “We just need to do this.” That movie was really influential for me making “Poor & Hungry.” I read everything I could on how he did that movie. I bring that movie up to people and they don’t know what I’m talking about. “You know, he made ‘Moneyball,’ but you should see his first documentary; it’s really incredible, and it’s just black and white video. You see some frame blending every once in a while, but it doesn’t stop you from really loving a compelling story with this fascinating character.

That’s been a tough one to find like “Poor and Hungry.”

It is, and you know what’s a problem, and this is really unfortunate, is that a lot of places like iTunes and Netflix want to present the best movie experience to their customers or users, but a lot of these movies that were shot on these cameras aren’t necessarily friendly to that world, and yet there’s some really great films that came out in this special time of the digital evolution starting.

It’s a little off-topic, but I’ve heard about your support of Black Lodge Video in Memphis, which has seemed to play an ongoing role in the film community there. Why do you think it’s important to preserve such places?

Black Lodge Video is like a library and a club to the filmmaking community here. It’s a very tight filmmaking scene. I currently have three people in the very building I’m in right now, and they’re all independent filmmakers on a local level, and we all work together. There is a competitive spirit, but it’s hard to have a competitive spirit when we’re usually working on each other’s crews. I’m proud and honored to still be a part of that because it was the community that helped me learn and get to where I am now.

A big part of that was Black Lodge Video. Matt Martin and Brian Hogue, who started that place, were working in a Suncoast Video store in this mall I lived behind over in East Memphis, and I would go in and order these obscure titles. One was Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration” and I got in this big conversation with Matt about it, and [it led to my asking him], “What do you want to do?” And he told me, “I want to open up a specialized video store in Midtown. What do you want to do?” I go, “I want to make a film in Memphis.” And he goes, “Well, when you make your film, you got to have it at my video store.” And that’s exactly what happened.

He opened Black Lodge Video, then I made “Poor & Hungry.” When “Poor & Hungry” started winning awards, all the local Blockbusters called, because so many people were coming in wanting to watch “Poor & Hungry,” so they wanted to carry it. But I turned them down, and I’m so happy I did this now because eventually Blockbuster is no more but Black Lodge is still around. I ran off about 20 video tapes and Black Lodge was the only place in the world you can get the “Poor & Hungry,” but all 20 have been stolen over the years.

I’m giving them all new Blu-rays and DVDs and what’s cool now is that now I have this thing with Black Lodge where I think of all the people who rent there as more of a club, so they get my movie for free. Any movie that I make that I don’t want to have the burden of box office hanging over my head, I run off about a hundred copies and then I keep them at Black Lodge and I just put it into the rotation, so as you rent your movie, whatever your movie is, they say, “Hey, do you want to see Craig’s latest film?” And they just throw it in the bag, they don’t have to pay for it.

What was the anniversary screening for this film like? Since so many locals were involved, it must’ve been a trip to see how much had changed and how much stayed the same.

We did the 10-year anniversary in 2010 at Indie Memphis, and what was really special was that I was off shooting “Footloose” at the time and I had just finished shooting the finale, and I flew back to Memphis, and the theater was just packed with people. It was so great. I leave a set where hundreds of thousands of dollars a day are being spent on making a movie, then I fly home, and we were sitting in the studio watching the final mix, and my wife came in, and she sat on my lap. I just held onto her, and we were watching this movie, and tearing up at the end of it because we now have two kids, I can make money doing what I love, and this little movie that barely anybody has seen is where it all started. It was just a real emotional weekend for me playing that movie to Memphis again. And it still plays.

You’ve never left the city even after you started making studio movies. Why was that important to keep that base?

It was crucial because community ultimately is what makes the artist in my opinion. An artist is going to look around at what’s around him. He’s going to be listening to the music around him. He’s going to be experiencing the standard of living, the economics of the city that he lives in. In LA, it’s a little harder to do that. I don’t want to badmouth Los Angeles, but there’s only like a handful of restaurants where people meet you. There’s a music scene, yes, but you do feel like you’re being sold to. Here, I don’t really feel that. I make it a point when all my movies open in theaters that I’m at home. When the numbers are coming in, and that’s when the studio calls you up and says you’ve either done a good job or you’re a failure, I just like seeing people going, “Hey, I checked out your movie, man.”

It’s funny because we just showed “The Big Lebowski” at the Orpheum Theater, which is our big theater downtown—and they asked me to introduce it. I asked them if they could have a recliner and a rug, and I would just show up in my pajama shorts and my robe and a little White Russian. I was standing there talking to the audience about how special “The Big Lebowski” is [to me] because when it came out, it didn’t really make any money and critics were rather divided on it and when I went into Amoeba Records in Los Angeles I was walking by the cult section and I saw “The Big Lebowski,” but then I also saw “Black Snake Moan” near it.

When “Black Snake Moan” came out, it didn’t really make any money and the critics were divided on it, but on Netflix, everybody’s seen “Black Snake Moan.” Suddenly, there’s all this activity over a movie that when I made it originally, I thought, well, this is going to come and go, and I’ll move on to the next thing. But it’s remained. And for the first time ever, I looked out into this huge crowd and was like, us film nerds have really grown. Look at all of us. And I’m just talking about Memphis, Tennessee. I didn’t know all of these people were here, and yet for the first time I looked out feeling very comfortable. Here we are. We don’t necessarily have to be anywhere else. Everybody who loves films, everybody who likes talking movies and making movies, we can all just live here and be happy.

I hope this film finds the same afterlife now that it’s finally available.

I’m giving an SD tablet, iPad and iPhone version of the movie away for free. You just give me your e-mail, and then I send a link. I want people to buy the DVD and Blu-ray because we’ve got really cool T-shirts and these special screen print posters and everything [to give away with it], but I really just want as many people to download that movie [to see it]. If nothing else, they can just see what you could do if you just had any camera, some volunteer actors, and a whole lot of will.

“The Poor and Hungry” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray here and can be downloaded for free as a mobile or tablet app here.

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