Coming off two successful films with a significant cult following (Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99), screenwriter/director S. Craig Zahler seemed like a guy who could do no wrong. And then he did, even though he didn’t really. When news broke that Zahler’s third film, Dragged Across Concrete would feature Mel Gibson acting alongside Vince Vaughn, a backlash began ramping up immediately, and for many the jury was in on the film before it even began shooting. This was due to Gibson’s troubled past involving racism and homophobia and Vaughn’s unfavorable right-wing views. Criticism of the film increased when the public learned Gibson would be playing a racist cop. As a result, there are many people—most of whom have not seen the film—who believe Dragged Across Concrete is a racist film made by a racist filmmaker.

Are there characters in the film who say and do things that are racist? Yes, most definitely. But Zahler insists this is neither a racist nor right-wing film. Zahler has stated repeatedly that neither he nor the film are political, yet the accusations and assertions persist. Zahler says these claims aren’t accurate and that he simply writes characters who are authentic, pointing out that his characters often have diametrically-opposed viewpoints that are presented with equal weight.

“I don’t come from a political place, and that allows me to write anybody on either side,” explains Zahler. “I launched my career in Hollywood with a script called The Brigands of Rattleborge, which is about a sheriff and a German doctor. And in my original script, the sheriff ends up learning about the futility of revenge. Then there’s the doctor, who finds satisfaction in revenge. That piece was really well-received in Hollywood, and some believed the point of the piece was that of the sheriff. He’s the slightly bigger lead and you spend more time with that character, and it’s probably why it did well in Hollywood—because this is a message they want to get behind. But there are two characters, and there is a different point of view, and that other point of view is one I wrote by getting just as much into that character’s mindset. And that’s how I approach everything. It’s always about the characters.”

Veteran actor Fred Melamed, who has appeared in all three of Zahler’s films, agrees. “Part of Zahler’s uniqueness is his abiding interest in character,” Melamed says. “What other filmmaker so influenced by grindhouse, so unapologetically into violence, is so invested in the depth of character? To me, the plot of a film is just something to hang the characters and great scenes on. I can describe to you twenty great scenes from The Godfather, but if you asked me to tell you its plot, I wouldn’t be able to give you much of an account. Zahler is interested in human beings, with all that is contradictory in their nature. He is not some minor league Mike Rowe, pretending to be the reasonable voice of the everyman, beleagured by losing his good-paying job at the factory and blaming his troubles on Affirmative Action.”

“I don’t come from a political place, and that allows me to write anybody on either side,” explains Zahler.

Because of his dedication to character authenticity, Zahler’s films and views are often perceived incorrectly. Dragged Across Concrete is not the first instance of this. When Bone Tomahawk was released in 2015, there were many viewers and critics who asserted it was a Christian film made from a Christian viewpoint. The same assertions were later made regarding Zahler’s second picture, Brawl in Cell Block 99, because the protagonist was a Christian man with religious-themed tattoos. But guess what? Zahler is a self-proclaimed “Jew turned atheist,” so clearly these are not his own personal views. Yet they are believable because they were written into multi-dimensional characters with their own sets of beliefs and behaved like real people rather than cardboard characters serving a writer’s agenda.

Zahler is an artist in the truest of the word. He has an artistic vision and refuses to stray from that, sometimes to the detriment of his image and the image of his films. He acknowledges this, but is unwilling to compromise, having a clear vision of what his films should be and who his characters are.

Tory Kittles gives the performance of a lifetime in Dragged Across Concrete.

“I think it beyond any possible doubt that Zahler is an artist—and by that, I mean that his films are not calculated to make money, to be popular, or to ensure that he has future opportunities to work,” explains Melamed, who has also worked with such talents as Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers. “Rather, they attempt to entertain the discerning by asking questions about what is true about reality—with all its inherent contradictions and complexity. If a work fulfills its promise, it does so by accomplishing three things: one, it is true. You are struck, when watching it, that it reflects things that hold the mirror up to nature, rather than repeating tropes that are hackeneyed or artificial. Two, it is surprising. Even though it strikes you as truthful, it presents observations and points of view that are unexpected. Three, it is inevitable—that is, it has its own internal logic. It does not intentionally make itself quirky or interesting. Even though that might surprise you, you realize that it is true to itself; it could not have been any other way.

