6 Filmmaking Tips from F. Gary Gray

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Straight outta Hollywood, some advice on how to make it there.

F. Gary Gray on the set of ‘Law Abiding Citizen’

F. Gary Gray is a journeyman, a prolific and diverse director who has given us all kinds of movies, from his comedic 1995 debut, Friday, to the recent smash-hit biopic Straight Outta Compton.

He wasn’t one of those guys who always knew he’d be a filmmaker; he didn’t make amateur movies as a kid. He didn’t go into the business any kind of expert on cinema or moviemaking. Instead, he’s become one along the way.

And he’s still learning. And you can learn from him vicariously and through advice imparted from more than 20 years on the job, since his days helming music videos through his newest feature, The Fate of the Furious.

Here are six tips we’ve compiled from interviews spanning his career:

1. Get Into Your Lane

Kicking off with something that sounds appropriate for his new movie, Gray uses a traffic metaphor to talk about getting started. This advice on finding your own groove as a filmmaker comes via an interview for Complex in 2015:

Just step into your lane. Everybody comes to film differently; everybody has different backgrounds. Just find whatever your lane is naturally. Don’t try to force yourself into someone else’s vision or try to tell a story that you’re not passionate about. Hopefully you learn a little bit from my experiences and you try your best to enjoy it but also understand the business aspect of creating because that’s really hard. It’s hard being creative and also trying to manage some of the politics in this industry, so if I can impart some of my experience and maybe learn a little bit then it’s a success.

And be sure to “stay in your lane,” as he recommended during a Sprite-sponsored event also associated with Complex around the same time.

Gray directs Vin Diesel on the set of ‘A Man Apart’

2. Shoot On Your Block

That lane can be anywhere, even on your own street. Gray shot Friday in his old neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles, and that was a great place to begin his journey, physically and mentally, for its ease and familiarity.

Asked for advice on making a first film, Gray tells Josh Horowitz in an interview collected in the book “The Mind of the Modern Moviemaker: Twenty Conversations with the New Generation of Filmmakers”:

Shoot it on your block. It cuts down on the research and development. (laughs) I’m glad [‘Friday’ writer/star Ice Cube] didn’t come to me with a project about the moon or something, because I probably wouldn’t be standing here today if that was the case.

Gray also says, in the video below from the Sprite event for Complex, “No matter where you come from, you can be inspired.” Specifically inspired by Compton, he’s saying, but even out of context it’s a relevant tip.

3. Drift Through the Rooms of Your Mansion

No, you don’t need to live in a literal mansion to be a filmmaker, but you should acknowledge the mansion-size space in your mind and the creative potential residing there.

Yes, Gray is using metaphor again, this time in Vibe magazine back in 1996, and when you think of the variety of his filmography, you know he’s really been taking advantage of every room in that house.

Sometimes I get slowed down by writer’s block or visual block where I can’t find the shot. But I don’t worry. Creativity is a mansion. If you’re empty in one room, all you have to do is go out into the hallway and enter another room that’s full.

Gray on the set of ‘Straight Outta Compton’

4. Always Go in Deep

We know from the second tip that it’s good to start with what and where you know, but Gray also thinks you need to go above and beyond that safety net. Regarding his research for Compton, he told the LA Times in 2015:

It’s easy to say, “I know it because it’s part of my life.” I grew up a few miles away from Cube. The culture was the same. Our trajectory was somewhat the same – he was in music, I was in film. But I had to make sure I approached it the same way I would approach something I didn’t know. That means go in deep, dig for details. If I were to do a movie about Apollo 13, I’d be at NASA studying what it took to go into space. It’s part of your job to go deep, to interview the right people.

Compton may have been his biggest triumph as a filmmaker, but he’s been recognized for his talents for a while. Check out a 2008 DGA tribute to the filmmaker:

5. Take an Exit if You Need To

You need to stay in your lane, as Gray says, but in making a movie you share that lane with other drivers and that means sometimes stopping and going at their speed and following them in their path.

