May 2003
The Italian Job : An Interview with Director F. Gary Gray

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

The Italian Job: An Interview with Director F. Gary Gray

It’s rare for an African-American director to have 2 films out the same year. Just last year, Charles Stone III had “Paid in Full” and “Drumline”. Now it’s F. Gary Gray’s turn. Earlier this year, his long-delayed film “A Man Apart” was finally released to tepid reviews. Time heals all wounds and with a few months gone by, he’s back again on the big screen with his latest film, The Italian Job. In an interview with, Director F. Gary Gray talks about how much fun he had making this film.

WM: Can you talk about the casting for the movie?

FGG: The biggest draw for me was, when I read the script, the ability to pull together a cast like this. Sheila Jaffe, my casting director, made great casting suggestions. She cast “The Sopranos” and I had Mark (Wahlberg) in mind because I have a relationship with him. I’ve known him for a few years and we’ve always wanted to work with each other. When I read the script, I felt this would perfect for Mark. I loved Charlize (Theron) in “Sweet November”. I thought she was very sweet and very real and very accessible. Sometimes we get a woman who’s really beautiful or a model, and there’s no connection with them and I felt Charlize was no only beautiful but down to earth, which is kind of rare. There’s a credibility she has. When you have a role like “Stella Bridger”, who’s a tough Philly safe cracker, you can’t just hire any model or actress from Hollywood. It just won’t fly so I thought that she was perfect for the role.

WM: It’s important for the cast to work well together on screen. What did you do to establish the camaraderie within the group?

FGG: The first thing I did was, in rehearsal, told the cast to drop their scripts and we’re going to pull off a heist. They couldn’t believe it. I told them that if they were to play thieves, they would have to perfect it. We would do this on the first day of rehearsals. I think they were all game for it and really excited. They pulled this plan and I can’t get into details but they ended up breaking and entering somewhere and stealing a couple of things and escaping without being caught. It was harmless cause I sent my poor assistant back to return all the things they stole. They had good doing this and they felt liberated cause when you’re a big star or stars, everyone’s always watching, and you have to watch what you say, and what you do and this director comes along and tells them that they will be doing a lot of stealing today. I think they had a good time with it, and again it was harmless. We returned everything and celebrated with some drinks after a successful heist. I did that to establish a bond and a trust that you need when you’re shooting a movie like this first and when you’re on a heist, I would imagined, you need a team that you can trust. Instead of creating an environment where everyone has to memorize words, I wanted to create a relationship, and I know from that point on, they could build on that as opposed to memorize lines. To this day we’re all friends and it’s great. If this movie doesn’t work, we could all go out and steal.

WM: Seth Green said that at times, you let him improvise on some scenes. Is that true?

FGG: Seth is an amazing actor and he’s great at improvising. That’s a director’s dream. With my style, I find that you get real life out of the actors when you give them the opportunity to be themselves. You get that burst of spontaneity and it’s wonderful cause you experience it for the first time and sometimes I’m directing cause I’m watching and I don’t know what’s going to come next and I forget to say, “Cut” cause I want to see more. Seth is so brilliant that after a while I start to think, “Is he going to his trailer at lunch and writing this stuff and then coming back and pretending that he’s improvising.” It’s too funny like the scene when he’s mimicking Jason’s accent. It was genius and I think that’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

WM: With so many scenes going on the same time, how did you find time to control what’s going on while not there for every scene?

FGG: It’s just clear communication. You have to, as a director, have a vision and be very clear about that vision. There are various tools of communicating. You vision from storyboards, to mission statements. For instance, I created a mission statement that I distributed to all concerned on the project and it outlined everything, from what I wanted the audience to feel about the characters, the colors, the sounds, the emotions as it relates to the scenes, the action, and because I was very clear about that, I created a certain continuity and consistency that everyone was very clear about and I think that’s how we managed keep it consistent although we were shooting all over the globe, and in some cases, at the same time.

WM: Did you feel one scene was harder to direct than the next?

FGG: A couple. In one scene, we had to shut down what I consider the equivalent to Times Square in Los Angeles and to do that with a 1000 extras and hundreds of cars and 3 helicopters and to shut down and control all the shops, which is about 100 shops on that city block alone, was a logistical challenge. As a director and moments like that, it makes you really nervous. I’m really anxious when it comes to scenes like that. It’s almost like a countdown as you count the number of weeks before you shoot the scene. You wake up one day and you have to get out there and take control over three to four thousand people and deliver. It’s a challenge but at the same time, we had a great team. My first AD Doug Metzger, my DP Wally Phister, and my producers, along with everyone else was great. Because we planned for so long, it was easier to manage. Shooting in the Alps was beautiful. I think the closest thing to having on earth that I’ve ever experience visually, but it was cold as hell. There was a point when it was 17 below windshield. It was beautiful and worth it. I’d it again, but I’d probably wear different clothes.

WM: Were there any near misses or near disasters with the Mini (Coopers)?

FGG: Of course, there were some along with a lot of other things but again I had Kurt Bryant, my stunt coordinator who’s the best in the business, and Alexander, my second unit director. There are always close calls. I remember one stunt where someone jumped and flipped the mini over on the side. The stuntman ended up okay but there’s a lot of dangerous stuff in the stunts. Again, on my creative mission statement, I wanted to make sure we reduce the amount of sequences that needed visual effects. We have none in the film because I wanted to create and have visceral action in the film. With visual effects, it wouldn’t be consistent with some of the smarter choices we made in the movie. We had a very smart cast and smart script with twist and turns. We didn’t want to do things where cartoon cars are flying through the air and the visual effects look cheesy. I put the challenge to my stunt coordinator and transportation coordinator and everyone involved to plan these things so we could do them practically and when you do them practically, it’s more dangerous. It is just is and we were lucky cause no one was hurt really bad. We made it through and I think it shows on film.

WM: Despite all the logistics and all the cars and stunts, you still have characters in the film. How do you that?

FGG: My aim from the start is to make sure that the audience fell in love with these characters so when I put them in jeopardy, the audience would care. I think a lot of times in movies, the focus is so much on the action and so much on the effects the characters kind of get lost in the mix on poor decisions. The first line of my creative mission statement was the characters are first and everything else is second. We hired a great cast which made it easier for me. When you have an ensemble cast, it’s tough. You spread out the screen time so it’s harder to have fully developed characters, but when you have good actors and you have a director who cares, it makes it easier and accessible from the start. We knew we weren’t going to spend $150M on effects. We wanted to make the core of the film was the characters and the chemistry of the team, and we knew that that would be the life of the picture and that was our focus.

WM: What’s next?

FGG: Sleep

WM: Thanks

FGG: Thank You.