Coming from out of the world of music videos, director Antoine Fuqua established himself as a go-to guy in Hollywood for his gritty street smart crime thrillers, culminating in 2001’s police drama Training Day, which did the unheard of by winning an Oscar for its acting. Eight years later, Fuqua is back on the streets, this time on the opposite coast for Brooklyn’s Finest, a similarly dark look at three very different men in the New York police department.
First, there’s Sal, played by Ethan Hawke, whose appearance as a rookie undercover cop in Training Day earned him an Oscar nomination. Sal is a family man with two kids and twins on the way who is desperate to find a way to support his family and get them into a better house, which gets him involved in all sorts of corrupt practices. Then there’s Don Cheadle as Tango, an undercover officer who has spent years on the streets infiltrating the drug-dealing gangs based out of a Brooklyn project. He’s gotten too deep and is desperate to get out, but the only option he’s given is to plant evident on his friend Caz (Wesley Snipes), a former inmate trying to go straight since being released from jail. Richard Gere plays Eddie Dugan, the worn-out veteran with 25 years on the force and only seven days left to his retirement, trying his best not to make waves or get killed in that time.
The way these three stories are woven together in Brooklyn’s Finest is what makes it such a fine addition to the canon, and it shows a lot of growth in Fuqua as a filmmaker in being able to tell these stories without judgment. It’s also his first movie made outside the studio system, which probably allowed him to focus as much on the characters rather than on the violence inherent to the genre.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to the director back at Sundance ’09, and we were able to cover a lot of ground, but we decided to sit down with him once again and catch up on what’s been going on with the film since Sundance, as well as get more details on stuff we missed the first time. Probably the coolest thing about this go-round was that Antoine was gracious enough to share some of his personal notes made early on in the project from a notebook very few people not involved with the movie get a chance to see.
Couple of notes: You might want to read that earlier interview, since we do make reference to a couple of things discussed there. We also talked about the previous ending of the movie that was changed after Sundance; it’s no longer in the movie so not really a spoiler but fair warning.
ComingSoon.net: I know you’ve been making movies in the studio system so long, you’re probably used to making a movie, doing the junket, it comes out and it’s done. This is probably the first time where you had a movie at Sundance and a year later, you have to revisit it. How does that feel? Is it strange doing that, having to think about the movie a year after finishing it?
Antoine Fuqua: Yeah, it’s pretty surreal to still be working on the same movie for this long of a period. It’s a little difficult, because you have to remember… and I have lots of notes, so I went through all the notes. I didn’t watch the film again, but I have all my notes, the stuff that I did before the movie, during the movie and even in post, because that helps me understand where it came from. I mean, I know every frame, but it’s kind of good in a weird way knowing that I was still able to hold onto the film, keep it alive and make it into something I’m proud of. On movies, you can lose your way… from the script and breathing life back into it again, shooting it from the actors and then the film starts to fade, it’s on life support, and then you get it to editing and you’re not sure whether to pull the plug or what. It’s very humbling. And then you start to find it coming back to life again and you get excited again and then putting it in front of an audience and you get excited again. Then you get distribution and then that distribution falls through because they don’t have the money and then your heart’s broken and you’re like “What do I do now?” You just sort of keep going, so to be here with Overture picking it up and really believing in it and getting behind it is a great blessing so that’s the best part about it.
CS: This is actually the first time you’ve had to go through that process. A lot of filmmakers have to experience that early on because they start independently, and you started directing for studios right away.
Fuqua: I know, yeah, I was spoiled. Totally different world. Much more respect for those guys. It’s had a long journey, but it’s been a growth period to do it that way. I wouldn’t mind doing it again and again and again, because I was at least able to control and hold onto my movie, which ultimately, is the most important thing anyway for any filmmaker. The thing is now I almost want to go this way.
CS: Yeah, you told me that a year ago and I wondered if that was still true.
Fuqua: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s tough but it’s better creatively for me. I just feel better about it. I’d rather have a movie that I feel good about and proud of and maybe even… gets a smaller release than the big one that I’m kind of shy about saying I did it, going to the premiere and kind of sliding down in my seat…
CS: Of course, when you do a movie through a studio, you have so many more producers and notes…
CS: A bit of a tangent but I remember talking to David Goyer once and he was telling me how he went through this process with the “Blade” movies where they went from not having much studio input for the first movie to him directing the third movie and there being a room of executives questioning every decision.
