Q & A with Director F. Gary Gray

Star Gerard Butler (left) with Director F. Gary Gray (right)

Star Gerard Butler (left) with Director F. Gary Gray (right)

As part of ZAMM.com’s ongoing series of filmmaker interviews Martin Grove talks to F. Gary Gray, director of Overture Films and The Film Department’s psychological thriller “Law Abiding Citizen”, opening wide Oct. 16.

Directed by F. Gary Gray (“The Italian Job”), “Law Abiding Citizen” stars Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Bruce McGill, Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb, Michael Irby, Regina Hall and Viola Davis. The film was written by Kurt Wimmer ("Street Kings") and produced by Lucas Foster, Gerard Butler, Alan Siegel, Mark Gill, Kurt Wimmer and Robert Katz. Its executive producers are Michael Goguen and Neil Sacker.

The Story: Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is an upstanding family man whose wife and daughter are brutally murdered during a home invasion. When the killers are caught, Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), a hotshot Philadelphia prosecutor, is assigned to the case. Nick offers one of the suspects a light sentence in exchange for testifying against his accomplice.

Fast forward ten years. The man who got away with murder is found dead and Clyde Shelton coolly admits his guilt. Then he issues a warning to Nick: Either fix the flawed justice system that failed his family or key players in the trial will die. Soon Shelton follows through on his threats, orchestrating from his jail cell a string of spectacularly diabolical assassinations that can be neither predicted nor prevented. Philadelphia is gripped with fear as Shelton’s high-profile targets are slain one after another and the authorities are powerless to halt his reign of terror.

Only Nick can stop the killing and to do so he must outwit this brilliant sociopath in a harrowing contest of wills in which even the smallest misstep means death. With his own family now in Shelton’s crosshairs, Nick finds himself in a desperate race against time facing a deadly adversary who seems always to be one step ahead.

Q: How did you get involved in making “Law Abiding Citizen”?
A: It was a call from Jamie Foxx. We’ve always really wanted to work with each other. We just had to find the best project. He told me that was a project he thought I should strongly consider.
Q: When did he call you?
A: In October of ’08. I read the script. I loved the concept and thought it was really unique. I met with The Film Department’s Mark Gill, Lucas Foster and all the producers and I guess the rest is history. That’s the short version. We had a lot of meetings in-between. I had put together my visions for the material. It was relatively simple (to work things out).
Q: When you read it, what was it that made you feel Jamie was right about this being great material for you to direct?
A: The fact that it was a complex story with complex characters. Although it fits within a genre to a certain extent there’s something really unique about it. With most movies it’s very easy to predict who the good guy is and who the bad guy is and you can also predict what they’re going to do. With this movie, that’s not the case. It’s just like life — a lot kind of lives in the grey area. I thought that was really handled well within the story.

More than anything, I loved the concept of a man taking an entire city hostage from inside a prison. That was very unique to me. What I look for are two things — Is the story unique? And is it a challenge for me? I’ve never directed a psychological thriller and I felt like it was perfect on a lot of levels. Working with Jamie, getting a chance to work with Gerard and the material all kind of lined up perfectly for me.
Q: How would you describe the film’s story?
A: A formerly upstanding citizen terrorizes an entire city from behind prison bars in the wake of his family’s murder. In a contest of wills, the assistant D.A. who tried the original case attempts to stop him, but the smallest misstep could lead to his or his family’s death.
Law Abiding Citizen in theaters October 16

Law Abiding Citizen in theaters October 16

Q: The film you’ve made is definitely heavy with action.
A: Most all of the action is motivated by the story and by the main characters. There’s nothing gratuitous about the action. It’s smart. It’s a chess game. The action was there (in the screenplay), but I did have to make it my own. So there was a lot of adjusting to the script and to some of the set pieces just to own it from my perspective. There’s a lot of good action and smart action in it, but I wanted to definitely make it my own and the producers were really open to that.
Q: What goes into filming the set pieces that audiences love when they see films like this?
A: As much as I’d love to take the credit for the action sequences that I’ve put on the screen, there’s a lot of people involved. There’s stunt coordinators and prop masters and writers. It’s an all hands on deck process. There’s a sequence in the movie that takes place in a cemetery where there’s a weaponized bomb disposal robot that attacks a security convoy. Two weeks before we shot that scene I called my producer, Lucas Foster, and said, “The way it’s written doesn’t work for me. We need a way to amp it up and make it more modern.”

