“This shit’s chess, it ain’t checkers.”
In one of the many memorable lines from Training Day, Denzel Washington’s Los Angeles narcotics officer Alonzo offers up this wisdom to rookie Jake, played by a doe-eyed Ethan Hawke, as a way of explaining that the job is a lot more complicated than it looks and that there are a lot of parties they are accountable to. The same could be said of navigating a quarter-century career in entertainment.
Having made his start directing music videos during their heyday — more than 40 videos between 1990 and ’96 — Antoine Fuqua has directed his way to over $1.3 billion in box office across 12 theatrical releases and continues to release movies at a breakneck pace, putting out three titles — Paramount+’s Infinite, Netflix’s The Guilty and HBO Max’s The Day Sports Stood Still — in 2021 alone. The Pittsburgh native has worked with everyone from Prince to Magic Johnson, and has branched out into television and nonfiction, including his latest, a 10-part docuseries on the Los Angeles Lakers, Legacy: The True Story of the L.A. Lakers, out Aug. 15 via Hulu.
Fuqua, a former college athlete, has long outmaneuvered the Hollywood churn.
Washington was introduced to the director by way of Fuqua’s feature directorial debut, 1998’s The Replacement Killers. After watching the John Woo-produced action thriller, Washington recalls thinking, “Hey, this kid can shoot. If he can shoot and I can act, I thought that would be a good combination.” Their longtime partnership has begotten Washington one of his two Oscars and an entire film franchise with The Equalizer. According to Washington, it was Fuqua who gave Training Day its originality, saying that the screenplay was more akin to Lethal Weapon. “I don’t think it was written for a Black guy. It was more like a plaid-shirt [wearing] guy with beer bottles in the back,” he says. “Antoine was the one that brought gangster to it.”
“In some ways, I see all his films [as] a collective scream against authority,” says Hawke, who also worked with him on The Magnificent Seven. “[It’s] 107 [degrees] in Louisiana and there were more studio execs than our 100-person cast. He just put his head down and made his movie,” Hawke says of the remake of the Steve McQueen classic. “I still beg him to release the five-hour cut of that film.”
Another multi-movie collaborator Jake Gyllenhaal, who had long been “obsessed” with Fuqua’s music video for Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise, says, “He seemed to allow so much space for the actor, so much room for them to play. He says to me often, ‘Take your time, the space is yours.’ It is such a respectful and deeply nurturing thing to say to an actor.”
Outside of Legacy and a third Equalizer film, Fuqua is also readying the Will Smith starrer Emancipation. In past interviews, he has called the film his “best” to date, but it also has been at the center of much speculation in the wake of the 2022 Oscars ceremony, where Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock onstage, after which everything from awards prospects to release dates have been the subject of an ever-mounting cacophony of reports. (The film does not yet have a release date.)
“This is L.A. and I am a name dropper,” says Lakers president Jeanie Buss. “When I drop his name mouths go open and people say, ‘You got him to do your story?’”
In the middle of this packed schedule, Fuqua, 56, talked to THR about coming up alongside David Fincher and Michael Bay, moving between South L.A. and the Hollywood Hills, and the key to his career longevity.
You have talked about watching movies by Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa growing up. How did you find these directors at such a young age?
As a kid, I used to sit up late at night and watch films with my grandmother. My family, they all loved movies, but my grandmother in particular loved Westerns and gangster movies. The sweetest lady I’ve ever met in my life but I don’t know, whatever it was, she loved James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. I watched Magnificent Seven with her. And in Pittsburgh, I think it was called the Regal Theater, they used to play a lot of obscure films and you could go for matinees and see two movies. One particular time we went, there were two films, and one was a Kurosawa film. So I saw Seven Samurai when I was 11 or 12 and it just kind of blew me away; and it was familiar, but I don’t know why. I wasn’t really connecting it with The Magnificent Seven.
When did you recognize being a director could be a career?
Really, in college. I loved the movies, but I couldn’t wait for the titles to be over. I didn’t care who the director was. I went to school playing ball [Fuqua played basketball at the University of West Virginia], and one summer I had to take summer class to keep my grades up in order to keep my scholarship. A professor told me to take art classes, and the only one they had at that time was about baroque art — Caravaggio and all that. One day we were talking about Eastern artists and they showed a picture that I remembered seeing before. It was a storyboard from Kurosawa’s film Ran. [Kurosawa would hand-paint his storyboards before filming.] It eventually clicked that it was from a movie. I started going back to the Regal to see more of his films. There was something about the idea of moving paintings that really struck me.
But you didn’t study film in college?
I went to school to be an engineer. I wanted to design jets for the military.
How did you get your start in music videos?
