EXCLUSIVE: As he was readying a classic Western reboot that this weekend heads toward a magnificent opening weekend, director Antoine Fuqua sat twice with Deadline to discuss his journey, and a breadth of hot button issues. Our first encounter came while he was editing the film, when the Oscar diversity controversy burned white hot. The collective fall-on-the-sword apologetic attitude felt hollow to The Magnificent Seven director. After all, he worked himself up from the hard streets of Pittsburgh to direct music videos, then commercials, and finally, films like Training Day, Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen, The Equalizer and Southpaw. He rose to A-list director not because he was some affirmative action obligation, but because he took methodical steps to establish himself as an asset whose movies come in on budget and usually make money for their backers. Not surprisingly, Fuqua believes those qualities are far more important lessons for aspiring filmmakers of color than pinning hopes on the notion that collective Hollywood shame will lead to meaningful long term changes. Here, he explains how he earned his place at the table, and make sure he stays there.
DEADLINE: You grow up watching Westerns and playing cowboys and Indians as a kid, and then you make your first Western. What was the biggest surprise?
FUQUA: How hard it was. When you’re kids, you go out and put your gun belt on, I get my bow and arrow. Cowboys and Indians, man. I used to watch these Westerns with my grandmother. The Wild Bunch. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. I loved Shane when I was a kid, and the first time I saw The Searchers, it blew me away, because I never saw John Wayne play that dark a character.
Then, you’re out there making your Western, and it’s 300 horses, kids, dogs, chickens, cats, and 11 movie stars. And the sun, and the weather in Baton Rouge, where it storms and rains whenever God says it’s going to. We had no control over anything and I’m thinking, be careful what you wish for. Mosquitoes, thunderstorms, tornadoes. And did you know that in 110 degree weather, horses decide, I don’t feel like doing this today? They’re bigger than you and nothing you can do about it. People get hurt, safety is hard. Everything was…hard, hard, hard.
DEADLINE: You have made complex films before. This was hardest?
FUQUA: Yes. It’s the reminder of why you’ve got to love making movies as a director, to do this. As hard as it was, every day I’d see Denzel and Chris Pratt with their outfits on, and Ethan Hawke, and I’d go, ‘Man, I’m making The Magnificent Seven!’ It gives you the juice you need to get back out there and be a beast again. There were days I would sit in my trailer with my head down, going, how did David Lean ever make Lawrence of Arabia? I would set up a shot, and there was a clear sky, no clouds. The horses were ready, and so were the cameras. Denzel is up there on that horse, and my AD comes running and says, ‘You have to shut down.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Lightning.’ I say, ‘What do you mean? There’s no f**king lighting, anywhere!’ By the time we get everybody out of there, you are in thunderstorms like you never saw in your life.
DEADLINE: How bad?
FUQUA: We would be sitting on the porch, literally watching the set float down the street. I would sit in my trailer some days going, I don’t know when I’m going to get back home. I might buy a house down here. I’m stuck. These things would happen out of nowhere. Until we moved to New Mexico and we were like, why didn’t we do the whole movie here? It was beautiful and smooth, every day. But then you look at the movie, with these big dramatic clouds. You realize, you complained and sweated and stressed but those big clouds look like they belong there, and you couldn’t have gotten them any other way. You can’t get that in a back lot. It reminds you, you’ve got to be okay paying the price for that.
DEADLINE: Denzel Washington is known for being no nonsense and precise on set, and not somebody who hangs around the campfire cracking jokes. This is your third collaboration. What was the dynamic between you on a film with such challenging conditions?
FUQUA: It’s always intense, because we’re both that way. I know when I look over there and see him focused, and I’ll go by and give him a nod and he nods, that it is going to be all good. It stays intense, but Denzel was interesting. He knew when I was having hard days here. Every once in a while, which he never does, he would come sit next to me. I know he was doing it sometimes because he was curious, but mostly it was because he knew how hard it was for me. He would talk to me about when he was directing Fences. He would ask, ‘What lens is that?’ It would shift my mind. I knew he never does that stuff. I would tell him the lens and he would say, “Why are we using that one?” He would have a book and write them down, the lenses. We’d laugh a little, and I knew he was being a leader, in his way. He would know when I needed that. Ethan is like that too. Back in Training Day, he used to come up to me and crack Beavis and Butt-head jokes. Here, he would put his arm around me and go, “We’re f**king making Mag Seven. Can you believe that?” They knew what I was going through. Chris Pratt would crack jokes all the time, even when I knew he was having tough days. He was so positive. I would say to Chris, ‘you good?’ He’d go, ‘Hell, yeah.’ Vincent D’Onofrio…that’s why I wanted those actors because I knew it was going to be hard and I had to have friends. I knew I’d have some studio battles. Todd Black and Roger Birnbaum, the producers, they were like the Odd Couple. I needed all of them because there were days it would storm and rain and I couldn’t get those days back. I lost about two weeks.
DEADLINE: Not long ago, Chris Pratt was this paunchy guy in the ensemble of Parks and Recreation. Now, he’s Hollywood’s hottest leading man, star of the Jurassic Park and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises. How did that slow metamorphosis imprint on him?
