Five years younger than Steven Spielberg when he made "Jaws" and George Lucas when he made "American Graffiti," the twin brother directors Allen and Albert Hughes, at 23, are already making history, a subject they had little use for as students. Refugees from both high school and film school, the Hugheses vaulted from directing rap videos straight into Hollywood two years ago on the strength of the successful New Line drive-by feature "Menace II Society."
Now, they're back with their first big studio movie (for Disney of all places), a tough-minded Vietnam-era coming-of-age tale set in the South Bronx called "Dead Presidents," opening Wednesday.
The rough equivalent of ballplayers their age going straight to the majors after a season in Double A, the brothers Hughes are filmmaking phenoms, to be sure--talented, cocky, irreverent and no doubt soon to be rich. They embody two new waves in Hollywood: the loose school of African American filmmakers chronicling the blight of urban neighborhoods to the sound of hip-hop, and the twentysomething post-literate generation for whom music is at least as important to a movie as its story and script.
"I think sound overall is 50% of a movie--sound effects, music, all of it," says Allen.
"People are so stuck in the three-act structure," says Albert. "We want to get out of that. We want to make a movie one day where there are no rules at all--something like Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' or Disney's 'Fantasia,' all these things crossed into one. Some crazy non-linear movie that deals with anything you want."
Albert has another idea. "With most movies, audiences know the main character is not going to get shot and die. But maybe he should. Maybe he should die in the middle of the picture. Let somebody else star in the mother------."
Oh, yes, the Hughes brothers are also generously profane and sometimes a challenge to quote verbatim.
In their Underworld Entertainment offices on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood hangs an enlarged photograph of the two of them lounging in director's chairs while shooting the finger at the camera. The picture is on the wall alongside a framed gold record for the soundtrack of "Menace II Society" and movie posters for their favorite films, including "Scarface," "Apocalypse Now" and "Once Upon a Time in America." (They quote from Sergio Leone films the way others quote from Shakespeare and the Bible.)
The brothers have driven in separately from their respective houses in Pomona and are in an upstairs room seated in front of a television screen, staring at the surreal image of the bullet-headed Isaac Hayes in a black suit hiking across a sand-blown Mojave lake bed while lip-syncing his version of the elegantly languorous 1960s hit "Walk on By."
This is the first music video spun from the soundtrack to "Dead Presidents," and they seem as happy to be watching it now as when they first discovered the song while culling period music for the picture. Both the original version, sung by Dionne Warwick, and Hayes' orchestral cover on his 1969 "Hot Buttered Soul" LP were released before the Hugheses were born.
"Because we're still really young, we're still uncovering a lot of stuff right now," says Albert, the somewhat leaner of the twins, both of whom have shaved heads in the style pioneered by, well, Isaac Hayes. Allen is beefier and wears an earring. Both are dressed in powder-blue jeans and different colored T-shirts. (Neither of the brothers is married; Allen has a son, 4 years old, and Albert has an 18-month-old daughter.)
"He has his collection of CDs," Albert says, pointing to Allen, "and I have mine and we listen to them and start marking up the tracks that just sound funky and like the groove that we want, and then when it gets down to the script and the movie, we make a compilation tape. The hard part is when we get down to checking the year because you go, 'Oh s---,' most of these great songs came in '75 and '76." In other words, too late to fit the time frame of the film. "So we had to push the year of the movie up just to get to these great songs."
The soundtrack of "Dead Presidents" includes parts of 36 vintage soul songs from the '60s and early '70s, from Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, the Spinners and Barry White, not to mention from the sound of "Shaft" himself, Mr. Hayes.
"We went over a million dollars on the songs," Allen says. "That wasn't anticipated by the studio."
Returning his attention to the music video on screen, which now includes scene fragments from the film juxtaposed with Hayes' dreamy desert lamentation, Albert says, "When we used it in the movie, we edited the scene to the song." As they did with another Hayes '60s cover, "The Look of Love." "Those things were designed before anything was designed in the movie, before anything else was thought of. We knew those songs were going to be in it."