Doing their training on film
SPANNING the period from 1968 to 1974, Dead Presidents is the ambitious, multi-layered second feature from the twin brothers, Albert and Allen Hughes, who made such a confident and successful debut three years ago with Menace II Society. The Hughes brothers, who were born in 1972, take their film's 18-year-old black protagonist (played by Larenz Tate from Menace) through the horrors of the Vietnam war, the disillusioning fate of the veterans who returned home to rejection and unemployment, and the rise of drugs and crime in black neighbourhoods at the time.
"We're going to school right now, doing our training on film," commented Allen Hughes when the brothers stopped off in London to promote their movie. A strapping pair of lads with no shortage of confidence, he and his brother were born in Detroit and raised in Michigan and California. Growing up in an upper-middle-class family, the twins were given - a camcorder by their mother when they were 12, and within two years they were doing the editing, sound editing and scoring for their home movies.
Enrolling in a television production class at high school, they were asked to make a how-to video as an assignment; daring to be different, they made How To Be A Burglar. Their short films started to appear on local cable television and Albert began taking classes at Los Angeles Community College Film School. Then, a couple of short films by the brothers attracted the attention of the industry and got them an agent.
Their work on a number of hip-hop pop promos led to their first feature, the socially concerned moral drama, Menace II Society, which cost $3 million and took in $30 million at the box-office. That resulted in a two-picture deal with Disney's Caravan Pictures and the first of those pictures is Dead presidents, which takes its title from the slang term for American currency bills which bear the images of former American presidents. "It's not a very popular phrase with the white community," Allen Hughes explains, "but the black young crowd know what it is."
Like the Coens and the Tavianis, the Hughes brothers have marked out their individual functions while working on a movie. "Allen handles the actors, while I work with the camera and the technical side," says Albert. "We pretty much complement each other, but we have a lot of fights, too."
Unlike all the other film-makers who had dealt with the Vietnam war, the Hugheses have no personal memories of the war. "We weren't even born then, so we didn't know anything and we had to start from scratch," says Allen. "We talked to a lot of Vietnam vets, asked a lot of questions and got into their heads. We asked them which movies best represented what they felt and what was and wasn't realistic. Basically, they said that Platoon was the only one that got it right, even though it made the blacks look like punks. Full Metal Jacket was the least convincing, we were told, and Apocalypse Now, which was a good, movie but not the way it was.
THE brothers over-reach themselves in Dead Presidents as they strive to resolve all the issues they raise, and their visual style is distinctly variable, but they invest the set-pieces with a strong kinetic energy. "I wish we had more time to do the heist sequence because it is so big," says Albert. "Our biggest style influence is Sergio Leone. Every shot of that set-up was storyboarded." As for the film's violence, he says: "A couple of cuts earlier, before we hit our final cut, we had a lot more blood. For my personal taste, there's not enough of it in the final cut."
Looking ahead, the Hughes brothers have their sights set on a Jimi Hendrix biopic. "We're trying to get the rights to this project," says Allen, "but we're having problems with Hendrix's estate about the drug use in the film. We would like an unknown to play the role of Hendrix."