“Zahler is uncompromising,” Melamed continues. “For good or ill, the film you watch is as close a rendering of what he personally intended as the restraints of time and budget allow. This is partly a result of his personality, and partly a function of how he became a writer/director. Zahler is part of the auteur tradition, just as any young writer/director wants to be. At first, a beginner will insist that he must have final cut, does not want interference from financers, etc., but few are in the position to maintain that. Most of the time, just getting a film financed is such an unlikely event that most people in Zahler’s position will do any amount of compromising to get their projects made.”

“I think it beyond any possible doubt that Zahler is an artist—and by that, I mean that his films are not calculated to make money, to be popular, or to ensure that he has future opportunities to work,” explains Melamed.

All of Zahler’s films have been produced by his business partner Dallas Sonnier, who strives to provide him with an almost unequaled freedom to create as he sees fit. “Zahler and I have a very simple setup, and because it’s so simple it works very well,” Sonnier explains. “Zahler handles the creative, and I handle the logistics of the production. When it comes to budgets and legal contracts, the structure of the movie, the foreign sales, the distribution deals, I handle all that. He is aware of everything and he is savvy in that sense, but he really entrusts me with the logistics and the financials. What I am able to do is create a model where he’s able to have absolute total control. The way we do that is we utilize distribution contracts in advance, which are called a presale, and we’re able to cobble together enough distribution that we then can take on the investor knowing that the investor is going to make their money back.

Writer/director S. Craig Zahler.

“So, within the confines of the budget and the confines of the schedule, he really can be completely free of any sort of controlling mechanisms,” explains Sonnier. “Certainly he is open to all of my suggestions, and other people’s suggestions, but at the end of the day he might tell you no. There were actors on each of the three movies—instances where a legitimately big name wanted to play a role. It happened on all three movies. And he would say, ‘No, I’m not into that person.’ And I would say, ‘What?‘ But I just had to remember to trust in him implicitly. ‘In Zahler We Trust’ should basically be tattooed on my arm. So we have created a business model for him to exist as a creative without compromise, and that is my most proud moment as a movie producer because Zahler cannot do Zahler within the confines of people telling him he can or cannot do the things he wants to do.”

Obviously Zahler knew the casting of Gibson as a brutal, racist cop would ruffle feathers, but he did it anyway. Not because he wanted to endorse bad behavior, but because Gibson was the actor he felt was right for the role. And objectively speaking, it’s logical to cast actors who may have similar characteristics to those of a character. For whatever reason you may want to assign, the characters in Dragged Across Concrete, like those in Zahler’s previous films, feel like real people, be they good, bad, or morally ambiguous.

“I don’t find Zahler’s films to have a racist or arch-conservative viewpoint, but an audience is free to interpret any work of art as it sees fit,” says Melamed. “I think the more important point is that art does not have an intrinsic responsibility to right social wrongs. That is a legitimate purpose, if that is the maker’s intent, but it is in no way an obligation of the artist. Like any good writer, Zahler is interested in contradictions. We happen to be living in a time when social media outrage has trumped reasonable inquiry. I offer up examples of Al Franken and Garrison Keillor. That kind of Black Hat-ism has no place in a mature appreciation of filmmaking.

Actor Fred Melamed, who has appeared in all three of Zahler’s films to date.

“I think there were inferences made by Zahler’s casting of Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson that he had a winking understanding with the audience about his politics,” Melamed continues. “Those assumptions I know have been completely untrue. I think he cast those guys because they were interested in the project, they would do it for very little money, they were both good to work with, they both brought financing to the picture, and most importantly, they were both excellent choices to play those characters.”

Some of the press Zahler and the film have received hasn’t been particularly helpful regarding the public perception of the project. For example, Zahler was quoted in a Daily Beast article as saying, “I’m not politically driven; I’m not very politically interested. None of the stuff I write comes from the point of view that I want to push an agenda.” Despite that, the headline of the article read: “THE HOLLYWOOD FILMMAKER MAKING MOVIES FOR THE MAGA CROWD.” Nothing in the article or in Zahler’s quotes reflects that and what he says stands in opposition to this idea, yet the publication chose to push this narrative. And there have been other instances.

