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On Eve of ‘Fate of the Furious,’ F. Gary Gray Celebrates 25 Years of Filmmaking

F. Gary Gray was 16 when he decided he wanted to become a filmmaker. Always a compulsive planner, he drew up a step-by-step plan to break his way into the film business, and prepared himself to spend years in the trenches manning cameras, getting coffee on set, working as a driver. By his initial set of benchmarks, he hoped to be ready to direct his first feature by the time he turned 45.

As it turned out, that schedule was more than two decades off. Gray is now 47, and preparing to release his ninth feature later this month, nearly a quarter century after accepting his breakthrough directing gig, for Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” video. The most expensive film of his career, “The Fate of the Furious” was shot across three different countries, from New York and Atlanta in the U.S. to Iceland and Cuba. It’s a long way, both literally and figuratively, from his first feature film, “Friday,” which the 23-year-old Gray shot almost entirely around the West Athens blocks of South Los Angeles where he grew up. The film, which stars Vin Diesel, Charlize Theron and Scott Eastwood opens April 14 in the United States.

Wrapping up production on “Furious” marked the end of a long stretch of frenzied productivity for Gray, who had been more or less in full-flight since 2012. Pre-production for “Furious” overlapped with the release and awards season push for Gray’s previous film, the N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton,” itself a marathon shoot which grossed $200 million worldwide in 2015, making it the most successful film of Gray’s career. Not just a conventional wisdom-shattering financial coup, “Compton” marked a turning point in Gray’s professional trajectory as well, an experiment with a looser, more collaborative approach to filmmaking that he continued with “Furious.”

“This may sound cliché, but I really feel like my best work is ahead of me,” Gray says, reclining on a couch in his office on the Universal Pictures lot. “I’m extremely proud of ‘Fate,’ and ‘Compton,’ both of which I’ve given a different part of myself to than my films in the past. When you’re 23 years old and making a movie like ‘Friday,’ you don’t have a ton of experience as an adult. You may have grown up fast in the streets of L.A., but you’re still 23. You haven’t experienced heartbreak, you’re not familiar with politics, with the business of real life.”

“I love getting to be a part of the vision behind Dom becoming Darth Vader.”
F Gary Gray

While any trawl through his filmography will allow you to pick up a number of distinctive stylistic quirks and rhythms, it’s hard to find consistency of genre and theme in Gray’s work. His films encompass everything from straight action exercises (“The Negotiator,” “A Man Apart”) to a stoner comedy (“Friday”), a big-budget remake (“The Italian Job”), a crime thriller (“Law Abiding Citizen”), a heist caper (“Set It Off”) and a years-after-the-fact showbiz satire sequel (the “Get Shorty” follow-up “Be Cool”). Per Gray, who grew up marveling at Steven Spielberg’s ability to jump from one genre and storytelling mode to another, this sort of stylistic variance is entirely intentional.

“You’re raw when you start off. And I’ve become hyper-aware of artists who start off pretty good and then they lose it because they get fat and rich and kind of stop giving a shit. I try to make sure I don’t fall into the trap of becoming comfortable, and make sure every project I take is an opportunity to learn something.”

Tackling his first franchise, as the fifth director to step into the helm of the eight-films-strong “Fast” saga, Gray says he saw “Fate of the Furious” as an opportunity to stretch his own muscles, as well as to widen the boundaries of the venerable franchise, which has evolved from a rather straightforward car-racing vehicle into a long-running, physics-defying soap opera.

“The only thing that I felt that was necessary to acknowledge is that, when people go to see a ‘Fast and the Furious’ movie, they want a certain level of spectacle,” he says of the pressure involved with stepping into the franchise. “I know that sounds obvious, but the reason I bring it up is because I don’t think they’ll be expecting the level of drama you’ll get in ‘Fate of the Furious.’”

So while he promises viewers can count on seeing, say, “a Lamborghini doing 225 mph on ice being chased by a submarine,” those sorts of lizard-brain stunts will be tempered by an emphasis on the franchise’s family dynamics, and by just as many scenes that harken back to the films’ more-grounded early days.

