On a bone-cold day on a burnt-out block in Harlem, the Hughes twins, Allen and Albert, sit in arctic garb before video monitors, directing their second movie, Dead Presidents. Their 1993 debut, Menace II Society, which they filmed at age 20, won a place on critics' 10-best lists by making today's youth violence as emotionally riveting as the street warfare in 1973's Mean Streets, directed by the twins' idol, Martin Scorsese. Now these baby Scorseses are out to top the tale that made their name. Dead Presidents, due to open this summer, rolls together a period piece, a heist flick, a love story, and social commentary with a dash of surreal fantasy.
The Hugheses watch as Menace star Larenz Tate and Chris Tucker (the breakout talent of House Party 3) don Santa Claus hats to hand out gifts to a flock of ghetto kids. It's 1972, and they're Vietnam vets who've just liberated an armored truck bearing worn-out U.S. currency to be burned ''dead Presidents.'' Tucker tells the kids he had to take Santa's place, because ''Santa won't come to this neighborhood without police protection!''
The brothers grossed $28 million on their $3 million debut, earning them their pick of big action movies. Instead, they chose the risky Presidents and a budget they say started at $10 million-as part of a two-picture deal with Disney's Caravan division. The twins turn 23 on April Fool's Day, but they're nobody's fools. ''Action is stupid, man,'' says Allen. ''After Menace, they started throwing scripts at us Die Hard on Skateboards or some s---, The Specialist, the next Seagal film. They offered us ludicrous amounts of money. But if you take $200,000, $300,000, (you) get all the creative control. They try to start trippin' me like an advertising agency, I'd just lose my mind, man.'' Adds Albert softly, not unlike Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, ''We'd walk off the set.''
In the fall of 1993 the duo did exit the set of their Shaquille O'Neal Reebok commercial, which aired during the '94 Super Bowl. ''I'm gonna tell you what they paid us, 'cause f--- 'em,'' says Allen, the talkative Hughes. ''For three days they paid us $250,000. Half of our ideas are there, and none of our spirit.'' Incensed, Allen and Albert walked. ''I'm glad we ruined (our chances in the ad game), 'cause I don't want to be tempted to go back,'' says Allen. The directors are delighted to burn other bridges, too. ''You start dealin' with big stars, that's how films are ruined,'' says Allen. ''I don't bring no names up Sharon Stone. This is Sharon Stone acting,'' he says, opening his legs. ''Tim Allen, is he gonna be the white Cosby? Are we gonna see a movie every year from this fool? Keanu Reeves is gettin' $7 million (offers) have you seen the guy act?'' With all this bluster, the brothers know they are under the gun. ''I could give a f--- if the entertainment industry blacklists us,'' says Allen. ''We'd find something to do, if we had to go back to videotaping weddings.'' In the meantime, their second movie promises to make some noise. ''The first time,'' says Allen, ''you're shy, you don't know. This time...'' Albert seamlessly finishes the sentence:''...the pure us comes out.''