FUQUA: My perspective? Chris is going to do fine. Here’s who he is. When that second movie hit a billion dollars, he sends me pictures of himself on a lake, catching bass. That’s who he is, this guy with a son and his wife. In the mornings when we were setting up shots, he would be over at that lake fishing, just happy to be there. He would constantly bring up the time he read for me on Tears of the Sun. He’s like, “Remember? I was the guy who came in dressed in the military fatigues, and I dove behind a chair. And Antoine, you looked at me like, hurry up and get this f**king guy out the room.” I said, yeah, I probably did.
DEADLINE: Did you remember him?
FUQUA: Yeah, because he did dive behind the chair. He’s very self-aware, he makes fun of himself. He is humble and has no ego. I think guys like that, where it happened a little later in their life, won’t change. Because they know how it feels to be on the other side, to be the guy diving behind the chair with fatigues on, hoping to make an impression, and knowing people want you to hurry up and get out the room. He remembers. I was happy that he wasn’t pissed off at me for not working with him that time. He would joke about it every day.
DEADLINE: He was carrying an extra 50 pounds then…
FUQUA: Now he trains like a monster. I think Chris is going to be all right.
DEADLINE: When you are remaking such a famous movie, how much pressure is there to go beyond the imprint and put your own stamp on it?
FUQUA: My first thought after looking at that blueprint was, this is a good way to end my career.
FUQUA: It is an epic and everybody’s going to come gunning for you. But I can get some juice from that. I thought to myself, I’m the audience, the kid who loved Magnificent Seven and the Kurosawa movies. I decided what was important was to make sure I didn’t stray from the DNA of Seven Samurai. The meaning of the samurai and service. I felt it important to keep alive the DNA of men coming together to help others, for no other reason except it’s the right thing. That is so important because it’s what people who love these movies, love about them. The guys are cool and fun and I wanted to make sure I had great actors. But the thing that hit me, as a kid when I was watching with my grandmother, was the theme of doing the right thing no matter the sacrifice, even if it means your own life. It’s the thing that makes us top of the food chain evolved human beings. After that, the gloves come off and I just make it my own.
I wasn’t even thinking about stylizing it. I wanted it to feel as classic as I could make it, with my own touch. I shot it on film. I shot it anamorphic, which is tough. I didn’t use GoPros and all the fancy stuff. I didn’t use helicopters. I shot it more traditionally in that way. I wanted the characters to have hints of what we remembered, but with a different, modern feel. We didn’t set out to have them talk Western speak, with the drawl. I thought the battle scenes Kurosawa did were so epic, and I wanted to honor that. I felt the people that love action movies and westerns deserved to have an epic battle. So, as hard as it was, when I would watch dailies I felt like that 12-year-old kid again.
DEADLINE: When Denzel’s character first meets the bad guys, he gets off his horse and, just before the gunplay begins, he tells the horse to go away, and he does. That really happen?
FUQUA: It was real. The trainer was over there so the horse wouldn’t wander. Denzel makes a sound, followed by “Go on horse.” They trained the horse with that sound to walk away. Denzel spent months, creating a bond with that horse and he and the trainer created the sound so that the horse knew what it meant.
DEADLINE: Come to think of it, if Denzel told me, go away, I probably would.
FUQUA: He’s done it to me before. When I’m directing. ‘Go away…let me do my job.’ I just walk away. He worked hard to bond with that horse and convey who’s in control. They’re such powerful, muscular animals; they’ll walk all over the place and do whatever they want to do, unless they feel you’re in control. He had to show him who was boss. He spent five, six months riding that horse. He started after he finished directing Fences, while I was casting the other roles. He said it was relaxing.
DEADLINE: What kind of extra pressure comes from remaking a revered Western?
FUQUA: People around me said, why remake such a classic? There were reasons it sparked an interest in me, beyond me wanting to make a Western. There is terrorism, and today that’s what we’re dealing with. The burning down of the church, the killing of people’s spirit or religion, taking over a town, raping it of the oil, or gold, or whatever it is you want, it’s a modern idea, something we’re dealing with today. Then, being able to put Denzel in the lead…him being African American. It’s something you didn’t see in the old Westerns, and I saw it as a huge opportunity. I said, “Yeah, I haven’t done a western, he hasn’t done a western, it’ll be fun.” And being able to make it even more diverse with Byung-hun Lee, the Korean character, and the Native American [Martin Sensmeier], I just thought, “Wow, what a great opportunity to redefine that genre a little bit, and have some fun with that.”
I watched the Seven Samurai a lot, because I loved it growing up. I can’t describe to you how powerful that was. When you’re a kid, you can’t watch an almost three-hour movie, but this was a war I just never saw before, with these samurai. I could relate to it, just being poor. Whether it’s ISIS, or warlords, or gangs that take over neighborhoods, it’s the same shit, so I just connected to that movie. Then I saw Magnificent Seven, and I loved it, and Steve McQueen, and Yul Brynner, all of them. It was more about the guys than the story at that time for me. I am from Pittsburgh, so I didn’t meet a lot of Latinos at that time, so it was just more poor people that were serving the purpose of the movie. I was more interested in wanting to be a cowboy, wanting to be a part of that group. I didn’t really understand the idea of sacrificing for others back then, I just loved how cool they were.
