Sundance EXCL: Antoine Fuqua’s Finest


One of the filmmakers you might not expect to see at the Sundance Film Festival is Antoine Fuqua, who cut his teeth on studio movies over the last ten years, the most memorable one being Training Day, a tough L.A. police story which earned Denzel Washington an Oscar and Ethan Hawke his own nomination.

Fuqua brought his new police drama Brooklyn’s Finest, made outside of the studio system, to this year’s festival looking for distribution and reactions from Sundance’s legendary movie-loving audiences.

Besides moving to the East Coast, this is a very different movie in that it explores the day-to-day lives of three police officers in different stages of their careers, pulling varying duties in the war against drugs and crime in Brooklyn. Richard Gere plays Eddie, a 20-year vet who is just a week away from retirement, who turns to alcohol and a prostitute named Chantel, to get him through what has been an unfulfilling career as a police officer. Don Cheadle is Tango, who has been working undercover in the thick of drugdealers and killers, trying to maintain that cover while desperately wanting to get away from all the death and violence. Brooklyn’s Finest also reunites Fuqua with Ethan Hawke, who plays Sal, a narcotics officer trying to make ends meet to support his family, who gets into a lot of bad situations as he tries to get what he thinks he deserves.

Made outside the studio system, Brooklyn’s Finest may be Fuqua’s finest efforts as a filmmaker, filled with stirring realism and authenticity about what real police officers go through every day without resorting to the sensationalism and Hollywood endings we’ve become so accustomed to. sat down with Fuqua at the Stella Artois Lounge on Main Street to talk to him about what could be his best film to date. So this is your first movie made outside the studio system, right?
Antoine Fuqua: It is.

CS: Could you talk about that decision, how this came about and whether this was a very different experience for you?
Fuqua: It is the first movie outside the studio system for me and it felt natural for me. It was something I’ve been yearning for, just to go and do a film without some of the pressures of the big dollars and the executive meetings and those things, where it just becomes more about cinema and filmmaking and not about marketing, things like that, which are all part of the business of course. It’s not something that I want to think about when I’m making a film, and the movies that I love are pretty risky. You know, filmmakers that used to make these films in the seventies and the sixties, and those films are risky. The only way that I was going to ever make a film and even in the future make a film that will even come close to the pictures that I admire is to do it in the independent world.

CS: At the time, “Training Day” was pretty risky, especially since it came out literally right a month after 9/11 at a time when people were praising the police and firemen.
Fuqua: That was a unique situation. I think Warner Brothers, Lorenzo di Bonaventura at that time–who we’ve become good friends since then–just took a risk. He went with me on it and then Denzel said, “Okay.” And it was almost like making an independent film in a way. I mean, we had some bumps along the way obviously because the studio has other things they have to deal with like marketing and things, but Denzel sort of took the gloves off and said, “Go for it,” and that’s not gonna happen that often (laughs). That’s our discovery.

CS: How did you first find this script?
Fuqua: Thunder Road, a company that Basil Iwanyk and a woman named Mary Viola who works over there – she’s from Brooklyn, so she had a pile of scripts she needed to read. She said, “I’ll start with this one ’cause it says ‘Brooklyn’s Finest.’” Just so happened a first time writer from New York, never wrote anything in his life, worked for the MTA, and she thought, “Wow, this is like ‘Training Day’ but on the East Coast in some way.” Then Basil called me, and we had a meeting. When I hear that, I don’t want to do that, but I read it and these three stories are so unique that it’s really not about the cops as much as it’s about the pressure these men are under in different circumstances, and the choices they make, and the consequences. I thought, “This is worth exploring,” and I got excited about it.

CS: Did you see it all as a bookend to “Training Day” but on the other coast?
Fuqua: I do especially with Ethan, because a guy like Jake, certain circumstances, could become a guy like Sal. Ethan’s character went home a little different than when he walked out the door, but now he’s seen some things and if this was “Training Day 2” then this is, in my mind, where a guy like this would go based on the economic pressure they’re under, not making enough money. Believe in a dream and having babies, but then not being able to take care of them all. Having psychological issues and can’t talk to anybody because if you do, you don’t get a bump up–you can’t make detective if you’re in the middle of a psych examination. So you keep that all and you have such pride, and you want to ask for help. I think that all those pressures add up to bad decisions.

