F. Gary Gray: ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Crew Kept Movie True to Its Rap Roots

Director F. Gary Gray says Universal’s “Straight Outta Compton” seemed like a small rap movie to some, but he knew the story was important. Assembling a “world class” crew, he has seen his instincts pay off — both in box office and awards buzz. He spoke with Variety about some key collaborators.

Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique

“I wanted something raw, not slick or polished. I had a wall filled with visual representations of every scene. It gave my crew a sense of what I was going for. And Matty added to that. He shot a test with a filter — like a broken-glass filter. And it made our work resonate in a different way. When you see the actors performing, there’s a sparkly effect. Also, these guys are often talking about controversial topics, and if you shoot it naturalistic, it could make them seem antagonistic. But we wanted warmth to come through, so you can root for them.”

Editors: Billy Fox, Michael Tronick

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“I love to improvise. Many of these young actors didn’t have a lot of experience, so I had to get them to feel comfortable. Billy’s genius was to take what I shot and pull it together. He took this style of working, and delivered above and beyond. Michael cracked some really tough sequences, like the riot. If you’re not careful, it could feel like a bunch of irresponsible kids looting and rioting. You need to know the reason, and the pain underneath. Right up until final mix, we were editing that sequence.”

“(Editor Michael Tronick) cracked some really tough sequences, like the riot. … You need to know the reason, and the pain underneath.”
F. Gary Gray

Production designer: Shane Valentino

“There’s a rags-to-riches thread, capturing the era and using a color palette to serve the story. I like to move the camera, and we shot mostly in practical locations. When you have five to eight guys in a room, with a camera moving, it’s hard to light it and make it feel natural. So Shane worked closely with Matty to create source lighting that not only serves the story but works in period design.”

Supervising sound designer: Mark P. Stoeckinger

“One big challenge was that we couldn’t find masters to the music, so we had to record the entire album in pre-production in two weeks with our actors. It’s a hard movie for sound design. You have so much music, plus a score, the sound effects, dialogue, and the sound of the onscreen audiences. Going from N.W.A’s first performance, in a skating rink, all the way to the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, (there was a risk) the performances and screaming crowds could have all sounded the same. Mark made each one different and specific.”

Casting: Victoria Thomas, Cindy Tolan

“(I told Universal) we needed to make this with unknown actors. Given that the leads are African-American and young, there are not a lot of bankable actors who fit that. I said the mandate was acting performance first, then street credibility, then do we believe them as rap performers, and, last, are they likable. Cindy was creative about open calls, going to youth centers and off-the-wall places all over the nation, plus to the U.K. and elsewhere. As for Vicky, most principal roles were cast before she joined; she was responsible for bringing in Neil Brown Jr., and she cast the rest of the movie. I pushed her to look for real gangstas. But the moment you turn on the camera, they often don’t have the discipline, or they act with a capital A. It’s tough; Vicky was really good.”

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