Antoine Fuqua Interview: Directing the Boxing Drama Southpaw

Antoine Fuqua directed the new film, Southpaw.

Director Antoine Fuqua Talks about the Jake Gyllenhaal Boxing Drama, Southpaw

As a filmmaker, Antoine Fuqua has run the gamut of film genres over the course of his nearly 20 year career. While he’s thrived in the world of crime with films like Training Day, Brooklyn’s Finest and his most recent movie The Equalizer, his other big passion is boxing, which is why it wasn’t too big a surprise when he took on the boxing drama Southpaw

It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy “The Great” Hope, a boxing champion who falls upon a tragedy that pulls the rug from under his thriving career, but with the help of a trainer who has his own issues, played by Forest Whitaker, he can fight his way back to the top and hopefully reconnect with his daughter (Oona Lawrence).

Recently, got on the phone with Fuqua, who is currently shooting his remake of the classic 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven, based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Besides talking about Southpaw, he gave us the rundown of how the current cast for the remake, which includes his long-time collaborator Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, correlates to the original movie. He also gave us a progress report on the planned sequel The Equalizer 2, and whether he’d want to do that, again with Denzel. Both of those movies are currently scheduled for release by Sony Pictures in 2017. I know a little about the history of this movie that it was a vehicle for Eminem, who hadn’t starred in a movie since “8 Mile.” So was it out there and you just took the idea and ran with it?

Antoine Fuqua: I met Spielberg and Stacy Snyder over at DreamWorks because they had it, and they hired me to do it, and then they shelved it after “Cowboys and Aliens.” It was just a story that wouldn’t let me go. I’m in the gym boxing, training and working out, and I just kept thinking about the story of the father and the daughter. I have kids myself and I wanted to tell a strong story about that relationship, so I called my agent Scott Greenberg and we called Harvey Weinstein and I said, “Can you go see if it’s a possibility to get it and make it?” And to his credit, he did. He called me back and said, “We worked out a deal. Let’s do it.” So that’s kind of hot, but it took about five years, maybe?

CS: I remember “The Equalizer” had also been a movie that had been in development for a long time with different directors before you and Denzel came on board and made it happen. Are you always looking for things like that? I assume you’re also developing your own projects.

Antoine Fuqua: I mean, “Southpaw” was my baby. I mean, Kurt Sutter wrote it, but I didn’t let that go. I knew I wanted to make that movie. To go back to your first question, there’s projects that I fell in love with that I always wanted to make and I just locked into them and said, “I’m going to do whatever it takes to get them made now.” I still want to make “Pablo Escobar,” but there’s people ahead of me that have done versions of it, but I want to make it. I’m going to get it done eventually, hopefully. But there’s projects like that – “The Man Who Made Snow,” that’s been announced for me and Jake that I’ve raised money for that with IM Global. I’m getting the projects that are more personal to me made now.

CS: Have you been down to Columbia yourself? I’ve been down there myself and they have a great incentive.

Antoine Fuqua: Yeah, I’ve been to Bogota and Medellin, it’s amazing. I’ve been to La Catedral, where Pablo built his prison. Oh, yeah, man.

Antoine Fuqua directs Southpaw, in theaters this Friday.

CS: Going back to “Southpaw,” was Jake the only choice for Billy? I know you had meant him before and wanted to work with him.

Antoine Fuqua: Yeah, he was. I told him he had to audition and had him go to the gym with my trainer to see if he could box. Trainer called me and said, “You’ve got the wrong guy,” and I said, “No, he’s the right guy, just give him a shot.” In a couple weeks, he called me back and said, “You were right.” Jake was in there twice a day every day, seven days a week, training hard.

CS: Obviously it’s a boxing movie but the boxing is really at the beginning and the end, and its dramatic core is really about Billy and his daughter and his fall from grace, and Jake is great for that. You need someone who can handle the emotions as well as the physical side.

Antoine Fuqua: Yeah, it’s really a father/daughter story. The boxing is just the stage, it’s just his profession. The truth is that it’s all about learning how to become a father or being thrust into the real world. ‘Cause we see these athletes all the time who are young and make money and sometimes they’re not educated–or at least their social skills aren’t really developed yet–and then something tragic happens and they don’t always have the right support team to help and guide them through it. In this situation where a guy has no one, it’s a tragedy.

CS: You’re a boxer yourself and I’m sure you know there’s been a lot of boxing movies. It’s one of those genres that if you start dabbling in it, you’re always going to be compared to the greats like “Raging Bull” and there have been so many in recent years. Did that matter to you or did you figure people can see it on its own merits?

Antoine Fuqua: It mattered, but you know, I was really just more interested in the character study of Billy Hope. It doesn’t really matter. You can’t help but think about some of the great boxing movies that were made, but if you allow that to stop you, then we wouldn’t have many movies. Everything’s been done in some way, whether it’s a war movie or a family drama. I felt like it was strong enough and had enough heart and emotion in a dramatic sense, and if I could find a unique way into the fighting, because I understand the boxing world, so I felt like it was worthwhile to try and do that and bring that to the story.

