Remaking the delightfully droll 1969 caper
film The Italian Job would seem career
suicide for any filmmaker. It features an unforgettable chase involving Cooper
Minis tearing through the scenic streets of Turin, Italy and a typically
charming Michael Caine.
Fortunately, the team behind the current film
of the same title has simply kept the Minis, not the story, and the director F.
Gary Gray, is used to taking risks.
A former freelance cameraman, he made his mark
with short films and music videos for Whitney Houston, Coolio and TLC. The
dreamlike video he shot for TLCís tune ďWaterfallsĒ cleaned up at the MTV
Video Music Awards. Rolling Stone
magazine named his video for Ice Cubeís ďIt Was a Good DayĒ as one of its
ďTop 100 Best Videos of All Time.Ē
As a producer, co-writer and star, Ice Cube
helped launch Gray into features with the inner city comedy Friday, which returned $30 million on a $2 million investment.
Heís also directed the memorable female bank robber movie Set It Off starring Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah and Vivica A.
Fox and the thriller The Negotiator
starring Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey.
His last movie was the long delayed A Man Apart with Vin Diesel, but his work on The Italian Job has allowed him to stage some impressive action
sequences like a boat chase through the canals of Venice and finale where
Hollywood Boulevard is paralyzed by frantically racing Minis.
Contacted by phone from Chicago, Grayís recollections are intriguing because he quickly gives credit to his collaborators and admits that even mainstream movies like the ones he makes can be major gambles.
Lybarger: Youíre an Angelino, and
Iím from Kansas City, but because of some scheduling difficulties, Iím in
Los Angeles when youíre in Chicago.
Gray: Thatís funny.
Whatís interesting about being here now is that it makes one of the jokes in The
Italian Job even funnier. Thereís
the scene where Mark Wahlberg and the rest of the thieves are planning a new
heist and are wondering how long it will take in LA traffic. Then thereís a
cut to traffic standing still.
[Laughs] Exactly. Itís very familiar to me. Itís part of the reality of the
story. I think it adds a certain level of credibility. Sometimes, itís little
details that make it funny and more credible.
DL: Speaking of those details, I remember when I was watching the DVD for The Negotiator, in the extras you insisted on using Chicago for the setting. Why was that?
FGG: It was extremely important because if weíd made The Negotiator in Los Angeles, it would have felt like Die Hard. And the cops in LA, they have more kind of militaristic approach. They donít even feel like real people; they feel like soldiers. In Chicago, itís almost like the everyday guy: your uncle, your cousin. Those are the cops.
It adds to the texture. The casting is affected by shooting in a place like Chicago, as opposed to a place like Los Angeles. Itís just much more interesting to tell a story like that in Chicago than it is in Los Angeles.
DL: You did sort of the same with Venice in The Italian Job.
FGG: I loved shooting in Venice. You canít point [the camera] in any direction without grabbing a great shot. Itís a lot different in Los Angeles where you really have to pound the pavement to find something interesting to shoot that hasnít been overused. Venice is the opposite. You can just throw the camera in the air, and wherever it lands, thatís where you shoot. It makes you look brilliant, but itís a beautiful city.
DL: It must have been really tricky to stage the opening powerboat chases.
FGG: Tricky is not the word. It was insanely challenging because of all the rules, restrictions and limits that accompany shooting in Venice, which I understand because of the historical integrity of all of the structures. And to shoot a boat chase, nonetheless, was extremely challenging. It was tough.
And on top of that to transport 400 people and a cast in these little canals and boat taxis on a shooting schedule, we really had to have it together. I really credit my first AD and my tie-in crew for making that happen. We just donít have vans and equipment trucks to help us. We were all in little boats, and we made it happen. We shot a great chase. Nobody really thinks about those things.
DL: I was reading a book on the making of Lawrence of Arabia, and they had to spend all day getting footage back to base camp for a single shot.
FGG: Yeah. We actually had shots like that in this movie where you shut down Hollywood and Highland. You have over a thousand extras, hundreds of cars, three helicopters in the air, and you have to synchronize all these thingsóall at once. At the same time youíre clearing out all civilians on a full city block before you could even come close with the helicopters. To pull off a shot like that, it takes a long time and a lot of organizing and then to reset all the cars and all of that it is logistically out of this world.
DL: Iím still imagining how you would have handled those subway chases because getting those cars through the subway, as cool as it looks, must have been a pain.
FGG: It was. We used thirteen real Minis, three electric Minisóthat we had to build and create ourselves because the City of Los Angeles wouldnít allow us to drive Minis with combustion engines undergroundó, three locations, two built sets. And the actors did their own stunts.
It was a logistical challenge because the set that we built, the tunnel, was so big that it couldnít fit in any soundstage in southern California, so we had to rent the hangar where they built the first Space Shuttle. And we used every single inch of it to create that sequence.
DL: On the human side, Seth Greenís Lyle is so much more than the token computer hacker thatís in every other heist movie these days. Most of them are in the background, wearing nerdy glassesÖ
FGG: And have a lot of uninteresting lines to say. That is all Seth. I wish I could take a lot of credit for a lot of his choices, but not only is he a great guy; heís a great comedic actor. Heís like the backbone of the humor in this movie.
What I love the most about him is that heís great at improvising. And I love to have an environment and create a level of comfort for my actors to make contributions like that. When I give him the green light, he creates magic. Thereís the scene when heís in the car with Handsome Rob [played by British actor Jason Statham from Snatch] and [Greenís] mimicking him.
DL: Thatís the scene I remember most.
