F Gary Gray made his big screen debut in 1995 with Ice Cube comedy Friday and later directed Queen Latifah in the underrated heist movie Set It Off. However, it wasn't until The Negotiator in 1998 - starring Kevin Spacey and Samuel L Jackson - that Gray became a major Hollywood player. Now he tells us how he almost blew it with Vin Diesel actioner A Man Apart, saved the day with The Italian Job remake and why he has a few regrets about Be Cool.
Why did you become a director?
Because I was poor and needed to eat? No. When I was a teenager I was introduced to community theatre and started to do some behind-the-scenes work there and that ignited my interest in television and then on into film. Once I explored film and did a little research, I realised that I wanted to be a director.
If you weren't a filmmaker, what would you be?
What would I be? I'd probably be some sort of leader. I know that sounds weird - that's a good question. I can't even imagine myself not being a director. I probably would be a general in the army, or something. I don't know. Good question. Actually I hate to say a general in the army. I guess I'm lazy and I like telling people what to do. Wait a minute, what am I talking about? I don't want to be a general in the army. That's not what I want to do! I would say a governor but politics is so corrupt... Without the corruption I'd be some sort of person who would govern a state, or something, or maybe even a nation. Who knows? Maybe a small island? I know that's narcissistic, but so is directing!
What other director would you like to see at work?
[Federico] Fellini because he's my favourite director. He was fearless and you always get a sense with his films that you're really being taken somewhere. His worlds always feel complete. I never feel like I'm just watching one of his films; I feel like I'm participating in the worlds that he creates. His films are kind of off-base and crazy too which I like.
What was the last movie that you paid to see?
Sideways. Loved it!
What was the last movie you walked out of?
Anchorman. It was about 25 minutes in.
Do you believe in God?
Ah, I don't get into those type of questions. Hey, it's a good question though.
Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?
Oh, wow. That's a good one - let me think. I'd say John Travolta.
What's your favourite movie quote?
Let me see. I don't have one to be honest because I don't really watch movies. I'm just not one of those filmmakers who could bore you with six hours worth of movie factoids. I'm just not that guy. I don't have a favourite movie quote. Let's go to the next one.
Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?
See, I'm not one of those filmmakers that studies film a lot. I know that sounds very weird, but I didn't grow up in that environment with an 8mm camera and I wasn't at the cinema every weekend. That's why I think some of my answers will be uninformed. It's tough to say because I think before the Oscar nominations came out I would have said Alexander Payne with About Schmidt and Sideways. But I guess he's no longer underrated.
And which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?
Do other directors you've spoken to actually answer that question?! Oh. Wow. Wow! I can't answer that question.
Who's the biggest pain in the arse you've ever worked with?
Oh, wow! What are you doing!? Politically, I can't answer these questions. Okay, so I'll put it this way: He was in one of my first three films. You can't guess it and I'm not going to tell you but, hey, at least that's an answer.
When your version of The Italian Job came out there was talk about Edward Norton being forced into starring in it. So what was he like to work with?
That was my 5th film. The guy I'm talking about wasn't him. Actually he was pretty cool. He was pretty pissed at the studio [Paramount]. I would tell you that if it was him, but actually he was pretty cool with me. Hated the studio though!
What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?
Ooh! That's a good question. But you know, people are too afraid to ask me dumb questions. Actually I tend not to remember dumb questions. I think it was someone asking me, "Do you like to work with rappers in movies?" which is a pretty stupid question because I've worked with a few, you know what I mean?
Do you believe in test screenings?
Sometimes. It depends. I do like to get a response but I don't want the studios involved in it. I think the cards and numbers and stuff like that is all bull**** because it's a mechanism that triggers a whole lot of things within the studio. I mean it's about the studio's approach to marketing that I don't think is fair. But I like to get a response from the audience, so for my own purposes, I like it.
How seriously do you take reviews?
Not seriously at all - good or bad.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
That's a really good question. The best advice I got is to treat each project like it was my first. A friend told me that.
And the worst?
Hmm. Worst piece of advice? You know things like this and the 'dumb question' question? I tend to block that s*** out. I try my best to forget and now you want to remind me. Okay, probably the worst piece of advice I've been given is, "Strike while the iron is hot." You know, financially. "Go for the cash!"
What's your biggest regret?
I made a couple of decisions to cut some scenes out of my movies and rearrange a few scenes that I regret. There's actually some shuffling in Be Cool that I regret and some... Well, A Man Apart I just regret. I didn't do my homework for that one. I definitely have to be careful about how I word this, but... I wish I was more... hmm... I just regret that... No, wait a minute... Okay, I just regret not going back to re-shoot certain things in A Man Apart.
There are five minutes left till the end of the world - what do you do?
Contact your family and, uh, have as much sex as you can. Okay so it's only five minutes but I have a cell phone. And I could have phone sex - not with my family!
Which performer would you love to work with?
I'd like to work with Denzel Washington, Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp.
What film makes you want to spit?
A film that I just think is horrible? Oh, no! A lot of these people I know so I can't just dog them out like that. I can tell you a television show I hate. It's called Drawn Together. It's an "animated reality show" and I hate it! It's on Comedy Central in the States and it's the worst show ever! It's supposed to be funny and it's just so not. They push too hard and they just miss completely. It's ridiculous.
What are your three favourite films and why?
Wow. I like 8½ because it took you inside the mind of Fellini and it was just very creative. Some of the things that he achieved technically - you know, in the context of shooting in the 60s - were pretty amazing. I love the photography, I love the casting, I love the staging... All of it. It's just wonderfully weird. One guilty pleasure is a movie called Chopper [starring Eric Bana]. I thought that was a lot of fun because it was edgy, it was violent, and it was funny. It was a perfect balance of all those things and didn't pull any punches. I thought that was very cool because in Hollywood you're either making one type of movie or the other and Chopper just did everything. A lot of fun. And I love the original Manchurian Candidate - and It's A Wonderful Life! I love the message in A Wonderful Life. Although it's pretty sappy I thought it was kind of cool. And The Manchurian Candidate - I'm onto four now - but I like that because it was so progressive for the time,
What do you think of Norman Wisdom?