Antoine Fuqua arrives a couple of minutes early, arranges himself neatly in a chair, and orders tea. He’s just come from a TV interview, and will head to his hotel room, upstairs, after ours. We sit in a very nice hallway, an appropriately in-between place. Even aside from his schedule, his topic for this day might also be called in-between. His new film, Brooklyn’s Finest, looks backward and forward for him. As it draws from his memories of movies “where people talked,” movies from the ‘70s or ‘80s, about cops or other men looking for ways out of liminal situations, it also recalls his own history—shooting music videos with arrested Development and Pras, or TV spots for Reebok, projects less burdened by expectations than star vehicles like Shooter (2007) or Tears of the Sun (2003). Most importantly, as Fuqua sees it, the film marks a step into his own future, away from huge budgets and studio constraints.
It helps that Brooklyn’s Finest features respected players, including Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, and Fuqua’s friend and Training Day star Ethan Hawke as those troubled cops. It’s also earned attention as something of a comeback for Wesley Snipes, as an ex-con sort of looking to go straight. Shot for a relatively small budget on location, it features as well some locals, who worked on the set and as extras.
Ethan Hawke, Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Jesse Williams, Ellen Barkin, Wesley Snipes, Lili Taylor, Brian F. O'Byrne, Shannon Kane, Will Patton, Vincent D'Onofrio
(Senator Entertainment; US theatrical: 5 Mar 2009 (General release); 2010)
Can you make some connections between your experience shooting in Brownsville and your ongoing work with the Fuqua Film Program?
As I read the script, I couldn’t imagine—as in Training Day—filming it in any other place, because the city is a character itself. The texture, you can’t recreate it someplace else, and the people and the faces. Filming in the real location allows me every day to be inspired and the actors to be inspired, by what’s around them naturally. And it was an amazing experience, a bittersweet experience. When you sit down with the police officers from the precinct and they tell you that you can’t shoot here or you can’t shoot there, and they give you a list of murders and mayhem, or they tell you if you do shoot there, “You’re on your own,” it’s disheartening. You want to give to the community and you want that community to be a part of the filmmaking, so the ids can see something positive. So that fuels me even more, and I have meetings with the community, and roundtables. I sit in and listen to their community meetings and try and get a better understanding of what their needs are, and how they feel about a film company coming in and not feel exploited. It’s a fine line there.
My focus has always been the kids. Too often they don’t get a chance to physically touch something on a film set. To be able to see a work ethic, that people show up, every day, four in the morning, and are there until nightfall, working, busy. And to see the magic happening, it’s an amazing experience—for anyone, and especially for little kids. So they can come up to you and touch you and sit in the director’s chair. I also enjoy talking to them about other jobs in the business, jobs that last sometimes longer than some of the artists in the business. So if your talent is not acting or directing, it may be a grip, or craft service. It’s a job, it’s all part of filmmaking.
That part is really important to me and filming there was beautiful, really. We had no issues, as I knew we wouldn’t. The elements there, the so-called drug dealers, are always gonna be there, unfortunately. But you know, I talk to them as well. They’ve got lives and reasons for doing what they’re doing. I don’t agree with it, but that’s what it is. Also, I like to talk to some of the older gentlemen there, that are maybe on the wrong side of the tracks, similar to Cas [Wesley Snipes] in the movie. They don’t want to be there. They want a new life, even if they don’t know how to get it. They have children. And those are guys that are trying to be very helpful on the set, who want to see their kids come home excited, or see their parents working on the set. It can change a life, and sometimes, save a life. Because we’re there, working, we keep a lot of things form happening because we’re in the way. So if someone planned on shooting someone that day, it’s not gonna happen: there’s 500 people around. And creatively, you can’t beat it: New York City. I wake up every day excited.
As both films highlight their locations, the look of Training Day is different from Brooklyn’s Finest. The first movie is so mobile, traveling so many streets and roads in Los Angeles, and in New York, the shots are so confined, from the opening scenes, inside a car, inside a confession booth.
