Law Abiding Citizen is a really fun movie and one that is pretty damn close to being great. A lot of that has to do with Gerard Butler’s fantastic turn as a father and husband stripped of everything and then betrayed by the legal system who resorts to very extreme measures to make it right in his mind. Jamie Foxx is the lawyer who makes a deal with one of the murders of Butler’s family, and the story covers the places in which these two flawed men’s lives intersect.
Director F. Gary Gray is known for Friday, Set it Off, The Italian Job, A Man Apart, The Negotiator, and a bunch of very famous music videos and he brings a very smart and old school aesthetic to the film, one which helps take pretty challenging material and keeps it from being too sensational. It certainly helped get me very engrossed in the film. Especially during the absolutely terrific second act.
He was in town to promote the film and I enjoyed a discussion with him on the film. Hope you find some interesting stuff from the results.
Nick Nunziata: I’ve got to tell you. I didn’t know what I was getting into with this film. It’s a hard film to sell with a trailer. Is it a straightforward, by-the-numbers thriller or is it more complex? As it turns out it’s a pretty unique movie that doesn’t fit into the cookie cutter mold. How do you make a film that aspires to do something new and get it through the system?
F. Gary Gray: It’s very tough and it started with my producer Lucas Foster who developed the script with Kurt Wimmer, the writer. They knew that if they sent this movie through the studio process it would change in ways that he (Foster) wouldn’t have felt comfortable with. I respect that a lot. When I first joined the project that was my first question. This is an edgy world, it’s very unique. How are you going to change it? There’s no way you’re going to shoot it just like this. This is just to get me involved and excited and you’re going to change it to the formula Hollywood genre film and I want to know from the start if that’s what you’re going to do. They reassured me from the start that this is the movie they wanted to make and the story they wanted to tell. What’s unique about it was the value they saw in it. I was pumped up as a director from the jump.
It’s interesting that you keyed in on something that concerns most filmmakers who want to make good films and tell unique stories. The system doesn’t always support that. I’m working with a bunch of very smart filmmakers. At the Film Company, Mark Gill and Robert Katz. My producers Lucas Foster, Alan Siegel, and Gerard Butler. We all have this twisted sense of how this movie should play out and I think the stars and moons kinda aligned for us. I was just as surprised as you.
Nick Nunziata: We’re so used to it. When you see big stars who are also boutique actors. They’re appeal in Oscar bait films and mainstream stuff. When you seem them paired together in a mainstream film. Superficially when you seem them together in a thriller you assume they’re just paying the bills. This is so they can afford to do their vanity project. Add to that the time of year this is coming out. It’s not the middle of summer or the Thanksgiving or Christmas window. It’s in a nebulous area which kind of gives it a sneak attack sort of vibe coursing through it.
F. Gary Gray: Literally and figuratively!
Nick Nunziata: When you see a thriller, if you’re savvy and willing to go along for the ride… they’re typically on rails. As a cynical guy who has seen a lot of films in this genre, I really I truly didn’t know how you were going to wrap it up. The second act, it could have been a season of some shows. I was totally invested going into the third act, even though I had no idea where you were going to take it. The shades of gray to these characters presented a lot of possibilities. How did the story evolve from the first script you read?
F. Gary Gray: It shifted some. Originally, revenge was a heavy focus. I felt like it’s very familiar and there was an opportunity here with how complex the characters were to really pay that off in a really complex way. I think that’s part of the reason why they were excited to have me aboard. I had a vision for what this film could be and to take the non-traditional route and play it out like we did was exciting for them also. You don’t know what you’re going to get. It keeps you guessing. It’s part of what makes the movie unpredictable. I was excited about the fact I was dealing with smart guys who also were cynical. I’m just as cynical about the genre as you are. You think revenge picture… oh no not again. It’s one every year, you know exactly who the protagonist is and who the antagonist is and can predict what they’re going to do. You know. And it’s boring. I thought this has elements of revenge but an amazing opportunity to make a left turn, not even a left turn but to veer into another lane and we embraced that. There were quite a few script changes. Gerard Butler stepped to the plate. He shows a full range of emotions with this particular character. Jamie steps up to the plate in a different way. He’s normally not the straight guy. We’re so used to his comedically extreme characters.