That was my film school. Obviously, it helps to be lucky and also meet the right people. My cousin went to college with a guy named Eric Meza, who was an amazing commercial and music video director, mainly in New York. When I left college one summer, I wasn’t sure I wanted to play ball anymore. I really started to feel something pulling me in another direction, so I said, “I’m going to talk to my grandmother about me leaving Pittsburgh, not going back to college and going to New York to pursue filmmaking.” She was sitting on the porch listening to a baseball game and I went up to her and I said, “Grandma, I’m thinking about going to New York and maybe pursuing the film business.” I was kind of hoping she would talk me out of it. She said, “Well, baby, you better do it while you’re young. Now, go to the store for me.” I was waiting for more, but that was it. I went to New York and met Eric, who was kind enough to give me a job as a PA. First, I moved to Brooklyn, Flatbush, which was kind of rough, but I had family there and they helped me quite a bit. Then I moved to Harlem — this was in the ’80s, when it was really rough. Sometimes I’d have to walk from 122nd Street to East 23rd Street because I didn’t have enough money for a subway pass.
In the late ’80s and through the ’90s, a lot of innovative filmmaking was happening in music videos as opposed to major Hollywood films. Did it feel that way on the inside?
Absolutely. There was this energy to create and try things and be brave. We just started switching the camera off and on to get those little flash frames. Who does that? Most of us at [Steve Golin’s music video production company] Propaganda, we all wanted to make movies. David Fincher, Michael Bay and everyone had an ambition to make movies. It was a training ground. Being Black, I didn’t get the Madonna videos. I didn’t get the big Aerosmith videos. At that time, if you were a Black director, you got only R&B and rap, and rap wasn’t as big as it is now. The highest budget might be $80,000. You had to find a way to be creative with that money. I was broke a lot because I would put a lot of my own money back into the video just to bring up the quality.
Do you have a favorite?
The video that I’m really proud of was with Michelle Pfeiffer in “Gangsta’s Paradise.” I grew up loving Scarface, of course, and Jerry Bruckheimer asked me to do the video. I said that I’d do it if Michelle Pfeiffer would be in it. [The song appeared in the Bruckheimer-produced Dangerous Minds, starring Pfeiffer.] And he goes, “All right, I’ll call her.” And I was like, “There’s no way she’s going to do it.” He called me back and said, “Yeah, she’ll do it. Here’s her number.” I remember we only had her for a certain short amount of time, and at the end of it, everybody said, “She’s got to go! Michelle’s got to go!” She said to me, “Did you get everything?” I said I needed to do one more thing and she goes, “All right, no problem.” That was big for me. She was the coolest lady ever.
Was Hollywood looking to music videos for directing talent?
I remember when Jerry hired Michael Bay for Bad Boys and then I remember Fincher getting hired to do Alien 3. It seemed like we were starting to get plucked to see if we can translate into telling feature films. The movie I wanted to make was called Monster based on the book by [former L.A. gang member] Monster Kody. He was an Eight-Tray Gangster [Crips]. I felt really connected to that story growing up where I grew up, but it was pretty violent. Boyz in the Hood came out and there were people that were interested in it, but I couldn’t get it made. A few films that were offered to me were always only about Black people, which is fine. But at that time I went through that with music videos, and I wanted to be seen not just as a Black filmmaker, but just as a filmmaker. I felt like I could always do something based on my culture because I know that well. I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing really, but it was what it was. Then I got a call from John Woo about The Replacement Killers.
How was it to release your first feature?
It’s a scary thing to do. It was my first one. You go into a movie with these visions that you’re going to be the next Scorsese or the next Oliver Stone or [Francis Ford] Coppola. And then you realize you don’t have that much control. (Laughs.) Maybe I should have made an independent movie first, but you have no control over a studio movie. Some things are successful and some things are not. So, when you’re releasing it, you know instinctively whether it’s your best work up to date. People liked the movie, they had fun with it. It was tough because I didn’t think everything all the way through. I didn’t realize Chow Yun-fat didn’t speak English. So, he was thinking more about how to say the words while trying to get a performance. Then you have so many bullets flying around. In retrospect, it’s OK. (Laughs.)
Did you know that Training Day would be a success while filming?
I did, actually. It’s a weird feeling. When [Washington’s] Alonzo and his crew killed [drug dealer] Roger [Scott Glenn], in the car Denzel is saying to [Hawke’s] Jake, “This is chess, not checkers.” I remember making a note on the script that if I can seduce the audience into agreeing with Alonzo, even a little bit, that was going to be something special. And when Denzel started telling Ethan, “Roger sold dope to children,” he had tears in his eyes. He was so sincere. I said to Ethan — “I’ll never forget it,” and Ethan can tell you this story — “You guys are getting nominated if you get this scene right.” Ethan came up to me after filming, he put his arm around me, and goes, “I really thought you were losing your mind. I thought, ‘Antoine’s completely losing his mind.’” But I was right. [Hawke was nominated for best actor in a supporting role at the 2002 Oscars; Washington won for actor in a leading role.]
Did you immediately feel a connection to Denzel when you first met?
