In a short amount of time, writer-director S.Craig Zahler has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most original filmmakers. After selling over twenty screenplays – all of which languished in development hell – Zahler decided to helm his screenplay Bone Tomahawk, a horror-infused western. Starring Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson, and Fred Melamed, Bone Tomahawk was met with rave reviews and satisfied the voracious fans of both genres. Zahler’s brilliance lies in the fact that he respects and transcends his pulp influences.
His follow-up, Brawl in Cell Block 99, marks the return of Melamed and the addition of Vince Vaughn, Don Johnson, Jennifer Carpenter, and Udo Kier, all of whom were in attendance at the film’s Los Angeles Premiere at Beyond Fest.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 stars Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, a down-and-out former boxer who turns to crime – but things go south and he finds himself injured and in prison. There, he’s forced to commit unspeakable acts of violence.
In preparation for Brawl in Cell Block 99, Zahler watched over a dozen prison movies in a two to three week period. After extensive research, he wrote a couple of emotional scenes with Bradley and his wife, Lauren, played by Carpenter. These scenes “set up [Vaughn’s] character: who he is and where he’s coming from,” said Zahler. “They defined the journey of a man who has a lot of rage within in him but deals with it in an atypical way.”
Zahler additionally wrote Vaughn and Carpenter detailed character biographies to help them prepare. “There are always reasons why the character is doing what they’re doing,” Zahler said. The biographies are “so they know what’s informing this person and how they landed in this spot.”
“Everything that Craig writes is intense because it asks 100% of you all of the time,” said Carpenter. “His work allows you to excavate as an actor. When you meet [Lauren], resentment is just dripping off of her, and the one thing a relationship can’t withstand is resentment.”
Melamed echoed Carpenter’s sentiment. “Although [Zahler’s] films might be described as hyper-violent, they have serious underpinnings that are legitimate and deep. All the action and violence is paid for by the reality of the characters. I play somebody whose domain is prison. The closest I’ve ever been to prison was public school,” joked Melamed, who is also the gut-busting Bruce Ben-Bacharach on Netflix’s Lady Dynamite.
Upon reading the script, Kier’s Placid Man shocked him. “He’s unspeakable evil. He has pleasure with what he’s saying. When [Zahler] sent me the script, I thought, ‘Oh my god! I really have to say that?'” Coming from an iconic cult actor known for countless fearless performances in films like Blood for Dracula, Blade, and Melancholia, Placid Man must be truly menacing. Kier also stars in Alexander Payne’s upcoming satirical film, Downsizing, alongside Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Kristin Wiig, and Hong Chau.
Vaughn’s co-stars universally praised his performance. Vaughn, Carpenter, Johnson, Kier, and Melamed returned for Zahler’s upcoming film, Dragged Across Concrete, which also features Mel Gibson. Gibson previously directed Vaughn in the Oscar-nominated Hacksaw Ridge.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 will punch audiences in the gut when it’s released on October 6.