That’s right. Even Don Cheadle [who plays Tango], when he goes into that back room at first, it’s a cage there. For me, it’s a story about pressure. It’s about economic pressure, which everyone understands today. For the cops, how do you make a living at $25,000 a year? How can you raise a family and face the worse of mankind every day, and go home and still be a happy-go-lucky guy? The internal pressure is the worst and scariest to me, because you can’t see it. Officers go through so much emotional stress, their lives on the line, they’re afraid, and can’t show it. And then there’s the psychological pressure, which isn’t checked often enough, by the departments. These guys are on the streets every day, it leads to post-traumatic effects. And they’ve got to do overtime to make enough money to feed their kids. So when the opportunity comes to take some money sitting on a table, it’s a tough decision for someone like Ethan’s character [Sal]. And those choices can be deadly.
I care a lot about the subject because I believe the business of service is a commendable business. I grew up [in Pittsburgh, his dad a foreman for Heinz, his mother a medical technician] not liking the police. But here are some really good people out there and they need some help. I read an amazing article that scared me, that reported that more police officers commit suicide than die in the line of duty. Why is that not the subject of a bigger conversation? It’s like the hall of whispers, no one talks about it.
That silence seems built into cop culture, as it is in military or football culture, for that matter, that real men can’t confess weakness or uncertainty.
And this move is about that pride. It’s great, but it’s dangerous, especially when you’ve taken an oath to serve and protect. Especially when you’re walking around, packing heat. You get a call on a domestic situation, and you’ve had a horrible day, and your own problems, financial or emotional, and you go into that room where someone’s being a jerk and aggressive, and you’re afraid anyway, and you want to get home to your family. Ugly things can happen. And I find that when it does happen, sometimes in the media, sometimes people just yell, “Racism.” And I think that’s an easy way out. We all know that exist, it’s part of our fiber and this culture, unfortunately. But sometimes it’s other things. It’s those other things I’m interested in exploring. What is happening, when a young man gets executed in Los Angeles, when a young man is shot 40 in New York City? Who does that? And why? To me, that’s the most important question, to help us prevent that from happening again. Rather than exploiting it, explore it.
And it’s not only news media that sensationalize. This movie brings to mind others that have come before, with references to Taxi Driver, Internal Affairs, Infernal Affairs or Deep Cover—in all these plots it looks like the only way out is the way in. the cops and the dealers, they’re behaving the same way.
And Tango is an interesting character, because right away, he says, “I’m losing sight of things.” He wants his life back, and his wife back. And of course, the department uses that. And they say, do this one more thing. For him, the question is, morally, who is he? There’s only “righter and wronger” [a phrase used by one character early in the film]. Will you sell yourself out for what you want? He did take an oath to be a police officer, and Cas was a bad guy. But he wants out, he wants to change his life, and Tango’s boss’s want to set him up. What kind of situation is that, to put someone in, to say, go deep under, become friends, get to know their families, and you do. And you like the person. The scene on the roof [with Cas and Tango] is really all about that, about Tango seeing if he would make the right choice or not. It’s a tough position to be in, and again he’s afraid and confused. He has no power. The only power he can grasp is to be selfish, to betray someone.
His choice is pushed along by Ellen Barkin’s brutally bad cop. She makes the choice seem simpler for viewers, so they see it’s “right.”
That’s right. The film has spiritual angles, too. I kind of go through this process. Each guy was my version of a “Jesus,” so to speak. It’s so important that a cop serves and protects, follows through on the oath he took. I have children now, so for me, if I’m not around, they need to be able to count on the cops to show up and do the right thing. When you think you’re meeting a good guy, in the first scene, he immediately does the wrong thing. He runs straight to confession. Ethan’s character becomes kind of a sacrificial-type Jesus. He does wrong for his family, and there’s a measure of redemption in that. So I wanted to connect his scene and Tango’s first scene, with the light. And Tango is more vengeful, he means to right a wrong. And Richard Gere, to me, was like a ghost. He’s resurrected, but he had to go down into the bowels of hell before he could emerge. And he can’t do that as a cop. As a civilian, can he do the right thing? So to me, it’s a spiritual journey, like the one we’re all on.
