EXCLUSIVE: Studio execs who thought of F. Gary Gray as a go-to guy for taut thrillers like The Italian Job, The Negotiator, Law Abiding Citizen and Be Cool already are reassessing as Straight Outta Compton opens tomorrow with rave reviews and strong box office expectations. The film chronicles the fast rise and fall of N.W.A and the birth of streetwise poets who reflected the poverty, gangs, drugs, guns and heavy-handed law enforcement that was part and parcel of living in the Los Angeles ghetto. The film is very personal for Gray, who is around the same age and grew up in South Central Los Angeles just miles from N.W.A members Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella. There is a Social Network atom-splitting depiction of the birth of an important cultural movement in Straight Outta Compton, and an underdog story of the struggle of young men from the ‘hood to say something important, and then handle the money and women when fame came their way. There is also an unexpected timeliness to ’80s N.W.A songs like “F*ck Tha Police” that somehow seem relevant after incidents in several U.S. cities this year. While the movie is getting the best reviews Gray has received in his career, memories of violence associated with Boyz N The Hood and other urban films has created an unwelcome press narrative that anticipates trouble going into opening weekend. I did this interview because I was intrigued about how similar Gray’s learning curve was to the subjects of Straight Outta Compton, but given the spate of press about heightened security, we start there.
DEADLINE: Here you have one of the best-reviewed studio movies this year, your Hollywood premiere this week was the hottest ticket in town. And yet the narrative in the Hollywood trades has been about heightened security at that premiere, and concerns about theater violence heading into this weekend. There have been outrageous gun violence tragedies in movie theaters the past few years, but all the shooters were white. Is this racist? Unfair?
GRAY: I read a couple of those headlines and thought, wow, now you’re grasping for straws, trying to create something that’s just not there. The response to the movie has been great, we’ve enjoyed standing ovations around the nation, and so many people are saying how positive it is. Oprah called it powerful, black churches are supporting the film, and people are coming out of the woodwork who wouldn’t ordinarily endorse or be associated with gangsta rap, street rap or this genre of music. I think maybe there’s something good here and they’re trying to find something that isn’t there. It’s just not there. We had an amazing premiere; I’d never experienced anything like it, extremely cool and positive. It went off without a hitch, everybody enjoyed themselves. There wasn’t an incident to report. I guess they wanted to find something and so they say, ‘Wow, they had a lot of security there.’ I don’t know if it’s par for the course, I don’t know if it’s specific to this movie, but I am not really focused on that. I’m happy people are walking away feeling energized and … surprised. They’ve told us this was more than they expected, that it went beyond a rap movie or a music biopic, and that’s what I’m focused on.
DEADLINE: The last deadly shooting occurred on the Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck. Should there be a spate of stories on heightened security every time she comes out with a film?
GRAY: It’s the world we live in. We were just on a plane, and Ice Cube was talking to a passenger sitting next to him. This person said they would love to see the movie but they can’t go see it on Friday or Saturday. Because all the theaters near them are sold out. This person didn’t seem like they were from the neighborhood; they lived in the suburbs, and they were excited about the movie and disappointed they couldn’t find tickets and would have to wait. That’s the narrative we’re enjoying. That’s what we’re lost in. We’re not going to get baited into that other narrative. Its basis is obvious, and it’s unfortunate but people have to make a living, I guess.
DEADLINE: So much of the anger in N.W.A’s songs was directed at the police, and this movie comes at a time when there have been incidents in cities all over the country. While your movie puts a focus on Rodney King and the L.A. riots, it is surprisingly timely.
