The Hughes Bros. and Eli’s Book: The Bible as MacGuffin

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Okay, so my review isn’t going up until Friday morning, but I’m going to go ahead and say this now: The Book of Eli has the best twist ending I’ve seen in a long, long time. Maybe since The Fountain (which, as we all know by now, was my contender for one of the 5 most underrated sci-fi movie masterpieces)

Maybe you’ll see the surprise coming. I’m sure some of you will even be annoyed by how it all goes down. But I have to be honest here: When I saw the film back before the holidays, the epilogue landed like a punch to the gut. An old-school twist that reshaped the entire story, Sixth Sense-style.

Thus far, I haven’t seen anyone ruin the big surprise (nor will I). All that has been ruined, by the marketing ads and the early write-ups on the movie, is the truth behind the book that’s being carried by Eli (Denzel Washington) across a charred, post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s a Bible, a King James Bible – a fact that we only learn halfway through the ordeal.

I’ve been a little surprised to see the religiosity of the marketing campaign, but perhaps the studio thinks it will draw in a pious crowd – only to immediately terrify them with some brutal, bloody showdowns that are anything but holy. Eli really isn’t a story about the Bible, but rather a story about survival and endurance against overwhelming odds. The Bible could be anything. It’s the source of inspiration – just like the little boy in The Road – in a story about one bad-ass dude wandering the desert, destroying anyone who dares step in his way. It’s an action film, with the Bible as the catalyst that drives the action forward.

It’s also the latest, long-awaited project from the Hughes brothers. You know, the guys who brought you From HellDead Presidents and Menace II Society. They’ve always shown a knack for taking familiar genres and bending them in unexpected directions. And that’s what they’ve done with Book of Eli, kicking things off on the level of an apocalyptic action film, and then veering from Mad Max territory towards something far more philosophical, intelligent and spiritual. That said, the religious aspect of all this is anything but simple, or dogmatic. As Eli carries the book, and as others try to wrestle it away from him, religion keeps taking on different dimensions. In Eli, the book represents a source of strength, a promise of hope, a sense of purpose, a weapon, a con game, an intellectual artifact, and so much more. There are moments where the whole thing plays like a Bible-thumping call to arms for a fundamentalist army, and then there are moments where religion seems at risk of being perverted, distorted and destroyed altogether.

Like I said, Albert and Allen Hughes are hardly simple filmmakers. I posed a few good questions to each – about both Eli, and his good book.

The Book of Eli comes right on the heels of The Road, and 2012 – why do you think so many filmmakers are gravitating towards apocalyptic themes right now?

Albert: After 9/11 I think our mindsets have chanced a little bit. We think about mortality differently, even as a nation – we think of the life of our nation in a way that we never thought before 9/11. So these thoughts and concerns start to take center stage in more movies. Plus, how many damn cop movies can you make.

It seems like you guys are always trying to make genre films while at the same time defying the typical themes of those genres. Or maybe that’s just the journalist in me trying to give everything a theme…

Albert: Well this one’s sort of doing the Freudian thing, I think, with how we were raised biracial and always felt like outsiders looking in, versus being part of the crown. With Menace II Society, a lot of people were thinking we were gang members, but we would just sit there and observe these guys. Same with Dead Presidents. We did the research, and connected to that outsider perspective. It’s a lot like another movie, Midnight Cowboy. Now I’m not comparing us to that but John Schlesinger wasn’t a New Yorker and he damn sure nailed all the details. It’s all about perspective.

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The religious aspect of the film, you really walk a fine line here, between criticizing religion as something that can be perverted into evil, and then there are other moments where it almost seems like the Crusades.

Allen: Oh, we were very aware that we were walking a fine line here. And we had to pay a lot of attention. Even with the sound compositions, it’s a fine line. Any time the Bible was being discussed, we did lots of different versions of the music because even just in terms of the score, you can cross a line and start to become preachy. Without ever intending to. We don’t like things like that. Instead we try to do the tightrope walk and deal with this material and keep it interesting.

But you know, if you look at Raiders of the Lost Ark,  you look at that movie and basically you have Harrison Ford trying to preserve a sacred object. It’s a religious artifact. But he saw the historical significance of it, and then so did the Nazis, who wanted it to mess people up. That’s what that movie was about, and I don’t think it seemed preachy. We’re doing much the same thing. At the same time, Denzel’s character has faith but it’s personal to him and he’s never trying to convert anyone.

We’ve seen Denzel get pretty angry before – I’m thinking Training Day here – but his character is pretty intense in this film. A lot of action going on. How did you get him ready for something so physical?

Albert: Well, my brother jokes that you really don’t tell Denzel anything. I think just about anyone who works with him realizes he’s one of the smartest people they’ve ever worked with. I think he was half drawn to this story because it was a little dangerous. It wasn’t your typical studio film. Here’s this normal guy who then finds himself in this sort of Mad Max nonstop action road movie. It’s a hybrid of sorts, and I think when his son read it and came on board as co-producer during the development, he told his father to take a look.

How did Denzel feel about the religious subtext?

Albert: He is very spiritual, and I’m also conscious that my brother is more spiritual than I am. I’m more of an atheist but I found my way into this, and it’s a fine line you have to walk. We’re not trying to preach, we’re trying use the book almost as an Alfred Hitchcock MacGuffin. If the good guy has the book he’s going to do good stuff, but if a bad guy gets it bad things could happen. We were trying to make a mythology story, and that’s how I treated it. Just like if I was doing Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, and had to make believe about this whole mythology, I bought into this story of violent religion. I think a religious person could come to this and see something spiritual in it, and a non-religious person could get an entirely different thing from it.

There are so many different visions of the apocalypse out there. I watch something like I Am Legend and you have sort of an overgrown urban landscape. Then there’s something like The Road which is gray and vast. Your vision of a bleak future is almost bleached out by the sun, and more based around the desert. How did you decide on how this whole thing should look?

Allen: We were very particular about this, that we wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before. We realized The Road was going into production at the same time as us, but I hadn’t read it. I’m not a very literate person – I’m an illiterate victim of the public school system actually (laughs) – but we looked at that and things like Terminator Salvation and I Am Legend and said, “Okay, these are places that we should not do because these movies already did it.”

So we actually started reading one of these definitive books written by some of the top scientists about what would happen if there ever was a thermonuclear war. What would happen to humans, what would happen to the environment and things like plant life and animals. It was a very detailed study. And then we drew on some film history too, some of the western archetypes form spaghetti westerns, since humanity had basically been thrown back a couple hundreds years, and then we created a reality from there. There’s a little bit of everything here.

You made From Hell back in 2001. Are we really going to have to wait another nine years for the next Hughes Brothers movie?

Allen: Oh man, I hope not. The bottom line is that it’s hard to get moves green-lit that actually mean something. We’re not just going to go and make a popcorn movie that means nothing. But whether you’re Brad Pitt or Martin Scorsese, it’s going to be difficult. Hollywood is not keen on making movies like that and we’re not even Brad Pitt. We want to work on something real, and we’re voraciously reading scripts, looking for the next thing that connects with us. Hopefully it doesn’t take too long.

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