Antoine Fuqua spent the first decade of this 21st century working almost without a stop, pumping out nine feature and TV movies in ten years, most notably the gritty cop dramas Training Day (for which Denzel Washington his first Oscar) and Brooklyn's Finest. But since 2009, he's only released one film -- a TV movie called Exit Strategy, made with his frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke -- as several of his passion projects have been delayed for various financial and personal reasons.
Next weekend, Fuqua finally returns to the big screen with the popcorn-munching action-genre film Olympus Has Fallen, which stars Gerard Butler as an exiled secret service agent who becomes the country's last hope when a North Korean paramilitary group takes over the White House and holds the president (Aaron Eckhart), secretary of defense (Melissa Leo) and several others hostage.
The Hollywood Reporter met with Fuqua over the weekend to discuss the film, as well as the thorny issues involved with working with the military, Dennis Rodman's well-timed trip to North Korea, gun violence and his next projects, which should finally include Southpaw, a film he's making with Eminem.
THR: Welcome back to New York.
Fuqua: I love New York.
THR: Yeah? Do you miss it?
Fuqua: Oh my God.
THR: Where in New York did you live?
Fuqua: Well I had a place on 57th and Broadway but I gave that up. I regretted giving that up so then we got a place at 14th Street. I love it down there. I’ve had some funny experiences down there. I used to see parents dropping off students [at NYU]; so sweet. Then cut to a month later, I’d be on my way home and see them drunk on the sidewalk. What happened?
THR: You hadn’t come out with a movie in a number of years. It must’ve felt good to get back on the horse.
Fuqua: Yeah. It’s like an athlete, you go nuts. Your family’s like "Don’t you have somewhere to be?" You’re trying to develop your personal projects and get things going. It’s tough.
THR: I imagine this was a really fun movie too. There was less personal, more fun.
Fuqua: This was fun. It was entertainment. When I read the script I thought it’d be fun. Shooting up the White House and building my own White House. (Laughing) You can’t take yourself too seriously.
THR: I was watching this movie and thinking that ten years ago, this would’ve been Al Qaeda, 20-30 years ago it would’ve been Russians.
Fuqua: We always find a bad guy. Writers are at home, listening to the news, and they’re like "That’d be a good story. North Koreans." What are you going to do? That’s part of our culture.
THR: When you look back on movies from World War II or before, the Japanese and the Native Americans are given a bad rap, racially lampooned. Did you worry about falling into that trap here?
Fuqua: Yeah, it wasn’t about North Korea being bad. It’s just one particular terrorist, just one guy who has a personal debt to pay. Like all of them, they have their grand scheme of conquering the world. They have this thing. But really, it comes down to something personal.
THR: Obviously, you couldn’t have known this when you made the movie or decided on a release date, but quite the timing for Dennis Rodman to take a high profile trip to North Korea…
Fuqua: (Laughing) Please explain that one to me. And make it even better, tell me what he was saying. Does anybody know?
THR: I don’t know. He said Obama should call if North Korea, and then they threatened to nuke America. They said they could preemptively strike.
Fuqua: How did he wind up there?
THR: Through Vice magazine, they sent a delegation.
Fuqua: It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen. And did you see what he looks like? He’s bizarre. I don’t know what’s happening with that kid. He’s doing me a favor. Keeping me in the news. He should be on TV more.
THR: So is it a secret marketing campaign for Olympus? Is he going to pop up somewhere for your next movie too?
Fuqua: (Laughing) Yeah, in Columbia for Pablo Escobar.
THR: You’ve built a whole White House set in Louisiana. That must’ve been crazy, to build it up and then knock down the White House.
Fuqua: It was crazy. Every morning you show up on set and it’s pristine and nice and white and then the next day there’s blood on the walls and holes in the walls. It’s chilling sometimes. It’s like a cathedral. It’s this symbol and after a while when you’re sitting there as a director looking at it, you’re like "I would not like to see this happen."
THR: Did you guys use helicopters and stuff like that? How much of that was digital versus real?
Fuqua: Half and half. Obviously, I can do what I could do with the choppers but there’s some stuff you just can’t do. But half and half.
THR: I know a lot of times, the Department of Defense will work with people, with weapons and guns to make that... Were they helpful?
Fuqua: (laughing) Not really.
THR: No? Because they require certain things.
Fuqua: Yeah. They literally will look at your stuff and change some things.
THR: Yeah, so you didn’t want to deal with that?
Fuqua: No, not on this one. Attacking the White House? I don’t think so.
THR: I guess that’s understandable.
Fuqua: They were nice about it, they just said "Antoine, not on this one." Tears of the Sun they helped me out on. This one, they said no. And I knew they wouldn't anyway, but I had to ask.
THR: Yeah, it saves money.
Fuqua: If I would’ve got their cooperation, it would’ve been bigger because of all their equipment and they bring you stuff. I wouldn’t have to pay for everything.
THR: So where did you get the choppers and stuff?
Fuqua: We leased them from people who actually had them. There are individuals that actually have these things, private companies have them and you can [rent] them out and do stuff to them. It’s kind of scary.