DEADLINE: You took advantage of the opportunity to have an African American lead, and an ethnically diverse cast. How did you process the outcry over the lack of diversity in the last two Oscars?
FUQUA: It’s tricky. This is a business that struggles with its diversity, obviously. My two cents? A lot of things come down to the sports mentality I grew up with. The only thing you can control is, you’ve got to do the work, man. People will make decisions, and you can’t do anything about it. But you can have influence. If you’re a black quarterback, the best influence you can provide is to throw touchdowns and win games, man. When you get the opportunity, you’ve got to kill it, and that’s all there is to it. You’re not going to just change people’s mind by marching and protesting. You can only change their minds by succeeding.
DEADLINE: There aren’t many black A-list directors. How much harder was your road than a lot of white directors you know?
FUQUA: I don’t know. Everybody’s got a different path. I’ll put it to you like this: it’s easy to say the deck is stacked against you, and there’s probably truth in it, but it becomes a good excuse. I read a book a while ago that changed a lot of the way I thought. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, hit me hard. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I would see a lot of racism. I remember being a kid, and if we were walking down the street and we saw an older white guy in his Mercedes, and he hit the horn at us or something, we were just like, “F**k you, asshole, rich f**ker,” whatever. When I read that book, I thought back on moments like that one. I don’t know if that guy in that car was a Jewish guy with numbers on his arm, or if he had been through some shit that I couldn’t even imagine. I’m judging him on his skin and his nice car, and the assumption he doesn’t know hardship like you do. I really started looking at people’s lives, and saying, you don’t really know what they’ve been through, man. You don’t really know how hard it may have been for them. To judge is a mistake. How do I know whether it was easier for another director or not? I don’t know what this person went through, just as I don’t know what that man in the nice car had been through in his life.
I was talking to a friend who works for me. He’d talked to this guy I see every day, because he boxes at my gym. He passes, and my guy says, “Did you know he lost his wife in childbirth? He’s so positive about life.” I didn’t know that. Just because the guy is smiling, and seems happy, doing okay in life…you don’t know what people have gone through, man. So I look at it like this. Yeah, there are some issues, and no question there are things that need to change. But what is important is that the ones who get the opportunity have an obligation to prove something, to make opportunities for other people. The only way to do that is in success. If you win, if you make money, if you do quality work, then other people of color, whatever color that is, can get in the door.
DEADLINE: The media narrative surrounding the last Oscars had an apologetic vibe that made me wonder if the whole thing would fade without lasting changes in the industry where artistic achievement can’t really be legislated. And it didn’t factor in how hard people who make it had to work to get there. Ava Du Vernay is making big studio movies now, not because of her color, but rather that while others never got their MLK films made, she directed Selma for $20 million and it looked like it cost double that and it got a Best Picture nomination.
FUQUA: She did the work, no question. I grew up on the East Coast, and we always used to say, ‘Go get your hustle on,’ whether it was playing sports, or making money. You do what you have to do, to do what you want to do. You can obsess about these issues, but to me it’s about action. People want me to do a conversation with CNN or wherever, but I usually decline, because my first thought is, why talk about it only during the Oscar season?
DEADLINE: If I was an aspiring filmmaker of color, reading an interview with a successful filmmaker like yourself, I imagine that instead of reading about how the deck is stacked against you, it might be more instructive to learn how you got to where you are now. How did you get here? Who helped you?
FUQUA: Steve Golin, was one. I knew Steve when I lived in New York. I hadn’t done anything, and he gave me a shot with this $7,000 music video, my first one. Steve had moved out of his house up in Beachwood Canyon and let me stay there. I literally had a mattress and a boom box. Here’s the thing I knew, early on. My reel could get me where I wanted to go. If you put my reel in front of an artist, Madonna, Stevie Wonder, or whoever it was back in the day, I was going to get compared to the guys making the $100,000 or million dollar music videos. When these people pop in those tapes to figure out if they like this director or that one, they don’t know how much money I had to work with, compared to the other guys. So I knew early on that I had to make my work stand out.
DEADLINE: What was the first video you did?
FUQUA: Some guy named Mr. Lee, I Like the Girls. It was a remake. I shot it out in Zuma, and I just had a clever way of doing it I guess, and it became number one for two weeks. So I was the new guy in town, and they thought by my name that I was French. So, outside of Hollywood they were like, “Who’s this new French guy?” Until I got the next job and walked in the room. And then right away, somebody asked me to get them some coffee or something, until they were told, “No, that’s the director.”
DEADLINE: Were you offended?
FUQUA: No, man, it was funny because…I grew up with it my whole life and sometimes you just have to laugh it off and keep pushing. Unless somebody has something negative to say, then I dealt with it differently. So I started getting R&B and rap videos, with great artists like Prince. But when I realized that I was being identified by my color, I decided to stop doing music videos for a while. I changed my focus toward doing commercials.
DEADLINE: All because you didn’t want to be stereotyped?
FUQUA: For the color of my skin. I did commercials for Armani, Reebok, because I knew there wasn’t any color on commercials. It’s just advertising, selling a product. People would look at the reel, and just see Reebok, Nike, Armani, and what I did with that. Then I get these Pirelli commercials and I’m flying to Italy, shooting these commercials.