GRAY: I was a news cameraman at Fox during those riots, and we watched the verdict on monitors and I had to go down there, for myself, to see it because this was where I grew up. I saw the gang truce and how they were pushing back against something that was clearly wrong, but I was not sophisticated enough to understand the economic blowback and how some of those businesses there would never be rebuilt. Any time you see the depiction of excessive force there’s just a part of you that … but I’m optimistic. It’s not like the days of N.W.A where, it happens, there are headlines and it’s shelved. Now, we’re documenting this stuff on so many levels that weren’t available then, and I’m cautiously optimistic that there will be a shift and that it will put pressure on our leaders in law enforcement to think twice. I don’t think you can watch this stuff and not push for change. If your children are watching you on television, shooting someone in the back, and it’s running over and over again, and the court of public opinion. … But this isn’t why we made this movie. I was looking the other day at e-mails to screenwriter Andrea Berloff and they go back four years to where there was no Ferguson, no Cincinnati or Baltimore. I’m sure it was happening, but there were no footage and headlines like we’re seeing now. I hope people are entertained by this movie, but if it helps tip the scales as it relates to the abuse of power by law enforcement, then hell yeah that will be a good thing.
DEADLINE: There is a meticulous construction to this story, and an understanding of how these young guys got famous and then tried to hang on for the ride. Why did you feel such an affinity for their journey?
GRAY: I was born in New York but grew up in South Central and I experienced and witnessed a lot of what they were rapping about. I was born the same year as Cube, 1969, and lived a few miles away from him. A lot of what we witnessed was the same. This was so personal to me. When I first heard N.W.A, I wondered if they had placed cameras on our block. How the hell did they get our existence on wax? They were honest, they were talking about us. It was shocking and refreshing at the same time. I almost felt an ownership in what they created, back then, because I experienced it.
DEADLINE: I felt on edge the entire film on behalf of these characters, especially when the police showed up. Did you experience the same treatment at the hands of police who put these guys on the ground for a search, without provocation?
GRAY: No doubt about it, it happened all the time. I can’t remember how many times but I’d need more than one hand to count. It was part of the ’80s culture. They had a war on gangs, and if you lived in certain neighborhoods and were a certain age, it didn’t matter if you were in a gang or not. You were going to get stopped. They checked you, they wanted information, where you were from, and they put it in a database. They profiled you, and created a profile on you. Part of it was they wanted to lock down the neighborhoods and make sure they knew what was going on. They were going after criminals, but when you cast such a wide net, a lot of innocent people get caught in it. Cube was part of that, and so was I.
DEADLINE: Cube and his band mates responded to this manhandling with defiance and anger. Did you?
GRAY: No, they would f*cking … no. Visible anger with the cops? You feel violated, no question. You can’t help but feel humiliation, and it was some of the reason we always felt on edge. Driving in a car, trying not to have a negative encounter. We were hyper-aware of law enforcement, from childhood. That’s why you feel that way watching the movie. When I did my research, I got all those stories firsthand from them. But it was part of my experience, as well.
DEADLINE: When you first heard N.W.A, had you started on your own creative path?
GRAY: No. I was on the block, still. But I was making a transition away from living in the neighborhood, and discovering that the artistic path was one that made sense, for survival. Everybody around me, they were dropping left and right. Being put in jail, or in some cases, murdered. I had a friend named Ronnie Easley. I get this phone call, he’d been shot on 120th Street. My friend called and said they tried to keep him alive … they were trying to put his brains back into his skull, but they were getting grass and dirt along with the brains they were putting back into his skull and they couldn’t keep him alive. You don’t think about it at the time, but this is what forged the group. The violence, the relationship if you call it that with law enforcement. So if you felt on edge watching, well that’s what we had to live through. When you’re younger, you don’t know any different. We had fun. The fun version of that story was my first movie, Friday. You laughed about it. A lot of times, when you experience that level of pain, the only thing you have is laughter. When you’re in a war zone, you don’t realize it, you take it for what it is and you try your best to survive. As you get older you see that everybody who doesn’t necessarily live like that. I saw that when I moved to Illinois.
DEADLINE: How did that compare?
GRAY: Polar opposite. My parents separated when I was 2, and my dad always lived in Chicago and my mother in L.A. I’d go back and forth and sometimes spend the summer with my dad, but LA was home. There came a time, at the height of my mother’s addiction, where I couldn’t take it anymore and so I left. I was in 11th grade then, and we were staying in a hotel on Western Avenue and Rosecrans. I called my dad and said it was just too much. I was in a school that was gang ridden in Inglewood. I had to take a bus from Gardena to Inglewood, through all these gang territories, and if you remember the scene where the guy comes onto the school bus with the gun, we would see shit like that. You would experience different versions of that story. My mom, bless her heart, she is clean and has been since I was 28, but at the height of her addiction … it was best for me to change environments. Where my dad lived, in Highland Park, Illinois, the environment was so different, it was like I’d gone from a Hughes Brothers movie, Menace II Society, to a John Hughes movie like Breakfast Club or Pretty In Pink. I spent 10th grade in Washington High School, which was so bad they made a movie out of it with Denzel Washington. He played a principal who changed this bad high school into a preparatory high school. He was my principal, but I went there before he changed it, when it was really f*cked up. Then I went to Highland Park High School, one of the top 10 high schools in the whole country.
DEADLINE: What was that change like?
GRAY: I saw how other people lived, and that’s where I set my sights on entertainment. I got into this program at that school where the students produced, directed and did the camera work for a television show and that was the best experience. I set my goal on film. There is a lot more to the story, but that’s the transition.
DEADLINE: If you had stayed in Los Angeles, do you think this career would have been an option for you?
GRAY: It’s hard to say. Success is really about your mindset. I might have found another way. I was given an opportunity to look back at the environment I came from and compare it, and see that I had an option. You can’t do that if you’re in a single-parent dysfunctional home with all those challenges. I moved into a home in Illinois with my good friend Bill Holmes and that was where it really hit me that maybe I could create a different outcome. I really got a chance to see the other side. Food in the pantry, every day, where before it was what you could get on welfare and food stamps. I take nothing away from my existence in the ‘hood, because it sharpened my instincts. We had a different way of living that developed our survival instincts and I use those to this day when I make films. You can’t buy that. I don’t sh*t on where I come from. I became ultra-sensitive to emotion growing up, because you had to be that way when one minute you’re laughing and the next bullets are flying and you are trying to survive. Now, I am able to convey emotion by putting together a combination of sound and images, not because I learned it at film school; I didn’t go to film school. It’s because of the things I saw and witnessed coming up. When I transitioned to another life in Illinois and that became my reality for a short time, I was able to see, feel and touch something else, and I knew what I wanted and went after it. When I was in LA, my uncle, who was an actor, introduced me to plays before I left. I grudgingly went to one of his plays, and I say grudgingly because those street guys would beat the shit out of you if they found out you were going to plays. “You went to a play? Bam!” But I became aware of story through him. I liked the environment, people coming together, creating, laughing and smiling and having a good time. I was attracted to that. After seeing the show a couple of times, I sat in the booth and the engineer allowed me to operate the lights for one scene. I think coming from the streets and getting that attention and responsibility sparked my interest.
DEADLINE: When did you first meet Cube?
GRAY: On the set of a music video I directed with WC, who I knew from high school and who was part of this rap group called WC and the Maad Circle. William Calhoun is his name and he was a consultant on Straight Outta Compton who helped the actors figure out how to move onstage and how to speak and feel like LA at the time. So Cube was doing a guest appearance on this video, which was my first, and we hit it off. I was able to do a few music videos for him that really took off. “True To the Game,” and “Today Was A Good Day” really blew up and made him mainstream as a solo artist. This was my film school. From that came Friday.
DEADLINE: At the Straight Outta Compton screening, people laughed when you dropped some lines from Friday. That tiny movie made such a mark…
GRAY: “Goodbye Felicia” and “You got knocked the f*ck out?” There are a couple of winks in there. People have a misconception that I started in music videos and woke up one day and decided to do movies. That’s not the case. At Highland Park High, they teach you to set your goals — long term, medium and short term. And all the intermediate steps you’d have to take in between.
DEADLINE: Your goal?
GRAY: To become a filmmaker and direct my first film when I was 45.
DEADLINE: Why that old?
GRAY: This was before Spike Lee, John Singleton and all those guys. The only person I referenced as a filmmaker was Steven Spielberg.
DEADLINE: Spielberg was practically a teenager when he made Duel.
GRAY: Yeah, but I just saw this guy with a beard and glasses. From my perspective, he was from another world, successful. It was a crude approach, but for me it was, who is the most successful guy in the business? Steven Spielberg. OK, I want to be like this dude. So I studied his approach, and I just figured I’d have a gray beard like he did, when I was 45.
DEADLINE: How old are you now?
GRAY: I’m 46. I had nothing to lose and so I set my sights on filmmaking and tried to get technical experience. I became one of the youngest cameramen at Fox, at 20, and I’d shoot segments for Christine Devine. She’s now an anchor but was a field reporter then who would go into the most dangerous parts of LA doing stories. I was her cameraman. I shot a rap video show called Pump It Up. I would sneak on the sets and into the studios, and watch directors. I would get odd jobs like PA, and worked my way up to AD. Anything that got me closer to film. I was doing well in TV as a freelance cameraman, but it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in. I directed videos and tried to put something cinematic in every one. Dialogue, action sequences, helicopter, Steadicam. The music videos I did, I tried to inject something cinematic. Dialogue, action sequences, Steadicam. Anything to make it feel like a movie. The artists would get a music video that had production value and I got a chance to test out these theories I had about storytelling. When you’re that young, you make a lot of mistakes as you try to figure it out but I learned how to lead a crew. By the time I was 24 and experienced some success in videos and introducing these music artists to a different style of video, Cube called me. He said, “Why don’t we do this feature film about two guys on the block called Friday?”
DEADLINE: In Straight Outta Compton, some of the members of N.W.A hardly read their contracts and got exploited. They got caught up in money, women and good times. Cube refused to sign and quit the group, knowing the band’s manager Jerry Heller was screwing him. He was also never part of those decadent party scenes that seemed right out of a rap video. Why was he different?
GRAY: The way Cube tells the story, he benefited by having his dad around, guiding him down the right path and telling him, “No matter what your move, be yourself and have integrity.” As Cube tells it, he smelled something fishy from the jump and when it was time to address it, those guys didn’t do the right thing and he left. He said he’d rather be broke than get f*cked. You see that quite a bit in the movie. Cube walks away from the group with no guarantee he was going to be a successful solo artist. Later, Dre walks away from $50 million. I think that took courage. When you come from nothing, you have so much at stake. When it came down to being true to themselves when it counted, they showed integrity that is inspiring.
DEADLINE: Did they come to you looking to tell their story in a film?
GRAY: Dre wasn’t involved when Cube gave me the script four years ago. I knew the story, but I was nervous because it spanned 10 years and there were so many story lines, good times and bad, it was a lot to fit into a two-hour film. But I read it and saw something I didn’t expect: My own story, coming from South Central and finding a way out of poverty, and all the opposing forces that work against you. They did that. This wasn’t just hip-hop history, it was an American underdog story that could inspire others. These guys made it out. It wasn’t always pretty but there’s something Shakespearean about it, with brotherhood, rags to riches, betrayals. Timeless, universal themes. If you stop and dissect the story, you have one guy who starts spinning records in a garage and becomes a billionaire. Another guy, who writes rhymes in a notebook on a school bus in the ”hood, becomes the writer, director, producer and star of big Hollywood movies 25 years later. This is comic book fantasy stuff, but it happened. Besides hitting me on a personal level, I thought this could be a really strong movie.
DEADLINE: Going back and shooting those scenes must have brought back memories, good and bad.
GRAY: We wanted it to feel as gritty, edgy and authentic as the neighborhoods in movies like Goodfellas and Casino, Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. There was something gritty and edgy about growing up in LA in the time N.W.A wrote about, and I was excited by the chance to get that right. When you are in that dope house with Eazy-E in that first scene, I wanted you to smell the cigarette smoke and the alcohol in the room, like you were experiencing it. I wanted to punch the audience in the gut, from the start. So when that battering ram barrels down the street and hits the front door, all bets are off. You’re not in a regular music biopic. We had to live on the edge like that, for real. You don’t know what’s around the corner. I don’t want to cast a negative shadow on the neighborhood, but these were realities. I felt and lived the transition, in the Reagan Era. You had guys who in their own youthful way, hung out and opposed each other, like what happens in high schools and colleges across the country. That is how it was with gangs in LA, but the whole culture changed with the influx of crack cocaine and military-grade weapons. Game changer. We point it out in the film. The guys involved in this new economy, none of them had passports or really had ever left the block. One of the points of the film was, check the source. Where was this sh*t coming from? Nobody had contacts in Colombia. Nobody had contacts in Russia to get AKs or these other weapons that somehow were suddenly everywhere. These guys wrote about that. The goal here was for you to get a clear sense of why they wrote those lyrics. Los Angeles, and what was happening socially, was a perfect backdrop that we had to get right.
DEADLINE: You cast a critical eye on music manager Jerry Heller and Suge Knight, who comes off as downright scary. Did you engage them?
GRAY: What I did was get the information from the guys who saw it and that was good enough for me to put the puzzle pieces together. I did my research by reading what was in the public domain and talking to employees at Ruthless Records who interacted with Jerry, Eazy-E. and Suge. I had firsthand accounts from Dre, DJ Yella, Ice Cube and MC Ren. It doesn’t get any better than that.
DEADLINE: A lot of the drama came from these guys being naïve with not lawyer in sight to read contracts. How badly were they exploited?
GRAY: When you’re young, and you don’t have a business degree from Wharton or Harvard, or even a community college and you don’t know any lawyers, you’re flying blind. You are a teenager and all this is dropped in your lap. It’s easy to be manipulated and taken advantage of. None of these guys tried to say they were choir boys. They recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and that this is what the movie is about. It wasn’t about vilifying the obvious characters. This is a bumpy ride and you experience feel the bumps and the bruises along with these guys.
DEADLINE: You have been on a similar journey. What of your previous movies taught you the most valuable lessons?
GRAY: The movies I suffered the most on. A Man Apart wasn’t well received. I didn’t finish that movie. The last five minutes were directed by somebody else because I was off doing The Italian Job. That was a really rough experience. With Be Cool, I made some assumptions in thinking that movie was going to work. I’d just made a successful PG-13 movie, and when I walked into Be Cool, it was rated R and then at the last minute in preproduction I was told, “Well, you have to make this PG-13.” I should have walked off the film. This was a movie about shylocks and gangsta rappers and if you can’t make that world edgy, you probably shouldn’t do it. I walked in thinking I was going to make one movie and then it changed. Maybe it was arrogant of me to think because I had success in this realm of PG-13 I could make that work.
DEADLINE: What did you lose in making that movie PG-13 instead of R?
GRAY: The edge. All the edge. Chili Palmer said the word f*ck 54 times in Get Shorty. To be able to say it once in the sequel? It robbed authenticity. He was a shylock and this was about gangsta rappers. That was an edgy, grimy world. When you try to build a world and you want people to buy into, it has to feel real. I arrogantly thought, “I can handle this curveball you’ve thrown me with the rating. I’ll figure it out.” I was sadly mistaken. There are people who enjoyed that movie, but you know what? We missed the mark with Be Cool. I suffered because of that, as an artist. I also learned a lot. You can’t assume something is going to be good, just because. There are things you should compromise on in a collaborative effort. But there are things you should stand up for and not compromise on.
DEADLINE: Were you concerned with the baggage that comes with bailing at the last minute?
GRAY: Of course. You get this reputation and people even said if I bailed on this movie two weeks before shooting, I’d have a hard time working. I was riding the success of another PG-13 movie, The Italian Job, and I made the wrong choice in not standing my ground. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t regret doing Be Cool because I learned a lot, making it. But I also learned how important it is to go with your gut. There are so many ways you can get this sh*t wrong.
DEADLINE: How did that lesson help with Straight Outta Compton?
GRAY: I had a script and a story that was just OK. It wasn’t edgy as the movie you just watched and it didn’t have a lot of nuances that wound up in the film. It took Donna Langley to step up and say, “I want to know the movie you want to make.” I sat there and pitched it to her. It was unapologetically grimy and heartfelt, and it touched on themes you don’t normally associate with the genre of music movies. I knew if I spoke from my heart, made sure it reflected what my gut was telling me it should be, then at the end of the day I would feel good about it. It took two years to get that script in shape.