Nick Nunziata: It helps that you have two actors who are impossible to hate, which benefits this kind of material. There’s so much goodwill just by depth of their work. With Jamie it helps get through some of the tougher patches of that character. If you had someone else playing it there may have been a disconnect. The casting of it really helps make it. It would have been very easy for Butler’s character to have been morally…
F. Gary Gray: Insane! That’s something you have to take advantage of. They both bring humanity to both of their characters. I took full advantage of it. You have to! Some of the things that Clyde Shelton [Butler’s] does as you experienced, is really extreme. The arrogance of the Nick Rice [Fox’s] character is reprehensible in some moments. You’re like “what, did you just do that?”. It’s my job to reel the audience back in and I was up for the challenge and these guys delivered. I love classic movies. One of my favorite leading men in film was Humphrey Bogart. Second was Marlon Brando. They both had the ability to show you a really cool masculine character but yet balance it with these vulnerable moments. In Casablanca this guy had all the right things to say and when he was faced with conflict up against gangsters and soldiers and all that, he was cold as ice but when he was faced with having to deal with the complexity of a relationship with a fling in Paris, you saw a vulnerable side. That was brilliant. That’s real life. No one’s tough 24 hours a day. No one’s sappy all the time. Well some guys are. This story gave us all the opportunity to deliver characters had that mano y mano sensibility but were grounded in how vulnerable they were with how they had to protect their family or in some cases not protect their family. That was something I real real excited about.
Nick Nunziata: There’s a compulsion in these kind of movies to numb the audience with the visual tricks and editing and there are some certain directors who are known for that kind of stuff and…
F. Gary Gray: (to the studio rep) I’ve got to stop this, because he know what the fuck he’s talking about! You know what the fuck you’re talking about. There are things people have no idea that you do. There are some directors who stand in the way and upstage…
Nick Nunziata: I’m not going to name names but yeah. You could have worked just as well in the 70’s or 80’s as you do now because you don’t employ that style over substance approach. Things have changed. You’ve done music videos, big ones. It would had been very easy to lapse into that mentality for this, because it’s what people would expect. The rapid cuts, fast edits, and other sleight of hand that detracts from story. If you go through your filmography… some people might look at it as I guess a blue collar style, to me it’s storytelling. At the end of the day, folks who made such great work in the 70’s have a difficult task finding a place today and I appreciate that approach because of any of the action beats or violence was too gratuitous or showy audiences wouldn’t be willing to follow Butler’s character over the edge. How do you pull that off?
F. Gary Gray: It was conscious. I was very conscious that this world worked better with a retro style and I’m so happy that someone like you who understands film can see that it takes just as much energy to stop and say that ‘this moment exists in a close-up and a close-up only’. While I have access to all the scope lenses and low angle prism lenses and cranes and all the little special tools that are available, ultimately this movie lives and dies with the chemistry between these two characters and it’s just about what’s happening with their eyes. There’s moments in this movie that are dynamic not because of the explosions or the gunfire but because of what’s happening in extreme close-up. The spine of this movie is the chemistry between the two. I call it neo-noir in a sense for a variety of reasons. Part of it is because there is sort of a retro style to the movie, even visually. Philadelphia with the stonework and historic architecture of city hall, which was built in the 1800’s. The bridges. The prison, which was built in the 1800’s…
Nick Nunziata: That’s a real prison? You got amazing production value from that.
