Director F. Gary Gray’s career goes back over twenty years when he was an in-demand video director for acts such as TLC, Cypress Hill and most notably Ice Cube, who hired him to direct the first installment of Friday in 1995. In the years since, Gray has directed a variety of projects, including the 2003 hit remake of The Italian Job.
In 2015, Gray directed Straight Outta Compton, a hugely successful biopic about Cube’s legendary hip-hop group NWA, which helped elevate his prominence to the point where the producers of the Fast and the Furious movies chose him to take command of their action franchise that has gotten progressively more successful with each chapter.
The eighth installment, The Fate of the Furious, begins in Havana, Cuba with the honeymoon of Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty, before traveling through Berlin and New York City they end up on an exciting chase across an ice-covered Russian sea. The movie introduces Charlize Theron as Cipher, an international cyber-hacker who has something over Dom that convinces him to turn rogue against his street-racing friends and family. To stop him, the FBI turns to Dwayne Johnson’s police officer Hobbs, who has to team with Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw to stop Cipher and Dom from causing an international incident.
LRM had a chance to get on the phone with Gray for the following, far-too-brief interview:
LRM: You directed “The Italian Job” back in 2003 and you worked with Vin around the same time, so were you ever approached about doing one of the earlier sequels to “The Fast and the Furious”?
F. Gary Gray: No, this was the first one, honestly. This was the very first one that I was approached for. It seemed kind of natural if you look at the fact that I've worked with Charlize, Jason, and Dwayne before. I know Tyrese, and I've worked with Ludacris as well. It just kind of seemed like all roads pointed to The Fate of the Furious, and I’m kind of happy that it did. I’m very, very proud of this movie.
LRM: When I was watching this movie, I realized, “Oh, wait, he worked with Charlize before in ‘Italian Job”... oh, and so was Jason,” and it all kind of clicked that you had worked with most of the cast before, so was it amazing to get them all back together again?
F. Gary Gray: Yeah, it is. It doesn’t happen often like this, and I’m glad that it did. We’ve all grown as artists over the last ten plus years, and like I said, it all kind of comes together in Fate of the Furious. I think they did a great job. The performances are great, the action is great, and we’ve kind of taken The Italian Job and it’s a hundred times more than that film across the board. Everything I’ve done with all of these actors before just seems like that on steroids, in the best way possible.
LRM: Was it very fluid to the point where it didn’t feel like that long ago that you worked with them even though it was 10 years or more? Most of them had been working together for a bunch of films, other than Charlize.
F. Gary Gray: When you’ve worked with people before, there’s a little bit of a shorthand, and so you don’t have to go through the getting to know you process, as if you’re just meeting someone for the first time. You can jump right in and talk about exactly what you want. What are the best choices for the movie? What are the best choices for the character? We really focused on that, so we took full advantage of that, and I loved the fact it happened that way, because you see it, and feel it on the screen.
LRM: Did you have any trepidations about getting on board this juggernaut, since they’d done seven more movies before this and they have a pretty good formula in place, so is it harder as a filmmaker to try to make your own mark?
F. Gary Gray: I wouldn’t say trepidations. I was clearly aware of the challenges of asking an audience to come back for an eighth (movie). What exactly can I bring to the table? What exactly would you expect? What would be satisfying for an eighth go-round, and the fact that Dom goes rogue was a major shift in the franchise, which I thought was a phenomenal idea, and then in terms of the action and the stunts, Chris Morgan, my writer, my stunt coordinators and everybody involved with developing this action, I think we took it to the next level. If you love a ride, if you want to get a big-screen experience, that’s what the action represents, and then the performances tied to this new dramatic twist with Dom going rogue, I think that even pushed the actors further to get that next-level performance. You add it all up and you get The Fate of the Furious, which I think is the great next step for the franchise.
LRM: I totally agree. Did Chris already have a full screenplay written when you came on board, or did they just have the general concept, and you were able to develop those ideas with them?
F. Gary Gray: In my experience with filmmaking nowadays, there is the original idea and then you just build on it, build on it, build on it, and make it better. You refine, and with a process like this, when you have actors who have been involved for 15 plus years, and a franchise that’s been around for this long, you want to collaborate with everyone to really sharpen it and make it its best, so Chris, who was responsible for a lot of the big ideas which I think were great, we’d all collaborate to push the limits of what was originated by Chris Morgan. That was the process, and it happened all the way through pre-production and through production as well, but I experienced the same thing on Straight Outta Compton, so I think it’s not only their style and approach, it’s a function of my style, as well.
LRM: Well, Cube had been developing that movie, probably for as long as you’ve known him, he’s been trying to make that movie happen, so they took a long time to get it to the point where it was as good as it was.
F. Gary Gray: It did, and then I brought Dr. Dre on to add that extra dimension to the story, so the script and the story evolved as well, because of the addition of Dr. Dre, and so that’s what I think the nature of storytelling is, is finding the best route to the best idea to the best story for the best experience. We did that on Compton, and we did it on Fate of the Furious as well.
LRM: When did Havana, Cuba come into play? You must have been making the movie when trade was opened with the country, so was that fairly late in the game?
F. Gary Gray: No, that was the idea from the start, and the clearance and the permission came late in the game, but the idea was something that was an original idea that was part of one of the visual reasons that I wanted to get involved. There’s New York City, there’s Iceland, but of course, there’s Cuba. It always starts with an idea, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to get the “okay” from the Cuban government, or the American government given the history, so it took a lot of negotiating across the board, not only on our level, but also on the state level, and we pulled it off. It was the first major studio production to ever shoot in Cuba, and we brought in the infra-structure. It was a massive undertaking, but well worth it.
LRM: Did you have to bring in a lot of equipment and crew? Or was it a combination of using what they had there and your own people?
F. Gary Gray: We brought in almost everything. We barely had internet access. We could send an Email every once in a while, but we brought the cars...I don’t want to give everything away, but we brought a lot of things, and a few hundred people, and this was something that had never been done before. Just to negotiate, a busy city like Havana and getting hotel rooms, landing enough rooms to facilitate what we needed for the crew and cast was almost impossible, but our Cuban counterparts were amazing in making it happen for us. The government, I think, bent over backwards as well to allow us to do things that I’m sure made them a little nervous, given how much we had to bring into the country just to shoot some of the simplest shots. When you bring in a helicopter from the United States, and it’s the first airship to fly over Havana in 60 years, that’s a big deal. Obama didn’t even land in Havana. It was a big deal, and so some of the things that we had to promise in order to keep their eco-system in place and some of the things we had to do was somewhat of a challenge, but well worth it.
LRM: Obviously, this movie turned out great, so when do you decide whether to do the next movie, or have you already started planning something else? What’s next for you, I guess?
F. Gary Gray: It’s a project by project thing. If you look at my filmography, I kind of bounce around a bit with the genres. I love taking on new challenges and stuff like that. I’m still so immersed in this movie, I’m not really sure yet. I’m honored to be a part of the FF family, though, so we’ll see.
The Fate of the Furious opens everywhere on Friday, April 14, but will also have previews on Thursday night in many places.