DEADLINE: You see these game changing moments for actors, like Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential or Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours where you go, ‘Who is that?’ Was there a version of that in the work you did as a director?
FUQUA: Training Day certainly did that. Before that, the thing people gravitated towards was Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise, for the movie Dangerous Minds. You asked about people who helped me. Jerry Bruckheimer is another. He called me about doing that. I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it if Michelle Pfeiffer is in the video. I grew up watching Scarface, she’s fine man.” He goes, “I’ll call her.” He put me on the phone with Michelle, and by the end of that call she said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” That was the one that launched me. It was a video for a song in that movie, but it helped make the movie succeed when they actually used it as the commercial. It was the right time, the right track. Coolio, with the Stevie Wonder song. It just hit. And then it became, ‘Who did that?’ Hollywood started calling, and meeting with me about movies. I was writing a script, on a guy named Monster Kody, this LA Crips gang banger, who started in the gang life at age 11. It was an amazing story, a bestselling book.
DEADLINE: I remember the book cover, the guy with the humongous muscles and the big gun?
FUQUA: Muscles and tattoos, yeah. That was Kody. Yeah, he had an Uzi. I wanted to do that for years, and no one would let me make that movie. Looking back, I’m kind of glad they didn’t.
FUQUA: Because I wasn’t ready to tell that story like I thought I was. Now that I’m a parent, I would tell it with more of an emphasis on how the mother was suffering by his actions. I would’ve told the story with too much of it about him on the streets, and more about the gang and the recruitment of the gangs, and what he was going through personally. As opposed to the struggle of a parent trying to keep their child out of that situation. So I’m happy it didn’t happen then. Sometimes it works out that way, because otherwise, I would have f**ked it up and told the wrong story.
DEADLINE: Most of us who saw Boyz n the Hood had no frame of reference for South Central, but related to the relationship between Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr, playing the son he tried to keep from gang violence.
FUQUA: That was the whole thing. As a parent you go, “Yeah, that’s what it comes down to.” John Singleton just nailed that. I didn’t. For me, it was about that book being so powerful. And so I met Monster. I went up to Pelican Bay to visit him.
DEADLINE: That’s a prison?
FUQUA: One of the worst prisons you can be in. Security housing unit, 24-hour lock down, all concrete, these big mean motherf**ker guards all around. I remember the first day I went there. You’ve got to go through gates, lots of gates, and they say, “If you run, you’ll be shot, period.” These dudes aren’t smiling. On my way out, one of the sheriffs, this big white dude with shades on, he looked at me and said, “You’re pretty far from home aren’t you Antoine?” I didn’t know he knew my name. That shit gave me chills. I didn’t go back after that.
DEADLINE: That is intimidating.
FUQUA: Yeah, they let you know, man. I mean, there are all these criminals, killers and murderers, and I was there visiting a guy, talking about making a movie about him. They didn’t like that. But coming up the way I did, I was a little like, “F**k them. I’m going to tell that story about this war that these kids are having. I was fascinated by those wars, because I didn’t grow up with that on the East Coast. There were drugs, and hustling, but this was war, man. But that wasn’t the story to tell, really. When I started having children, I would think back on that story. As a parent, my two sons, I don’t know what I would do to keep them out of that. Because if you don’t make money, or if you live in that area, and they go out into the world every day just to go to school, the seduction of that life would just be heartbreaking for a parent. I think back on what his mother went through. They went to the grocery store. She didn’t even know he was a gang member and he winds up killing a guy in this little deli, blowing him away in a shootout. He grabs his mother, puts her in the car. She doesn’t know what the f**k is going on, and she realizes at that moment that her son’s a gang member. Can you imagine that? Her discovery came in a shootout, watching her son killing another kid, in a gun fight.
DEADLINE: Starting with that movie could have stereotyped you for your skin color. How did you use your momentum to break into movies?
FUQUA: I was getting a lot of different material and it was all urban, it still went back to that. So when they called me about a movie with Chow Yun Fat, for me it wasn’t the script, it was chance to not have color define me and put me in a box. That my first movie is not about the hood, that was important and so I jumped on the opportunity when it was offered.
DEADLINE: What do you remember about The Replacement Killers?
FUQUA: That Chow Yun Fat is the coolest dude ever.
DEADLINE: John Woo once told me, I’m this little guy, but the fantasy version of myself that I put on screen, that’s Chow Yun Fat.
FUQUA: I get that. For me, it’s Denzel. Every time I look through the lens with Denzel I’m like a 12-year old kid. It’s hard for me to look at the monitor, because the fun is in watching him. I remember during Training Day, I was in the back of the car on an Apple Box, and I would just focus on him so much that I would forget to yell cut sometimes. And then it would go on and he would just start laughing. He’d be like, “You going to yell cut?” There was days like that with him playing a cowboy, that felt just as fresh. You’re like, “What’s he going to do?” That’s the way it works, man. You find those people where you go, that dude is special. Chow is one of those guys. I remember him giving me this great piece of advice one day. We were in the trailer…he always had hot mineral water and honey. I said, “Man, how are you so calm all the time? He said, “Antoine, I’ve been through a lot in my life. I’ve become very comfortable, just being me.” It was as simple as that, and I thought, “I’ve got to get to that place one day, man.”