FGG: He improvised that. He improvised the whole accent and everything. It wasnít written. It wasnít my intention. I just said, ďI have what I need, and I need for you to give me whatís on the top of your brain.Ē When he did it, I knew we had an incredible moment in the movie. As a matter of fact, so much so that I forgot to say cut because I was laughing so hard.
DL: When comic actors are good at improvising like Peter Sellers was, arenít they often good for one or two takes?
FGG: With Green, you can build a movie around what he could do. And Iím not just saying that. When you do these interviews, sometimes they feel that all heís going to do is say nice things about the actors. Youíre not going to get anything thatís real out of them. Trust me. Seth Green is the real deal, and if I had something bad to say about him, I would. He was amazing. He was amazing.
DL: With current filmmaking a lot of the special effects tend to be so subtle that you have to draw attention to them. In Youíve Got Mail, you see Meg Ryan strolling through a fall scene that was actually shot in spring. Is there anything like that in The Italian Job?
FGG: Thereís the scene in Philadelphia where they pull up to this location where there are smokestacks that actually match Philadelphia. Great job by John Panzarella [Nurse Betty], my location manager. In one close up of Charlize Theron, youíll see palm trees and realize that youíre in California. You have to be really quick to see that.
DL: You werenít going for a straight remake with this, but itís almost a requirement that you fit the Cooper Minis into it.
FGG: Thereís great iconic moments in the original like the Mini Coopers and the traffic jam and the gold heist. Those are the moments that we borrowed from the original, and theyíre great moments, and they serve our story. But itís definitely a different story.
DL: Thereís no point in a straight remake because youíre never going to get the same novelty. If youíd set it in Turin like in the original, it would have defeated the whole purpose.
FGG: It was all about the time, too, you know. That was a very stylish, fun film for the time, and the sensibility really served the time. It really is a classic in Great Britain. You still have the pressure because youíre using the same title and some of the best moments. I felt the writers did a really great job at writing a different story. Itís clever, smart. It has a lot of great twists and turns. Itís fun, so we didnít have to rely on just the original story.
DL: As striking an image as those Cooper Minis make, would they really make good getaway vehicles or be good at hauling anything?
FGG: In the movie you see they had to modify them, adjust the suspension and rework on the engines and things like that. If you modify anything, it would work. But I will tell you that BMW sent a Cooper S to Los Angeles. We met with them, and we asked for thirty-three of them. Those cars are really fast. Really fast, faster than I expected. So, yeah, you could get away. I truly believe that, especially in a traffic jam, especially if you need to get through some tight spaces.
DL: I watched all the DVDs except A Man Apart, and I was struck by how many now prominent actors who got early roles in your films like Chris Tucker [Friday], Queen Latifah [Set It Off] and Paul Giamatti [The Negotiator].
FGG: Itís luck of the draw, you know. Whatever it is, I hope I donít lose it. Iíve been lucky to work with Chris Tucker and give him his first lead and Queen Latifah and given her first lead and Bernie Mac and all the different actors. Itís something you just feel in your heart, itís in your heart and youíre willing to fight for it.
Itís always reassuring when it comes to pass and you see them up for Oscars and starring in huge movies. Itís a relief. It energizes you, and you continue to do it.
DL: You make mainstream movies, but yet, youíve been something of an innovator. Before Friday, the idea of making a ďhoodĒ comedy was unthinkable. It was considered sacrilege. You had to walk a fine line, and with Set It Off, youíve got a female bank robber movie.
FGG: Yeah, youíre right. Can you imagine how nervous I was, not only making a ďhoodĒ comedy at the time? Iíll put it this way: With the type of pressure that I had with Ice Cubeís career in my hands, now, he was the meanest guy in rap at the time, and Iím putting him in a comedy. We just experienced him in Boyz N the Hood, a very serious drama about systematic genocide in the neighborhoods. It was really serious.
And then to put him in a hood comedy with his reputation, it was a major gamble we all took. And it was a phenomenon that it worked out. I wish I could say, ďYeah, we had it all planned. We knew that when it dropped, it would start a franchise and everything that goes with the success of it.Ē But to be honest with you, I was nervous. We all took a shot with it; it stuck. And Iím happy about that
DL: Similarly with Set It Off, youíve got a female action movie, and the protagonists are more like real women than action heroes.
FGG: Thatís what was fun about it. That script and that movie is something that I felt a little more confident about because I was a huge fan of Luc Bessonís La Femme Nikita. I felt like you donít get enough of women kicking ass and taking numbers and having a lot of fun in a movie like that. I felt like it was different enough, and the studio [New Line Cinema] didnít force me to keep them all alive at the end, which would have been the Hollywood ending. I was really confident that that movie would stand out because of the subject matter, the leads and the ending. I was really happy with the way that turned out.
DL: Why do you think that unlike other directors whoíve cut their teeth on music videos, youíve had some longevity? Whereas some video directors like Tim Pope did some striking videos for The Cure and then his feature The Crow: City of Angels was a disaster.
FGG: I actually started off with short films and then music videos, and thatís kind of what gets lost in the shuffle when people describe my career. But Iím OK with it either way, if they feel I started in music videos or short films. The key really is character and story, and if you donít have the ability to communicate with an actor or really manage a story, it doesnít matter how good you are at shooting anything. Youíre going to run into problems.
DL: From your music videos, I still vividly remember Coolio bouncing up and down in his car in ďFantastic VoyageĒ or all the gaudy fantasy images in TLCís tune ďWaterfalls.Ē Had you ever thought of doing a fantasy flick?
FGG: Thatís funny. You are so on top of it. When people ask me what Iíd like to do next, fantasy is definitely high on the list. I feel like Iíve run through the genres with the exception of romantic comedies. Fantasy is something that Iíd love to tackle in the near future.