Saturday, November 24, 2012

Into the Belly of the Beast: Antoine Fuqua returns to the (police) force with BROOKLYN'S FINEST

(Director Antoine Fuqua, right, and Richard Gere, during the shooting of Brooklyn's Finest.)

By Terry Keefe

(This article is currently appearing in this month's Venice Magazine.)

Don’t even bother trying to pigeonhole director Antoine Fuqua in one genre, Hollywood. He’s made it impossible.

After the success of Training Day in 2001, the searing L.A. police thriller which won Denzel Washington the Best Actor Oscar for his turn as the corrupt detective Alonzo, Fuqua picked for his next project Tears of the Sun, a run-through-the jungle action story, albeit one with a social message about colonialism, starring Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci, set in war-torn Nigeria. After that, he was off to Camelot in 2004 for his revisionist take on King Arthur. 2007 saw Fuqua teamed with Mark Wahlberg for Shooter, a modern western of sorts, with Wahlberg playing a retired military sniper who is framed for a crime and subsequently cleans up the “town,” in this case a particularly malignant wing of the military industrial complex. Fuqua has only now returned to the setting of his greatest commercial and critical success, that being the police department, for Brooklyn’s Finest, which follows one tumultuous week in the lives of three separate police officers, played by Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, and Ethan Hawke, in Brooklyn’s 65th District. Gere’s Eddie is a cop who has done little except punch the clock for his twenty years on the job, and finally gets to retire at week’s end, although life will present him with one last crossroads and a chance to use his gun for something positive, or not. Cheadle’s Tango has been deep undercover for way too long and learns that the only way back to his old life is by betraying an old gangster friend played by Wesley Snipes. And Hawke’s Sal is a once-good cop who can’t pay his family’s bills and has taken to robbing drug dealers for their cash.

Fuqua grew up in a tough section of Pittsburgh, before attending West Virginia University on a basketball scholarship, where he majored in electrical engineering. He received his first breaks as a director through a series of music videos, the most prominent of which was Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

[Over lunch, Antoine and I started with some small talk about how so many of the great L.A. institution restaurants have disappeared. Joined in progress.]

I listened to the Training Day director's commentary last night, and you were talking about shooting at the original Pacific Dining Car [for the scene where Denzel Washington’s Alonzo goes to meet with the Three Wise Men] -- so some of the classic places have survived.

Antoine Fuqua: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. No question about it. That place is like my midnight joint. In the middle of the night, man, I'll go down there. One o'clock in the morning-- I'm up writing at night, and I'll just like want a steak or get in the right environment...and it's all sorts of great characters in there.

What sorts of characters are there in the middle of the night?

It's kind of bizarre. There's guys in suits, you know, businessmen in suits, which, you're not quite sure what kind of business they're in. You know what I mean? 'Cause it's not like New York, Wall Street, and it's in the middle of the night, like one in the morning--and then you got like the old, old drunks -- old women, sitting in there eating. You know, like, they look like they've been there since it opened.

They possibly have.
Then you've got the people in the bar that are a little more...mysterious.

The place is the definition of noir.

It's totally noir. That's exactly what it is. And then every once in a while you see some young, really beautiful people coming in. There's always somebody trying not to be seen, like a booth in the back. But, you know, you're walking through the booths, you can't see who's in there.

Which is perfect for your scene with the Three Wise Men, in Training Day. Of course they would meet there.

That's where they'd meet! That's where they'd have to have a place. That's the type of people you'd see in there. Three guys in suits...politicians? Detectives? You know they're not a hundred percent clean, because there's something about 'em that's a little different, maybe it's in their eyes or in their sweat. It's that little film you can see, you know? And you know not to interfere with whatever's going on over there. And they make sure you don't sit too close.

You know, they told me [at first] they wouldn't let me shoot there, either, and I called the owner, making Training Day, and the owner came down, cool guy, and he's like, "No, we'd never do that." And I said, "You gotta do it." I said, "The movie is an L.A. story, and most people don't get a chance to see this -" Really, he was cool. He was like, "Okay, I'm on it." That one stained-glass window? I loved that room. The reason I picked that room, there's a bullet hole right there. [laughs] If you look at the shot, there's a real bullet hole right there. And I was like, “What's the story to that?”

Did they know? Did they tell you?

They kind of said there was a shootout, a long time ago. It's old. A long time ago. And they left it there. And, you know, I remember just looking at that bullet hole, going, you know, "Just that alone is a great detail." For me. Just for me, whether the audience ever pick up on it. These Three Wise Men sitting there with a bullet hole in the stained glass.

(Fuqua, right, directs Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington in Training Day.)

You like shooting in practical locations, I assume.

