Having some $300 million in box office receipts to his credit, filmmaker Antoine Fuqua shares insight
The political action thriller, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, bowed with a strong box office in its debut weekend with $30 million in receipts, the single largest first weekend opening for director Antoine Fuqua, among his string of successful films, among them: Training Day (Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke), Brooklyn’s Finest (Don Cheadle, Richard Gere), Shooter (Mark Wahlberg, Danny Glover), and King Arthur (Clive Owen, Keira Knightley).
Husband to actor Lela Rochon and father to their three children, Fuqua’s movies have amassed over $300 million in gross ticket sales to date (tallied from less than 10 films), since his first commercial feature, The Replacement Killers (starring Oscar winner Mira Sorvino).
Fuqua recently spoke to me from New York (a few days before OLYMPUS opened) about his directorial aspect of the valiant rescue of an embattled and besieged commander-in-chief whose White House is under fierce attack from foreign enemies in this current film.
OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN stars Gerard Butler, Angela Bassett, Cole Hauser, Dylan McDermott, Aaron Eckhart and Oscar winners Melissa Leo and Morgan Freeman, in theaters now from FilmDistrict and Millenium Films.
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: Congratulations to you. I’ve seen the film and feel it will be a huge crowd pleaser.
Fuqua: Oh, wonderful, I’m glad you feel that way. I do too.
Talk2SV: OLYMPUS has a very strong cast. Had you worked with any of the actors previously?
Fuqua: Only one, Cole Hauser; Cole was in Tears of the Sun.
Talk2SV: I ask because during a previous interview for Brooklyn’s Finest, I commented on your intrinsic nature or perhaps a penchant for working well with a strong male cast, ensembles as such. Were your sensibilities informed given the strong female protagonists alongside the dominant males in OLYMPUS?
Fuqua: Oh, absolutely, I wanted that. I just love great actors. Most of the movies I’ve done obviously had male leads and in this case when I read the script, Gerard Butler, the studio and I were talking a lot about it. I said, ‘you know, I want to make Angela Bassett the head of the Secret Service.’ There’s no argument that she’s a great actor. I was equally thrilled that we cast Melissa Leo as the Secretary of Defense and of course, Ashley Judd as the First Lady was perfect. The roles that went to Angela and Melissa were written for men but I wanted strong female actors in those roles. I think it’s important. It’s the world we live in today. I mean, it’s only a matter of time before we have a female president so for me I just thought it felt natural particularly since we have women on the front line in the military–the world’s changed.
Talk2SV: Their roles felt natural in the film, not forced in anyway, a sign of the times that we don’t have to push so hard against what had been societal norms.
Fuqua: Exactly. It’s important to show these portrayals in movies. When you look back at movies of the past decades, you can see where we were in that time, what was going on in America or in any country, what was happening with the psyche, the people, the politics… all those things. You can influence just by planting seeds and say, ‘Hey, look how natural this is,’ it makes sense and those images help to push our collective thinking forward as well.
Talk2SV: I couldn’t agree more…we do tend to live our lives out on film it seems.
Fuqua: We learn how to kiss and smoke and sometimes how to emotionally react. Back in the movies of yesterday, everybody would pick up a cigarette or go get a drink whenever you had a problem. That wasn’t the best thing in the world for a society but that’s what people did…
Talk2SV: I remember. When we talk about the delicate balance of portraying power at the highest level of government, were there any concerns realizing just how visible that platform is?
Fuqua: As far as being African American?
Talk2SV: That, the state of our country, classified and sensitive foreign relations…
Fuqua: Yes, of course you do and then you say, ‘OK, it’s only a movie here.’ You try to represent the office (of the President of the US) with integrity, morals and goodness for the greater good, and that’s what I think is the conclusion I came to. As long as I represented the office properly is what mattered most. Of course I thought about the color (ethnicity) but then I got Morgan Freeman as the Speaker (of the House). I said, ‘OK, I’ve got Aaron Eckhart as the US President because I didn’t want to be right on the nose, which is OK. We know we’ve got a black president, I’m a black filmmaker, I’m a black director…[pausing] I don’t want to say black filmmaker, I’m a black man, period. No matter what I’ll be viewed a certain way and some will say, ‘oh, he made the president black.’ I’ll get it (critical analysis) either way you go.
Consequently I said, ‘Okay, who is the best actor that I feel fits that role?’ I would have loved it if Denzel Washington had played the role of president. Jamie’s (Foxx) got his own movie [that] he is playing the president in… I don’t know if Jamie would have been my first choice for that role in OLYMPUS but I think it’s a good choice because Jamie is a great actor.
I’ve always wanted to work with Aaron Eckhart so I went with my heart and my gut which is to work with a strong actor. I felt that he is the person I believed would be in public office and you would vote for him; he has the right integrity. When I went through the script to see that the speaker of the house becomes the acting president, I wanted Morgan Freeman because I wanted someone that made you feel comfortable and safe given the ugliness that would happen. You want to give the moviegoer the feeling of somebody sitting in that seat who could be believed as president,’ a Colin Powell type. If something, God forbid, ever happened and Powell sat in that seat I think most of us would feel that there is a man in charge we know can handle whatever is coming.
Talk2SV: Hollywood does have a way of packaging their expectations then they set out to find the people within the industry to fill certain roles. When it comes to directors, do you see yourself fulfilling a particular prototype within the Hollywood convention?