“There’s obviously been stuff where it’s frustrating because there’s a headline that doesn’t even match the content of the interview itself,” explains Zahler. “I’ll point to one specific, and it isn’t even a bad piece. The headline reads: ‘THE DIRECTOR WHO DOESN’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT HIS MOVIES.’ In that article itself I say, ‘I hope people will like the movie.’ I will not change things creatively so more people do, but I say in that article, ‘I hope people will like the movie.’ And then the headline says ‘THE DIRECTOR WHO DOESN’T CARE IF YOU LIKE HIS MOVIES.’ I have had a lot of those things that I can point out, and it’s frustrating, and I feel like if you’re gonna do a smear you should be less sloppy about it and at least edit out the part where I say ‘I hope people like my movies.’ Because that’s not true. I do care. I’m just not catering to the audience. There’s a difference.”

Zahler insists there is no agenda behind his films, and he believes that films are often studied and scrutinized to a ridiculous degree, especially in terms of people searching for a writer’s own values and beliefs. “I was listening to a podcast where two really intelligent, articulate guys say, ‘Clearly he makes that remark about bubble gum because that’s how he feels about bubble gum,’” Zahler recalls. “At the point where you start hearing analysis on this level, where you start hearing attribution of every characteristic, or all the antagonistic or politically incorrect ones to the author, is where I just step away from the conversation. People can have it. I say I’m not political, but then I’m usually asked about politics. That’s more or less them saying, ‘We don’t believe you so we wanna dig deeper.’ And that’s fine, but I don’t need to entertain those conversations forward because they’re gonna speculate anyway.”

“I think there were inferences made by Zahler’s casting of Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson that he had a winking understanding with the audience about his politics,” Melamed explains. “Those assumptions I know have been completely untrue.”

One aspect of Dragged that isn’t talked about as much as it should be is the film’s third lead, Tory Kittles, a black man who completely steals the show. Gibson and Vaughn both give terrific performances, but Kittles is the true star of the piece. And beyond Kittles’ virtuoso performance, there’s also the fact that his character becomes the film’s hero—or as close as there can ever be to a hero in an S. Craig Zahler film. This point is rarely mentioned in articles about Dragged, and yet it’s the one thing that most clearly debunks the theory that Zahler has fashioned a racist film with a racist agenda.

Of Kittles’ character, Zahler says, “The writing process for me is really one of discovery. I knew that Kittles’ character was one of three main characters in terms of shaping the story who we follow, and I knew we were going away from him for a chunk of the piece so he would be…not forgotten, but not as fresh to the viewer. But then when he returns and starts owning the movie, you spend a lot of time with him and feel invested if it’s working for you. That character was really discovered as I went, and he just kept coming up with more and more surprising things. And that’s one of the joys of writing. He is a character that is underestimated by many and that’s something he is aware of and takes advantage of.”

The backlash and the narrative much of the media seems compelled to push overshadows Kittles’ stellar performance, and that’s a shame. Whether or not a person likes Mel Gibson or Vince Vaughn, it cannot be disputed that they are both veteran actors who have done their fair share of fine work. So for Kittles, a largely-unknown actor, to step in and outshine both of them is impressive and truly deserving of recognition.

“Tory Kittles is incredible,” says Zahler. “His consistency is unbelievable. He also just knew the cadences of the dialogue of his character in a way similar to how Fred Melamed, Mel Gibson, and Don Johnson all really kind of get the cadences in the way I imagined them. Some people get them and see them differently—Vince Vaughn is one of those people—and come up with different version of them that are quite compelling. But Tory knew people like this growing up; he said he knew somebody who used to come over for dinner from a family who had less and related to who this character was, and that was our first conversation. He just said, ‘I know this guy. I know who he is.” Tory was somebody who never came in with an incorrect take in terms of why his character was doing something or how he would behave in a situation.

“During rehearsal and during the shoot, it was always just fine-tuning with Tory,” Zahler says. “His consistency is really incredible, and I could have used pretty much every take he gave me. He has a lot of charisma, and a lot of his dialogue is amongst the most stylized dialogue in the piece; it’s not easy to land, so that was something he needed to be comfortable with. And as he has pointed out in interviews, he came to Dragged immediately after doing Shakespeare. Obviously that, with iambic pentameter, has its specific cadences, and there are cadences to my very, very long sentences that make them land really well when they’re in the right hands, and Tory was more than capable.”