DEADLINE: In that diversity discussion and the preoccupation on a lack of nominees, Spike Lee made a worthy observation that it is cause and effect and the problem will never be solved until there are executives of color in decision making posts. Is there something that could be done to make it a little easier for the next Spike or Antoine Fuqua?
FUQUA: I think so. First, everybody has to open their minds to it. That is happening, in this moment, but moments pass, and then it goes back to what it was. Allowing opportunities for artists of whatever color, Latino, Black, Asian, whatever, is all about those in the decision making positions. It starts with that, and then whoever that person is who gets the chance, they have to be successful. You can get in the door, but if you don’t do something with that, it goes away. It becomes about smart business decisions. This is a business, and hopefully there is some conscience and diversity awareness. I think Hollywood needs to get into the world; Hollywood is like its own island, its own bubble, and the real world is a little different.
You see this obsession with Oscars, this gold statue. Listen man, where I come from they don’t give a f**k about this gold bald headed man, he didn’t put any food on the table. They hear about it, they may or may not watch it, but it doesn’t mean shit to them. What they want is to go to the movies, to experience something, to be entertained and feel like their hard earned money wasn’t wasted for their weekend. They get a few hours to enjoy themselves and escape. That’s the business. Hollywood, at times, can live on this island with Oscars, but that’s not the rest of the world. It is like what happened in the music industry.
They looked down on rap music and thought it was going to go away. But it became the business, the real money maker, and guys like Jay-Z became moguls. I remember when the music industry didn’t take it seriously; eventually, it found its own audience in the African American community. Hollywood may be missing out on some serious business, and that would be foolish, because there are too many other avenues for people to watch things now. They can go to Netflix, and watch on their phones. There is Amazon. Eventually, minorities will stop going and so will young white kids. Remember, rap was really successful when young white kids grabbed on to it and buying rap more than black kids because they had money. Same with movies. The Chinese and Korean movie market was discovered by the young kids before Hollywood found it and they search out movies made in India, the Philippines. They want something different, and they want to experience different cultures. Eventually, those kids get tired of seeing the same crap.
DEADLINE: You made smart career moves so you weren’t defined by your skin color. But is there a danger of losing the values gained by being that poor kid in Pittsburgh?
FUQUA: I get up every day and know my color. I see it when I look in the mirror. My kids, my family, are my color. I always run into things in the world that remind me of my color, and I think you should never forget and lose who you are. But you have to be focused on the old saying, “Eyes on the prize.” It is a weight that you have to accept, which is this: I know I can go do Training Day. I know that world, I grew up in it. I know I can go make a movie about black people, because I am one. I can make a movie about a black grandmother. But am I helping the next generation be able to say, “I want to make a movie about a man on the moon?” And then have Hollywood say, “Hey, just because he’s black doesn’t mean he can’t make a Western, or King Arthur, or anything else.” When I sit and talk to kids, particularly young black kids, I tell them, “Just dream big. Dream about anything you want. Don’t be defined just by the hood. When I was a kid, it was the movies that showed me the world and told me there were no walls to stop me from going to New York, or DC, Europe, or Japan. It was the movies that gave me that spark to want to see the world, and get away from that day-to-day stress of living a certain way.
As an African American, and as a director, what I always think about is, if I’m going to help the next generation, if I’m going to help expand the minds in Hollywood, I have to do movies that are not defined by color. I made a conscious effort to do that. Every time I make a decision on what do I do next, first, it’s the story, and do I have a passion for it. And then it is, what does it mean for me to do a movie about Vietnam, which is 105 and Rising? What does it mean for me to do Magnificent Seven? Because there is a bigger story to that, and it is the legacy of me and other African American filmmakers.
The more we expand that idea, and the more we make decisions to entertain, the less our color will matter. I’ve tried to succeed by example, and I can tell if it is working by the movies that are being offered to me. There’s the Lamborghini project I was called about. There’s 105 and Rising, about Vietnam and the fall of Saigon. There’s this Western. I’ve got movies about space travel and adventures. My goal is to put myself in a position of…I guess you can call it power, but only in the position of power of being successful enough to be able to say, “Okay, now I’m going to go make this real little personal movie about my people.” But I don’t believe it needs to just be about the ghetto. I did the ghetto, I know the ghetto, I’ve still got family in the ghetto. I want to make a movie about an African king or an African warrior. Did you know we had our own Alexander? I don’t remember seeing an epic movie made about Shaka Zulu. Yet. Or one about Hannibal. Yet.
DEADLINE: Denzel considered playing Hannibal, early in his career.
FUQUA: Well, Idris Elba would be great for it, too. Or what about a movie on the Black Seminole Indians? There are lots of stories to be told that go beyond the ‘hood. I try to think out of that box as much as I can. I love the adventure of making movies and entertaining people. But also, outside of giving money or giving myself, the best way I can help young African American filmmakers is by being successful, and trying to be an example.
DEADLINE: Do you feel extra weight when one of these movies you makes doesn’t become a box office hit, that you are setting back progress?
