New Yorker F. Gary Gray first made his name directing hit music videos for such artists as TLC, Cypress Hill, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah and Whitney Houston before helming his first feature film, the urban comedy Friday, in 1995. Gray followed that up with an eclectic string of movies that included
Set It Off, The Negotiator, The Italian Job, Be Cool and
Law Abiding Citizen.
In his new film, Straight Outta Compton, Gray returns to his music roots with a biopic that follows the birth of the gangsta rap group NWA, set against a volatile backdrop of gang violence, police brutality and racial tensions in LA in the late ‘80s. The film, co-produced by former NWA members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, was released earlier this month by Universal Pictures.
Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, the director/producer talks about using music videos as his own film school, making the film, dealing with effects, and his love of post.
Did your music video background prepare you for work in features?
“When I started, I didn’t have the resources to go to film school, so I’d write short sequences and scenes in a cinematic way within the body of the music videos, and try and get as much experience technically that way. So when I did It Was a Good Day with Ice Cube, the song was written like a short story, and while there wasn’t a ton of acting, at the end I was able to bring in the SWAT team and cops and helicopters and do an early version of what I eventually did in The Negotiator. The video was on a far smaller scale, but it was like my own film school training.”
So you’re essentially self-taught?
“Yes, as that’s the only way I could get experience behind the camera and try stuff. It wasn’t always good. Some things I tried failed horribly, but a few moments worked out, like Waterfalls with TLC. I worked with some great actors on that and was also able to introduce some complex VFX not really common back then in ’95. The CGI water effect had only ever been seen in Jim Cameron’s The Abyss, and we shot 35mm with cranes and aerial coverage in a very cinematic way. So it was like a crash course in the technical areas. I felt strong in terms of telling a story, but that real-world experience of running a large crew and dealing with all the VFX and gear and technology was a great learning experience for me.”
What did you set out to make with Compton, and how did you get beneath the ‘sex, drugs, gangsta rap’ cliches?
“That’s a great question because we all know that with music biopics you’re gonna get sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. That’s to be expected. But on this, you don’t normally associate getting a deeper level of humanity, because of the genre... I really wanted to tap into the ‘why.’ Why would a 16-year-old write these harsh, edgy lyrics about cops and the system, and describe these really insane street moments that are cinematic in their own right? Do you just wake up in a comfortable world and you’re an angry person? I felt I knew the answer — as I grew up in that environment — which is that LA in the 80’s was a rough place and time. There was this huge influx of cocaine, which changed the economic dynamic, and then you had the influx of military weapons flooding the neighborhoods, and NWA wrote about all that. So we knew the ‘where’ and ‘when,’ but it’s the ‘why’ that I wanted to explore. That’s what I hope sets this movie apart from your typical music biopic.”
What were the main challenges of pulling essentially a period piece together?
“Where to shoot was the first big one. For budget reasons we were originally scheduled to shoot in one of the tax rebate states like Louisiana, and even cities like Miami, Boston and Vancouver. That’s pretty weird! (laughs). Take Boston — besides the fact they hate the Lakers, how can you even consider shooting this there? LA’s big, sunny, palm trees, like a vacation spot, and yet with extreme danger in parts like Compton. And it was tough getting LA as the real location, but in the end we got a tax rebate, and LA became a central character.”
How tough was the shoot?
“It was mainly location, which is always hard, and we shot for a couple of months, along with some stage work. Shooting’s always crazy time, compared with post and editing.”
What did DP Matty Libatique bring to the project?
“He’s a genius. This movie would be so different without his expertise. I wanted to create a movie that felt real and authentic, because that’s what hip hop is. I didn’t want it to feel like a Hollywood movie. I wanted to transport the audience to that time, and to come up with a visual style that helped do that. And it was essential to move the camera a lot, to capture that energy, so we used a lot of handheld, with very few static, well-composed angles that felt staged and carefully worked-out. Instead it’s almost a docu-style approach, and it’s not easy.
“To be able to light African-Americans who’re all wearing baseball caps and you’re moving the camera constantly, is extremely hard to do well. But Matty managed to do it brilliantly — and I don’t know how he did it. It’s one of the best-looking films I’ve ever shot, largely thanks to Matty. He’s extremely collaborative and makes all these great visual suggestions. We used the new MoVI rig which was amazing. It gave us the flexibility to do these extremely complicated roving shots that you’d almost need to reverse-engineer to figure them out...The combination of the movement, the lighting, the practical look, the docu-style approach and the MoVI moments all helped create this particular filmic language we developed for the movie.”
Do you like the post process?
“I love it and it’s my favorite part of the whole movie-making process, because you just have far more control, and it’s where the real magic happens. There are days where you’re strong and you get the performances you want and all the shots you need, and you put it together and it turns out great. But then there are all those other days where you didn’t quite get the performance, you didn’t get the shots, and that’s where post saves you, especially if you’re working with a great editor. You take some of those weaker moments that weren’t your best, and you cut around them and make them work and massage them and try a different approach — and I find some of the best moments come out of that collaboration with a good editor. It happened to me with Chris Rouse on The Italian Job, and with Sheldon Kahn on Be Cool, and there are just things you can’t dream up when you’re writing the script and then shooting it, but then later in post a good editor makes you look good.”
Where did you do the post?
“On the lot at Warners.”
The film was edited by Billy Fox, whose credits include Footloose, Hustle & Flow, Law & Order and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. How did that relationship work?
“He cut while I shot through production, and he only came to the set once when we did the big ‘Detroit performance,’ which we actually shot in LA. I wanted him there to make sure we got all the necessary coverage to shoot this huge sequence which included not just NWA performing, but a riot and a big action sequence. Billy’s very experienced and a great collaborator and we worked well together. We had a fairly relaxed schedule for the cut. It was actually one of the first times I’ve had an adequate amount of time, and Universal also gave me 10 weeks for the director’s cut.”
The VFX shots — are they mainly there for the period look?
“Right. Image Engine and Outback Post did them, and we used them to enhance the crowds during the huge arena performances, to enhance the LA riot scenes with fire and smoke elements, and to paint out modern signs — mainly little things. And Shane Valentino, our production designer, was great at finding places where we wouldn’t need tons of VFX later.”
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
“Maybe it’s because I started out doing music videos, but all that is so important to me. I actually have my own music studio at home, and I dabble in music and mixing and editing music and images, and I’ve done it since I began. So I know Pro Tools and Logic Pro X, and I’m very specific about my approach. Mark Stoeckinger is my supervising sound editor, and I’ve worked with him for 20 years, since we did The Negotiator, and he’s the best in the business. He does all these huge movies, like Mission Impossible and Iron Man, but he’ll do my little movies as a passion project. We did all the sound design and mixing at Universal, on the Hitchcock stage, where I’ve mixed about a third of all my movies.As for the music, it was the first time I’ve worked with Joe Trapanese, this young composer, and he didn’t mind my meddling. I’m very sensitive to how we marry the score with the sound effects, the dialogue and so on. I don’t just lay it off to some team in the mix.”
The DI must have been vital?
“We’re right in the middle of it, at Efilm, and it’s as important as all the sound. It should come together like hand and glove. The audience doesn’t separate all these elements, but it requires hundreds of them to create one satisfying experience, and the look of the film helps capture the era, the mood, and helps define a moment emotionally and the objectives of a character in a scene. So the DI is another vital part of post for me.”
Did the film turn out as you had hoped?
“It did, although you always have a vision in your head and then you have to deal with all the realities of filmmaking and budgets and time.”
“I don’t have anything else lined up. I’m going to need a long vacation after this.”