Fuqua: Yeah, second guessing… you can’t direct that way.
CS: Exactly, and you can see the results of that on screen.
Fuqua: ‘Cause it’s not you. Who you are is not being seen, and when you’re being interviewed and you’re trying to tell people, “No, I’m a really talented filmmaker. I got a perspective and I’m creative” and the guy’s going “But that’s not what the last three or four movies tell everybody.” So you can’t keep saying it. You gotta find a way to do it.
CS: Filmmaking is a director’s medium but there is a system that keeps the directors from really fully achieving their vision, unless you’re a director like Scorsese who can really do whatever he wants.
Fuqua: Absolutely, and how do you do that? Everybody sort of backseats and anybody who thinks in the back of their mind they want to be a director, it’s easy to direct and not get blamed for something that doesn’t work.
CS: In the year that’s passed since the movie has finished, have you been able to find other layers to the movie you made? You mentioned the bible story earlier, which I never noticed either time I’ve seen this, but when you started talking about it, it seemed really obvious. Did you find more of those layers as it was going along?
Fuqua: No, I shot it that way. Like I said, I have a pre-book, that’s pretty thick and I do a lot of work. (At this point, Antoine walks across the room and brings back a three-ring binder full of typed pages of his notes made during pre-production.) And this is not even all of it – but I do a lot of psychological breakdowns, I break things down about the growth of each character, secondary characters, wives…
CS: And this is from when you first got the script?
Fuqua: Yeah (paging through the notebook) “pride, guilt”… see what I mean? Scene by scene… but this is stuff I do and the bible stuff is all in here and sometimes, when I’m in the middle of focusing on just the edit at the moment – I may not have talked about it during Sundance because I was just focusing on what was working… because it was a rough cut, so I didn’t want to get too deep into layers and stuff. I was just curious how it affected you as a cut as a story, was it working or not? And then what happens usually, after I hear the notes and thoughts, I go back and look at all my notes before I go into the editing room again and go, “Oh, yeah, maybe that’s why that reaction was that.” You discover that’s why it didn’t quite work. The thing at the end with Richard was an idea that came to me when I read the New York Times that more cops killed themselves than in the line of duty, and I was like, “I want to do that.” But spiritually, where I was going with the movie, the thing that was driving me as a filmmaker was tugging me saying, “It might have a controversial impact, it may get the producers all crazy” – and sometimes directors do that a little bit – but as the storyteller, it doesn’t quite work, and the audience had certain reactions to it for a reason. Because I had built up the movie a certain way and then the guy does the right thing and you do that, they’re not very forgiving, because internally, most people believe that if you do the right thing you deserve to live.
CS: I have to say that I liked the original ending and I almost missed it because I thought it fit the tone, until you explained why you changed it, and then it made more sense.
Fuqua: Yeah, well that’s what my notes told me. I had to go back to my notes and say, “Why did I…? Oh, yeah, that’s why I really wanted Richard because of that.” I had to go back to those moments when I first read the script, because you get lost.
CS: When you have a movie like this which has three intersecting stories, there’s always the temptation of having characters meet and the stories to come together, but you did keep them very separate. Were you making the film in a way where you always wanted to keep them separate?
Fuqua: Michael Martin wrote it in a way–I think they met before in the script here or there–but he wrote a really good structure. For me, it was one guy, in a weird way.
CS: You mean at different times of his life or career?
Fuqua: Yeah, it was like, okay, so here’s Sal who’s doing all these things. Eventually, he’d be like Eddie at some point, burnt-out, tired, not believing in mankind anymore, divorced, lonely, empty, putting a gun in his mouth and just thinking about killing himself. Who knows what Eddie went through but you get the sense that he went through some stuff when he was a young man that Sal may have gone through. He was in Vietnam, he has a Marine tattoo, so you imagine his age and he’s seen some things. Then there’s those guys who get too close to the streets. Tango and Sal are similar because if you get too close to the streets, you start to become it, so I started to look at the characters as one guy. That helped me try to stay on track of emotionally where I was going with it. That helped.
CS: You’ve talked about how you like to get into the areas where you’re filming and getting real people involved, which was what you did in South Central for “Training Day.” Was that easier or harder to do in Brooklyn? Those are two very different universes.
