ALBUQUERQUE — Their last big feature was "From Hell," a gory and gothic period piece that starred a pre-"Pirates" Johnny Depp as an eccentric and slightly unbalanced investigator chasing Jack the Ripper through the rain-slick cobblestone streets of 19th century London. The 2001 film met mixed reviews and middling box office, and not long after that, Albert and Allen Hughes, once considered two of the more urgent and authentic voices in Hollywood, seemed to disappear.
"We took a twin sabbatical," Allen Hughes says, laughing deeply. He sits in his second floor office at Albuquerque Studios. Behind him the January sun sets on low hills , casting lovely pastels. Allen's twin brother, Albert, is downstairs poring over a shot list.
The Hughes Brothers are five days from starting principal photography on "The Book of Eli," a $70-million post-apocalyptic western they are directing. The movie, scheduled to hit theaters in early 2010, stars Denzel Washington as the lone hero walking westward, carrying with him a book with the secrets for saving humanity. The film is being shot in New Mexico for its ethereal desert landscapes.
But before he gets into the new film, Allen wants to set the record straight about where they've been. "It got blown out of proportion," he says, a little annoyed. "Someone told me that [my brother and I] got in a fistfight. I heard all these crazy rumors, and it just got worse and worse and worse."
Though there was no single blowout, issues over girlfriends temporarily fractured their fraternal bond. Albert and Allen Hughes simply needed to grow up and apart, as they tell it. From 2004 to 2007, the inseparable brothers carved out separate lives -- Allen in a suburb east of Los Angeles, Albert in Prague, Czech Republic, where they shot "From Hell." They would come together to do television projects or commercials for Nike, Heineken, Ford and other high-end clients. But trying to find work on another big-budget feature would have to wait.
It was a matter of finding the right script, getting over their personal and creative tensions, and then reselling themselves to Hollywood -- no small tasks. After all, it's hard getting back into the warm embrace of studio executives when you've been mysteriously off the radar, even if you did come out of the gate at 20 years old with the success that was 1993's "Menace II Society."
A production assistant knocks on Allen's door requesting that he come to wardrobe to see costume choices for actress Jennifer Beals, who just arrived on set.
"Yeah, yeah. In a minute," he says, waving a hand.
The PA goes away and Allen finishes his thoughts. "You have two guys who are fiscally responsible and conscious and find creative ways to get things done. We come from the independent film world, and we've never stopped, not since we were 12 years old."
Allen stands up. "This business is a great business, but it needs an enema."
With that he hurries down the hall to wardrobe.
Bursting onto the scene
The Hughes brothers, now 37, grew up in Detroit. They moved to Los Angeles with their mother in 1981. When they enrolled at Los Angeles City College, they found a home in the communications department. Soon Albert and Allen were making short films and then music videos for Tone Loc and Tupac Shakur. That led to their first feature, "Menace II Society," produced by New Line. Made for $3 million, it grossed $30 million, and along with Spike Lee, John Singleton and Charles Burnett before all of them, the Hughes brothers were helping to write a new chapter in African American cinema.
"Menace" follows Caine (Tyrin Turner), O-Dog (Larenz Tate) and their circle of friends and family in Watts around the temptations of guns, violence and drugs -- an unflinching portrayal of survival at the urban margins. The brilliance of "Menace" is its realistic portrait of time and place and its care in avoiding cliches. or easy outs. As critic Roger Ebert wrote at the time, "The Hughes twins, given a chance, reveal here that they are natural filmmakers. 'Menace II Society' is as well-directed a film as you'll see from America this year."
"These guys are the most underrated filmmakers in the business," says director Brett Ratner, a longtime friend of the directors. "They never thought of themselves as just urban directors. They have taste, and they understand what's special."
After the success of "Menace," the pair were offered lots of scripts. They chose to make "Dead Presidents" with Tate and Keith David -- an urbanized version of the classic heist movie. The brothers admit it's uneven. They went out too soon with an inadequately vetted screenplay.
Then came their documentary "American Pimp" (1999), followed by "From Hell" (2001), and episodes for the TV series "Touching Evil," on which Albert and Allen were executive producers. But they never quite fulfilled the promise of their first film.