I prefer 'em. It's tough on crew, but it just can't be the same essence otherwise, you know, because the actors know it's fake, I know it's fake, somewhere in your mind, it's just fake. And I know it's acting, except when you're in a real environment, [as an actor] you look at the environment, and go, "What is it about this...what is it about me that's fake, because everything else is real." So... "I have to adjust myself to be real for this environment, because if I don't feel that I really fit in, then it's not working." If you put an actor in a real environment, all their choices have to be based on what's real. And, then, as a director, you can't always move that wall and get that fancy shot.

Lighting's more difficult. You're backed in.

But then again, you know, sometimes it makes you just have to deal with some real hard choices. Instead of it being a restriction, it actually becomes more of a creative choice, "What's this scene about?" It's not about the fancy shot on the wall, it's not about the pretty light in the hallways. You know, and if you can get away with that and tell your story, and it actually helps you be more disciplined, then it's better.

In Brooklyn's Finest, that was a real housing project?

[nods] We didn't build anything. Well, we built one thing: Ethan's basement. That was the only thing, because I needed the space, but actually I had to do it for tax reasons. So I built that one set. Everything else was real, all the scenes in the projects were real, every little small project apartment was real.

Were people living there in the project buildings, when you were shooting?

Oh, yes. We paid them to use their apartment. Some apartments I decorated, but I barely decorated. I found so many amazing things, like when Ethan goes in and shoots the two guys and he goes in the back room, it's got weird little waterfalls [in decoration form, on the wall]--
That was a great touch.

Well, I saw it on the wall in another apartment. And it’s [the apartment] chaos, and a big-ass Rottweiler, and a baby's crying, and I walked into this back room, and it's the most serene, blue, weird waterfall, like the only moment of peace. I just thought, "I gotta have that in the movie."

A lot of those visual touches felt very '70s. I grew up around the same time you did, and I just remember some of those types of decorations and their design. You can't find that stuff.

You can't find it, man. I would walk around to the prop department, "I want this--" But there's not a prop house [for those items]. It reminded me of my childhood. I grew up in the projects and stuff, so... Yeah, even the panther on the wall. I saw that somewhere. Because some are stuck in time, you know, places, they don't have money to keep decorating and keeping up with the times, man. They get what they can get. And most of that stuff is from the '70s. Velvet paintings. The painting of the black Jesus, you know.

Were you channeling any '70s cop movies on Brooklyn's Finest? Sidney Lumet?

You know, I was, but it was self-consciously in a weird way. Sidney Lumet and I actually sat down after I did the movie, and he watched the rough cut.


That was great, man, what an honor. He came in, he sat down, and watched the whole movie, and straight up, man, he turned around, and goes, "I love it." He loved it. And he gave me some advice, he goes, "Fuck exposition! Fuck that! Nobody explains shit!"
Lots of exposition was never his thing.

Yeah, and he's right, but there's a few things in there I had, that an audience may need that [exposition], it's so complicated...but then, you know, I took his advice in some areas, and I was like, "He's right, man," because people are smart. They're gonna get it. You don't need to tell 'em everything. And some of it is better for the imagination. But it was great. And then Scorsese...

Oh, did he watch it also?

Yeah. You know, it's great.
Those are the two guys you would want to give advice on this film.

Those are my gods, and I became good friends with both of them. I've been blessed, because I got to hang out with Scorsese, man, and talk to him, and do the thing for the DGA about Mean Streets. I didn't realize how much I was influenced by Mean Streets, or Q&A, you know, you start watching 'em, going, "Ah, I kind of shot it like that." Weirdly enough, you know, because I had scenes where I would stay wide….I just loved the acting, and I realized I loved Sidney Lumet movies because he would too. It was like stage clips, he would just stay wide, and the actors would just fuckin' fill the frames up with their power. What's weird with Scorsese is that, I love the stories of the Bible. I grew up with pastors in my life, my grandfather was a priest--and I was on the other side. I was always on one foot: half gangster, the other foot: half priest. I always knew right from wrong, which probably saved my life, but I was always one step away from the other side. And then I didn't really realize it until I met with Scorsese, he's like that, too. Scorsese's part gangster, part priest. He's this nice guy, wonderful guy, giving, caring, but he's got this other wildness in him. And I was like, “Wow, no wonder we loved the same movies growing up.” The movies he obviously grew up watching, that I discovered, you know.

The character arc of Richard Gere also has roots in the Western.

That's Shane. He hangs his guns up, and turns his conscience off, and in our case, instead of a little boy who brings him back, you got a girl. And he has to do it, he has to go and pick his gun back up. He didn't even have the guts in the beginning of the movie to kill himself. But he had to go into hell. Into the heart of darkness.