CS: I liked how you showed the characters at different phases: Richard Gere is obviously at the end of his career, but you see how it’s really affected him. When I saw this, I was convinced that the person who wrote it was a police officer, because one wouldn’t imagine that anyone else could possibly understand those frustrations.
Fuqua: Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time with police officers. I’m friends with a lot of them and we talk a lot and I see the pressures that they’re under. It’s a very unreasonable pressure – 20 to 25 thousand dollars a year starting and then the only way to really try to balance it out a little bit is to work overtime and then usually you don’t see your family and then that causes a domino effect, and you have issues at home. It’s a tough position to be in.

CS: It’s pretty amazing how Ethan has evolved as an actor, even since “Training Day” because this might be his best performance maybe ever. Did you notice a really different person working with him on this movie as opposed to on “Training Day”?
Fuqua: Absolutely. I mean, we were getting familiar with each other on “Training Day” and I’ve always believed with Ethan anyway and we always get along really well. We have a lot of fun together. And on this one I saw him sort of explode in a way where his voice changed, his posture changed, and he was more masculine and just intense even off the set, you know, still a great guy, still had a lot of fun, but intense. And I embraced that and he just every day would come in and just – he was Sal. He reminded me of what Denzel was in “Training Day.” The way Denzel was off the set and the way Denzel was when we just talked about the script. He had that same look in his eyes, you know.

CS: I wanted to ask about Wesley Snipes. First of all, thanks for bringing him back. He’s always been such a great actor, and this movie allows him to show that he is a strong actor. Did you know him before doing this movie? How did you go about getting him?
Fuqua: Yeah, we met a few times me and Wesley. I just believe as a more of a comeback, I call it more of a reminder, like you said, he’s a great actor and people forgot because of some of the action movies he was making, but as an actor, he always a great actor. I mean, the guy went around with “To Wong Foo.” The guy was always about acting and he still is. He’s a classically trained actor. We were going to do some other projects together and then I read the script and I thought, “I couldn’t see anybody else but Wesley. I couldn’t see another character playing that role.” And I called him up, and he called me back and he said, “I’m in. If you’re the director then I’m in.”

CS: Did any of the actors want to develop their character in their own direction or were they generally happy with what they had in the script?
Fuqua: They liked the script. They all liked the script, but they all bring something unique to it themselves, you know, they all develop something, some characteristics, which is why you get great actors because they’ll bring something to you. Ethan, Don, Richard, Wesley – they brought their own twist to it, so it was exciting. It was fun.

CS: I wanted to ask you about shooting in New York since you were obviously working on a smaller budget. Have you ever shot in New York before like on the streets?
Fuqua: Only on commercials, never in movies. Shooting in New York has an amazing energy. It’s like, “You’re in New York man.” You’re on the streets and it’s this energy that just oozes out of the ground, and creatively you’re just in a different headspace. Things are in front of you that are inspiring and scary, and you’re constantly stimulated. People don’t give a flying f*ck if you’ve got a camera. (Laughs) It’s like, “This is my street and I’m going home, so you wait ’til I’m done.” Even that is something that you embrace and you go, “That’s New York. That’s what it is.” That’s what it’s about. It’s about that strength and that sort of freedom to say what they want to say and do what they want to do. It represents so many things. And I had a great time doing it. There were some tough days. I mean, you know, New York’s crowded and the people can be aggressive, but I found most people pretty accommodating. I think New Yorkers are smart and I think they know when something is bringing money to New York. It was like we were in the way ’cause life is moving on and just flowing.

CS: What about shooting in the projects? Were you able to shoot off a big enough area to do what you needed to do?
Fuqua: No, I mean I closed off some areas periodically. You know, you kind of do things, and stop, and come back again. You gotta let the traffic go, people getting off the subway, you try to control that. It’s very time consuming when I didn’t have that much time, and it was one of those tricky things where there were days where you had to allow people to go through and just stop whatever you’re doing because, you know, it’s rush hour, yet the light’s going down soon and you know, that kind of thing.

CS: You actually found a place in Brooklyn, too?
Fuqua: All over Brooklyn – yeah, the projects, the streets. I was all over Brooklyn, yeah.

CS: Did you do any shooting on sound stages?
Fuqua: One scene. One scene is on a stage. Everything else is real locations. The only scene on stage is the card game. We built that because we had too. We had so many guys, so much talking, kids coming down the steps, you know, all that kind of stuff. Everything else is in the projects and in the real places.