It appears too that their motivations for that journey are women, who are less characters in themselves than reasons for the men to act.
That’s part of the concept of being a man that the movie looks at. Sometimes it’s a man’s ego that keeps him from seeing clearly. I shot a scene with Ethan Hawke and Lili Taylor, and it was really good. It broke my heart to cut it, but if they had that conversation about what was going on, and she showed him she could take care of him, he couldn’t have gone out that night. And the movie had to lead to its ending. And so he kept his secret, maintained his idea of what it was to be a man, and it ate him alive. So he didn’t share with him. And Richard Gere wanted the young lady and Tango wanted his wife back. He wanted a real life, and she represented that, especially when she was divorcing him. I have a daughter and a wife [Lela Rochon], and I think I have to save the day. Sometimes they don’t want to have anything to do with me. But most men are raised that way, to believe that we have to provide, that’s part of the ego. You can become very selfish. You know, like the guy who just killed himself in the plane [Joseph Stack]. I was watching that, thinking about these pressures: he burned his house and he’s mad at the IRS. You don’t really see women dong that. That’s interesting.
I’m wondering how you might see another facet of that responsibility, as a man working in an industry that tends to reward and repeatedly produce disappointing work, with stereotypes and silly stories. As an executive producer on this film, you had a different handle on it than you did on, say, King Arthur (2004), an unhappy experience you’ve described elsewhere. So what is your thinking about the business now, as opposed to then?
It’s a scary business. I’ve certainly grown since King Arthur and learned valuable lessons, including that the environment while making a film is just as important as the film itself. You can’t make a good film without a good environment, without support. You need to have freedom and power, not in a negative way, but power to create and know that you’re protected. In Europe they have that more than we do. So, Brooklyn’s Finest, we did for $17 million and shot much of it on the streets. That’s really what I prefer to do. It’s almost independent, even though $17 million is still a lot of money. And I’m writing some things now, trying to find smaller projects. I want to continue to make certain studio pictures, because you just can’t survive in this business without doing that, you can’t get enough power to go and do these other little things.
John Singleton once quoted Coppola to me, that you make one for them, and one for yourself.
Yeah! The dream in my head is, to do one for me and one for me and another one for me. But not even Martin Scorsese can do that. It’s a matter of lifestyle, for one thing, you want to maintain a certain lifestyle for yourself and your family, maybe especially if you didn’t have that growing up. Sometimes, in Hollywood, that drives your choices.
It’s a different scale, but maybe a problem like the one facing the men in this movie.
It is about how you live your life. I think there’s a sweet spot for me, which is $25 [million] and under—and under. I can have more control. There are also bigger pictures on my plate right now [Consent to Kill and Escobar]. It remains to be seen how I’ll function in that world now. Because there are certain things I just need, as an artist. And I don’t know if that’s something that something that every studio will be okay with. I like to get in it as much as I can, to smell it and be around it.
How does that work for you, scene to scene, on a set?
I rehearse. I try to give actors room. I’ve been to some sets that are pretty restricted, and I don’t do that. I’m very prepared, but they’re great artists, these actors. You’re foolish to not allow them enough room to do what they do. I leave room for that, because the fun part of waking up at four in the morning when I just went to bed at two, is that they might surprise you with something, something that’s exciting.
On this set, you had several shoots, each actor in his own story, each with his own approach.
They’re all one guy to me. That’s really how I was able to do it. When I first got the script, I had my assistant separate the movie into three movies. And I started to break down each person individually. They’re very different paths, but the same, which is why I did those little operatic things to connect them. But it’s one person. And I was able to keep myself on track and give each of them the right direction. The actors, I never told them that, that they’re playing one person. For me it was like, one guy under pressure, and whatever the pressure was in specific scenes, those were the buttons I pushed. That kept it focused, even in the editing bay, when you go from his face to his face, the matches were about mounting pressure, trying to keep that thing moving. I had to shift gears quickly, When Richards day was over and Wesley’s was just starting, or from to Ethan to Don, who are all so different in their methods.