CS: As a boxer and boxing fan yourself, did you go into this having the knowledge of how you wanted to shoot the boxing scenes than what we’ve seen? How did you want to approach that?

Antoine Fuqua: Yeah, the goal was to to do it more like you really would see it if you were sitting at a match or watching it on TV where there’s minimum cuts. And I shot it that way. Jake, you saw him getting punched in the face and everything, and you saw him punch people in the face and the goal was to let the cuts develop further into the movie as the movie got more and more intense, and then I did a specialty shot where you’re in the ring and you are the fighter. You see the punches coming right into the lens and the audience becomes the fighter, so that you can get a sense of being in the ring. The goal was to make you feel the way you feel when you go to a real fight. There’s violence in the air. The energy is electric, and there’s just two guys and it’s a beautiful sport, but it’s extremely brutal. You see the blood flow and the eyes open up and the sweat flying and the exhaustion and all those things. The crowd is a big part of the fight as well. When I was filming that, I told my DP Mauro to light it ’cause I’m not going to cut, and we’re going to go through every round like a real fight. Jake had to go through each round. The bell would ring and he would sit down and he would go through the dialogue and then he’d get back up and go back out. So you could really feel a sense of reality.

CS: What about some of the fighters that Jake faces in the ring, were they all real trained boxers?

Antoine Fuqua: Yeah, those are all real boxers like Victor Ortiz. Those are all real fighters. Cedric Jones, the first fight, he’s a real boxer. Even the guy he fights in the church. He’s out of Pittsburgh, he’s a real fighter.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Oona Laurence star in Antoine Fuqua's SOUTHPAW.

CS: What about casting Oona Lawrence as his daughter? I feel like I’ve seen her in something before and she really had to carry those scenes with Jake.

Antoine Fuqua: Yeah, Oona, she’s amazing. She’s a theater actor. I met her in New York. She was Matilda, she won a Tony. She’s a little lady. She’s intelligent, because the goal was that they’re from an orphanage and uneducated although they made money. She’s obviously got money because they have money so she went to private school, so she’s smarter than they are. She becomes a little adult in the movie so I needed a young actress that had that level of intelligence. She was great, and also Jake likes to move around and adlib a little bit and it didn’t intimidate her at all.

CS: You’ve been working on “The Magnificent Seven” probably since I last saw you. How’s that going? And is there a point where we’ll get to find out who everyone is playing? You have all these great actors but I’m not sure it’s been revealed which actor is playing which character.

Antoine Fuqua: Yeah, Denzel’s the Yul Brynner character and it’s going great. Ethan Hawke, do you remember in the original “Mag 7” the guy that wouldn’t shoot? Who’s the actor’s name, the original guy? Robert Vaughn played the guy that didn’t shoot, and Ethan Hawke’s that guy, then Vincent D’Onofrio is Horne. And then Charles Bronson’s character (Bernardo O’Reilly), well that’s more of a Vincent D’Onofrio character, Horne. James Coburn’s character is a guy Lee Byun-hun. He’s a Korean actor that was in “Terminator” and the “G.I. Joe” movies, “Bittersweet Life.” Very cool man, very cool actor. He’s playing that role. Chris Pratt is the Steve McQueen role (Vin Tanner), so it’s a lot of fun.

CS: So there are a lot of correlations to the original movie?

Antoine Fuqua: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a true Western that’s for sure.

CS: It’s funny that I asked earlier about doing a boxing movie and the Western has a similar issue where if you make a Western, you have a large audience of fans who only go to see Westerns and comparisons people will make.

Antoine Fuqua: Yeah, I think they’ll be happy. I’ve been cutting it already and I’m halfway through it and I’m excited about it, really excited about it.

CS: I’m bummed we have to wait until 2017 to see it though.

Antoine Fuqua: (chuckles) Yeah, I know. Maybe I’ll do a little sneak thing once it’s together.

CS: I’m at Comic-Con right now so maybe it’s a good Comic-Con movie for next year.

Antoine Fuqua: Yeah why not? I think they should do that.

CS: As far as “The Equalizer 2,” I assume Denzel is going to do that eventually, so are you going to go with him and do that too or do you need to finish this one up first and see where you’re at?

Antoine Fuqua: Well I’m going to finish this one up in a few. “Equalizer 2” they’ve talked to me about it and I’d like to do it if everybody decides to do it. They need to talk to me about it, but yeah, why not? I would love to do it.

CS: I can’t imagine Denzel would do it without you, so would he have to talk you into doing it?

Antoine Fuqua: No, no, we’ve talked about it. I’d love to do it. As long as he’s doing it and Sony wants to do it, I’m in. No question about it. There’s been no other conversations about anybody else as far as I know. They’ve just been talking to me about it and talked to my agent about a deal and everybody’s been negotiating their deals and the writer’s been working on the script. Hopefully we’ll have something to see soon.

CS: Great talking to you Antoine and hopefully you can do this other movie with Jake, because that might be the closest you get to an Escobar movie.

Antoine Fuqua: Yeah, who knows? Maybe that will be the closest to it but that will be okay, though.

Southpaw opens on Friday, July 24 with previews on Thursday night. Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven will then hit theaters January 13, 2017.