FUQUA: I do. Absolutely, I feel that, but then I’d go, “Okay, most of them work, and every movie Spielberg’s made wasn’t successful, and every movie Scorsese made wasn’t successful. I look at the guys I admire, Oliver Stone, Sidney Lumet. They all failed. It’s part of being a filmmaker, it’s part of being in this business.
DEADLINE: But it probably would never occur to Spielberg to think, I’ve screwed it up for all the other white Jewish directors, and Scorsese probably doesn’t worry that his failure has doomed white directors of Italian descent.
FUQUA: Absolutely, they don’t. I do. I always bring it back to sports, but even in failure some said, “Cam Newton didn’t win the Super Bowl; what an opportunity he blew.” But he can try again. As long you’re not out of the game, you’re still in the game. My failures are just as important as the success to those coming up. They can’t come into Hollywood thinking it’s going to be all roses, because the reality is not even close to that. It’s only magnified when things are wrong, when you fail or when you don’t get nominated.
DEADLINE: You box in the ring, all the time. Aren’t there lessons to be learned when you get punched in the face, or knocked down?
FUQUA: You learn who you are, real quick. You’re either going to get back in there, or not. It’s why I still get in the ring. You have the best plan in the world until you get punched, and you’re like, “Wow, I didn’t even know that guy was that fast. I didn’t know that punch was going to be that hard. I didn’t realize my knees would buckle like that.” Those are the moments that define us, and that’s why, even though I feel that weight of defeat and even though it just kills me to not be successful in something, if I lose, I still win. Because the goal ultimately is to be able to realize you won’t always win, but you’ve got to go at it to win every time, and then when you lose, remember that feeling.” I played ball and I boxed and I hate that feeling, of losing, more than I love the feeling of winning.
DEADLINE: If you’re black and you blow that chance you’ve gotten, do you get another?
FUQUA: It’s tough. I think you do, if you went at it to win, if you made a quality professional piece where people can see you have what it takes to make a successful movie. And if they’re not smart enough to see that, you have to say, “Okay, do I really love what I’m doing?” If you do, you’ll find another way. When I was a judge in Venice years ago, when I did Brooklyn’s Finest, I had to watch seven or eight movies a day, from all around the world. It was difficult to do, but I was left feeling inspired by the people out there, finding a way to make these movies, by hook or crook. Burning up their credit cards, borrowing money. It reminded me that as a director, you love making movies, and you’ve just got to keep making movies. And if you wind up not doing it in Hollywood, then find a way to just get your movie made. And if they don’t believe in you anymore, and you think you’re good, then find the right story, find a way to get it made, and prove them wrong. Because, again, you only win in success, you only win by proving it. It’s all action. Anything else is just talk, and excuses.
I’ve been there. If Hollywood shuts the door, you’ve just got to find a way to survive it and keep going. Because what’s the alternative? For me, being black, there is no alternative. I’m not going back to the f**king ‘hood, I don’t care if I’ve got to go mop floors and work three jobs. I’m not going back there. I’ll do whatever I got to do, because that’s really what it means to stand on your own two feet and to be a parent, and a man. You do what you have to do to take care of your family and if your love is making movies, find a way.
There are people around the world that make movies, who don’t have shit. That’s what I saw when I went to those festivals. Going back to your original question about not losing who I am and where I came from, that is who I am and I’m always going to be that person. I don’t shy away from it, and I’m not ashamed of it, or my flaws and shortcomings. I pray that I continue to evolve and be a better person, a better filmmaker, who learns a lot in his failures. People might say, “He f**ked that up, King Arthur wasn’t successful.” But you could also say, “The guy tried and made a f**king epic about King Arthur, even though it didn’t go that well.” I’ll tell you this: if I get another opportunity to do that, I’m going to knock it out of the f**king park. I will not fail, because I know what happened, I have thought it through and realized my own shortcomings. I won’t blame anyone else, but if I was in that same situation, and other people behaved the way they did, I wouldn’t respond the same way. I’d find a way to win. It’s like watching a tape of yourself, in the ring, when it didn’t go well. You go, how did I not slip that punch? I do that every day in the gym. What was I thinking about, and why did I let someone else dictate the fight?
I’m never going to let somebody else dictate the fight for me again. I want young people to not be afraid to think out the box. They don’t have to tell a story about the hood. Your lead actor doesn’t have to be the same color as you. It’s the storytelling, and the human qualities and humanity of your characters. Like Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw. He’s a Jewish kid, and I love the story about him and his daughter, I don’t give a shit what color he was. I relate to the story. There are some people who will say, “How come you didn’t make him black?” Because it wasn’t the script. If in the script he was black, then he would have been black. People get caught up too much in these things, but it doesn’t matter to me. Just tell a good story. I didn’t get nominated for Training Day, but my actors did, and one of them won! F**king great! I think Jake should’ve got nominated, but he didn’t.
DEADLINE: Hard to define yourself by awards when so much isn’t in your control?
FUQUA: The Academy Awards, the politics of who gets nominated and who doesn’t, that’s a different business. I’m not in that business. I’m an entertainer, I’m a director, I make movies, that’s all it is for me, the rest of it’s not my world. To get calls from guys who watch my movies and want to work with me, and being able to get great actors to want to play these roles with me at the helm, that’s more important to me than the gold statue. No one watches a movie and sees the gold statue. When you watch The Godfather, you’re not thinking about the gold statues. You’re thinking about The Godfather. Think about all the great filmmakers, like Ridley Scott, who haven’t won. How many times did Scorsese get nominated before he won for The Departed?