For example, the film begins with a street race through Havana, where Gray mounted the first big-budget Hollywood shoot to venture to Cuban shores since the 2014 restoration of diplomatic relations. The setting gave him license to play with a grittier set of tools than the precision-geared machines the series has embraced of late, taking cues from the vintage car culture that has thrived on the island nation throughout the decades.

“I did quite a bit of homework before I shot this movie,” Gray says, “and one of the things that kept coming up was the idea that the fans really wanted to get back to some of the basics from the earlier films, meaning car racing. And Cuba represented that wholly: American muscle from the ’50s, custom cars, loud and fast, no new technology, all grit. It’s so connected to who [Vin Diesel’s] Dom is naturally as a character, and it’s something like an homage to the earlier ‘Fast’ films, and also an homage to some of the earlier great car chase movies — ‘Bullitt,’ ‘The French Connection’ — where you take these vintage cars and put them through hell.”

As much as he geeks out about the toys he was allowed to play with, Gray is just as quick to talk about the twists to the overall narrative, particularly the newly antagonistic role played by Dom. “Vin Diesel gives a great performance, and I think people are gonna be surprised,” he says. “People have never seen Vin play this kind of character, or operate in this kind of emotional pocket… I love the story of him going dark, and getting to be part of the vision behind Dom becoming Darth Vader.”

Gray helms the cast of “Straight Outta Compton,” the N.W.A biopic which became his biggest hit with over $200 million worldwide.

For his part, Diesel cites his history working with Gray on “A Man Apart” for convincing him that “Gary would be the one who could really bring out a coldness and a darkness [to the character],” Diesel says. “For this chapter to work, we needed to kind of challenge the audience in a way we hadn’t challenged them, and Gary embraced that idea as much as anyone could have.”

Born in New York, Gray was primarily raised in what he calls “a pretty dysfunctional, single-parent sort of situation” around 125th and Normandie, deep in South L.A. He discovered a natural facility with a video camera in his high school audio-visual class, but film school never seemed to be an attainable possibility, and he was scarcely aware of any other black filmmakers to look up to growing up.

“I knew I wanted to make films when I was 16, but it wasn’t because I was this prodigy with a Super 8 camera or anything,” he says. “I hear all these great stories of people who were, and bless them: That’s cool that you had a great upbringing and the ability to have those things as an option for you. It just wasn’t an option for me. I wasn’t a cinephile. I mean, there was a point when I was younger when I didn’t know if I was gonna make it to the age of 21. It was about survival with me. So [film] was more about planting my stake in the ground and saying, ‘you know what, I know how to use this camera, and people are responding to what I do with it, so I’m gonna keep doing it.’ ”

Straight out of high school, Gray picked up jobs as a camera operator for TV shows like BET’s “Screen Scene” and Fox’s “Pump It Up,” and even had an extra role in “Major League.” In the early 1990s, his first opportunity to start building a directorial reel came via an old high school classmate, the rapper WC of WC and the Maad Circle. Gray shot the group’s first video, “Dress Code,” and met Ice Cube on set. Late of N.W.A, Cube’s third solo album, “The Predator,” had only recently cemented his standing as the era’s fieriest, most controversial hip-hop figure, but there was also a notable outlier on the record: a laid-back, almost PG-rated track with crossover potential.

“I remember I was on Western near Sunset, and I got a page,” Gray says. “I returned it at a phone booth, and it was Cube. He asked me if I could do this video for ‘It Was a Good Day.’ I knew the song. He said, ‘we’ve only got $70,000 to do the video,’ and I was silently thinking, ‘whoa, huge budget.’ ”

That video, which immediately entered into nearly constant rotation on every dedicated hip-hop music video program, led to more music-video gigs, most notably TLC’s “Waterfalls” and Outkast’s “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.” More importantly, it got Gray a shot at directing a scrappy little comedy for New Line, with Cube pulling double-duty as both co-lead and screenwriter. Shot in 20 days for $3.5 million, “Friday” went on to gross $28 million, spawning two sequels and fast becoming a cult movie touchstone.