THR: Yeah, people could have guns and choppers.
Fuqua: People own these things.
THR: That’s scary to me too. It made me think, because when you see movies you think "No one would have a missile launcher" but people have that stuff now.
Fuqua: They have it. That’s the whole point. I’m glad you said that because that’s… Years ago, you’d say "No. No one would have that." Now it’s "I could have it." That’s part of the problem we have in the country. Just recently, they caught someone and they showed what he had in his house. This guy had 50 calibers, automatic weapons, explosives, C4. He had it all.
THR: And you can get it legally.
Fuqua: Yeah. There are people that build AK 47’s. You can order the parts.
THR: I don’t know why someone would need one at all.
Fuqua: I don’t either. I really don’t. They have it and they keep this stuff and sometimes we see the worst of it.
THR: Sometimes I feel like we’re living in different countries.
Fuqua: You don’t want to be a police state, but how do you police to protect, especially the children. How do you do it? And when you get, not just drugs, it’s gun running and explosives and all these things…It’s complex, and it’s difficult and it’s there. So, you see in the movie the garbage trucks; that’s all based on guys who really know how to do that stuff. They taught me how to do that stuff.
THR: A couple months ago with the shootings, people were talking about Hollywood violence…I don't know if watching someone in the movies really does make someone want to get a gun, but does that weigh on your conscious at all when you’re making these things?
Fuqua: It weighs on my conscious quite a bit. The recent tragedy in Connecticut breaks my heart everyday.
THR: You’ve got a young daughter...
Fuqua: Yeah. It’s a hard thing. You try to just entertain people as a director and you try to live in that fantasy world of entertainment. That’s it. It’s just entertainment. You rely on the good nature of people to understand that and you hope there’s a part of them that goes "Wow. That weapon just blew that guy’s brains out. That’s not a good thing. That’s not cool. That’s an ugly piece of equipment made to do that."
You hope that’s the part they walk away with. But, it’s hard to be responsible for it all and it’s hard to be responsible for individuals who just have something wrong. They have a sickness and you can never predict whether your film had influence on that or if it’s just something going on in their home, or just something going on in their head. So that weighs on me all the time and it does make you look at script material differently. You start looking at things and going "Do I want to do that right now?"
THR: So what are you going to do next?
Fuqua: I’m trying to find inspiration. I’ve got a project that I want to do called Southpaw I really want to do that next.
THR: I know he pushed that back.
Fuqua: Yeah, he’s dealing with his music so I think he’s finally finished with that so we’ll see.
THR: You wanted to do something about Tupac at some point too.
Fuqua: Yeah, I’m working on that script. If I can get a great script, I’ll make that movie at some point. I’m in no rush right now. My next movie, I’d like to do something much more personal. Southpaw’s really about a father and the daughter, it's more emotional.
THR: Sometimes you do the big ones so you can do the small ones.
Fuqua: You kind of have to do that and then you come back and hopefully you’re small one is ready. The script’s ready, the money’s there. It takes forever. You have to get the actor’s schedule, you have to get your schedule, you have to get the money. First and foremost, you want the material to be great, especially when it’s personal. It’s like you’re pushing a boulder uphill, but if you can get it there…
THR: I’ve been talking to a lot of filmmakers in New York in the indie scene who have been making $20,000 movies, there’s no other way to do it.
Fuqua: There’s no other way to do it. You’ve just got to go through it. I haven’t shot digital yet, but thank god for digital because it does allow especially indie filmmakers to just go make a movie for nothing. That’s the beauty to me of digital.
THR: Yeah but you lose the visual of it sometimes.
Fuqua: Yeah, sometimes they make it look good but sometimes you just accept that and say "Let’s just tell a good story. Let’s do good performances and execute the job and people will forgive you for that." That’s not what it’s about anyway. For me it’s different. I love film and I love aesthetically to say something with it, but if you’re an indie filmmaker and you have no money, who gives a shit? Just tell your story. It’s great.
THR: If you were starting out now, how would you go about it differently?
Fuqua: Just like that. I’ll tell you a quick story that inspired me but the main thing really, it gave me new life a little bit. I was a judge a few years ago at the Venice Film Festival which means you have to watch god knows how many movies a day. It’s like torture, torture. But, they did it and you watch it and you see these little movies made in the Philippines or in India, Israel. They had no money. What they achieve, you just go "You know what? Anyone in the whole world out there could go make a little movie." Because of the digital medium anyone can go make a movie. And I was so excited about that because there is that feeling sometimes in myself where I go "You know? Maybe in the time between when I’m trying to do all of this bigger stuff, I could just make a little movie." That’s inspiring, when you see these guys do that.
THR: Yeah. Joss Whedon made the movie Much Ado About Nothing, shot it for 12 days in his back yard.
Fuqua: That’s great! You have to love that. You discover new things. It’s about discovery. We don’t even know how far we can push the digital medium yet. We don’t what we can actually get away with. You just experiment a bit and these guys that are out there doing it are, to me, they’re forging a new way. It’s just fantastic.
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin