F. Gary Gray has been one of the most respectable, multitalented directors in the film industry for decades now. He got his start directing iconic music videos, like Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day”, and segued into a feature film career making movies in a wide variety of dramas, like broad comedies (Friday), crime thrillers (Set It Off), Elmore Leonard comedies (Be Cool), and the Oscar-nominated biopic Straight Outta Compton. And in between those respectable films he keeps dabbling in the big blockbuster genres, with films like The Italian Job and now The Fate of the Furious, the latest sequel in the multibillion dollar Fast and Furious.
It is, in no uncertain terms, a good time to be F. Gary Gray. And that made it a good time to sit down with the Fate of the Furious director and talk about his contributions to the hit series, and some of the trickier storytelling elements he had to work with in the eighth (official) installment of the franchise. Enjoy!
Crave: I want to talk about the specifics of the film, but just looking at the Fast and Furious franchise, I’m curious. From your perspective, is it possible to overstate the significance of this multicultural, multibillion dollar franchise? There’s nothing else like it.
F. Gary Gray: Well, I think you said it. There’s nothing else like this franchise. I think that people are still kind of scratching their heads about why is this such a global phenomenon? And I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s a diverse cast. I think that people around the world can somehow relate in different ways and put themselves in the shoes of some of the different characters that this franchise has introduced. Between some of the younger kids that grew up with this franchise and some of the people who just love the action and the cars, things like that, it’s a crazy phenomenon.
There’s a particular tone that the later films in the series have captured. It’s almost camp. It’s so serious and yet everything that happens in it is so fundamentally ludicrous. Is that something you’re thinking about as you’re directing it?
I can only speak for this one. I think that people go to escape. I think that they go because they love these characters, and I think that there’s a certain spectacle that they expect. I imagine Justin [Lin] wanted to top himself and James [Wan] wanted to top him, and we looked at how to take the action to the next level because it’s what the fans expect. It’s the reason why you go to the movies. Otherwise you can watch My Dinner With Andre on an iPad or a cell phone and say, “Okay, that’s a moviegoing experience, and that’s fun.” And there’s nothing wrong with that but if you want to go to the movies and have a moviegoing experience, you go see movies like Star Wars. I mean if you want to get people OUT, to GO. I’m not saying you shouldn’t see those movies…
I was about to say, that’s very disrespectful to My Dinner With Andre. That movie looks great on a big screen.
No, not at all. I mean, I just described Straight Outta Compton, which is a smaller movie. So that’s my realm as well. But we’re talking about the audience, and so these movies nowadays are challenged by the fact that most of the younger audience will flip out their phone or their iPad and watch it there first.
It’s true. I’m a filmmaker, and you’re rolling your eyes. I’m rolling my eyes. So when you have a movie like this it’s part of the big film experience.
You talk about making it bigger and bigger and bigger. One of the tropes that we expect from a Fast and Furious movie is a street race. This movie is so big, so action-packed, so intensely plotted, you had to get out of the way first. You had to put the race right up front, right?
Well, you know what? This is how I look at it. When I studied the franchise, and I studied some of the things that the fans yearned for, one of the things that kept coming up was, we want to go back to the basics. We want to see a street race, we want to see a street race. So you look at a place like Cuba, which is naturally a car culture. A specific car culture. You have these vintage cars, American cars, that you can easily tie Dom to. And to open a movie there is somewhat an homage to the original Fast movies. They’re on the streets, it’s all about pink slips, and let’s race. It’s not a huge heist or a huge mission. It’s all about the basics. It’s the engine and it’s heart.
One of the things that we see in the opening, that we don’t really see a lot of in the entire franchise, is Letty actually rides a motorcycle.
Is there an anti-motorcycle motto, here? Are you discouraged from using motorcycles? Is this a “car” franchise, in general?
I would say the opposite. I mean, I can’t speak for the other movies but I can speak for this one. The motorcycle was my idea. Blockers to facilitate the Cuban mile was the idea. It’s not just a straightaway, it’s not just a quarter mile. They have to make twists and turns and it’s very dangerous and to block traffic, why not use motorcycles? So, I’m a motorcycle fan. I ride Harleys, and this is an idea I introduced. So I wouldn’t say it’s anti, not my vision of it.
At no point did anyone ever say to you, “We try to focus on cars.” I guess that’s my question.