DEADLINE: How does this preoccupation on diversity in awards translate to moviemaking?
FUQUA: It’s like any other mix of business and politics. It’s just that the talk comes in a focused time of year. To be really frank about it, there is serious shit in the world happening, and I don’t give a f**k whether somebody didn’t get nominated or not, including myself. That gold statue won’t pay for my kid’s college, it doesn’t help my family back home. It won’t get some family members out of prison. It’s not going to bring back people I’ve lost, because I got an Oscar or got nominated. All I want people to notice is that I’m a professional, I do quality work, and that I make a contribution to a great business and to people who love movies and want to be entertained. Maybe I can touch some of them. Maybe, with Southpaw, I can show a father that it doesn’t matter how great you are and what you have in the bank, you’ve got to take care of your children. No matter what you have, or what you lost. To go at your job thinking about that gold statue? It’s like being in a boxing match thinking about the belt during the fight. You will get knocked out.
DEADLINE: How encouraged are you about the changes in the Academy voting body to raise the level of minority voices?
FUQUA: I think any change is a good thing and eventually it’ll have some impact. I don’t think it will have as great an impact as people are hoping for. It’s almost like when you have a black president, the impact it had didn’t meet the over expectation of what was supposed to happen. I remember shooting Brooklyn’s Finest, and I was in the pink houses in Brooklyn, which is a rough place. When [Obama was elected], there were huge celebrations. Everybody was excited. I was around a bunch of gang members and they weren’t celebrating. They were happy but they were like, ‘This ain’t going to change shit around here.’ In fact, they said we’re going to experience something they called Obama backlash.
DEADLINE: What is that?
FUQUA: Cops and other people who were pissed off that a black president’s in office. They wouldn’t verbally say it but they might be more aggressive towards these guys. People who tried to get jobs with a company might meet someone who was pissed off that their candidate didn’t win, and it’s a black president. So you definitely aren’t getting that job. There was a certain feeling of that with the people who had their feet on the ground and it turned out to be true. I’m a huge Obama fan. I think he’s a great president.
DEADLINE: The Republican majority in Congress seemed to block him repeatedly, to the point you wondered if skin color was a factor…
FUQUA: Of course. It has a lot to do with it. I do think there was an over-expectation that he was going to come in, and all of a sudden Chicago’s streets would be clean and safe. All the black neighborhoods would be fixed, all the projects torn down and decent housing would be put up. But that’s a temp job. You’re in and out for four years, eight if you’re lucky, and then you’re gone. It takes a long time for change. I think he put a lot of good things in place that over time we’ll see the benefit. In, the short term, it’s hard. Now, we’re seeing more black men getting killed on the street by cops. A lot of that stuff I believe is in the wake of a black president. I do. Absolutely. We are seeing more of it now than we ever did before. When I grew up, to say you were going to be president if you were black, that was like saying you were going to go to the moon and live there without oxygen. The fact he did it, I think there is a little bit of shock value in that, and shock turns to a bit of anger and disappointment as an after effect. To answer your question, the changes in the Academy are good, but change will take some time. There’ll be a little bit of backlash; some people will feel pissed off. There’s still people around that are from an older school who are still alive. They feel a certain way. I’m not saying that is going to happen. I’m saying that change leaves potential for people who don’t want change, to use any power they have to resist it.
DEADLINE: How does all this relate to young people of color getting to direct films?
FUQUA: The Academy putting people of color in certain positions has absolutely nothing to do with the day to day business of making a movie. They’re not around when you’re casting, or when a film gets greenlit or when you’re in production. Only when it is done does this focus becomes on whether the industry is diverse enough. What does it mean? If the movie makes money and the audience accepts it, it goes on to live whatever life it’s going to live. The gold statue is a great thing for your legacy. Of course I want one. I mean I’ve been an athlete my whole life. I want the ring. I want the belt. But if I win and the movie makes no money and I don’t get hired again, do I sit there and polish my gold statue? My kids would be looking at me and saying, can you sell it? So much emphasis is put on that gold statue, especially during a certain time of the year, that it misses the bigger story to me.
DEADLINE: So the trap is thinking this problem is now solved, when it isn’t?
FUQUA: I would love to see it resolved but these new voters in the Academy can’t greenlight a movie. What if they vote for a movie based on color and it’s reverse racism? So it gets a little funky to me. This is nothing negative toward the Academy; I’m a member. I think their attempt to do the right thing, is the right thing and I applaud them for it. But I ran into a young black lady the other day. She’s a female director, she is new and she wanted to come meet me. She said, ‘I’m so sad and it breaks my heart. There’s not enough of us female directors.’ She wasn’t even talking about color. I said, sit down. What are you up to? She told me and I said, you don’t have time to be sad. You’re in the middle of production. You being sad might mean you don’t do good work. You’ve got to go out there and f**king kill it and do great work, because that’s all you can really do. That is your voice. You being sad is not going to mean shit. Be sad later, but go do some great work that becomes your message, your way of proving that Kathryn Bigelow isn’t the only woman capable of directing a movie like men do.