The belly of the beast.

The belly of the beast. That's why I had him go DOWN into the basement [in the conclusion at the housing project]. The reason I had Don Cheadle and Ethan Hawke going UP was because their journey was different, they were spiritual heroes doing the wrong thing. And it was that sort of elevation of these angels who were supposed to go up, and they stopped. Ethan can't even finish his prayer. He's given up on faith. And Cheadle's given up because he took an oath to serve and protect, and now he's gonna go do vengeance.

That's why I started off [the film] sort of in the sky, where in my mind, God and the Devil made a deal. They made a wager: Are there any good men or not? And the camera comes over the graveyard, and it's like, oh, they're all dead. And then you discover [Hawke and Vincent D‘Onofrio, talking in a car], and okay, “Are these good men?” And then it sort of starts to take you into that journey, or that concept, and we watch the pressure of their lives -- economic, psychological, spiritual pressures -- unfold and become more and more taxing, and then what choices do they make? And then that's where I found that, that was the journey for me. So it was almost more of a spiritual movie for me. The [police] stuff is superficial, it was much more internal, for me, and for the actors, because I laid it out for them in a lot of ways. Cheadle’s color was red -- passion, violence. That's why, when he's looking right at the camera in the beginning, it's red on his face, he says, “You gotta get me outta here!” And then Ethan's was green, he was always a tender, green one-- you look at greed, you look at the money, greed, a demon. Once you do that act, taking a human life, the demon has you. How do you redeem a person after taking another human life? And so it kinda has that. And so Richard's color was neutral. That's why, in the beginning, he was a ghost. There weren't even sheets on the bed.

Inaction is his problem.

Exactly. He had to be resurrected. Reborn. And that's why, when he comes up the steps, in the beginning, in the precinct, they don't even acknowledge him. The cops don't, they move aside.

(Richard Gere in Brooklyn's Finest, above.)

Redemption stories have something of an appeal to you I noticed. I watched Shooter last night, and I watched Tears of the Sun, and I've seen Training Day a number of times. There's kind of a theme. Tell me where I'm wrong on this…you have great faith in the individual, but great suspicion of institutions.

A hundred percent right. I think there's always going to be an abuse of power. I think if you ever put your faith in institutions, it's a false god, it's gonna let you down every single time, you know. I mean, we got a wonderful new President, President Barack Obama, it's fantastic, he's the first African-American -- half-African-American, I like to make that clear -- because he is that. But he's the first mixed President, let's just say. But he's still part of the institution.
Yeah. It's like, “Congratulations. Now you've got to be suspect too.”

Exactly. It's like, now you've joined the ranks of the rest of 'em, because you're a part of that institution, no matter what. And there are secrets we don't know about. And there's agendas we don't know about. So, I think, people, innately people are good people, the majority of us, outside of a few fucking freaks out there like murderers -- but 99.9% of the people, I think, want to do the right thing. I think the pressures of life always put something in front of you, and opportunities to do the right thing.

In Tears of the Sun, I kind of went back to my old Westerns, which was like The Wild Bunch. The Command is saying, “Just do what we told you and get out, we don't want any problems, political issues.” You're watching someone being murdered and raped and slaughtered. Do you do what's right, human, you know, the right thing as a human being, the moral thing, or do you listen to command and follow orders? Can you sleep at night knowing women and children were just slaughtered and burned? You do the right thing, though. That's basic Western, typical. And I believe that people in the business of service, you know, police, firemen, military guys, that's a redeeming quality, man. They're out there fighting for the people, you know. That's a good thing. The hardest thing is to be in their shoes. To judge them on some of the choices they've made without understanding the whole picture….

I used to, I grew up hating institutions. Hating the police force, 'cause, you know, the abuse that I watched them, the power they would abuse. And, you know, I'm an adult, with children and everything, I'd rather understand it. I'd rather not have hatred as much as understanding of what caused a cop to shoot a kid forty-something times. What was his history? What was his psychological makeup? Because maybe we should take that as a pattern, and watch other people that have that same pattern. And take their gun away before they kill someone else. Or themselves. And that's the other thing that I found, is that the New York Times had an article that more police officers kill themselves than die in the line of duty. And I had a buddy, I said, “What is that?” He said it's called the Hall of Whispers. The Hall of Whispers, that's what he called it. Because you don't talk about that.

Was he a cop, your friend?

Yeah. Undercover cop. I was surprised. It starts to bring up these psychological issues… My question is, so what do we do? And as a filmmaker, you know, it's like Scorsese said, “We all become smugglers,” you know, we have to smuggle in a social relevance, in the package of entertainment.

