F. Gary Gray jump-started his career in the early ’90s doing music videos and short films. Since then, the director has stood the test of time as one of the most reputable directors currently out there. Gray has worked with Hollywood A-listers, including Mark Walhberg, Samuel L. Jackson, Donald Sutherland and Kevin Spacey. His most recent film, the cat-and-mouse thriller Law Abiding Citizen, opens Oct. 16. Citizen follows Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) who, feeling betrayed by the judicial system, decides to take justice into his own hands to the dismay of district attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx). Here, Gray discusses the movie, his evolution as a director, and the film industry.
Many of your films, such as Set it Off, Friday, and The Negotiator, share a commonality with Law Abiding Citizen in that they're very character-driven films. What draws you to these types of movies?
Movies with strong characters are always a draw for me. Characters and story, those are the two most important elements for me to kind of get excited about. With this particular film it was really the concept, the concept of a man taking an entire city hostage from a prison cell was different to me and the character was really inventive and very smart. There was a great chess game between the two, which is the spine of the movie, and the chemistry between the two characters [portrayed by] Gerard and Jamie — I looked forward to putting together with these guys.
There are strong film noir similarities and influences in Law Abiding Citizen, such as its use of low-key lighting, antiheroes and suspense. Was there a desire to pay homage to the genre or to create a neo noir?
Well, it is neo noir absolutely and that was what I set out to do from the beginning. I wasn’t really sure how the producers were going to respond to that because with most people, you take the guy from 300 and the guy from Miami Vice, you want something slick and colorful and action-packed. I thought that with the subject matter and how deep the script is and how smart it is, to pay homage to noir style and kind of a retro style gave it a little gravity and served the mood and the tone of the movie, which when you put all the movie parts together gives it a unique feel as opposed to something you see all the time. I didn’t want this to feel like a clichéd revenge thriller. We see one a year — “You hurt my family, I’m coming back” — and I think the story is so strong and so complex with the characters, it deserved a different look.
You started your career directing some of the most memorable music videos of the ’90s, for artists such as TLC, Ice Cube and OutKast. How has working with time constraints, limited budgets, and that style of directing shaped you as a director today?
Well, it just helps. You’re armed with tools that help you when you get in a bind and production is synonymous with Murphy’s Law, where anything that can go wrong will go wrong and you still have to perform and deliver under extreme pressure. Most people don’t know what it takes to put a story on film, and having gone through the process of scraping, begging, borrowing and stealing to deliver images in music video helps me when I’m in a bind. I had to do it for The Italian Job, I had to do it for this picture, and you’re able to take shortcuts and cheat a little, [even though] it doesn’t look like it on screen. Jamie Foxx mentioned that he was pretty amazed at some of the things we were able to pull off in the short amount of time that we had. And even with Friday, we shot that in 20 days, so the ability to actually kind of put together a full story, get good performances, and have some fun with it, I think videos kind of helped that.
You're from South Central, Los Angeles. How has your background influenced the way you direct today?
I think it's just instincts. I think that when you grow up in a rough environment, you have to be creative about how you entertain yourself. You have to be creative about survival and I think your instincts are sharpened in ways that the average person doesn’t really understand or experience, so I use my instincts to make movies. I didn’t have the resources to go to film school and I think the fact that I had to stay sharp for so many reasons in that environment helped me with my approach to filming … and even the style, it’s not all bad in the 'hood.
You grow up listening to music and I think there’s a rhythm to all art. It doesn’t matter if you’re a painter, musician or filmmaker, there’s a rhythm and people respond to rhythm. I think growing up in an environment where you listen to a lot of music and growing up in that cultural bubble that you live in pays dividends in the future and sometimes people take it for granted. They have no idea that there are benefits to having to either survive an environment or to peel away some of the cultural elements that are there that we just take for granted. There’s a lot you can draw on from that.
Since you mentioned that you didn’t have the resources to go to film school, what was it that made you want to be a director and got you into that door?
My uncle [Philip Lewis] was an actor and he wanted to show me and my younger brother a different side of life and art. We were on the street and in the 'hood; we didn’t care too much about art and Hollywood. As a matter of fact, we could get hurt if we cared about it too much, and he was like, “You got to see this play, you got to see this play that I’m in” and it took him six months to convince us because of our reputations … we would get our ass beat if someone found out. But he said, “If you go, there’s a lot of girls there” and we were like “Girls!?” You know to a 13-year-old, it’s like, “Oh, girls, OK cool!” So we went and saw the play and just like he had planned it, it opened us up to a whole other world.
I wasn’t really interested in acting but I was exposed to some of the behind-the-scenes stuff, so that little exposure to that whole world was kind of like, wow. I don’t have to be a guy on the streets doing some of the stuff that I had witnessed. I just decided to follow that into high school and in high school I directed, produced, and shot my own television show within the high school that was aired on local cable access. I turned that into a professional job as a cameraman at 19, and at 20 I started shooting for BET. At 21, I started shooting for Fox and that turned into a short film and that turned into a relationship with Ice Cube and a few music artists who did my music videos, which were all kind of cinematic in their own right. That turned into Friday, and the rest is history.
You’ve achieved a lot so far, but minorities in the industry seem to be affected by a glass ceiling. Have you personally felt these affects?
Not really. I never really let race ... I never allowed it to become an issue for me and I think sometimes people walk into a situation with a chip on their shoulder kind of expecting race to be an issue. I just never looked at it that way. I always knew I was capable of telling any story. I set out to prove that point by doing different movies and different genres and I just refused to be disempowered by history. I kind of wanted to blaze my own trail and maybe it was retarded because if you look at it there’s nothing to support it, especially at the time.
You know, you’re 16, there are no black filmmakers around. There’s no Spike Lee, there’s no John Singleton at the time, it’s just Steven Spielberg. All I had was Muhammad Ali, just figures like that that did the impossible and you’re like, “Oh, he did it, well, I can do this over here.” Maybe growing up in South Central also helped because when you don’t have any options, you’re focused. You know, sometimes when you have too many options, depending on how you’re built, you get stuck in analysis paralysis but I chose this because I felt good when I did it and then I just focused.