It initially was written with a rocket launcher, which I thought was pretty old school. It fit more in a movie from the ’80s than a movie in 2009. How can we step it up and deliver something that’s cooler and more modern staying within the tone of the movie? I suggested that we create this weaponized bomb disposal robot that has all these weapons on it to take the place of a rocket launcher because I felt it was smarter and in step with the character that we established who’s an ex-spy.

It was an impossible situation (which forced) my producer to say, “We only have two weeks and we have to get the Department of Defense involved and get clearances. I don’t know if we can make that happen in two weeks given how complex it is.” I pushed and pushed and pushed and like a good producer he said, “Let me see what I can make happen.” To make a long story short, everyone put everything into making this work for me and in two weeks we found a robot from the Philadelphia Police Department. They actually loaned us their robot. We disassembled it and rebuilt a weaponized version of that robot.

It took so many people to make this one moment work. And that moment also required a certain amount of emotion to serve the story, which required the writer to jump in and creative producers, who chimed in. It was a great process for me. A lot of times directors ask for the impossible. Sometimes you get it and sometimes you fall short. But I think in that case we really achieved the impossible.
Q: Did you use multiple cameras when you shot the film’s set pieces?
A: We had seven cameras out there because when you’re shooting on a practical location you don’t have the time to spread it out over a week. You have to be very, very respectful — especially in a cemetery — when you’re shooting action. They’re not going to let you blow up a Suburban 16 times in a cemetery. We had to go to great lengths to make sure everything was safe and very respectful of the environment. The reason we used that many cameras is to reduce any potential problems we could have shooting that type of sequence in that environment.

I went through the same thing with “The Italian Job” where we were shooting a boat chase in the canals of Venice. You’re racing around a standing piece of art. So there were months of planning and storyboarding and coordinating and safety (planning) and having to really be careful about the wake that the boats would create so you didn’t damage any of the palazzos. I’m used to going to the wall and really preparing every sequence within an inch of its life to make sure that everyone is safe and that we protect the environment.

Law Abiding Citizen in theaters October 16

Law Abiding Citizen in theaters October 16

It was challenging on “Law Abiding Citizen”, but I was used to it because of “The Italian Job”.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced making the film?
A: Weather was one of our biggest challenges. We had to shoot the film entirely in Philadelphia. In Philly they were really great to us, but it was through the entire winter and obviously winter weather presents its challenges. (It’s tough) when you’re shooting interiors in a prison that’s actually a functioning prison and it’s 30 degrees inside. The actors had to wear thermals under their costumes. We had to bring in special jets — almost the equivalent of a jet engine — to warm up some of the environment that we were in.
Q: How long did you shoot?
A: We shot for 48 or 49 days from mid-January to March (of 2009). This was all in Philadelphia from beginning to end.
Q: What sort of budget did you have to work with?
A: I don’t know the specific budget, but I would probably characterize it as mid-size.
Q: Were there tax incentives or rebates for shooting in Philadelphia?
A: There were great incentives in Philadelphia, but I couldn’t see this film in any other city. I was going for a neo-noir feel and Philadelphia was perfect for that with the great bridges. When you look at noir films there are specific elements that I thought would be very interesting to give this movie a certain tone and mood. So I took full advantage of the bridges and the smoke stacks and the City Hall, which is probably one of the largest city halls in America, and its historic architecture (with) the Penn statute on top of City Hall. All these elements lent themselves to a more retro feel.

The color palate that I used was a high contrast muted kind of color palate. So with all the stonework in Philadelphia, it really was perfect. This movie would be different if we had to shoot it in Los Angeles or Miami. It just would have a different feel. I think Philadelphia really lent itself in a great way to how the movie feels. There’s a great old prison in Philadelphia called George Hill. I believe it was built in the 1800s. It was the first time they ever allowed anyone to shoot there. It looks like a castle. I was able to blend some of our more modern elements like our wardrobe and vehicles with some of these more retro elements like the locations you wouldn’t see in Los Angeles or New York and that was a lot of fun for me.