Raised in South Central Los Angeles, director and producer F. Gary Gray successfully moved from a music video career to filmmaking. Starting off working for BET, Gray consistently shot his music videos in 35 mm for hip hop and rap superstars. His video for TLC’s “Waterfalls” was voted Best Video of the Year at the MTV Music Video Awards. He also won several video awards for “Fantastic Voyage” by Coolio and “It Was a Good Day” by Ice Cube. Gray continued to work with Ice Cube for his directorial debut Friday, a comedy that was made for three million dollars and grossed nearly ten times that amount. His next feature was Set It Off, an action drama about four women who become bank robbers to escape the ghetto. In 1998, he moved on to big-budget action for The Negotiator, starring Samuel L. Jackson. The next year he moved to television to direct Ryan Caulfield: Year One, a short-lived Fox drama about a rookie cop. In 2003, Gray’s projects included the Vin Diesel action flick A Man Apart and the crime drama The Italian Job, starring Mark Wahlberg. Now Gray returns to crime, of sorts, with the irreverent sequel to Get Shorty, Be Cool, with John Travolta reprising his role of Chilli Palmer. Garth Franklin reports.
Question: How reticent were you to take on a sequel to a film that was a pop cultural favorite a decade ago, and how important was it for you to give it a completely different visual stamp to what Barry did originally?
Gray: It’s a good question. I wasn’t that worried about it because it all started with the script. Peter Steinfeld adapted the book, Elmore Leonard wrote the book, it all comes from Elmore Leonard, so when you start with good material you don’t have to worry as much. Chili Palmer and this new world is entertaining, and so I didn’t worry about it as much, to be honest with you. As far as my own visual stamp, that was so long ago, that I felt like as long was we kept Chili consistent, and we put him in really kind of funny, awkward, dangerous situations, there was room to play.
This was not written to be an R – in the first film he says fuck quite a lot 52 times, 52 times, and it was kind of tough for me, because I walked into the situation and that was a conversation, it was like, the producers and the studio wanted to make a PG-13 movie, and The Italian Job was my first PG-13 movie and I struggled through that one, and it was kind of a struggle to be honest with you, coming from the first one. But at the same time, you challenge yourself and you say, ‘Can you make something that’s smart, that’s entertaining, without going there, and sometimes when you go there it’s the easy way out, but it was definitely a consideration, and we had a few conversations about it.
Question: Did you fight about it?
Gray: Not so much a fight, but I made sure we said it within the first minute of the movie (laughs), just to let it be known, I’m thinking about it.
Question: Uma Thurman, what did she bring to the table as an actress – and I think all of her scenes are with Travolta, talk about that chemistry.
Gray: I mean, what DOESN’T she bring to a character. I mean, she brings a lot of experience, obviously, she’s beautiful, a lot of depth, you guys know her background, so when you have – it’s kind of one of those things where it’s the difference between when you hire a really attractive actress, are they just going to be kind of a prop that spews lines, or is there going to be any type of depth or history or any type of emotion that they can give above and beyond the words on the page, and I think what Uma brings is a certain depth, a certain history, because she is so smart, and she’s also beautiful, which again is very rare in Hollywood. You get a lot of women, you can look at them but you really can’t listen to them. You don’t want to listen to them. She’s rare in that way, and she’s one of my favorite actresses for that very reason. And as far as chemistry is concerned, like I said, I thank Tarantino because, man, it made my job so much easier, I don’t have to convince two perfect strangers to have feelings for each other, because it’s very natural. The chemistry between John and Uma is very, very natural, so again it’s not me trying to force a situation.
Question: Did the death of Robert Pastorelli affect the production in any way and how did you know that Andre would be terrific and so funny?
Gray: No, it didn’t affect the production because it happened a month after his shooting schedule, but you never expect it, and it was very tragic. As far as Andre is concerned, I’ve known him for 10 years, and I’ve worked with him a few times in music videos, and it’s just something that you see, it’s that, for lack of a better description and I know it’s kind of cliché, it’s that ‘it’ thing, it’s just something there. When I was shooting a music video, I told him, ‘You really, really, really should consider movies. I think you have something to offer.’ And this was 2001, and I told him that if I do a movie and there’s a part for you or something like this, I will look out for you. And Be Cool was the first opportunity, and I did, even though there wasn’t really a part for him. There was one line, he didn’t even have a name, he was Dub MD #1 or Guy #1, and we just built it through rehearsals, and through the shooting schedule, there’s a lot of improvised moments, the tea and the ‘Don’t give me no gun, man.’ Elmore is talented and so is Peter Steinfeld, but a lot of that stuff is on the set, on the day, what if you start kind of squirming in the chair, let’s figure that out. You know, he’s talented, he can give that in that way.