Fuqua: When I did “Training Day,” I had already been involved in the neighborhoods down there with some of the Bloods and the Crips. I was actually putting some of the guys in commercials, trying to help early on, whenever I could help them do something, I would, because I kind of grew up in environments like that, from Pittsburgh and the Hill District and Homewood, some pretty tough places. When I went to L.A., I was kind of hanging out in those areas. I just liked the culture. I wanted to smell it and see it and be around it and familiar with it. I’m comfortable there. There were some guys I had meetings with and they helped me make it smoother, to get in there, but obviously it’s harder when you’re dealing with the politicians though, to get in those places because they immediately go, “You might get shot! What are you talking about?” But I did that there, and coming to Brooklyn, because I’m the guy that did “Training Day,” and they knew I knew a lot of people on the streets and I was able to move with respect in that area, they gave me the same respect in Brooklyn. But I had to sit down with people and I had to recruit some help, and then I brought a few people from L.A. in that world who have a connection out here. It was almost like politics.
CS: You would assume that having Warner Bros. with “Training Day,” they would have people who would have helped with that.
Fuqua: (shakes head) They didn’t want me shooting down there. They wanted me to shoot in the Valley… they were nuts on me, man! They wanted to fire me on “Training Day” when I went down there and shot in South Central. That’s kind of what happened on “American Gangster.” My process is that. I have to get in there, I have to be around certain types of guys. I was hanging out in Jersey with some Italian guys, I had real guys coming to the office, real drug dealers from that era. I need to be around that and to understand that.
CS: Has this movie spoiled you in a way? It’s been a year since you finished it and most people would expect you to be attached to something or developing something new. Your name has come up a few times, but have you become so spoiled by this experience that you want the next movie to be similar?
Fuqua: (nods head) Yeah, yeah… “Prisoners” was something I really wanted to do. I thought it was a great script, really good people at (the production company) Alcon. I just couldn’t get the right actor and I just felt like I didn’t really want to do that. I didn’t want to make the movie if I don’t really believe in the guy for that role, for something else they might be right for. When I get to work with Ethan, I get excited. You get to work with your actor, your guy, like a painter with his tools, that’s like my guy. We have a second hand and I know he’s protecting me and I’m protecting him, and egos are left at the door, and you get to work with Denzel or Richard or Don Cheadle and Wesley Snipes. And that feeling I get and then when I go on my next thing, I want to feel that about all these guys. You probably won’t, but I want to try, so I’d rather in a way not do it, so that movie I was gonna do, but I can’t get the right actor that I want for the schedule or some people didn’t react to the material, I’d rather not.
CS: Do you have another project like this one that you can get going?
Fuqua: The Pablo Escobar movie I really want to do. I really want to make that movie. It’s a big movie and it’s Latino-based, Columbian, and that’s tricky, because I want to tell a story about Escobar and the American people who come in are the guys that help kill him. He’s the star, so besides Javier or Benicio, that kind of thing, it’s hard to get backing. I’m just trying to get it together.
CS: I assume that will be like “Training Day” or this movie where you’ll want to go down to Columbia and get real people from there to be a part of it?
Fuqua: Ah, yeah, I’ve spent time down there, man. I’ve hung out with a lot of guys. Bogota, Medellin, Cali.
CS: I’ve been to Bogota and it was a pretty scary place.
Fuqua: You can get kidnapped down there. But that’s what I like to do or otherwise I wouldn’t want to and then “Consent to Kill” is one of the Vince Flynn books, CBS Films… they’re actually really good books and there’s a really good script and there’s counter-terrorism. It could be gritty and tough and real in our day for the guy who does that for a living. It just depends on whether it’s going to come together or not. If it actually gets made or not, because it’s a bigger movie.
CS: Are you at all familiar with the movie that Joe Carnahan’s been trying to make for years?
Fuqua: I know who he is, yeah, “Killing Pablo.” That’s more about the gringos. That’s about the Americans coming in and killing the guy. That’s not really about Pablo himself, that’s about them killing Pablo. Yeah, he’s telling their side of coming in and killing him; I want to tell how he rose to power in the first place. I want to be in his skin.
Antoine Fuqua’s Brooklyn’s Finest opens nationwide on March 5. Look for an exclusive restricted clip for the movie on Monday.