If it's entertaining...

People will see it. But then you can't try and teach people, because you lose your audience, because nobody wants you to sit there and preach to 'em, and try to teach 'em. I'm just a director, you know, I'm not a professor or a politician. I'm an entertainer. But I can't help but want to try to find a way to constantly put that in, my message, somewhere.
Did you consciously avoid doing cop stories for a while after Training Day?


You were probably offered every great cop script, although maybe there aren’t that many great cop scripts?

There's not a lot of great cop scripts that I could find my way in. It was just some tough guys being tough guys, guns and shooting the bad guys. It was just, like, bullshit. And then I read this, and, you know, it's hard to say why now, but I know that for me, this was important, because there were three different stories that all felt to me Biblical, and I don't know why. And it may have been just, they're so complex. They touch on so many different things, they touched on what was happening in our country. Ethan Hawke's character is like, “I can't even take care of my family. I can't even move. I have twins, and one of them may die, because I can't get another house. Can't get a loan…” You know, what do you do?

He's a good guy. He's doing the right thing. He's protecting our kids, right? He can't get a loan. You know. And if guys like that start to feel abandoned, they start to feel like everybody else in the world is getting what they want, and getting taken care of. And here he is trying to do the right thing, and be a good guy, and not cheat on his wife, and take care of his family, and do the righteous thing, and he's getting punished for it. A lot of people in this country are feeling that way. Unfortunately, they made bad choices, like the guy that drove his plane into the IRS. That's life's pressure, taking a hold of somebody, and twisting their thinking, and making them do something horrible. And when I read the script, I said, this is kind of speaking to where we are.

It felt very much of the time.

Yeah, and that's why I did the scene with Richard at the end, that last shot. For me, that's why I did that. This country's beat up, right now, black eye, bloody, you know, a mess. Still has some abundance there, you know, I love my country, but we're a little lost, a little confused, and then we finally took a path, and we're walking ahead, and we've got some hope left, but when you stop and look at us, man, we're a little beat up, you know, and that's--

We're walking with a limp.

Yeah. There's some blood in our eye. But, you know, we can move forward. But it's up to us. And that [final] image of Richard Gere, to me, represents this country.

I always say, you look up the Statue of Liberty's gown, she's got some scars, and you know, she's a little beat up, up under there. But she's still standing! She's taken some hits, you know, like a boxer in the ring, her ribs was broken, but we’re still standing, and that's really how I saw this movie. This is an American story about where we are, as a country. And there's still some hope, but we've got to figure it out. We gotta pick our direction, and we gotta move ahead. That's why I had Richard, dazed, the yellow line is faded, the line is not so clear anymore. And he's pacing back and forth, and nobody is really giving him no great thank you. I didn't do the scene where the girl hugged him, [little girl voice] “Oh, thank you! You did a great job!” None of that shit. I just thought, man, I'm gonna stay wide.
You're ready for the big swell of the music at that point, but he's just “there.”

He's just there.

There's dead cops upstairs.

There's dead people everywhere. He just says, “Well, I don't know where I'm gonna go, I don't know what I'm gonna do, I'm not gonna get high anymore, though. I'm gonna move straight ahead.” I’m hoping that that resonates.


  1. Thanks for the great interview guys!

    RE: The Institution, President Obama et al.,

    Following your question to Antoine about Theme;, made me think of men in leadership that *have to* lie or keep secrets from the common man - you know, cause they truly couldn't 'handle the truth'.

    Then you have the rare individual (back to Antoine's theme) who rises above his rank and *does* what's right, to protect the sheep so to speak, they way he deems necessary - going against the grain of our Leaders and Pseudo-Leaders.

    Make sense? Dunno. I'll finish reading the rest of the article now.

  2. Yeah. Great interview. Good to read about a filmmaker's creative process, 'specially relating to theme - cause that's what makes a storyteller individual: what he/she has to offer that is unique from other storytellers.

    It's like we carry this heavy burden on our backs throughout our lives; the ability to share our stories, our themes, is like giving us permission to remove one more brick from the heavy-load.

    My theme is Character is Action: what a person does is who he is, not what he says he is. And often that character isn't the strongest, best looking, or most intelligent - but he's moral, trustworthy, solid.

    Like a Western.

    I'd like to see Antoine shoot a Western. Or a road movie.

    What's David Ayer up to I wonder? His script for Training Day is like the tightest, leanest story I've ever read.

    Better than Richard Stark's PARKER novels, I'd say. And that's saying a helluva lot.

    HARSH TIMES is worth multiple views as well. Christian Bale's performance is haunting.

  3. Thanks for the comments! Ayer's script is indeed a tight one.