F. Gary Gray: Yes. That prison was shut down but it was the first time they allowed anyone to shoot a movie in that prison. The smokestacks. I took advantage of Philadelphia. I studied a lot of noir pictures and studied specific elements that I could use to populate this film to give it that retro vibe. The high contrast suits. The fedoras. The suspenders. I could go down the list. Little things that the sum of all these choices created a mood that didn’t reflect the typical colorful, slick, Xenon, backlit action film. I was very conscious of the color palette and the style of shooting and in some cases the simplicity of it being stronger than making it complicated for the sake of being complicated. I knew that the sum of these choices worked better than swinging for the fences with every shot and every scenes with the camera angles.
Nick Nunziata: It gives it a more timeless feel. Everyone’s concerned with the opening weekend and the ancillary markets but the movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum. This is the kind of film, when you watch it some of the inventive kills and big moments will get you the first time but what keeps you coming back is the connective tissue. The stuff between those moments. To me the real set pieces are the conversations. When you have those two guys onscreen together. Typically in these kinds of movies they build the movie around the set pieces, if that makes sense. I know you can’t cut a trailer just around conversations. What made this film such a surprise for me was the fact you didn’t wimp out and do the easy thing. It’d have been very easy to sixty angles of every explosion. It’s kinda cool. And rare.
F. Gary Gray: Yeah.
Nick Nunziata: There was a time where thrillers were coming out in rapid succession in but now this is in the wakes of remakes and comic book movies and wannabe franchises. At one point people might have looked at this as just another in a string, but it really kind of isn’t.
F. Gary Gray: Thank you, I appreciate that. The goal was to transcend the genre and to offer something different. A different moviegoing experience than what you’d expect. The best way to come into this movie is to walk into it not knowing anything about it and not expect much and find yourselves jumping out of your seats in surprise. It’s like when I watch older films. You don’t have the benefit of watching the trailer. You hear about it. You watch it and you allow the story to unfold. I think everyone stepped up and really did a good job at helping with this world.
Nick Nunziata: I’m a huge fan of character actors. And you’ve got two of the best, more than two actually… but Bruce McGill and Colm Meany in particular. Having those guys and their experience. You’ve worked with McGill before.
F. Gary Gray: Yes.
Nick Nunziata: That guy to me, when I first saw the trailer and got excited when he showed up. In my circle of friends, that’s the kind of guy that totally makes all the difference. We see him and are sold. You have two big stars right in the wheelhouse of their careers and then these other chaps that are just gamers that have been so good for so long. What kind of dynamic does that create on set?
F. Gary Gray: It’s great to work with guys like Bruce McGill and Colm Meany and Michael Irby. What happens is; they take characters that don’t have all the fancy lines and the snarky cooler moments a breathe a certain life to the words. They take moments that aren’t so special special. I hate to oversimplify it, but… in Bruce McGill’s case. He could read a phone book and make it interesting. I always like to populate my movies with actors who bring something more to a role and to a scene than you’d expect. That’s why I wanted to work with Bruce McGill again. I knew he could do that. I was lucky to be able to get Colm Meany to play a role, not a small role because he has a big impact in the picture, but clearly he’s had larger roles than that. I was fortunate to get them. They bring a certain history with them.
Nick Nunziata: You go up and down your filmography and it’s filled with some really acute casting decisions. Now, Butler’s a producer on Law Abiding Citizen, but it’s not a new project, how did he and then yourself become involved?
F. Gary Gray: Lucas Foster developed the script with Kurt Wimmer for approximately seven years…
Nick Nunziata: Typical Hollywood story.
F. Gary Gray: After five years I believe, Gerard Butler and Alan Siegel jumped onboard with Evil Twins Productions to co-produce it with Lucas Foster. Then they hired Jamie to do the part and I came last.
Nick Nunziata: That’s a good situation to fall into.
F. Gary Gray: It was a great situation. Jamie called me up and said ‘we’ve been trying to work together for years, I found the right material, read it and let me know’. I read it, I loved it, and three weeks later we were in pre-production.
Law Abiding Citizen opens this Friday from Overture Films.