Fuqua: I don’t know if I can honestly say that, exactly. I can say that there are not many black directors, period. So, yeah, I could say there’s a degree of that assessment in play but I’m in the business of making successful movies that make money. If you can make successful movies, you will be taken seriously. Whether you are a first choice at a certain part of your career given a prototype the industry responds to, I don’t know if it necessarily has to do with your color. Sometimes I think it does and sometimes it really doesn’t.
Some time ago I remember having a conversation with Sydney Poitier about his career and the many people who helped him get to where he ascended to: Jewish, white American, they helped him get where he was. He got help directing, he’s been in great movies…it’s easy to say that there’s a stereotype. It’s easy to say its all racism but I’d rather say that I think you have to show Hollywood what you can do with a story and that you can make money; that you know how to make a movie that people will respond to. It’s a heart to heart question because I don’t believe in the excuse of just racism.
Talk2SV: I do agree that money is what drives the industry. If you can make a good film and deliver on the dime you’re absolutely right that measure of success takes precedent. For any of us in any industry, none of our careers would advance in a singular column if we worked with one race alone. We all support each other.
As with many of the film directors that you admire: Spielberg, Scorsese, Kurosawa, among others, what do you see as the building blocks of your own legacy? What is becoming your insignia?
Fuqua: It’s so hard for me to say that because I think it’s more for other people to look at as opposed to myself. I’m still building it, I’m still being molded. I’m still evolving. I think one of the things that you can look at from the work I’ve done so far is the road map of the hero’s journey in the film. You’ll find some Joseph Campbell mythology in everything. You’ll certainly find some biblical references in my work always. I always try to find a place for God in it.
Talk2SV: Love that.
Fuqua: And I think visually there will always be stimulating images that have a lot of layers. Most of the times one single frame for me is about it could be ten or fifteen stories within a frame, the way the light falls, the details I think people will eventually or if they ever do assess my work and if I laid everything out that’s in every shot they’ll find a lot of elements in it so I think those are the things I can think of right now just off the top of my head but again I think it’s more for other people to maybe analyze as opposed to myself.
Excerpt from the Joseph Campbell Foundation website reads—
Joseph Campbell was a life-long student and teacher of the human spirit and mythology–not just the mythology of cultures long dead, but of living myth, as it made itself known in the work of modern artists and philosophers–individuals who searched within themselves and their societies to identify the need about which they were passionate. He called this burning need that they sought to fulfill their bliss.
When Campbell died, just months after recording the interviews with Bill Moyers that were to become The Power of Myth, he had no idea how these interviews, and, in particular, this idea of following one’s bliss would resonate with the public. Within months of airing on PBS in the United States, the phrase “Follow Your Bliss” had become a catchphrase.
In 1990, the Joseph Campbell Foundation was created by Campbell’s colleagues and his widow, choreographer Jean Erdman. Its mission was (and is) to keep Campbell’s work moving forward, helping people learn about myth, and its relationship to religion, art and psychology, and trying to help them follow their bliss.
Talk2SV: The filmmaking landscape is certainly a busy one. Those looking to enter the terrain must be willing to make sacrifices, no one is exempt. What sacrifices do you continue to make as an established director?
Fuqua: Time. You’ve got to put the time in and you don’t get that time back so you better make it worthwhile. It takes a lot of time and if you have a family you’re going to be away from them because of the length of time it takes to make a movie. Filmmaking requires you to be present in mind and body…sometimes you’re living in the world of your movie in order to envision it, in order to make it come to life. You must have it in your head all the time, 24/7, seven days a week. Constantly editing and making changes inside your head, story boards, whatever it is, you’re dealing with actors, studios and production situations. Time is what you will sacrifice most.
Talk2SV: You are a family man with young children. Your wife, Lela Rochon (Harlem Nights, Boomerang, Waiting to Exhale), enjoyed widespread acclaim from legions of fans by way of a successful film career, of course, before your family began. Working parents make conscious career decisions. We are having this conversation during Women’s History Month. As your children grow older and the ensuing years bring about more directorial opportunities, do you envision the two of you working together more intensely on film projects?
Fuqua: I don’t know. She mentions it. That’s a tough one because you never know, with movies, you just never know. I can’t comment on whether we will or we won’t. Our focus right now is raising our children to be happy, healthy, intelligent, and God-loving; that’s kind of the main focus.
Talk2SV: As we wind down this conversation, can you speak to a couple of films you are set to direct: the Suge Knight story and the Tupac Shakur story?
Fuqua: The Tupac movie is in the script development stage; I just want to get that right whenever it is ready. And the Suge documentary will be done in a few weeks. Showtime will take that and put it on the air, I’m not sure of the date; I think it’s in April.
Talk2SV: Lastly, speak to the present state of filmmaking. When we examine the expansive nature of independent filmmaking and the dwindling nature of big budget features, what do you think this means in the overall scheme of cinematic storytelling?
Fuqua: I think now is a great opportunity for filmmakers that want to find a way in. I think the technology is allowing unknowns to go make a movie with the digital age of storytelling. Overall, I think what it means for the studios is they’ll discover new people; I don’t think it’s going to change the business radically. Right now it is. Right now, I think the last ten top films were mostly independent. Maybe 70% but those sometimes can be falling in between the gauge because you need so much money to distribute and to market the movie, much like the music industry. The studios will catch up.
The studios have all the money but they don’t always have their finger on the pulse on the streets– what people want. Sometimes independent people are just out there more closely allowing them to be more hip to what the pulse is but the studios do catch up quickly. I think there’s a good marriage to be had between both approaches.