Not really. The focus was how can we give the Fast fans something different? If we just gave them a quarter mile it would be very easy for them to say “We’ve seen it. You just dressed it up and put it in Cuba.” So the Cuban mile is something a little different and it involves not only cars but motorcycles.
One of the big selling points of this film is that Deckard Shaw joins the team. He was the villain in the last one.
[Laughs.] He’d beg to differ, but keep going.
But in the last movie we saw him [kill Han]. How do you deal with that? How do you arrange that and try to make him seem heroic after that? Because he killed Han, right?
He definitely was responsible for Han, and… what’s the question?
What’s on your mind as you try to make him likable. We don’t really delve too much into his dark side here. This movie seems more focused on trying to make him part of the team, giving him some redemption.
I think you focus on what his motivation is. If you watch the movie you see that he is not trying to join the team and trying to join the family. He’s pretty reluctant and they’re reluctant to have him, but if you look at the story and the premise and the plotting, it’s… can they do it themselves? You’re used to seeing the patriarch leading the way, Dom being that person, and now all of a sudden the team has to go up against the guy. They all know it’s going to take more than just the team to get to this guy. So, as Kurt Russell’s character Mr. Nobody points out, the only two guys that caught up with Dom was Jason Statham’s character and Hobbs.
Very, very true. And yet Jason Statham’s character and Hobbs do a lot of bromancing. They’re very funny together. They have great chemistry together. I want to see more of them. And yet in the back of my head I’m like, “Didn’t he kill Han?” I just think it’s an interesting dynamic you have to deal with. You have to deal with that history.
But again, you have to also look at… without giving up surprises for the readers, that’s what I’m trying my best not to do…
If necessary I’ll hold off the interview [until it comes out]. I don’t want to ruin it for anybody. What’s the point?
It’s a tough thing for me to answer without giving some of this stuff away.
I’ll hold it until the day of release and I’ll put a spoiler warning on it. What’s the point of having the conversation if [we can’t talk about it]?
If you really follow the story closely, and you really acknowledge a theme that’s run throughout this franchise, it’s family… Deckard Shaw is not there to help them. He’s there to, again without giving it up, his motivation is based in a wrong done to his family. He’s just kind of cozying up to the guys and they’re cozying up to him. It’s not necessary. If you follow it closely you’ll understand. And then when you learn that he’s not who you thought he was, then that’s where you start to at least understand, okay, we may not be able to rock with this guy like we rock with everyone else. But he’s not exactly who we thought he was.
Fair enough. There’s been talk about this film starting off a new trilogy in the Fast and Furious series.
I don’t even involve myself with those conversations.
Good for you, because honestly I’m like, “How is the eighth movie the start of a trilogy?” I don’t even understand how that works. Maybe I don’t know how trilogies work…
I don’t get into those conversations.
You’re just making the movie.
Why not? It is, I think, if you’ve never seen a Fast movie you’ll watch this and hopefully, I believe, based on some of the reactions I’ve seen, most people are like, “Oh, that was satisfying. That was fun. That was a fun ride.”
It is a fun ride.
So if you are a fan of the Fast franchise it’s definitely a twist and it’s different, and I’ve heard – in some of the reactions from some of the people that have screened it – they want to see more. So what happens from this point on, I don’t really get into those conversations too much, but I’m happy and very proud of what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve put up on the screen.
You know, when Justin Lin came into the franchise he brought Han, a character from an earlier movie he’d made, into The Fast and the Furious.
I was watching this movie and I was like, “Is Stoney going to show up from Set It Off?” Did that ever occur to you that you could play around like that, or do you think Set It Off is done in one?
[Laughs.] That is funny. I saw Jada [Pinkett Smith] yesterday, and Queen Latifah, in Vegas at CinemaCon.
It was a total coincidence. If you look at, on my Instagram, there’s a picture of us together as kind of like a Set It Off reunion? But if you really look closely, Olek Krupa, who is the Russian from The Italian Job with the hatchet, is the Russian in the New York sequence. But he’s not the same character! He’s not the same Russian.
Still fun though.
But we have a few characters from The Italian Job, and there are a couple of F. Gary Gray Easter eggs in there if you really look closer.
Can you tell me where to look? You don’t have to give it up, but tell me where to look?
At the very end, at the barbecue scene, there’s one there. You gotta just listen for it. I think Olek Krupa is one of them, and of course the big one, you know, Charlize Theron from The Italian Job! [Laughs.]
And Jason Statham!
And Jason Statham!
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Top Photo: Isa Foltin / WireImage
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.