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Stephen Hopkins on Judgment Night, Urban Hellscapes, and ’90s Chicago

on June 23, 2018, 2:06pm

When director Stephen Hopkins’ gritty urban thriller Judgment Night came out in 1993, it was released to mixed reviews and a modest box office take ($21 million on a $12 million budget). A harrowing, stripped-down actioner following a group of Evanston suburbanites (Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr., Stephen Dorff, and Jeremy Piven) running afoul of a crime lord (Denis Leary) one dark night in the big, bad city of Chicago, the film treads similar territory as Walter Hill’s The Warriors and John Boorman’s Deliverance. It’s a grimy depiction of Chicago as an apocalyptic hellscape, with the cinnamon-roll boys at its center struggling to ‘man up’ to survive the bloody night ahead of them.

But cult films are a curious thing – movies can resonate with people long after their initial theatrical run, often for the strangest reasons. In the case of Judgment Night, that cult appeal is twofold: one, Hopkins directs the hell out of it, injecting a pretty boilerplate chase thriller with seas of ink-black Gothic cinematography and exciting moments of suspense.

The real catalyst for its rediscovery, however, is usually the film’s chart-making rap-rock soundtrack album, which featured an innovative series of collabs between some of the biggest hip-hop and metal artists of the time (Living Colour and Run DMC, Slayer and Ice-T, and so on). Throw a stone at a group of white ’90s kids who grew up in the suburbs, and chances are you’ll hit someone who considers that album Their Jam. Sometimes it’s a shame when a movie’s soundtrack eclipses the legacy of the movie that spawned it. Here, it feels like an album that has kept an underrated genre gem in the cult consciousness, long past its expected shelf life.

This weekend, Judgment Night returns to the city of its setting for its 25th anniversary, for the Music Box Theatre’s annual festival of genre delights, Cinepocalypse – with Hopkins in attendance. In anticipation of this hallowed night of metal, mayhem and E-milio, CoS sat down for a phone interview with Hopkins to discuss the film’s intriguing cult legacy, its soundtrack, and its relationship to the ‘real’ Chicago.

On Getting the Job

I’d done Predator 2 with Barry Gordon and Joel Silver, who were partners at the time; shortly afterward, they had a very bitter split. Barry Gordon started his own production company called Largo [Entertainment], and I think [Judgment Night] was the first film to come out of that.

They’d actually been wanting to make this film for a long time, and there were all sorts of scripts, from people like John Carpenter and Gary Cunningham – different versions that involved bikers in the desert of LA, and things like that. I was given a lot of scripts, and it was quite a long process. We wanted to work hard to get it right, and not make it about something that wasn’t just about rape – a lot of these urban stories are about that.

There were months and months of script meetings – there were rooftop motorcycle chases, but we ended up in a grittier vibe. It was interesting for me, because I’d only just made sci-fi movies at that point; I wanted to try something more realistic.

On Being Attracted to Urban Stories, And Painting Chicago As a Hellscape

Cities bring a lot of people together, and are also scary to lots of people. Especially American cities, like Chicago or LA, they’re designed a certain way where freeways circumvent all the scary areas – you just drive over the top.

[When we filmed in Chicago], we stayed at the center of town, but we were only ten minutes away from Cabrini-Green, where we shot a big chunk of the project. It was pretty dangerous, actually – I was sending dailies to Universal to show them what we were shooting in southwest Chicago, and they thought it was all matte paintings. These were areas that were destroyed in the [1968] MLK Riots, really close to downtown.

We went to some extreme places– in one location, we were in a dark basement looking around, and it seemed like the whole room was moving. We got out our flashlights, and it turned out the entire floor, walls and ceiling were covered with rats.

It’s the same in LA, too, with these tough areas. When we were shooting Predator 2, going downtown to shoot was no joke – I mean, people were shot and died near where we were making it. We got glass bottles full of urine thrown at us, brown paper bags full of human feces. That was just downtown L.A.

In Chicago at that time, you’d be driving down these areas, and there’d be people sitting on porches with their rifles out. So as much as we have these movies about yuppies going off to the countryside for a little holiday, and then they run into people who don’t operate under the same rules as they do, there’s an urban sense of disenfranchisement in any big city, I think.

As it turns out, Chicago was really primed for that sentiment then. When we were shooting the project, there’s that scene where we kill Jeremy Piven, which is one of the first scenes we did. We were shooting, and a shot rang out; a schoolkid had just had his head blown off from someone who was in our building. The crew ran down, and they caught this sixteen-year-old kid who had to shoot someone to get into a gang. The next day, the Army came in and shut the place down. For us, these yuppies running around thinking we were tough, it was quite an eye-opening experience.

On Navigating Race and Crime, and Denis Leary’s Villain

I think one of Barry Gordon’s first films with Walter Hill was The Warriors – there’s a slightly heightened version of reality there. We didn’t want to go quite that far, but in that film they had to delineate territories. In Chicago at the time, there were definitely Irish gangs, there were Italian gangs, African-American gangs, Latino gangs, different territories run by different people. We didn’t necessarily want the movie to be about race, or at least at the center of the story. I don’t think we were avoiding it; it just wasn’t written that way to be a commentary about race.