But if all that traffic is keeping you at a standstill creatively, you may want to take an out. Here’s a lesson he shares in a 2015 Deadline interview:

DEADLINE: You have been on a similar journey. What of your previous movies taught you the most valuable lessons?
GRAY: The movies I suffered the most on. A Man Apart wasn’t well received. I didn’t finish that movie. The last five minutes were directed by somebody else because I was off doing The Italian Job. That was a really rough experience. With Be Cool, I made some assumptions in thinking that movie was going to work. I’d just made a successful PG-13 movie, and when I walked into Be Cool, it was rated R and then at the last minute in preproduction I was told, “Well, you have to make this PG-13.” I should have walked off the film. This was a movie about shylocks and gangsta rappers and if you can’t make that world edgy, you probably shouldn’t do it. I walked in thinking I was going to make one movie and then it changed. Maybe it was arrogant of me to think because I had success in this realm of PG-13 I could make that work.

DEADLINE: What did you lose in making that movie PG-13 instead of R?
GRAY: The edge. All the edge. Chili Palmer said the word f*ck 54 times in Get Shorty. To be able to say it once in the sequel? It robbed authenticity. He was a shylock and this was about gangsta rappers. That was an edgy, grimy world. When you try to build a world and you want people to buy into, it has to feel real. I arrogantly thought, “I can handle this curveball you’ve thrown me with the rating. I’ll figure it out.” I was sadly mistaken. There are people who enjoyed that movie, but you know what? We missed the mark with Be Cool. I suffered because of that, as an artist. I also learned a lot. You can’t assume something is going to be good, just because. There are things you should compromise on in a collaborative effort. But there are things you should stand up for and not compromise on.

DEADLINE: Were you concerned with the baggage that comes with bailing at the last minute?
GRAY: Of course. You get this reputation and people even said if I bailed on this movie two weeks before shooting, I’d have a hard time working. I was riding the success of another PG-13 movie, The Italian Job, and I made the wrong choice in not standing my ground. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t regret doing Be Cool because I learned a lot, making it. But I also learned how important it is to go with your gut. There are so many ways you can get this sh*t wrong.

Watch Gray at work on his latest movie:

6. Love It or Leave It

In general, you may just want to get off the road altogether if you’re not into driving – er, filmmaking. Directing is not a job for lazy people, and it’s not a good job for anyone looking to wind up comfortably in cruise control.

In a new Variety interview, Gray complains about his passionless peers:

You’re raw when you start off. And I’ve become hyper-aware of artists who start off pretty good and then they lose it because they get fat and rich and kind of stop giving a shit. I try to make sure I don’t fall into the trap of becoming comfortable, and make sure every project I take is an opportunity to learn something.

He didn’t just learn this lesson, though. Here’s a quote from a 1996 Detour magazine interview reprinted in the book “Black Directors in Hollywood”:

Directing is a love it or leave it job. There’s no in between. You have to give up a big chunk of your freedom to do it, so you’d better love it. … You have to deal with attitudes and egos, you have to convince people to do things they wouldn’t normally do, you have to convince performers to be people that they’re not – and be convincing…Sometimes you think, am I out of my mind for doing this? But then you sit back…take a really deep breath and you say, “It was ALL worth it.”

Gray directs Charlize Theron on the set of ‘The Italian Job’

What We’ve Learned

It sounds like after more than 20 years in the business, Gray is all about things being his way or the highway. He recommends making movies you’re passionate about and only because you’re passionate about making movies.

And if you realize you’re not right for a particular project, or vice versa, then you should get out of that vehicle. Be comfortable as far as working with material you’re suited for, but not so much that it’s not a challenge.

Start local if you need to, but eventually try out different roads and go the distance. Eventually you may even wind up directing a Fast and Furious movie, because that franchise is never going to end.

In parting, here’s a documentary celebrating Gray from six years ago:

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.