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July 2004
King Arthur: An Interview with Keira Knightley

By Todd Gilchrist

King Arthur: An Interview with Antoine Fuqua

"King Arthur" is many things- an historical epic, a thrilling summer adventure, a who's who of today's top British actors- but a "black film" is not one of them. And that's just the way the film's director, Antoine Fuqua, wants it. After starting in genre pictures like so many of his Afro-American contemporaries, Fuqua escaped the label of "black filmmaker" after helming projects like 2001's "Training Day", which flipped gangster movies on their ear by portraying their pursuers as the real criminals, and then moving on to "Tears of the Sun", a vanity project for Bruce Willis about soldiers who rescue Nigerian villagers (and a very sweaty Monica Bellucci) from the threat of certain death. With "Arthur" Fuqua finally finds himself amongst the ranks of Hollywood filmmakers whose race simply doesn't count when it comes to the relative success of their films. Fuqua recently sat down with blackfilm.com to discuss bringing to life the world of 5th century England, his changing position in Hollywood, and what it means to be a filmmaker of color in a largely white-dominated industry.

Having made a "colorblind" movie like this, much less directing "Tears of the Sun", what does your ethnicity mean any longer in the eyes of Hollywood?

AF: I hope nothing. I mean, that's the whole concept, to try to 'erase' the color, you know, to open up the floodgates a little bit and to do different kinds of material.

Do you maintain any sense of personal or professional obligation to change the perception that black filmmakers can only make "black" films?

AF: Yeah, I think so. It sort of happened that way, because the more racism I come across, the more passion I have to change it. I just wanted to make movies, and get away from it, but I can't, so I just find myself fighting to change it, and make my decisions based on that. It's a reluctant job.

So what made "King Arthur" a story that only you could tell, or that you felt you could bring to life?

AF: Well, a lot of people think about kids that grow up in urban environments, whatever color they are, and go 'well, what would they know about mysticism and mythology?' Those are the things that I grew up with, and those are the things that really meant the most to me. We were the kids running around with broomsticks trying to act like knights. It was essential to make a movie like this; it was very important to me. Also, I wanted to make a movie that is a true hero's journey from beginning to end, that's classic Joseph Campbell, and I had to do it as well, just to say, because people do react to color, 'I can do anything if I want to,' to show I can do it all. I don't know if I'd be great at a romantic comedy, but I can do it, and if I do it a few more times, I'll do it even better. I think we cheat ourselves when we do that, because there are some great, talented people out there in all sorts of colors, and if you lock them down, we never get to see it. We get to reflect history; if we lock it down, what are we saying in history? Everybody's going to watch movies that are made only be certain types of people, so the perspective is always going to be one way. I had a guy say to me, 'come down to South Central, and it's like a third world country.' and I said, you know, you're right. Guys from Iraq and places like that who have seen places here and they say things, and I'm like, 'I never thought about it like that,' because they have a fresh eye.

Have you made any conscious decisions to move away from the kinds of material other black directors have approached in past years to distinguish yourself as a filmmaker?

AF: I personally think there's nothing wrong with making movies about gang banging if it has the right story. I think that sometimes the whole thing where we're expected to only make certain kinds of films is complete f*cking bullsh*t. Kurosawa made movies about samurai all day long; I can make a movie about South Central four or five different ways. If it's a good story, it's a good story, but a lot of the material that is greenlit or people decide to make is degrading garbage. It's like, if you want to make movies about black people, then hopefully it's a movie that you, as a white young man, can look at and feel like 'I forgot about the color, I was just watching the movie and I didn't even think about the color.' That's a good movie. That's the movie that I want to see. I hate movie where every ten seconds, unless it's specific to an era, 'well, you know black people do this,' or 'Chinese people do that.' If you've got to say it, I don't buy into it.

There were reports after "Tears of the Sun" failed that there was friction between you and your star, Bruce Willis. Is that why you chose to pursue a cast for "Arthur" comprised largely of unknown actors?

