When you’ve worked as part of a two-man team for nearly 20 years, what’s it like to finally strike out on your own? Ask Allen Hughes of the Hughes brothers, whose solo directorial debut, Broken City, opens January 18. After an amicable separation from Albert, his co-director and twin brother, Allen has been navigating the ups and downs of directing alone. “It’s easier in that I don’t have to defer to anybody,” he recently told us. “It’s more challenging because you have to find your partners. You’ve got to circle yourself with people that you trust.”
The Hughes brothers first made their mark in 1993 at just 20 years old with Menace II Society, which earned glowing reviews for its gritty but realistic depiction of urban violence. The twins continued to work as a team for the next eight years, producing Dead Presidents and American Pimp. Then, while shooting From Hell with Johnny Depp in 2000, something changed. Opinions clashed and they aired their differences on-set, catalyzing the first stirrings of independence. The brothers took a nine-year breather to pursue individual projects like commercials and music videos, then gave it another go in 2010 with The Book of Eli. The movie was a box office hit, but their working relationship suffered its final blow. Without getting into specific reasons (they had their “brother moments”), Allen Hughes says the parting was civil and mutual. “It became real clear after Book of Eli. We had a session together and it was pretty clear,” he recalls.
One hardly needs specific reasons to understand why a filmmaker would want a project to call his own after two decades of having a co-director. “You get tired of hearing, ‘Where’s your other half?’” he says. “I need to be my own person. You can’t feel who you are until you experience things without the crutch of your brother being around.”
Already, Hughes describes epiphanies that eluded him when he was working with his brother. For one, he’s in the process of identifying his voice as an individual filmmaker. “I’ve always said there’s who you are, what you want to be, and what people think you are, and at the end of the day you hope that they all sync up,” he says. “What I learned in the filmmaking process on [Broken City] was, ‘Here’s who I am, and fuck all the rest of that shit. I’m the guy that does crime. I’m into mood. I’m into really setting a vibe that’s more film noir.’”
Hughes is also learning to accept his weaknesses. For example, the technical side of filmmaking has never been his bag—Albert was the “0s and 1s guys,” while Allen focused more on narrative and actors. With Albert out of the picture, Allen decided to accept his shortcoming and rely on crew for certain tech decisions, while focusing on his strengths. “I’ve just given in to the fact that I don’t understand that shit,” he says, referring to details like lens sizes. “I’m never gonna be the numbers guy. And at 40 years old—they say you should try to work on your weaknesses and whatever, but there are certain weaknesses that can’t be worked on.”
Broken City, which stars Mark Wahlberg as a disgraced NYC cop and Russell Crowe as the mayor who hires him for shady work, bears some resemblance to Hughes brothers films. You’ve got flawed protagonists with anger issues, haunted by their past and seeking redemption. But the film marketing does not piggyback off the Hughes brothers brand—it doesn’t refer to Allen as one-half of the Hughes brothers. “The thing we had to frame was that this isn’t a Hughes brothers film, so don’t go in expecting a Hughes brothers film,” says Hughes.
The fact that Hughes is sort of starting anew 20 years into his career doesn’t faze him. He points out that Robert Altman directed his first film at 45. “I think my feature career has just begun,” he says. “Broken City represents just the first step in many. This was my attempt at establishing myself and getting a rhythm.”