DEADLINE: You pitched to Langley only after it was kicked to the curb by Warner Bros. Why did that happen?
GRAY: It was New Line, but I don’t think they wanted to. … There were a bunch of stories surrounding why they let it go. I was happy they developed it. What did you hear?
DEADLINE: That at the time, the Warner Bros priority was tentpole pictures that would play overseas, and that means big stars, budgets and concepts. This was viewed as an urban film with a cast of newcomers and a story that wouldn’t travel. It was during that time they let Ride Along get away, and that did very well for Universal and led to a sequel with Cube.
GRAY: I’ll just say this. The movie that I wanted to make, maybe it wasn’t the movie they wanted to make.
DEADLINE: The end result is the kind of movie that any studio aspires to make. An honest tale with a sense of authorship that is lacking in too many of today’s films.
GRAY: Yeah, but when you get beyond the authenticity, I get that it becomes, how can we make a return on our investment? There’s that myth floating around Hollywood that when you have urban-themed films, they won’t travel. They’ll only work in certain pockets of this country, and that’s it. So I came in … “demanding” may be a strong word … but I said I certainly can’t use any of the stars I have in my head. I have to use newcomers and I said that to me, this story is strong enough to live on its own. If you’re distracted by some star mimicking some other celebrity, you’re once removed from the heart of the movie. So when I walk in and say, “I will make this urban-themed movie with newcomers, and I want it to be high quality,” it’s easy to see it from their side and why they would decide they were not going to take the risk. I sit down with Donna Langley now and ask her where she hides her crystal ball. They don’t green light movies like this. It’s not a layup, especially the way I saw it. She stuck her neck out on this one.
DEADLINE: Maybe there’s a reason almost everything she touched this year has turned to gold. She grew up at New Line, where they took big risks on filmmakers. Those movies didn’t always work, but some classics came out of that culture.
GRAY: I was there for that, with Friday. She championed this movie. You know how they say the executives had more heart in the ’70s and they cared more? Her approach reminds me of those stories of the golden era of film. You look at a movie like this, which, to me has heart but which is a risk because it’s edgy. There were choices she made along the way despite opposing forces, speaking loudly. She stood her ground and let us make our film. You can feel that when you watch it. It doesn’t feel like a studio movie, and that is the reason we’re getting the response we’re getting. I’m not saying we reinvented the wheel, but this is no “making of the band movie” with all those clichés.
DEADLINE: How long did it for her to say yes?
GRAY: My pitch was 45 minutes. I did it with Cube, who was all in, and Dre, who I convinced to jump on board even though he was nervous about tarnishing his own legacy with N.W.A. I had a visual presentation. I told her that while the script was in this shape, here’s what we can do to fix it. There were so many ways this could have gone wrong. But we pitched it to Donna, with our hearts, and she responded in the room. She said, “I want to make that movie.” I was so nervous. But she knows hip-hop. She’s English, from the other side of the planet, but she’s somehow tapped in to that frequency. She knows hip-hop is global and this was bigger than an LA story and even hip-hop.
DEADLINE: What in particular swayed her?
GRAY: I think it was the reason why they made this music, as opposed to the events. I felt I’d gotten a bite, and I could feel myself biting my own hook as well, when it came down to this. I can show you and you can get a sense of Compton with that scene on the school bus…
DEADLINE: You mean where the kids are heckling a passing car, one kid flashes a gang sign, and the car cuts off the bus, and two armed gang members give those kids a hard lecture on what happens when they don’t take the rules of the street seriously?