Question: Did you know he would be funny?
Gray: I knew he would be funny, I really did. It’s just like Chris Tucker with Friday, he was unknown and it was a fight to get him into Friday, but now he’s a $20 million actor, it’s that ‘it’ thing, there’s just something about him.
Question: Did you want to do such a character based movie?
Gray: It was part of the reason why I did the movie. You have really well defined characters and really funny situations, this is not a movie where the characters blend into each other and you don’t know who’s who, they all have the same voice or something like that, it was one of the main reasons why I did the movie because I knew I could attract a great cast. There are a lot of showy parts, and showy moments for like the Rock and for Vince, and even for Cedric, and I think people want to see something different, and they want to see different characters. It’s not more of the same, and we do have a few surprises, and again Elmore is the king of detail, and that was a huge strength in this whole process.
Question: You’ve broken through the glass ceiling as an African American director, can you speak to the attributes that you bring to your projects?
Gray: To all of my projects? I don’t know, I really don’t think about it in terms of color, I think that it’s really for you guys to decide. What do I bring to a film? I think maybe, I know for a fact that I focus on connection of character, I focus on warmth and a heart, but I don’t know if it’s because I’m African American or because I’m crazy, who knows. (laughs) That’s tough to say, but I can say that because of my experience in music, and I grew up in the hood, and things like that, maybe when I’m dealing with material like that, I just have a different point of view, didn’t go to film school, maybe because of my instinct, I had to sharpen my instincts in different ways, and I didn’t go the typical route, that it created a different perspective, but it really is for you guys to decide what I bring, I don’t know what I bring, I just think about it, decide and execute.
Question: Where you sensitive to stereotyping the gangster rappers and did you hold yourself back or did you say I’m just going to make fun of the whole thing?
Gray: Not at all, because in this movie we take shots at everybody, we take shots at rockers, we take shots at rappers, when you’re doing a comedy – like, for instance, do you think they thought that when they shot Spinal Tap? Are you going to piss off a few rockers? It’s ridiculous. I think that what you do is you focus on what’s funny, and again if you look at the movie really closely we take a shot at a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds, and ultimately it’s funny. You still have a guy who is responsible, he takes care of his family, and he’s educated and the whole thing, and you kind of balance it out, but I never thought about it because this movie is not – this is how I looked at it. Get Shorty was a movie that poked fun at Hollywood and wannabes in Hollywood, wannabe producers, so on and so forth. This movie is no different, This movie pokes fun at wannabes in the music industry, so in no way is this the definition of a genre music, that would be ridiculous, because I think the characters are so extreme that you couldn’t take it seriously, I don’t think anybody is going to look at this pictures and say, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ I don’t think so.
Question: What do you bring as a music video director to the table and is Italian Job 2 taking off?
Gray: I’m not really sure about The Italian Job 2 because I haven’t read a script. The key to that is it has to be better than the first. What do I bring? Just certain sensibilities, maybe being able to help the dialogue, references within the hip-hop culture, things like (sounds like) hummers with spending wrens????, throw back jerseys, certain little details and nuances that you would have to otherwise do research. I mean, this has been 15 years of research for me, because I’ve been doing music for so long that it comes naturally to me. I think it was kind of natural.
Question: It’s hard to get music right in a film, how did you get the music right?
Gray: It was tough to shoot the Steven Tyler scene because it was a live concert, with 22,000 screaming fans, you’re forced to get it done and get it right, you can’t have seven takes to get all the angles you want, you have to go in there with a plan and execute it, and hopefully it turns out good. So it was a tough challenge. With the music videos and stuff like that, it’s just like anything else, it’s just about pre-planning, and what the actors bring to the table once you get there.
Question: Why did you want to become a director?
Gray: Why did I want to become a director? I just had an early interest, my uncle was an actor in a local community theatre, and he ultimately persuaded me and a buddy of mine to come to that theatre, and we went to meet girls and that turned into interested in kind of behind-the-scenes things and from that point on I was focused. I was really focused and lucky and fortunate, I met up with some good people and took advantage of good opportunities.
Question: What were some of the difficulties of shooting at some of the L.A. locations?
Gray: First of all it was expensive. That’s one, two, difficulties? You know, traffic, all the things you would expect. But again, hopefully a lot of the difficulties are worked out in advance, with your location manager and your production designer, you kind of walk onto a set and things are done. We didn’t run into too many difficulties, but it’s what you would expect – traffic, people don’t care out here if you’re shooting or not, they want to get paid off, lawnmowers, (laughs to himself) you know.
Question: This is Los Angeles, people can’t be smoking in restaurants, why did you choose to go with that fantasy element?
Gray: It’s Chili Palmer, and that’s a question really that you should – between Elmore Leonard and John that there is so much smoking in the movie, but when I had a conversation with John, he pretty much said, ‘Well, it’s Chili Palmer. It’s his character and this is what he would do in this moment.’ You can’t really argue with him. For someone who not only knows his character, but was really great in the original – there’s a couple of scenes, honestly, where he lit up and I said, ‘Well, this is not a scene where we’re going to do this in.’ So it’s a good question, but it is what it is. To quote Gary Gray, ‘It is what it is.’
Question: Something about how he’s given actors the opportunities to become stars. Who were some of the people who opened the doors to him?
Gray: Pat Charbonnet and Ice Cube with Friday, David Hoberman and Arnon Milchan and Regency Pictures for The Negoiator, Donald De Line, Sherry Lansing, The Italian Job. Of course, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher and Danny DeVito for this movie. It never stops, the opportunities, you get people who have a vision to see that it’s not just about ‘urban films’ or this guy has the talent to tell different stories, from all different walks of life, and those are some of the people that I can give credit to.
Question: Does it feel like risk-taking when you’re casting virtual unknowns?
Gray: Not to me, because I have this kind of retarded, ‘I don’t know, this person is great, I don’t care what anybody thinks,’ thing, I had to fight for Chris Tucker, they wanted somebody else, and he just wasn’t great at the audition, and it was something that I saw in him, and the same with Queen Latifah in Set it Off, it was her first leading role. It’s just something that you feel, I felt it with Christina, walked her through the auditioning process and the screen-testing process, it’s just something that you feel. I hope it stays with me, I’m sure I’ve been wrong too.
Question: With all the success that you’ve had, if you had to have a choice of the type of film that you could do, what would it be?
Gray: Probably Lord of the Rings, some big fantasy, something different. They’re like, ‘He just did Be Cool, what is this Lord of the Rings, New Zealand, big project?’ Sci-fi, fantasy, love comedy so far, because of my personality, it’s my favorite genre, but just something different. I think I have a few genres to skip through before I lock it down, but I don’t think I’ll ever really just lock it down. But it’s all about material. If I read something, it’s good, I’m going to do it.
Question: What projects do you have coming up, have you signed on to do more features?
Gray: Not yet, not yet, and I know you guys get this all the time, it’s the same answer, ‘Oh, whatever is good. Whatever I find passion for.’ But I put out three movies in the last three years, two-and-a-half years, so it’s time for me to relax a minute, experience life a little more, I’ve been working through all my twenties and stuff. Watch, next week you guy will hear an announcement for something. (laughs) You know that’s how it goes. Right. But until then I’m sticking to my story, I’m going to relax a bit and wait for that perfect script. .
Question: What else is on the DVD?
Gray: We have 14 deleted scenes – well, we have 14 scenes, more than half I think are deleted scenes, and then there are scenes that you’ve seen but they’re alternate scenes, they’re extended, because my original cut was 2 hours 35 minutes. It was hell in the cutting room for me, because I’m cutting out what I think are really cool moments. There are some moments that didn’t work, but this picture is all about character development and nuisances, you guys wouldn’t sit through a 2 hour and 30 minute movie, but when you get the DVD, and you can go away and get a sandwich, walk back, you can see some of the stuff we intended to do also, and I think you’ll enjoy it.