AF: It was a decision I made, and I asked Jerry [Bruckheimer] about it, and he supported it. Certainly my experience with "Tears of the Sun" had something to do with that, for sure, because I was just not in the mood for the bullsh*t. I just felt like the work was too hard, and there are a lot of people who don't make any money who are great actors who want to be there. Also, it was a British story, and I thought, wouldn't it be cool to find some new faces, some of these guys who are still eating tuna fish every day because they can't afford steaks, and they still show up every day. So you find great actors like Ray Winstone and Clive Owen and Keira Knightley, who are really talented people, and you put them in the movie. That was my intention, and certainly "Tears of the Sun" had something to do with that. I wasn't in the mood for it. I don't buy into this behavior based on the fact that you're a so-called 'movie star.' If your passion is really truly all about the project, that's one thing; it was about ego, that experience.

Do you feel like the collaboration on this film was stronger as a result of that decision?

AF: Definitely. These guys are great. They're actors, and they would sit in a room and just discuss the scenes, and they're intelligent. It wasn't about anything else. And Jerry, he and I would go to dinner every night and we'd talk about the movie. And we disagreed a lot, but nobody got upset and walked away; we agreed to disagree, and nobody ever pulled a power play. Jerry never said, 'look, my movies have made X amount of money. How much have yours made?' that never happened. It was always sort of like 'do what you want to do. It's your movie. I'm just giving you my suggestions.' That was always how he did it, and I respect that. That's probably what makes him so good- you go 'this guy is great. Jerry, you can have it your way.' He was just really cool about all of it.

What made Clive Owen the right actor to play Arthur?

AF: He's quiet. He's not really loud, he doesn't wear his emotion on his sleeve. He's a really talented actor, and I wanted Arthur to be a little more complex, a little more grounded, dealing with the Roman half and the British half of who he is, and I was trying to find a guy who could pull that off, and sort of embodied that in a way.

Were there any concerns that the cast might not be able to open a big summer movie like this one?

AF: I don't know. I met them all, and I went through a process. I didn't just go 'I want this guy, and this guy.' I wanted Clive, and then Ray Winstone, I saw him in Sexy Beast and I wanted Ray for sure, and then everyone else was just a process of meeting people, looking at tape and hearing about them, and sitting down and talking to them, watching a test with a couple of them. Keira did a test for me, her and Clive, and then the proof is all in the acting. They came in and they did great.

What pains did you take in "King Arthur" to maintain a sense of historical accuracy as opposed to just making a captivating and entertaining summer movie?

AF: I think you have to be responsible to a degree. I think there are certain things where you have to go 'okay, it's a movie so don't go nuts there.' You have to pick your areas, you know? But I think trying to ground King Arthur and trying to base things in a real time period, we had to be pretty realistic. There may have been a thing or two, like did they have stirrups then, or didn't they have stirrups, but you don't know what they had in the dark ages. You know that Rome was pretty advanced, so they had little things like that. And then the language, in the dialogue itself, you know that certain words that they spoke without translating, people would be like 'what the hell did they just say?' so we had to use some modern language just because it didn't translate. I learned more on this movie than all of my other movies combined.

How do you avoid copying or imitating other historical epics like "Braveheart" or "Gladiator" when you're working from material that, to audiences at least, is somewhat similar?

AF: I just try to make sure that they are unique to the moment. If they're true to the moment, I go with it, because I just couldn't spin my wheels going 'oh, I don't want my movie to be like "Braveheart",' because Franzoni wrote this script a certain way, and I could have liked a scene because it reminded me of something else, I could talk about Kurosawa films and things like that, but at the end of the day you have to make a decision like 'I just like it's true to this moment.' It works for this moment in this movie, so somebody may say that, but hopefully they won't take it as a negative. I'm not trying to rip them off. I'm just trying to make my movie work, and that's all you can really do. Now, if I'd written the script myself I would do some things different, but I signed on to a script, and you have to pick your battles.

What's next for you? I understand you have a project called "Tru Blu" in the works.

AF: I'm going to do that with Denzel [Washington] and Benicio [del Toro], and that's a story about a gangster who made a deal with the U. S. Army and the Vietnamese army and he was smuggling pure heroin into the United States during the Vietnam War from '69 to '73. It's a true story, it's an American story, and it's pretty intense.

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