Gray recently sat down with Moviefone to talk about why the series' first female villain might be its best yet, how he shot some of the series' more insane action sequences, and how the White House helped get this movie made.
Moviefone: This is a huge franchise with established characters. How do you put your own stamp on it?
F. Gary Gray: Well, it's the premise. The premise is really different: Dom [Vin Diesel] goes against the family. And so there is probably a little more drama than you're used to in a "Fast and Furious" movie. I'm very used to drama, and then my own brand of humor. So the tone in balancing those two things, which is slightly different for the franchise, that's part of what I bring to it. And then just ideas to elevate the action sequences. And a slightly different visual approach. It's a challenge that any director new to a franchise would have to consider -- we didn't reinvent the wheel, but ultimately, the sum of all of these choices makes it a Gary Gray movie.
At this point, the franchise seems to take on a different genre for each movie. What genre elements were you looking to bring into this entry?
I think it's a combination of everything that I've done up to this point. You see elements of "The Italian Job." You see elements of "Friday." There's humor, there's comedy, there's drama. I think you see a lot of these elements in most of my movies, it's just really extreme now. Even some of the dramatic moments, where you see a performance from Vin Diesel that you've never seen before, these are all things that I'd like to think come from some of my experiences from my previous movies.
How much pressure is there to keep coming up with bigger and badder stunts? In this, I mean, you've got a chase with a Russian sub!
I think all of us were really conscious of the fact that the fans want something spectacular. You go to these movies because you love these characters, you've grown up with these characters, but you want massive action and original action. When you go into it, you want to top the last one and the one before that. Our writer, Chris Morgan -- and the producer and studio -- everyone is hyper-aware of that. I was too, and I think we pushed the envelope for sure.
So you had story meetings where someone says, "No, no, it's been done. We need to go bigger"?
Were you in one of those meetings? [Laughs] Exactly. You run through a lot of ideas and you throw a lot of ideas up against the wall and you see what sticks.
What was the best idea you had that ended up in the final film?
I think one of the best ideas is a really, really small one -- and that's the haka (Maori) dance that the kids do with The Rock. This is something I did with The Rock before in one of my previous movies. We did it with the kids and we had a great laugh. It was a lot of fun. But I would hate to just focus on things that I contributed, because Chris Morgan did a great job as a writer and Vin Diesel... everybody really contributed. I had fun making my own contributions, but -- and I know it sounds like a cliche -- it was a team effort.
Charlize Theron plays the series' first female villain ...
Absolutely. And the best villain, female or otherwise!
Bringing her in, that's a pretty big get.
That's the biggest get. She delivered on a whole 'nother level in this movie. We've never seen a villain like this in the franchise. So evil and so complex and so cool. She's a kickass villain and, I think, the best villain so far. You would normally see some musclebound guy with a bald head going head-to-head with the other bald guys in the movie, but it's different and I think that's part of the strength of this particular movie.
Do you think Charlize will be back?
We'll see. We've gotta read that script and find out.
When you see the chase scenes on the ice, you think, "That has to be green screen. No way they really did something so dangerous." But you were really out there.
We were really out there. And it took an army of engineers to make sure it was safe. When you're driving 100-plus miles an hour with a Lamborghini -- on melting ice -- and there's 40 military vehicles chasing them, you want to make sure it doesn't collapse. You have the safety of the stuntmen, you have the safety of the actors, and you have the safety of the crew -- all of which is happening at the same time. So just the weight of all of the equipment and all of these vehicles, when the sun's bearing down on the ice and it's melting by the second.
Were you a nervous wreck that day?
Oh, I'm still a nervous wreck. [Laughs] It's something that I wish I was smart enough to figure out, but the team that it took just to shoot some of the simplest shots, it required an army of very, very smart people to pull this off.
Was there every a moment where you thought, "Oh, it's going south"?
Uh, you know you have those moments weekly in a process like that. In Iceland, we lost a tractor. The snow started to melt and it just kind of collapsed -- thanks for laughing -- and then you start to think, "How much time do you have?" There's a kind of hourglass effect that happens where it's just a ticking clock of how much you can shoot, how long it's gonna take, and you want to get as much as you can. When you have cars flipping and exploding and things like that, I wish I could take all the credit for that. My second-unit director, Spiro Razatos, was out there really kicking ass. Nervous? Yeah, a lot of times you're doing things that have never been done before, especially with vehicles that -- if you make the wrong turn or the wrong maneuver -- could be extremely dangerous.
You were the first U.S. production to film in Cuba in more than 50 years. How complicated was that to pull off?
What a movie to take there. It wasn't like "My Dinner With Andre." We flew in hundreds of people from a country that's had strained relations [with Cuba], to say the least. Obama was really helpful in softening the relations. Everything that was happening on the state level was affecting what we did on the ground.
I'm dreaming up shots and things like that, and there are people in the White House who had to understand what we were doing on both sides in order for it to be approved. We had ambassadors and things like that involved. I want the audience to not even think about those things, but the simplest things required an army of negotiators from the White House [to shoot in Cuba] -- all the way down to shoot something as simple as a car chase in Manhattan. New Yorkers are like, how are you going to get a car go 100 mph through Times Square?
So all the New York scenes were really on location?
We had a little movie magic in there. But we did shoot in New York.
How has moviemaking changed for you since you first started?
You just learn from movie to movie. I think that, in a strange way, it gets simpler. You just learn to trust your instincts. When you're younger, you're second-guessing yourself and your insecurities play a big role in how you operate. You, hopefully not just as a filmmaker, you mature. So your process is different. I think I have way more respect for the creative process when I was younger. I'm more aware of creatives and how they create.
So you mean giving more space for the actors to act?
Absolutely. Absolutely. I tried a slightly different approach with "Straight Outta Compton" and we were really successful with that. You learn and, hopefully, you apply what you learn to whatever you do next. The performances here are next-level for the "Fast and the Furious" franchise. You've never seen Vin sit in this emotional pocket before with this character. Even Tyrese, with his humor, is fun and different. You accumulate all these tools and hopefully you get a chance to use them.
I'm a big fan of "Set if Off..."
I was just having lunch with Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith yesterday.
If it came out today, do you think it would get more attention than it got in 1996?
Yes. I was talking to Latifah yesterday about that. Me, personally, I think she deserved an Oscar nomination for that performance. She was amazing in that movie and I think it sparked a lot of careers. And women doing things we're used to seeing men do, maybe it's -- and I wouldn't say it is commonplace now -- but you see a little bit more of it. It wasn't very, very common back then, especially with minorities. So I think that, yeah, it would probably have a different traction and a different response. I'm really proud of that picture. It was number two for me, my second one. And I love it.
Will you be back for another "Furious" movie?
That's a really good question. I'm so focused on this one right now. There hasn't been a script written yet for it. We'll see.
"Fate of the Furious" is in theaters now. Get your tickets here.