GRAY: That’s how extreme the ‘hood can be, and that scene explained the things that made N.W.A. You say the wrong thing or make the wrong turn…you could just be next to somebody who says the wrong thing or make the wrong turn, and that’s the end of your life, just like that. N.W.A was criticized — and I’m not defending everything they did or wrote, but they kept it real. This is what’s going on around us and we’re reporting it. The good, bad and the ugly. It made the film dynamic, and strange. We explained to Donna we intended to show the rules of the game. Here’s our relationship to the police. Here’s our relationship to the neighborhood. Here are these brothers who had to fight someone every time they stepped outside their door, who came together despite the antagonistic forces through their journey, and the group’s falling out. We showed this had more depth and dimension than a rap movie.
DEADLINE: What did you learn, starting out with Cube on Friday?
GRAY: We both were finding our way, but maybe the lesson was … don’t fall behind schedule because you’ll get fired if you go over. I didn’t get fired, but there was that constant threat. If you go beyond the 20 days we’re giving you to shoot this movie … it was more than implied. If we’re three days in and you’re shooting Day 2, we’ll find somebody else. I learned to stay in the sandbox that has been provided. When we watched the first cut, I thought, “This is awful and I’m going back to camera work.” I didn’t think it was any good. Chris Tucker and Faizon Love watched it, and they didn’t like it. I was so discouraged.
DEADLINE: How did it go from there to a profitable cult classic?
GRAY: We tested it and it got a 95. People were laughing in the aisles. Laughing so much that they would laugh over other jokes. Then we knew we had something, but I was so green I got pissed that we were only the No. 2 film at the box office opening weekend. Mind you, it was only in 800 theaters. I called the head of marketing, Chris Pula, and I say, “Why are we only on 800 theaters” and “What about this poster?” and “This movie could make $100 million.” And he cursed me out and basically told me to go f*ck myself and he hung up. It’s funny now, because it was such a small movie and the LA Times reported that it became the most profitable film of 1995. I was so naïve. But to this day, I still don’t like the poster. I’ve never had a movie that opened No. 1.
DEADLINE: Not even The Negotiator? What was the big lesson from that movie?
GRAY: How to direct actors. I could talk a certain way to Ice Cube, Chris Tucker, and Jada Pinkett and Queen Latifah on Set It Off. But when you’ve got guys who bring up Orson Welles, Shakespeare and Juilliard? Kevin Spacey had directed Albino Alligator, and Sam Jackson is from Morehouse and has been doing plays and films for so long and they were the two hottest guys on the planet after Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects. I found myself so … intimidated. They started to use big words I didn’t understand, and I was like, “F*ck, if I open my mouth, I will make a fool of myself.” I had this vision of what I wanted to do, but I would get into rehearsals and not say anything for fear of looking stupid.
DEADLINE: I’ve interviewed both. You really have to be on your game because they see right through you and won’t suffer fools.
GRAY: Sam definitely called me on my shit. I remember we got into it once and he said, “Why are you doing this shot like that? This ain’t a music video,” and we got into it.
DEADLINE: So how did you prove to those guys and gain their trust?
GRAY: I trusted my instincts. In my mind, I know what works. Now, as a 26-year-old, did I have the ability to articulate that? No. I can just tell you, this will work or that didn’t work. What I really learned from that process is not to direct from the monitors, that whole video village thing. I remember one scene, right when we started shooting, where I gave Kevin Spacey an adjustment. I walked over and said, “Hey, I need a little more of” … whatever it was. He said, “Well, I gave it to you. I’ll give you a little more, but I’m sure I gave it to you.” I said, “Eh, did you?” He says, “Trust me. I’ll give you a little more, but when you watch the dailies, you’ll see.” The very next day I watched the dailies and there was this flicker in his eye, an acknowledgment of that moment I wanted. But you can’t see it on the small screen. From that day on, I have always directed next to the camera.
DEADLINE: What difference does that make?
GRAY: Two things happen. Actors feel safer, knowing you’re with them and not just directing from afar and giving them adjustments out of nowhere. You’re with them, and they give you more in that vulnerable space you are in with them while they’re acting. The other thing is, you don’t have to swing for the fences with performances because you’re right there and you can see all the nuances that they bring in the choices they make. Spacey taught me that, and it was an invaluable lesson. This, after Friday and Set it Off, where I was giving these bad director instructions, like, “Be more mad,” or “I need you to be sadder.”