I remember when doing Predator 2, we hired the Crips to guard us when we were downtown, because we had to do deals with the gangs. And suddenly, one of them just pulls out a gun on the table while we’re chatting. When you have a loaded gun on the table, it kind of changes the atmosphere of the room, you know? [laughs] It changes how you feel about a lot of things, unlike in films, where you don’t have to take it seriously – it’s sort of fun, and not realistic. So when Jeremy Piven’s character pulls out a gun, everything changes. For all that swagger and machismo, now it’s a real thing.

It’s more about that, and what these guys have going on, than the reality of gangs and Chicago. Chicago itself just happens to be an amazing urban landscape; 90% of the movie is shot at nighttime. The way it played out, we had this beautiful Gotham right on the lake – then you go out west or south, and you’re in tough territory. It’s the makings of the old American city.

When we first went there, I shot stuff on these different cameras to see how it would look, and Chicago had this very specific style of lighting that had this sodium-yellow color to it. So we lit the whole thing like a dirty yellow at night, which didn’t actually react well on the film – we had to change it as we went. We found out after a while that the sodium yellow lights made everything look out of focus. And we’d covered these poor actors in tons of dirt, and drenched them in water, and you know what it’s like in Chicago in October!

[In preparation] I made the crew watch [Orson Welles’] Touch of Evil, and there are huge expanses of black on that film. We did a movie that could have been black and white in a way –deep shadows, and a lot of proper horror movie scary stuff.

On the Cast and Challenging the Masculinity of the Film’s Suburban Characters

These are sort of American icons, these ideas [of masculinity, machismo, etc.]. There’s a family guy [Frank] who finds his private animal, like you see in some Sam Peckinpah films. I think there’s a type of American male who often think their college days are their best days, and they don’t ever lived up to their ideals afterward – I think that’s Cuba’s character. He always felt he was huge in college, and he embraces this adventure; he’s always wanted to be in the middle of something important.

When I saw [Cuba in] Boyz ‘n the Hood, I thought, “oh, this kid is so quiet, and still, he wouldn’t be able to be this character.” And as we all know now, that’s not Cuba Gooding at all, he’s an outrageous guy. He lived a very tough life growing up, and I think this brought a lot of stuff out of him. I was surprised – some people thought he was sort of over the top in the film, but I felt I’d met that kind of guy before.

I’d known Stephen [Dorff] since he was a kid, actually – he’s a very heartfelt character, a great pianist, a wonderful kid. He and Emilio had this funny big brother-little brother dynamic on set; Emilio likes to be very professional on set, he wants everything to go just right. And not that Stephen was unprofessional, but Emilio has these very rigid rules for how a movie shoot should go – I mean, he grew up in a movie family.

I think this is one of Jeremy’s first films, and when I met the guy, I just thought he was a character. It’s funny, I think when Jeremy Piven dies, everyone cheers [laughs].

On the Film’s Seminal Rap-Rock Soundtrack

Believe me, I’d love to take credit for the idea, but [music supervisor] Happy Walters was really the guy behind that. It followed up on all the Run DMC-Aerosmith stuff, but I don’t think there had been anything like this.

I didn’t completely understand it, and I went to some of the recording sessions – which were a trip, let me tell you. I wasn’t even sure how we were going to use [the tracks] at first, but then when I started hearing it, it just felt fresh at the time. I don’t think there’s been an album quite like it, really.

I guess it sold huge numbers of records – my daughter, who’s 35, thinks it’s the greatest album ever made. I think the only reason she likes me doing the film is because of that [laughs]. And of course, Everlast being in House of Pain and featuring a lot in the film was quite helpful as well.

On Directing a Movie Known for Its Album

The movie suffered on its opening weekend – in the Bronx, these guys who stood up at the theater on the Friday night when it was opening had a shootout in the theater. The film came up as one of the things to blame for it, the film was pulled from cinemas, and it disappeared very quickly. Those days, it wasn’t like you had digital film – if a film doesn’t work, it gets put in a vault somewhere, and that’s the end of that.

But the album was one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. I think people don’t know the film very well; I think they know the idea of the film, and the interesting 90s cast we had. Interestingly, I think the album does portray the idea of the film quite well. If anyone ever watches the film because of the album, that’s awesome.

On Returning to Chicago for Cinepocalypse

I start shooting a film on Friday, so I can only come for the weekend, unfortunately, but I’d like to roam around a bit. I’d like to go back to some of our old music haunts – [while filming] we used to go to all the blues, jazz, and hip-hop clubs with our bad guys, Denis Leary and his cronies.

Judgment Night screens with director Stephen Hopkins in attendance as part of the Cinepocalypse festival at 7:30 pm on Saturday, June 23rd.

Cinepocalypse will continue at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago through Thursday, June 28th. Tickets and the full screening schedule are available through the Music Box. 

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