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Albert and Allen Hughes return with 'Book of Eli'

The twins, who burst on the scene with 'Menace II Society,' direct Denzel Washington in a post-apocalyptic epic.

July 12, 2009|Charles Koppelman

"The Book of Eli," from an original script by Gary Whitta with a rewrite by Anthony Peckham, offers another chance to make good on that potential. Sharing themes with Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," the film, set in the not-so-distant future, takes place after a tremendous calamity befalls human civilization. Traveling west through the barren landscape, Eli needs to reach San Francisco to keep his special cargo from falling into the wrong hands. There is an underlying gravity to what is in essence an action/adventure story. In addition to Washington, also serving as a producer, the cast includes Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Michael Gambon and Tom Waits.

When making a movie, the Hughes brothers divide directing duties along specific lines just as Joel and Ethan Coen or Andy and Larry Wachowski. Allen handles the script, actors, performance and producing. Albert takes the lead on the visuals, special effects, camera and editing. But what if they disagree?

"We each have complete veto rights in our departments," Albert said. "If I come to the set and I don't like a performance, and he doesn't agree with me, I have no control over that. If he has a problem with a camera move, we'll talk about it. But if I disagree, I prevail."

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Laying the groundwork

Being with Albert and Allen Hughes is like being inside the brain of a single creative force -- each brother being the hemisphere of one mind. Hearing them talk together is like eavesdropping on someone's internal conversation. The dialogue can get passionate, heated and profane. Then, in a millisecond, it's full of love.

The brothers are not sure if they are fraternal or identical twins. Albert is thinner than his brother and usually keeps a toothpick parked behind his ear. In a spacious corner office on the first floor he shares with his visual effects coordinator and storyboard artist, there's a computer monitor to his left streaming old TV shows via Slingbox and a flat-screen TV on the other side of the room playing DVDs -- both with the sound off. House music plays quietly from his iPod. Pre-production on the film started in October. What many civilians and even some film professionals don't realize is that before the camera is ever turned on the majority of creative decisions have been made, and they are often irrevocable. The choices may seem trivial, but accumulated they define a movie -- its tone, personality and soul.

Fight coordinator Jeff Imada enters the office and explains that the actress hired to play the head biker chick took a spill and needs to be replaced. Will the character kiss one of the other women? If so, this needs to be divulged to prospective actresses before one is selected.

Albert thinks for a moment and says no kissing will be required. "We grew up on that, man. I don't need to see any more."

When the Hughes brothers were kids their biological African American father left home. When they were 12 they discovered their mother, who is of Armenian extraction, was a lesbian. Albert describes a dominant memory -- he was at his girlfriend's house when his brother knocked on the door, crying. "Since he didn't say, 'Mom's dead,' there was only one other thing: He caught her kissing another woman. I said, 'Go home, I already know.' "

But being a visual guy, Albert also recalls the motorcycle one of the women in his mother's circle rode -- it was purple, like Prince's in "Purple Rain."

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Faith in the brothers

On any given day, there are several movies playing inside Albert's head -- not just the one he's working on at the moment. Amid all his other pre-production activities, Albert walks over to the TV that's playing "Casino" and deconstructs a complex tracking shot in the film. A few moments later, observing camera tests out behind the sound stages in New Mexico, Allen asks Don Burgess, the director of photography on "Eli," to explain a sequence in "Cast Away," another film Burgess shot.

"The Book of Eli" is financed in its entirety by Alcon Entertainment, which is co-producing with Joel Silver. Silver remarked by phone that he's used to working with brothers, having produced the Coens' "Hudsucker Proxy" and the Wachowskis' "Matrix" movies. Silver says Albert and Allen are "smart and very prepared. ["The Book of Eli"] is a complicated movie with a lot of visual effects. Also it's a character piece, so it's important for them to get the characters to work together. They have their hands full to make it look good and get everybody focused and do a good movie."

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