Interview with Craig Brewer and Kenny Wormald, director and star of Footloose
Nearly every day on the set of the new film Footloose, director Craig Brewer would warn star Kenny Wormald: “You know if this doesn’t work it’s just going to be you and me, they are going to blame you and me.” But their version of the 1984 Kevin Bacon classic is more than just a carbon copy, mainly due to Brewer’s Southern flair and Wormald’s fresh performance as rebellious teenager Ren McCormack. Although they carry the original film as the proverbial monkey on their backs, they do it flawlessly. Brewer and Wormald are completely aware that Footloose fans are overly protective of the original, just as they are aware that the remaking of this beloved film is risky. They are also aware that the star of the original Footloose is the now legendary Kevin Bacon. It is this self-awareness that allows them to better help fans and other moviegoers overcome the fears that the new Footloose will be a forgettable experience. Their passion for the film, both in its original form and in their version, is genuine and completely contagious.
On September 3, 2011, both Brewer and Wormald were in the Detroit-area to promote the film and they took CinemaNerdz and a few other local outlets through the emotional, creative, and sometimes daunting process, according to Brewer himself, of remaking Footloose. Moviegoers may best know Brewer from past films Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, which pay homage to his Southern upbringing just as Footloose does. After all, the setting of Footloose is a small, conservative town in Georgia where the town’s people actually have the audacity to ban dancing after a tragic car accident claims the lives of four teenagers. Though moviegoers may not know newcomer Wormald yet, they will. Wormald’s dancing and acting makes him larger than life as he lays claim to his own version of Bacon’s iconic role.
It is only after talking with the pair, that I notice that their real-life friendship resembles that of the onscreen one between Ren McCormack (played by Wormald) and Willard Hewitt (played by Miles Teller) which Brewer himself carefully crafted into the film. Brewer explains that he envisioned a guy from Boston and a guy from the South forming an unlikely but completely needed friendship – a friendship that was needed not only for the narrative but for the audience as well. Brewer and Wormald are eager and completely excited to talk about Footloose….
PRESS: Let’s start with the elephant in the room, why remake Footloose?
CRAIG BREWER: It’s so funny, maybe I should just wear a card with a little question mark on it! Let me say this, I get it. I understand why people would want to ask why. The reason why I’m sympathetic is because I was one of those people. I read the same news that everyone else did – that the movie was going to be a Zac Ephron High School Musical version and I was slightly dismissive about it. I didn’t think that it would ever get made or that it should get made. Then I got this call from the studio and they said well, we are going in a different direction we don’t really want it to be a musical or a dance celebration, we actually think that it is going to be one of our most important titles and we want you to do it. And I said originally said, “No.” Adam Goodman, the head of the studio (Spyglass Entertainment, MTV Films), called me again and said, “What do you mean no?” I said, “It’s a classic film and nobody should really touch it and to be honest with you, I just don’t see how it could work today. What town bans dancing? I know in 1984 when I first saw it when I was thirteen, we were thinking the same thing. Some things have changed so drastically that it’s even more unbelievable now.” But he wouldn’t accept that. He said, “I’m not putting a stopper on you.” (He was a big fan of Hustle & Flow and a big fan of Black Snake Moan.) There are ideals that you have been pitching to me about the South and those views and one way or another Footloose is going to be made. So we’re telling you that you have complete creative control and you may cast it however you want to. “Really consider how you would do Footloose.” I think that is really the best thing that you can tell a director.
I started thinking about the human connection that I had to Footloose back then [in 1984], but also the human connection that I have to Footloose now. Back then I was 13. I was in theater. I danced and sang and did shows. I wasn’t good at sports and my granddad was a famous baseball player. He played for the Yankees and the Mets and I wasn’t that athletic. I wasn’t that alpha guy. And there was something about seeing Kevin Bacon with that skinny tie and that spiky hair walking through that school that made me think about my experience. I felt that this movie was made for me. It was different than Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I felt that someone had crawled into my head and said, “Hey 13-year old Craig, you’re not alone and we’re going to make a movie to show you that you’re not alone.”
But for now, as I’ve grown up, I’m closer to Reverend Shaw than to Ren McCormack. I look at my three-year-old daughter and I can’t imagine that one day I’m going to watch her get into a car loaded with friends and go off on her own. Now that thing that mom always said to me, “One day you’re going to have a kid and you’re going to know.” And now I know. I know that feeling, and I’m held ransom by that feeling. I thought let’s just remove Footloose from my brain as if it never existed, what was the last teenager movie that dealt with these types of issues? Footloose was harsh back in the day. People always dismiss it like it was some cheesy thing and kids were drinking and smoking pot and Chuck beats up Arial. It was intense. It was for me back then, and I thought, what was the last teen movie that was like that? Even worse, what was the last dance movie that dealt with this kind of stuff? I realized maybe we need Footloose.
