Director F. Gary Gray began his career creating music videos for several big name R&B and hip-hop artists in the early 90s, including Ice Cube, TLC, and OutKast. In 1995, Gray made a big screen splash with a little stoner comedy called Friday, starring a pre-Rush Hour Chris Tucker and an up-and-coming Ice Cube, a friend of Gray’s. Friday was a surprise hit, opening the doors for future high profile projects such as The Negotiator, 2003’s The Italian Job remake, and Be Cool.
This week, Gray continues his strong track record in the crime/action genre with Law Abiding Citizen, starring Gerard Butler in the role of a victim of a brutal home invasion who exacts vigilante justice on his attackers… and then some. We had the opportunity to chat with Gary about the movie and his career, and he kindly offered us his Five Favorite Films. Read on to find out more.
I’d say Casablanca. I love that it was a combination of political… It had a great love story, and it was unpredictable. It didn’t have the classic Hollywood ending, and that was what was great about it. Also, I love Humphrey Bogart, because he had the great ability to be masculine, yet vulnerable, and that was the perfect role to display that.
La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini, who I’m sure you’re familiar with. And again, not the formula. He was incredible at expressing himself in a way that no other filmmaker could get away with. You see these sequences that may or may not be related. [laughs] Somehow, at the end of it all, it all makes sense, and you’re floored. The photography, and the shots, and the choreography can stand up to anything that’s been released up to now.
On the Waterfront, with Marlon Brando. Between the look, the feel, the casting… even the casting of the extras. Just to look back and get a sense of what America was like back then, and the details, it was just amazing. And again, it was another one of those movies where the leading man, the way they struck a balance between masculine and vulnerable. Humphrey Bogart did it in Casablanca; I think Marlon Brando did it in On the Waterfront, so that’s why they stick out as the best to me. They’re pretty incredible. You’re just like, you sit back and you say, “Damn, I wish I could do that!” [laughs]
Next, Gray talks about Law Abiding Citizen, what it’s like to sit with an audience through the premiere screening of one of his films, and his career.
RT: Let’s talk a little bit about Law Abiding Citizen. I was actually at the screening you held at the Arclight a few weeks ago, when both you and Gerard Butler showed up. The audience reaction to that was incredible; everyone seemed to enjoy it. What is that like, sitting along with an audience to watch one of your films for the first time?
F. Gary Gray: It’s nerve-wracking at first, because you just have no idea how they’re going to respond. That was the very first screening. You know what you like about the picture, but you have no idea what 350 people feel about your choices, and you get to see it firsthand. The audience reaction was amazing; I couldn’t ask for a better response, honestly.
Was there anything that the audience responded to in a way that you didn’t expect?
FGG: Well, there’s a moment with the judge, and I can’t give it away to the readers, but there’s a surprising moment with the judge in our picture. When I shot it, I knew it would pack a punch and I knew that it would be surprising, but I had no idea people would jump out of their seats and talk for the duration of the scene about that moment. There are a couple of moments like that, but I think that’s the biggest moment where you’re just kind of like, “Wow, I had no idea that would have that impact.”
I know that you weren’t initially attached to the project in the beginning. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to be a part of Law Abiding Citizen?
FGG: Yeah, Jamie Foxx gave me a call, and we’ve been trying to find a project for quite a while. I’ve always wanted to work with him. We really wanted to find the perfect material, the right material. He called me and said, “I found something great for us. I think you would be absolutely perfect. You should read it right away and tell me what you think.” And, you know, I read it, sat and met with the producers, the film department — Lucas Foster and Mark Gill — and two weeks later I was in Philadelphia in pre-production. It doesn’t always happen like that, but it did. I’m kind of lucky that it happened that way, because the material was great and the concept was great. To have it almost fall in my lap like this was perfect.
Speaking of working with Jamie Foxx, who also has a music career, I know you’ve done music video work with a lot of different artists, like TLC and OutKast. Some of your videos have a grand, epic feel to them, almost like mini-movies. What is it like directing pop stars versus directing actors? Are there any noticeable differences in the methods you have to employ?
FGG: Well, it’s two totally different universes. Directing actors in a movie, you have to pay close attention to the detail of the character, the character’s background, the character’s back story, how that character works within the context of the world that you’re creating within the context of the sequence you’re creating. It’s just a lot of detailed work. It’s obviously kind of predetermined when you’re working with a music artist. When you’re working with a music artist, you may have to do a little bit of that if you have a high concept, like a story within a music video, but a lot of that work is already decided because they already have their persona. It’s quite different. With music videos, I guess in general, you focus on entertaining people with images primarily. But with movies, it’s a completely different universe.
I had fun doing music videos, and it certainly helped me technically when I was coming up. I certainly wanted my music videos to feel like movies, but again, I can’t say that it’s a smooth bridge from music videos to movies because they’re two different worlds.
In Law Abiding Citizen, you maintain a high level of tension throughout the film. And with Gerard Butler’s character behind bars, manipulating events on the outside, and the gruesome early scene that takes place in the factory, forgive me for making the comparison, but it bears a resemblance to the Saw films. With that in mind, having mainly done comedies and crime thrillers, have you given any thought to branching out to other genres, like maybe horror?
FGG: It’s truly about the material. If I find a sci-fi project or horror project that I have passion for, then absolutely. I never limit myself when it comes to telling stories; I think people can see that in my body of work. It’s just about, what’s a great story? Is it unique? Is it a challenge? Am I up for it? It’s really simple. Yeah, you’ll see other things from me in different genres, especially this next chapter. I kind of consider my first six films like training camp, and the next chapter is really about the filmmaker and what I’ve learned, and applying that to my storytelling.
Do you have something specific coming up on the horizon that you’re working on?
FGG: I have a few things, but it’s best for me to get a little closer before I talk about them.
These days, particularly with the advent of internet sites like YouTube, it’s become much easier for aspiring filmmakers to have their work seen. Considering your background and how you came up in the industry, having not studied filmmaking formally, would you prefer to have had these same advantages or to have done things any differently than you did?
FGG: That’s a good question. I think there are a lot of benefits to having the technology today to try things out and to get a reaction from people on these social networks, but I’ve had a great career, so I don’t know if I’d do it any differently. This industry has been great to me and my career. You always want to adjust certain things, but overall, I’ve been fortunate.
F. Gary Gray’s Law Abiding Citizen, starring Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx, opens nationwide this weekend.
For more Five Favorite Films, check our archive.