“There are all sorts of set genres of filmmaking,” John Singelton said during a recent Dallas interview. “But if you take different cultural elements and put them with those accepted genres, you come out with something totally different.”
Singleton–who wanted to be a director from the moment he first saw “Star Wars” when he was nine and leapt into the front ranks of young filmmakers with “Boyz N the Hood” in 1991 (winning Oscar nominations for both his script and his direction), going on to make such films as “Rosewood,” “Shaft,” “Baby Boy” and “2 Fast 2 Furious”–was talking about his new picture, “Four Brothers.” The Paramount release stars Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, Andre Benjamin and Garrett Hedlund as four very dissimilar siblings who return to their rough Detroit neighborhood to avenge the murder of the adoptive foster-mother who saved them from hopeless lives, getting involved in a violent vendetta against a local crime boss in the process.
“I try to pick what hasn’t been done,” Singleton explained. “And this generation hasn’t really had a good urban western, revenge picture because everybody’s so PC. This film is in line with films that were made in the early seventies like ‘Death Wish’ with Charles Bronson and ‘Dirty Harry’ with Clint Eastwood. Those films were made out of the western archetype. They took actors–Clint and Charlie Bronson–who had worked in established westerns, and they put them into urban milieus. Before that you had the American western, which had men going on a mission, or trying to come into town and the good guy would have to right the wrongs of the established bad guy who was running the town. Those kinds of things, with a cut-and-dried villain and the good guy coming in and doing something to help the situation, we really don’t have that anymore. And then I thought, I’m going to have that in this picture, but I’m also going to do it with a whole lot of soul. When Mark Wahlberg comes riding into town, he comes riding in to [Marvin Gaye’s] ‘Trouble Man.’ But if this movie was made thirty-five or forty years ago, Dmitri Tiomkin’s music would be playing, or Franz Waxman’s, or Ennio Morricone’s. The movie is very much like a western–he’s riding in on his horse, but here he’s riding in in an Olds.”
When asked about particular influences in the movie, he said, “John Ford, Fred Zinnemann from ‘High Noon.’ For this picture I watched a little bit of Ford’s work, but a lot of time I [just] had these movies in my head and I watched them over and over again. I had actually watched a lot of Jimmy Cagney movies, because Warner Brothers had put out this thirties gangsters [DVD collection] at the time that I was shooting this, and Mark Wahlberg is like a contemporary [counterpart] of James Cagney.” He added: “Mark and I have known each other for like twelve years, and we’ve always wanted to work together. Mark was like me. He’s from the streets, but he’s evolved as a man, and filmmaking has allowed him to grow and travel. He really loves movies, and he’s a student of film. And as an actor he’s always trying to study and be better and better at what he does. And the cool thing is that in this movie he wasn’t, like, the young actor–he’s the veteran of all these guys, which was a unique position for him to be in, because he’s the veteran of all these guys, but he’s also playing the big brother to all these guys. The film was kind of a culmination for he and I, because we’ve always wanted to work together–we kind of palled around for years, and it was the first opportunity we had to work together.”
The cast also includes two musician actors in Gibson (who’d previously appeared in both “Baby Boy” and “2 Fast 2 Furious”) and Benjamin, half of the duo OutKast. “I’ve made a career out of it [casting musicians],” Singleton, who’d introduced Ice Cube to the screen in “Boyz,” said. “When musicians come to me and end up working with me, they end up having careers as actors. I’ve only had people in the films who were actually interested in acting, and they end up going and doing other things. I don’t have them rap in the movie, I just have them be in the character.” Of Gibson, he said, “He’s a real homey from L.A., [and] he’s getting better and better as he goes along,” and he praised Benjamin for coming naturally to the lesson on reticence that it takes many actors years to learn–“You don’t have to do much to call attention to yourself.” He also singled out Terrence Howard, the star of the Singleton-produced “Hustle and Flow” who appears as an honest cop “Brothers,” and English-born Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays the drug lord, for special praise. The latter he called “a phenomenal actor. I think he was robbed of an Oscar nomination for ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ [Stephen Frears’ 2002 film].” How did Ejiofor get the part? “He basically read it on tape, and I liked his take,” Singleton said. “And then when I met him, I told him, ‘I want you get ‘Brubaker’ , ‘Alien’  and ‘Across 110th Street’ , and I want you to watch Yaphet Kotto, and I want to you think of Yaphet Kotto as you do this.’ And you see him in this film, and you’d never guess that he’s from London and he’s Nigerian.”
Another way in which Singleton agreed that “Four Brothers” resembled older generations of films was in its extravagant, heart-on-sleeve moments. “The best movies had big emotions and big gestures,” he said. “Some of the stuff that they do in this picture is over-the-top, [just as] in those old westerns. They’re over-the-top, but you feel it. I wouldn’t say the acting is over-the-top, but the scenes in which you see Bobby Mercer, played by Mark Wahlberg, you see his pain about the loss of his mother, [and that] make[s] it possible for you to be with him on the road to all the things that he does to get the [bad] guys. You’re with him because you identify with the pain of the loss of his mother.” One of the things the boys do in their search for street justice involves a confrontation with the villains on an ice-covered lake, a scene Singleton had vivid memories of shooting. “In Memphis last year with ‘Hustle and Flow’ was hard because you had the heat and mosquitoes,” he said. “This movie was hard because it was cold and freezing and wet. So I went through the two extremes within half a year. [That scene] was on an ice lake. When I went there in November and looked at it, there was nothing but water there. When I came back, in February, it was all frozen over. The ice was three-and-a-half feet thick, and when you walked across the ice, if you would listen real closely you would hear it crack, just like you were on a glass of water–imagine walking on a glass of water and hearing it crack. But it was great–it was an adventure. I love working on movies like this, where I go somewhere really exotic and see things change. I love challenges, man. This movie was a big challenge for me, but it was fun.”
And talking about the completed scene, Singleton returned to the theme of “Four Brothers” as urban western. “When [Bobby] comes walking off the ice,” he said, “it’s like ‘High Plains Drifter,’ when [Clint Eastwood] comes walking out of the desert, or the ending of ‘Once Upon a Time in the West,’ when Henry Fonda walks out of the desert and you see what the whole thing with the harmonica is about.”
And he added: “This movie is like those movies.”