I live in Memphis. I’m a liberal Democrat and people in my family are staunch Republicans with their NRA cards, and we get into arguments at the Thanksgiving table like every other family does. I got to thinking, why is it that we get into these arguments, but we all love each other? This is kind of what is happening in the country today. We have the blue state/red state divide rearing its ugly head again and really we’re kind of all after the same thing. Footloose fits perfectly with that because there is so much fear of the unknown and the outside. The “you’re not from here – you don’t understand what we have to deal with.” In the culture of overreaction – which is what America is right now, something happens and we immediately feel that we need to respond in full force and we need to respond now. Sometimes we lose sight of whether or not those reactions were the right thing to do at the time. Maybe we just need to take a breath, step back and think a little bit before we move forward. So for me that’s the “why.” Everyone’s going to have their own “why.” Kenny has his own “why.” The studio has their own “why.” It [Footloose] meant a lot to me, and it meant a lot to the globe. I knew there were going to be people coming to the screenings with shotguns in hand ready to kill us (saying), “You took on Footloose, so be prepared for us to … critique you. You just messed with our favorite baby!” We’d be on set and I’d say (to Kenny), “You know if this doesn’t work it’s going to be just you and me. They are going to blame you and me.” That’s how we would start our day.
PRESS: Can you tell us how you brought your own flavor to the movie? I didn’t think of Kevin Bacon at all. Was it daunting because Kevin Bacon is Kevin Bacon? I was pleasantly surprised by the reality of a good guy that has gone through some things that you brought to the character.
KENNY WORMALD: Well, thank you very much. We always say that Ren is the most honorable guy, he turns down sex, he turns down drugs he asked the Rev. if he could take his daughter to the dance and he comes with a strategic intelligence with his argument to the town and he looks like kind of a bad ass at first but really he’s the most loyal guy there. Thank you for saying that I brought something new to it because I felt like Craig brought his newness to it and it allowed me to do that as well. And I knew how amazing Kevin was in the original and I’d seen the film probably 100 times through my upbringing with being a dancer and loving the film but I didn’t study him once I booked the role. I wanted it to be fresh and new.
CinemaNerdz: New Kids on the Block – you have to tell me!
BREWER: Let’s go there!
CinemaNerdz: Can we go there?
CinemaNerdz: Kenny, you got to me! I read that you were watching a New Kids’ video…?
WORMALD: Laughs. It was my sixth birthday and I got tickets to the NKOTB concert. We took a limo and I thought it was the coolest thing that had ever happened to me. I’m sitting in the arena watching them do their stuff and they are wearing leather jackets and I thought this is what I want to be like. I was from there [Boston] and it blew my mind – the dancing, the singing, the vibe of it. I went home and literally cleared off the coffee table, hopped on and started doing it, trying to mimic their moves. Michael Jackson was also big at the time and I studied his videos. I would grab my crotch and do the whole thing. Then, my mom got me into a dance class.
CinemaNerdz: That’s awesome. I love that you credit them.
BREWER: I also have to say that the New Kids’ were responsible for probably the best scene of the movie.
CinermaNerdz: The infamous warehouse scene?
BREWER: No. We can talk about that though. There’s a Detroit connection to the (warehouse) scene with The White Stripes playing, but no. My sister (Amanda) was a huge NKOTB fan and I would drive her to stand in lines overnight to get tickets. Recently they did their reunion tour. Did you go?
CinemaNerdz: Sadly, no.
BREWER: Well, my sister went and she sent me a picture of her and my ten-year-old niece. It’s my sister with her daughter and all of these other moms and daughters. I thought wow Amanda was this age when she was into the New Kids. Now she’s a mother and her daughter is there experiencing the same thing. That’s when I thought, when we do “Let’s Hear it For the Boy” when Ren is teaching Willard how to dance, I think I want to have the little girls singing on some sort of boombox/karaoke machine. Who doesn’t love a little girl singing something that you love? And I thought of my sister and her daughter there (at the NKOTB reunion tour). It’s funny because I went and saw Footloose with my dad and we bought the soundtrack together. It’s a weird movie where both parents and kids can watch it, and it can be a little daring. There can be pot and sex, but because of that moral center parents don’t feel bad about their kids watching it. There is really no violence that is unwarranted. The only time Ren starts beating on somebody is with Chuck who beat up Arial. It’s a morally pleasing movie, so they [parents] forgive the elements that are a little bit more daring.
PRESS: Kenny, you had a James Dean vibe in the film. Was that deliberate?
BREWER: (to Wormald) You can own that!
WORMALD: Yeah, I’ll take that all day long. I love James Dean. I studied a lot of his work.
BREWER: All three of them!
WORMALD: I picked up on the little things. I’m a dancer and I could see how actions can speak louder than words sometimes. I definitely studied him and not stole, but maybe borrowed.
CinemaNerdz: How did you guys find each other? Kevin Bacon was not known to be a dancer. You (to Wormald) are known as a dancer, and you were great in the movie. How did you (to Brewer) decide on a dancer?