When I met with Denzel for Training Day, it was Denzel’s wife, Pauletta, who put us together. She saw me in Rolling Stone for Propaganda or she saw Replacement Killers and, for whatever reason, she just thought we would click. Only Pauletta could tell you why, but we did. He’s one of the greatest actors in the world. He was highly intelligent, but raw. It goes back to when I watched gangster movies with my grandmother, there were certain characters that just had this rawness about them. I met Denzel, and he had that feeling about him. I was excited to put the camera on him. On [Denzel’s] very first scene, I remember covering Denzel and I got everything I wanted as a director. I felt good about it. But I’m this young guy and a little nervous. I don’t want to screw this up. So I turned to Denzel and said, “You want to come to the monitor to take a look to see if you’re happy?” And Denzel turned to me and said, “Man, you’re flying this plane. Call me when you’re ready,” and then got up and walked away. Then I looked at Ethan and he gave me a look like, “Yep,” and he walked away. It was a confirmation that they trusted me. It empowered me to really go for it.
In the middle of a blockbuster studio career, you stopped to do a small concert documentary, Lighting in a Bottle, about the blues. Why take that on in the middle of this hot streak?
My family comes from music. Harvey Fuqua is my cousin, who discovered Marvin Gaye and produced a lot of Marvin Gaye’s stuff. So I was always around music. But I got a call from Martin Scorsese, who is my hero. And you know how fast Marty talks, so he immediately goes, “Hey! You like the blues?” Before I could even say, “Is this Martin Scorsese?,” he was telling me about the project and going, “I’d love for you to direct this one at Radio City Music Hall!” I was like: “Martin Scorsese’s calling me and I’m in.” (Laughs.) I wasn’t going to say no.
You have since done a lot more documentary projects.
I’m just so fascinated with human beings. And I’m even more fascinated now because you slow down a little bit in life and you start to really pay attention to what people say and how they behave. That’s what filmmaking is about: human behavior.
What made you want to spend an entire series with the Lakers for Legacy?
I got a call about if I wanted to do a Lakers documentary. I’m a Lakers fan and I’m really good friends with Earvin [Magic Johnson]. So my instinct was to say yes, but how do you tell that story? Then I got on the phone with [Lakers owner] Jeanie [Buss] and Linda [Rambis, Lakers executive] and then it just hit me that this is like The Godfather or Succession. Jerry Buss came from really humble means to Hollywood, of all places, and found a way to — basically, with no money — own the Lakers. It’s about a guy who’s trying to build something for his family. And then how the business of business can really become a disease where the money and fame start to eat at the family until you forget what you did it for to begin with. But then ultimately you have to get back to family in order to survive.
Why have you done so many projects set in or around Los Angeles?
I call Los Angeles the beautiful illusion. When I first got here [in 1991], I had some friends who lived in South Central, and some were gang members from where I grew up. When I came here, Steve Golin also moved [from New York] and he let me live in his house in Beachwood Canyon. I got a mattress and a boom box, I had no other furniture, and I’m up in the Hills in a nice house. But then my friends would come pick me up and they would take me down to South Central. One day we’re walking down the street and it was the first time I experienced the Santa Ana winds. It was just me and my buddy and the palm trees were blowing. I remember saying to him, “Man, how come you guys got gangs? You don’t live in the ghetto, man. This is nice. You got lawns and houses.” Then it got eerily quiet and there were not a lot of people around, but it was beautiful, like a tequila sunset. We turned the corner and there were about 12 guys, all in black, with serious weapons, standing there. I remember thinking, “Oh, this is California, too.” You can get lost in the sunshine and the beauty, but you have to remember there’s another L.A. And it’s right down the street.
Do you have a “one that got away”?
Oh, yeah. American Gangster. It breaks my heart just to say it out loud. [Fuqua was set to direct the film but left over “creative differences” with Universal. Ridley Scott eventually directed.] I didn’t know enough then. I don’t think I navigated it the way I should have, or had a full perspective and understanding of the business, like the fiscal responsibilities and the pressure that everyone’s under, including the executives. You do have to pause and take in the big picture. That one got away from me, and that will always break my heart. That was a chance for me to work with Denzel again in the genre that I grew up loving.
Is there anything you have yet to tackle that you want to?
There are films that no one would expect that I would want to do, but I would. Watching Out of Africa for the first time, I was fascinated with it, the idea of making a love story about a love that could never be. I don’t see myself ever making a quintessential love story, but maybe something that has tension and an honest love. And there are big epics that I still want to do. I’m producing Shaka: King of the Zulu Nation for Showtime. It kills me because I wanted to direct all the episodes, but I get to go work with Denzel again on Equalizer 3 in Italy. So, you know, I’m not crushed.
There has been a lot of talk around the movie, but what are you most excited for audiences to see in Emancipation?
I would like audiences to see the truth and be inspired by it.
Do you have a guiding principle about how to last in a fickle business?
I just do the work and I try to do the best work I can do. It goes back to my music video days. Like I said, I would put most of my money back into videos. Steve Golin used to have to tell me to stop doing that. But I was like, “I’ve been poor before, Steve. I’m living in your house.” And he’s like, “Yeah, and you’ve got to pay me rent!” (Laughs.) It was about putting the audience first, giving them the best quality. Entertain people, that’s your job.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.