Not many stories play out the way that F. Gary Gray’s career story has so far. He is celebrated not just in black cinema but the industry as a whole for cult classics such as Friday, Set It Off and most recently, the lauded NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton. He got his start from the bottom, grinding as a cameraman while ultimately working his way up.
Making his directorial debut alongside Ice Cube for the ever-relevant anthem “It Was A Good Day,” Gray soon made the rounds directing videos for Outkast, Cypress Hill, Whitney Houston and Jay Z (just to name a few). On a busy press run for Straight Outta Compton, Gray was gracious enough to stop by for a chat about his latest flick, how it all came about, the approach he takes when choosing a script, and heed-worthy advice for aspiring directors.
Interview by Gia Peppers (@GiaPeppers)
Hey guys. It’s Gia Peppers, and I found F. Gary Gray. How are you doing, sir?
I’m doing well. You found me.
Yes, yes. He’s here all over New York City. So what brings you to this part of New York City today?
Well. We’re screening Straight Outta Compton. We’re promoting the movie and, of course, we’re going to do a Q&A over here at The Sprite Corner and have a good time. So, you know, hanging out…
Yes, yes. Now, you’ve done so many iconic things: music videos and film. Tell us a little bit about your journey and where it started.
Well, it started in Los Angeles, and here, I’m in New York now. [Chuckles.] No, it started in Los Angeles and I was a cameraman at first when I was a teenager and worked my way into short-films when I was 21. And then went into music videos because I couldn’t afford film school. Used that as a technical playground and then went on to do my first film Friday when I was 24, and then Set It Off when I was 25, and then just kind of kept going…
The story of Straight Outta Compton is so iconic. Now, how did that movie come about? How did that come into your lap?
Got a call from my agents, they said Cube got a script. I was a little hesitant at first because there’s so many ways you can get Straight Outta Compton wrong. You know, it’s such a great story; it’s such a classic tale. I was a little nervous ‘cause it’s like a very narrow road to success with that type of story, you got to get it right—but when I read it, I was pleasantly surprised. I saw some things I would do differently and we developed it over the last four years. And here we are, I feel really good about it.
Awesome. So what are the most important themes of the film?
Brotherhood. Brotherhood is one. We touched on a lot of different themes like brotherhood and betrayal, rags to riches, triumph, and tragedy; it’s cool. There’s quite a bit that goes on that goes well beyond a biopic, music biopic. I’m just honored they let me tell their story because it goes so far beyond N.W.A. and the music. It’s a classic tale.
Yes. I’ve been watching a lot of your interviews, you’ve been everywhere this week, and you talk about how it’s so hard to narrow it down to two-and-a-half hours. How did you obey your thirst to the vision? By obey your thirst I mean stay focused to your vision—stay really, really consistent about what you want to bring to the film when you were going into it. How did you make sure your voice was told?
I was always very specific about what I wanted. I wanted a lot, so in terms of thirst, I was very thirsty. [Chuckles.] But you know, it’s a lot of stuff we shot; I was really passionate about the story I wanted to tell, above and beyond the music, the era. We ended up with a very, very long cut at first and the hardest thing about making this movie, besides casting it and finding N.W.A., was cutting it down and trimming it down to a two-hours-and-something movie.
I can’t wait to see the director’s cut ‘cause I know it’s going to be amazing.
It’s pretty good.
And then, last but not least, everything you do has a really great film and, really, a great aesthetic—but they’re not all the same. So how do you choose, when you’re going about your next project, how do you choose it and stay true to yourself within creating a film?
You know, it’s really simple for me. It’s all here. If I feel it, if it’s something I either want to learn or if it’s something I’m passionate about, then I’ll go for it. It’s just hard for me to find something that I really like, so sometimes I take the time off, take my time to really figure out what’s next. I love a challenge. So when I did Friday, I didn’t want to do another comedy back-to-back. With Set It Off, that was a little different from The Negotiator and The Italian Job. So for me, it’s all about challenge. It’s all about challenge and about just learning. I am very lucky in that my job, it takes me around the world and I get a chance to meet different people and learn different things.
Straight Outta Compton is my first biopic. My first period piece and I got a chance to kind of get out there like some of my idols, you know like Scorsese, Spielberg, Spike Lee, the guys who came before me. You know, I’m feeling good about it.
And what do you want the aspiring filmmakers inside to take away from the experience today?
Just step into your lane. Everybody comes to film differently; everybody has different backgrounds. Just find whatever your lane is naturally. Don’t try to force yourself into someone else’s vision or try to tell a story that you’re not passionate about. Hopefully you learn a little bit from my experiences and you try your best to enjoy it but also understand the business aspect of creating because that’s really hard. It’s hard being creative and also trying to manage some of the politics in this industry, so if I can impart some of my experience and maybe learn a little bit then it’s a success.
We are so proud of you and so excited to see Straight Outta Compton. Thanks so much for hanging out with us Mr. Gray. It was nice to meet you.