“I’m really happy that a lot of the critics are pointing Tory out and applauding his amazing work,” says Sonnier. “My hope is that he has more opportunities to be a movie star beyond this. I think he is terrific in this movie.”

Sonnier says the initial decision to cast Kittles was “100 percent” Zahler’s. He essentially picked Tory out of a lineup,” recalls Sonnier. “We were looking at all the tapes and he watched Tory’s. He said, ‘That’s the guy.’ I said, ‘Oh, really?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s the guy.” Zahler just knew.”

Dragged is a lengthy film at 159 minutes, and some have pointed out that the film could have been easily trimmed. But Zahler was insistent on the lengthy running time. According to Sonnier, there was a key reason for this. “There have been some terrific action movies in the past couple of years,” he says. “They’ve got great set pieces, terrific acting, cool action beats, things like that, but you don’t spend enough time with the characters to really walk away feeling like you’ve been emotionally punched in the gut when something happens to them. So what Zahler does, in my opinion, is he generates a first act that allows you to get to know everybody to such an extent that when the shit starts to hit the fan in the second and third act, you’ve spent so much time with these people that, like a TV series, like when a character dies on The Walking Dead, it’s an event because you’ve spent a season with these people. When Zahler is writing a movie, he’s not thinking about the running time in terms of a production perspective; he’s thinking about what he’s determined in his mind is the sufficient amount of time we need to spend with a character so we will form an emotional connection with them.”

Sonnier says Dragged Across Concrete is different from he and Zahler’s previous collaborations, and says he believes it’s a natural expansion of their previous effots. “It’s a bigger budget, it’s got a bigger cast,” Sonnier says. “This time you don’t just have Kurt Russell or Vince Vaughn, but you’ve got Vince and Mel. You’ve got two legitimate monster movie stars. And then we peppered the amazing cast with Don Johnson, Jennifer Carpenter, Fred Melamed, Udo Kier—the people we call ‘The Zahler Players.’ And Dragged is R-rated. Bone Tomahawk and Brawl don’t have a rating, on purpose, because we knew what we wouldn’t get an R rating. But with this movie, we had to deliver an R rating, so even though the violence is very graphic, it doesn’t have the same reveals visually as the other films did. You’ve got an R rating, you’ve got a significantly longer piece, you’ve got two major mega-stars, and then you’ve got a sweeping crime epic. This really, to me, is an epic. It’s almost like The Odyssey—it’s just such a big piece. I’m very proud of the movie and I think it’s a masterpiece.”

“This really, to me, is an epic. It’s almost like The Odyssey—it’s just such a big piece. I’m very proud of the movie and I think it’s a masterpiece.”

Despite the backlash and negative press, Zahler remains confident and unfazed, believing the work should speak for itself. “Most of the reviews have been positive,” he says. “I’ve read positive reviews, negative reviews, and a fair amount of begrudgingly good reviews, and a ton of it has to do with people’s extrapolation about me. I’ve said I’m not politically driven, and that’s because I’m not politically driven. If I really had an axe to grind in terms of politics, there would be a very clear message at the end of these movies. But that’s up for people to interpret.”

Another thing that’s different about Dragged Across Concrete is that, despite its having a limited release, it’s a bigger release than any of his other films have had.

“This release was not a four-wall kind of release, which my previous ones had,” explains Zahler. “Most of the people who saw my previous films in a theater saw them at festivals. They did not see them in theaters, because even when they were in somebody’s state or in their city, it was usually some kind of cheap theater or multiplex forty-five minutes or an hour away from that city. This time we have Dragged playing in thirty-four cities, and some of them have been helpful in showing previews and putting up posters. So there’s a little more fanfare this time. Still, this is a very limited release, and there is not much advertising behind it beyond releasing the trailer online. So it’s a step up from the releases of my two previous films, but it’s still not a big release. I wish more people could see it on the big screen, but that’s the way it is, and I’m not blameless in that, in the amount of control I require, and the movie I want to make, and my lack of willingness to change a lot of things to make it more commercial put parameters on the kind of release this would get.”

The film is now playing in select theaters and is available on video on demand. It is currently scheduled to be released on DVD and Blu-ray on April 30th.