CS: One thing I have to ask about, and it’s my only real criticism of the movie is the use of the Stones song.
Fuqua: Yeah, yeah, it’s been done to death.

CS: Not only that, but Martin Scorsese kind of owns that song in some ways.
Fuqua: I know, I’m gonna change it.

CS: Oh, you are? I was wondering if you thought about that because you’re enjoying the movie and that comes on and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Okay, what’s going on here?”
Fuqua: Yeah, it’s Scorsese’s I know, I know. It’s one of those things where I just love the song.

CS: I know, it’s a great song. It comes on and it gives this energy to the movie.
Fuqua: It’s one of those things as a place holder when I was editing and then it wound up just staying because I was focused on so many other things and then ultimately, I just didn’t have time to even change it and get permission, and this and that, so I said, “Okay, I’ll deal with that later.”

CS: Will you have a chance to show this to any New York police officers? Are you going to try do a screening for them?
Fuqua: I am, certainly. I’m going to do New York and Pittsburgh, and a couple of other places. I had a screening with friends and family, I invited about 30 of them and they came and they loved it. In fact, a cop just stopped me, who was doing security at one of the places I’ve been interviewed and he came up to me and thanked me for making it. A couple cops come up to me and thanked me. One came up to me and said, “Were you ever on the job?” So they thanked me for making it and that’s a great honor.

CS: So what else do you have coming up? Has this experience made you want to go more in this independent direction?
Fuqua: Yeah, I mean, you know, I’ve got a couple projects I’m trying to get done right now and I’m trying to do it all for under 25 (million). If I can stay in this world and make a living, yeah. I’d still love to do a studio movie. If I’m going to do one, I want it to just be fun. I’d want it to be something that’s fun, that’s just technically interesting, it’s something I could have a good time with and do the blockbuster thing if it worked out. But my heart is really into just telling stories and exploring some things right now.

CS: Anything else in development that you want to get going on?
Fuqua: Yeah, I’ve got a film about Gregory Scarpa, it’s called “Scarpa” with Morgan Creek and that’s New York again. It’s in Brooklyn, FBI, Italian gangsters, it takes place during the sixties to the nineties, and been talking with Sean Penn.

CS: It sounds like a pretty big epic you think.
Fuqua: Yeah, but I still want to do it for 20 million. I just would love to stay under 30, under 25 and would love to try and have my independence that way.

CS: When you see this movie, I don’t think you would know…
Fuqua: The budget.

CS: Not at all, I don’t think it might have all the action that some people might expect, but I think people necessarily need that anymore.
Fuqua: Right. Yeah, it’s funny. People hear that it’s a cop movie called “Brooklyn’s Finest” they’re expecting more action like car chases and that’s it. I couldn’t even do those right now; it’s just not in me to do. It’s just not that kind of movie.

CS: Well, it is more real and the authenticity really comes into it, because in Brooklyn, you really don’t see a lot of car chases.
Fuqua: One month after the shooting, Ethan called me and he witnessed a shooting. Right where we were shooting in Brooklyn, some guys chased a guy, ran into a beauty salon, killed the guy, and shot the woman who was there that was getting her hair done and he witnessed it.

CS: Sure, it happens, but movies make it seem like that stuff happens all the time.
Fuqua: Yeah, but like you said, it’s not a car chase. It’s normally gunplay or something, it’s really that sort of very real, gritty violence. It’s something that, you know, you just – guys walking down the street, you see another guy arguing and then, “Pow!” Or hit a guy. And that’s more the violence of New York in Brooklyn. It’s in your face, it’s not so much of things flying over and exploding on your roof. I ain’t never seen that myself.

CS: There’s quite a bit of violence in this movie, and even though there wasn’t a studio involved, were you still concerned about that stuff, or did you really want to do what you needed to do to get the most impact?
Fuqua: I just wanted to do the movie I wanted to do. I didn’t think much about marketing, or studios liking it or not liking it. You know, the whole ending conversation. I was just like, “You know what? I just want to make the movie.” I just want to tell the story as authentic, and get to the truth as close as I can, and it might be uncomfortable at times, but that’s what it is and that’s why I’m doing it is to have some freedom to do that and to get back to real filmmaking which is what I love.

Brooklyn’s Finest was picked up for worldwide distribution by Senator Entertainment and Sony, so look for a release date to be announced soon.