The director of ‘Training Day’ and ‘The Equalizer’ shares some words of wisdom.
After getting a start directing music videos for such icons as Stevie Wonder and Prince, Antoine Fuqua made his feature film debut with 1998’s The Replacement Killers. A few years later, Fuqua hit a home run with Training Day, which grossed over $104 million at the box office against a $45 million budget and earned star Denzel Washington his second Academy Award.
Fuqua has stayed very busy ever since, and he’s had an equal amount of highs and lows in his career — his second outing with Washington, The Equalizer, practically had a sequel in production before it even made it to theaters, but his disappointing 2004 blockbuster King Arthur can only be looked at as a learning experience and a challenge he wouldn’t mind trying to take on again.
While Fuqua can waxes poetic about Akira Kurosawa with the best of them, he’s never been one to pander to either critics or awards. More of his films are ranked rotten than fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (though it’s worth noting that Roger Ebert often had nice things to say), but one somehow can’t imagine him losing sleep over that.
He was, for example, both clear and unapologetic about his desire to remake The Magnificent Seven starring Washington not being about making a statement—unless that statement is “I just wanted to see Denzel Washington on a horse. Everyone else fell in place around that idea.”
Fuqua, both as a filmmaker and in interviews, has a distinct directness in his approach, and that makes for some interesting filmmaking advice. We’ve compiled some of these tips below.
Learn Your Craft
In a Q&A for The Equalizer in 2014, the moderator opened up the floor to audience questions, leading to the inevitable “Do you have any advice for an aspiring filmmaker?” To which Fuqua had a seemingly obvious response at the ready:
“Learn your craft. And the only way you’re going to learn your craft is by doing it. You’re in a digital age now. Go get a camera. Go get some lenses. If you can. Go to school if you can, but if not… learn your craft. And that might mean be a PA. Go run and get coffee. Be on the set. Ask questions. Have no fear about being naive about certain things or not knowing. But most importantly is really learn the craft. Understand what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”
You can watch the full Q&A below.
Just Tell A Good Story…
In a 2016 Deadline interview promoting the release of his Magnificent Seven remake, Fuqua had some thoughts about young filmmakers:
I want young people to not be afraid to think out the box. They don’t have to tell a story about the hood. Your lead actor doesn’t have to be the same color as you. It’s the storytelling, and the human qualities and humanity of your characters. Like Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Southpaw.’ He’s a Jewish kid, and I love the story about him and his daughter, I don’t give a shit what color he was. I relate to the story. There are some people who will say, ‘How come you didn’t make him black?’ Because it wasn’t the script. If in the script he was black, then he would have been black. People get caught up too much in these things, but it doesn’t matter to me. Just tell a good story.
The full interview is worth a read, covering everything from diversity in Hollywood to his reasoning behind taking on King Arthur.
…And Tell It Right
In the lead-up to the release of The Equalizer in 2014, Fuqua spoke with Den of Geek! and offered his thoughts on the visual nature of cinematic storytelling:
“Everything about cinema should give you cues. Every lens you pick tells a story. If I’m shooting you now with a 75mm long lens, it tells you a different story. If I put an 18mm lens right close to your face, it’s going to tell another story. Especially on a screen that big, in a movie theater. The audience gets it. I find that sometimes — sometimes — there’s a struggle when dealing with this kind of material, there’s a tendency to ‘fast food’ it.
“In the States rather than in Europe, I have to say. When I see a European film, it’s really cool the way they take their time. In the States, there’s a tendency towards what I call fast food cinema. I said, ‘Well, people go to see characters.’ Very [few] people can tell you the plot of their favorite films, but they could tell you about the characters, and certain scenes that really moved them.”
People Will Follow Your Lead
With his well-publicized love of boxing and working out, Fuqua is perhaps one of the fittest directors working today. In an interview with Men’s Health published back in 2008, he claims that the benefits of his active lifestyle extend well beyond himself:
“When I don’t work out, my brain’s not as sharp. I’m lethargic. Then the crew people notice. They pick up on my pace and they start moving that way, too. But if you’ve just worked out, you’ve got the energy and you’re like, ‘Let’s go.’ On busy days, I’ll just focus on food.
“And now my assistant director and some other people watch me. ‘I’m eatin’ what he’s eatin’!’ they say. At breakfast, I’ll grab some egg whites. So do they. And later when I get hungry, I’ll eat some peanut butter on an apple. Now I see ’em all walking around with peanut butter and apples. They eat what I’m eating, to feel the energy I’m feeling.”
If you really want to follow Fuqua’s regiment, the Men’s Health article is a good place to start. In addition to including details of his exercise routine and diet, Fuqua also shares the contents of some of his film-set playlists (the Last of the Mohicans score and 50 Cent both get a mention) plus more tips.
Use Real Locations
While more of a personal preference than a tip, Fuqua does suggest following his lead when it comes to shooting on location. He explains in a 2012 Venice magazine interview (via The Hollywood Interview) the benefit and the positive challenge of practical locations:
“It’s tough on crew, but it just can’t be the same essence otherwise, you know, because the actors know it’s fake, I know it’s fake, somewhere in your mind, it’s just fake… If you put an actor in a real environment, all their choices have to be based on what’s real. And, then, as a director, you can’t always move that wall and get that fancy shot.“But then again, you know, sometimes it makes you just have to deal with some real hard choices. Instead of it being a restriction, it actually becomes more of a creative choice, ‘What’s this scene about?’ It’s not about the fancy shot on the wall, it’s not about the pretty light in the hallways. You know, and if you can get away with that and tell your story, and it actually helps you be more disciplined, then it’s better.”
It’s About the Work
In response to the rather vague inquiry “what’s it about?” in the opening moments of a 2010 DP/30 interview promoting Brooklyn’s Finest, Fuqua immediately responds,
“It’s about the movie. It’s about the work, man. It’s always about the work, you know? Any filmmaker worth his salt will say it’s really not about him, really. How could it be? It’s not our faces up on the screen, you know? We’re telling our stories—it’s our art, it’s our painting, but, you know, how many people you know know who Caravaggio is? […] How many people know what Picasso looks like? But you know his work.”
At almost 40 minutes long, the interview provides a pretty solid introduction to Fuqua’s notably consistent approach to filmmaking and movies as a whole, walking through the director’s entire filmography to that date. Watch it in full below.
Bonus: Fight For Your Film
Back in 2004 while promoting King Arthur, Fuqua was asked in a BBC interview about the best piece of advice he had ever gotten. Fuqua chose to share some words of wisdom passed along by director Oliver Stone:
I think the best piece of advice I was given was probably by Oliver Stone, which was: “Fight like hell for the film.” That’s it. Fight like hell for the film. “Follow the art,” I think is what he also said. Follow the art.
What We Learned
Antoine Fuqua’s films are known for their beautifully stylish brutality and grit, and his filmmaking tips are not wholly different. They’re based in a foundation of grit and determination. He’s a commercial filmmaker and not afraid to embrace both of these terms in equal measure. But, as he demonstrates through his work, that still leaves plenty of room for artistry.