DEADLINE: How did she process that?
FUQUA: She said she was grateful for that advice. She said it inspired her because the white noise is so loud and everybody gets caught up in it and then someone puts it on Instagram and it becomes a movement. There’s not a revolution here. It is the art; that’s the revolution. Follow the art. That’s it. You can’t do anything about the rest of that shit, unless you’ve got 100 million dollars to invest in a movie. It’s an expensive business, so do great work and think about your partners, your backers. You do have a responsibility to hopefully make some money so you can do it again and you become a reference for somebody else who comes along and looks like you. That’s where the power comes from.
DEADLINE: How did the hardships of Magnificent Seven impact your desire to direct 105 and Rising, about the fall of Saigon?
FUQUA: It made me want to do something in between, maybe not as big. That is a complicated film, outdoors with people hanging from helicopters. We’ll have a soft prep, learn lessons from this and figure out everything that could go wrong, weather, time of year. If the opportunity really comes and I get to make 105, I’ll be ready. But it will be hard; the money you want won’t be the same as what you get for a movie about Vietnam. Some people see it as a stain, but I don’t. That particular event, I think the Marines are heroes. But I know I’ve got to be smart about how I do it.
DEADLINE: So it’s probably not your next movie.
FUQUA: I doubt it.
DEADLINE: So what is?
FUQUA: I’ve been having talks with Universal and Scott Stuber and Dylan Clark about Scarface. The script really surprised me, man. I know. Scarface, after Mag Seven? Yeah. It’s got the DNA of the original, but it’s very different and deals with him coming up from Mexico. It touches on a lot of stuff that is controversial right now, with immigrants and borders. So it’s back in the Zeitgeist. I am taking it seriously. The trick is, you’re not going to find Al Pacino, and he has to be Mexican.
DEADLINE: It’s too bad for you that Benicio Del Toro did Sicario and has a sequel. His character was pretty bad ass.
FUQUA: I know. But the guy I need is out there. You’ve got this whole group of talented guys, or maybe we find an unknown. We’ll see. There are stories about that world that you couldn’t make up. Pablo Escobar had animals from Africa and they still don’t know how he got them. Right now they’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with the growing population of what they call cocaine hippos. It’s crazy. Their lives are so over the top, El Chapo and the rest of those guys. But how do you make him the icon of icons? Because we have a high bar for movie icons with Al Pacino’s Tony Montana and Michael Corleone. I took Denzel into that world as a cop in Training Day, and that was a world that I know probably way too much about. I know where to go with this. I have met a lot of these cartel dudes and understand their mentality, and this f**ked up version of Robin Hood. I saw it with guys I grew up with. It starts with, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do to feed my family. Then it turned into, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do to survive. Then it turned into, I want it all. Your moral compass gets lost in the darkness and excess.
DEADLINE: Aside from keeping you from being stereotyped, what did evolving from videos to commercials and then features teach you?
FUQUA: To be fearless, which is hard at the beginning. When I was younger I remember saying I wanted a crane shot and someone would say, ‘Kid, I don’t know if I’d do that way. When I worked with such and such director…’ After a while, I would say ‘Man, shut the f**k up and do your job.’ I don’t need this old, wise man stuff. I thought, if I did what this guy was doing, I would be doing that guy’s job and wouldn’t be a director.
DEADLINE: How many movies in before you had the confidence to say that?
FUQUA: Luckily the commercials helped and that’s where I learned those lessons. Sometimes you’ll do something that wasn’t your idea and you’ll watch it and you realize, this works, but it is boring as shit. As opposed to at least trying your own idea. If it works, then you’ve got your idea. If it doesn’t then it just doesn’t work. The other way, it’s somebody else’s bad idea, not mine, and I hate it. You don’t think of it when you’re starting but that grip with the crane shot? He goes on to his next six projects, his house is paid for, and as the director, do you want to be explaining to somebody who doesn’t like the scene, that it wasn’t your idea, that you would have shot it differently, but some grip told me whatever? And they’re looking at you like, maybe we should have hired someone else. It is tricky, man, because your crew, they are your partners, and they can really help you. But you have to know when it is time to be fearless, even when everybody’s looking at you like you’re a fu*king idiot and you know some of them are saying that, behind your back.
DEADLINE: How hard is it hard to block them out?
FUQUA: You have to realize that if it’s good, they’ll love you later. I remember reading about George Lucas and why he doesn’t make any more movies. It was painful. Nobody believes in you. Everybody thought everything you were doing was stupid. You start doubting yourself and in the process of making it you start hate making movies. Because you’re on your own. Maybe you are wrong. Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe I shouldn’t be a director. All that happens, and you’ve got to walk out of the trailer or get off your director’s chair and go out there and believe in your vision and live or die with it. That’s all you’ve got.
This takes us back to that Academy stuff, and skin color. This game is really hard. You’ve got to get out there and do the work. And if you’re going out there thinking, which I don’t, I’m an African-American filmmaker so I’ve got to really…you’re dead. If you read a script thinking, I’ve got to read the script because I’m an African-American filmmaker, you’re already dead. Let somebody else talk about your color. I don’t think about it. I keep moving. And that’s it.