BREWER: In my other films, I’ve had this conundrum where I could either hire a rapper and hope he can act [Hustle & Flow], or I could hire an actor and hope he could rap. Same with Sam Jackson [in Black Snake Moan]. I said to him, “Man, can you sing? I don’t want to have to get a blues singer.” So do we hire an actor to dance or do we hire a dancer who can act? It didn’t matter. We’ve done it both ways. There was only one thing that I was certain about – I just wanted him to be new. I didn’t want to know who he was. I again tried to view Footloose [in 2011] as if the original didn’t exist. I thought, “How am I going to make people feel the way I felt after seeing Footloose for the first time? I think a big part of it, at least a quarter of that experience, was discovery.
“Who’s this guy?” Kevin Bacon!
“Who’s that girl?” Sara Jessica Parker! I just love her. She is so bubbly and awesome.
I didn’t know any of these people [Bacon and Parker] back then … so they didn’t have any baggage attached to them. That was the first thing. I just wanted to make sure that (Ren and Arial) were new and fresh. To some extent the title Footloose afforded that. Its name was the biggest star of the movie. The studio was very supportive. They didn’t care if it was a completely new cast. They just wanted me to find the right guy.
My casting director, Lorraine Mayfield, who also cast David Fincher’s movies, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network, saw Hustle & Flow and fell in love with Taraji Henson and Taraji is in Benjamin Button. She [Mayfield] saw Black Snake Moan and we were talking about Justin [Timberlake]. He went to audition for The Social Network and he got it. [There] Lorraine asked Justin, “Got any ideas? Do you know any dancers?” And Kenny used to dance with Justin. So Kenny came to audition. It came down to him and two others. Kenny was unequivocally an incredible dancer. We didn’t even need to check that box because it was so obvious. But when he auditioned, I did notice that he was kind of holding back on one little thing, which was himself. There was a part of him that was Boston. If you come from a place, especially from the South, and you have an accent, you try to repress it because it keeps you from getting roles. It’s just a known fact. But I knew the writer (of the new Footloose), and [we] changed Chicago to Boston in the script. I wanted the best friends in this movie [to be] a guy from Boston (Ren McCormack played by Wormald), and a guy from Georgia (Willard Hewitt played by Miles Teller) with America thinking, I want that kind of a friendship. That’s how we found him (Wormald). He fought for it, and won the role. He did his own portrayal, and I’m thankful for that.
CinemaNerdz: Can you talk about the warehouse scene quickly? That was my favorite scene. I wasn’t on the pulse of the original Footloose, so this (scene) meant more to me here than it did in the original.
BREWER: So that scene really affected you?
CinemaNerdz: I thought it was awesome.
BREWER: I’m hearing that from more people who haven’t seen the original. That scene may have been the scene that Kenny and I were worried about the most.
WORMALD: [We worried about] how we could pull it off and have it be raw and cool and not, cheesy.
CinemaNerdz: I thought it was definitely real. As an audience member you think, I want to do that so bad. You know, get angry and blow off steam. Then you see Kenny doing that.
WORMALD: It did for you now, what it did for those back then. To hear you say that is exactly what we wanted it to do.
CinemaNerdz: I actually knew the (Footloose, 1984) soundtrack better than the original movie.
BREWER: You are not alone. A lot of people are like that.
CinemaNerdz: That’s maybe why this warehouse scene was more powerful for me. No offense to Kevin Bacon, of course.
BREWER: One thing we tried to do with that scene was to celebrate effort and danger. In other words, in the original the music’s playing and you’re not even hearing anything else. And he (Bacon), well all of his stunt doubles are dancing effortlessly.
WORMALD: We made it more realistic. I fall down and fail and I have to get back up, struggling.
BREWER: And you hear the grunting.
WORMALD: You hear my breaths and the sounds my feet make as I’m dancing. It’s a little more rounded. The audience is allowed to join me, not just watch me.
CinemaNerdz: I know it’s choreographed, but were you allowed to just go nuts during that scene? Did Craig tell you to do that?
WORMALD: In a sense, yes. It has to be choreographed in its own element so it makes sense. Jamal Sims is an amazing choreographer. He’s done every awesome movie that you’ve probably seen in the last ten years. Between Jamal, Craig, and myself we definitely came up with a bunch of pieces with a bit of my own messing around. It was definitely a collaborative effort.
PRESS: Did Kevin Bacon see it?
BREWER: I know Kevin and he was really supportive of me doing the remake, but he did not come to the set. He’s like Johnny Depp in the sense that he doesn’t watch is own work. I told him, “but you’re not in this!” We’re going to send him a print of the film and I’m sure he’ll watch it.
WORMALD: I’m sure he’s gonna love it.
See Kenny Wormald in Craig Brewer’s Footloose beginning October 14th, 2011!