DEADLINE: We all have those early career moments that make us cringe, but how else do you learn?
GRAY: I gave this awful direction once to Jada Pinkett on Set It Off, and I didn’t realize it until much later, but it still makes me ashamed and it still makes me cringe. You remember that film, Glory? With Denzel Washington? I walk onto the set and there was this very emotional moment I wanted to achieve on Set It Off. So I brought this Sony Clamshell to the set. You know that scene where Denzel has this one tear in his eye as he is being whipped by Matthew Broderick?
DEADLINE: One of the most amazing actor moments in a movie that I can remember…
GRAY: Truly, one of the great moments in film. I don’t know how to articulate it properly, so I point to the Clamshell, this little tiny device and I had recorded that scene with my video camera and turned it on this tiny screen on the Clamshell and I say, “So Jada, I want this moment.” [He laughs in embarrassment.] “This is what I want!” Now, she was either being extremely nice, or maybe she just trusted me enough to think, “He had a bad moment, and I know what he wants.” But she didn’t say anything. In hindsight, it was one of the absolute low point of my career, in terms of approach. I can think back and laugh now, but it’s still uncomfortable to remember.
DEADLINE: Orson Welles in Citizen Kane and Sam Mendes in American Beauty came out of the gate fully formed. Everybody else has to walk in the dark and bang into things painfully. Isn’t the key being changeable and not repeat the same mistakes?
GRAY: I banged into a lot of things, walking this path, but I learned from each one. It’s tough when you’re learning on the job, but I didn’t have the benefit of NYU or USC, which I always figured lets you stand on a foundation of history. What I’m aware of now is, I’m not as smart as I thought I was, and I had to go through this weird kind of in between of not wanting to be embarrassed, but needing to find a way of expressing what I have inside. You hope you can survive and get over that hump. That’s where I am now. I’ve refined my approach, but what I learned is, your approach doesn’t matter as much as somehow getting what you know you need. That’s what I really learned over the course of all these films. You can pretend to be a director, and I went through that phase, too.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
GRAY: You know, the guy who walks onto the set, has all the answers and knows everything. What you realize later is, in my world, that’s bullsh*t. I’ve had time in between films, and I spent a lot of that time thinking about what I did right, and wrong. It’s hard for me to go back and watch those films because I remember what was going on that day, and what it took to get some of the best moments in a movie and why some of the moments weren’t so great. You analyze and draw what it took to get the better moments. You realize that pretending doesn’t get you far. Better to be vulnerable and honest and say, “I don’t know, but let’s find it together.” And whether it comes from the PA or the president of the studio, the best idea is the best idea. I read a lot of books on leadership, about General MacArthur and Churchill during WWII, and Giuliani during 9/11. Those books helped. I don’t mean to compare what I do with what they went through. But when you are in a crisis, there are practical aspects of making a movie and if you fold under pressure, it is easy to create an environment where mutiny can happen with your crew and your cast. When you analyze your stronger and weaker moments, you realize things. You have to relax, trust the people around you and you have to pace yourself.
DEADLINE: But doesn’t it all come around to what you said about knowing in your gut what is right and finding it? Because either you have it there or you don’t.
GRAY: That is what this film represents to me, I feel like I’ve come full circle. In the beginning, I relied on my instincts and then came a point where I realized there were other ways to do it and that worked on my insecurities until I worked through that. I got to the point where I realized my instincts were what got me here. Now, I know a lot more from a technical standpoint, but I also still rely on my instincts, and that’s what you see on the screen in this movie.
DEADLINE: Well, you said you would be a director when you were 45. Now you’re 46 and you’ll go from being on a studio’s list of maybe six guys for an action movie to a filmmaker who has made something singular and special in Straight Outta Compton. Maybe your original instinct was right. It just took you a year longer.
GRAY: [Long pause] Wow. I never considered that and … wow. You know, I’m not ashamed to say this film definitely represents me using all the brushes I have, using the whole canvas, artistically, politically. There was always something, in every one of my pictures, that I wish I could go back and do differently. I don’t feel that way here.