Resisting his first experience with pigeonholing — “after ‘Friday,’ I must have been offered every low-budget comedy in town” — he moved on to the Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett-starring heist pic “Set It Off,” inspired by Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita.”

“Looking back, that Mike De Luca-Bob Shaye era of New Line Cinema was kind of special, where you had a bunch of young filmmakers out there doing things they would never greenlight today,” Gray says. “Look at ‘Set It Off’: four female bank robbers from the hood, and three of them die at the end. That sounds like a foreign film today, they’d never greenlight it. But they made those things then, and I don’t think I appreciated it the way I can today.”

Even as he graduated from “Set It Off” to the comparably big-budget actioner “The Negotiator,” Gray still saw himself as essentially a craftsman.

“I was really practical. I never thought of myself as being an artist until much later in my career,” Gray says. “When I got a chance to direct movies, I did it in a way where I thought most people would have made the same choices. ‘Of course, it’s obvious to put the camera here, and it’s obvious to get this kind of performance….’ I really did feel like any person, given the same opportunity, would do exactly the same thing.

“But then you evolve and you grow and it’s like, ‘fuck, maybe there is something to this.’ You don’t think of yourself as special, but you start to realize that maybe everybody wouldn’t have made those exact same choices. I didn’t really understand that until later in life, and then I started to embrace it.”

All the same, as he moved on to bigger and bigger budgets, and began working with the likes of Kevin Spacey, Samuel L. Jackson, and DP Russell Carpenter, Gray was continually anxious about his own lapses in film knowledge.

“I didn’t grow up studying Orson Welles. All the greats, I learned about them after the fact.”
F Gary Gray

“I didn’t grow up studying Orson Welles,” he says. “All the greats, I learned about them after the fact, because I had already started making movies, and I was embarrassed to do interviews where they would bring up these great filmmakers and I wouldn’t know any of them.

“Dude, I remember I once had a meeting with Michael Jackson, and we started talking about movies. He could break down every single classic film, every great musical, and I’d start talking about ‘Scarface.’”

Gray compensated by doubling down on his organizational chops — obsessing over keeping projects on schedule, composing detailed shot lists, running tight ships. But this auteurial anxiety came to a head during a low stretch of his career. Gray’s 2003 remake of “The Italian Job” earned serious box office, but his next two projects, “A Man Apart” and “Be Cool,” were rough-going both critically and commercially. For “Straight Outta Compton,” the film that reunited him with both Ice Cube and WC — who served as the film’s rap consultant — he resolved to take a new approach, working with a cast of unknowns, taking leave of some of his more taskmasterly instincts, and insisting that Universal treat N.W.A’s story with the same sort of care, resources, and flexibility that the studio gave Taylor Hackford to tell the story of Ray Charles.

Diesel certainly noticed a change in Gray’s methods between “A Man Apart” to “Furious.” “I think his experiences have matured him into a much better director, a much more cohesive director,” Diesel says. “I think he celebrates collaboration in a different way.”

As Gray explains, “I realized I was torturing myself with my approach to filmmaking. I had tried to make sure everything was so neatly organized, and I started to understand that there is life in the margins, in the in-between. Sometimes you can’t create it when you’re writing, or in your shot list, or when you’re developing.

“Sometimes that magic happens by accident. When you’re interacting with people who are artists and you create an environment to encourage it, the best moments come from those interactions. I used to do it inadvertently early in my career. Now I’m more conscious of it. With ‘Compton,’ I took a completely artistic approach, and allowed these young guys to create. That’s the reason why it turned out the way it turned out.

“So this next phase of my career is being able to deliberately create with those tools. I’m looking at a few things for my next project, but just know it’s gonna be really different. I hate to be vague, but I just love a challenge, and there’s a good chance that what’s coming next is gonna be something you’re never seen before. My first five or six movies were almost a sort of bootcamp that allowed me to evolve into who I am today.”

Gray had just turned 45 when shooting on “Compton” finally got under way. Maybe his teenage career plan wasn’t so far off after all.

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