I recently got the chance to interview director F. Gary Gray, the man behind last year's smash hit Straight Outta Compton, the hip hop biopic about the world's most dangerous group, N.W.A. I absolutely loved the movie, and you can see my original review to the movie down below.
The first thing I did when I got the Blu-ray was watch the extended director's cut. While I was talking to Gray, he really was proud of his director's cut, and with good reason. There are a good 20-30 minutes of extra footage in there that I definitely recommend checking out, especially with the director's commentary.
It's great to see the director's thoughts on the individual scenes and notice all the little things placed in the background that you may not have noticed when you were first watching the film.
Another thing is the behind-the-scenes special features. I personally love watching how certain movies are made, and if you're into that sort of thing as well, you should definitely check it out! From the journey of the actors to fulfill their roles, to how they captured the energy of a real life N.W.A. concert, it's all there, and is worth watching.
Finally, there's the deleted scenes. Most of these are just short transitional shots from one place to another, but the two noteworthy ones are the conversation between Dr. Dre while in jail and his then-girlfriend, and, more importantly, the extra unseen performance of 'Compton's in the House'. Once again, they capture the energy of an actual concert which is really cool to see.
However, without further ado, here is my interview with the director himself...
In the director's cut, there was so much extra stuff. With all that story to tell, how hard was it for you decide what you were gonna cut out from the overall story?
Yeah, that was the second hardest thing. The first hardest thing was finding the group. The second hardest thing was cutting the movie. The original cut was 3 hours and 35 minutes long, so it’s so much story, so many characters, so much controversy, drama, it was very hard to kind of determine what was gonna stay because, again, a lot of it was great drama and makes for great story telling in a lot of ways. I just went to the basics. What serves the narrative, what serves the theme, what serves the story, what will people get about the group. To follow the group, there are a lot of scenes that happened but it doesn’t tell the story of N.W.A. It may tell the individual story of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube or Easy E, but it didn't necessarily service the story of the group, so that’s how we started to kind of gauge what we should trend. And it was hard, I had to make a deal with the studio. I said listen, if I make a shorter version of this movie for theatrical release, I have to have a director's cut, and that's what you experienced, and I think there's more music, more danger, more Compton, and more nuances in the relationships and I love it and I’m sure every director says that, but I really truly do.
When it came down to actually getting the research for this story, was it hard coming together with conflicting story lines if there were any?
No, it wasn’t hard because I had access to the surviving members of the group. A lot of times when you go in, into third parties or you rely on the internet, you run into a lot of conflicting stories. You just don’t know what is true. If you run into a wrinkle, you just get deeper, you ask more questions. Almost like a journalist or an attorney or something like that. You just got to dig deeper. The good thing is that I have a relationship with both Cube and Dre, I can ask them questions that maybe the average person couldn’t or the average filmmaker or journalist because they were more open with me. There were more tense conversations and they get uncomfortable but I felt comfortable enough to do it and that’s what you got a lot of, I think it went well beyond the average music biopic. A lot of those things came from the group.
In actually creating the story, is there any place you had to take your own creative liberties to make it more entertaining for the movie itself or is everything in the movie for the most part exactly what would have happened in real life?
Well, when you say exactly, that’s tough 'cause you got 5 characters in 10 years and unless you do the movie in real time, you just have to make it work within a reasonable time. I wouldn’t say there were a lot of liberties taken, it just wasn’t necessary. You have to do things for structure, you have to do things for length, but again a lot of the story came straight from the group and a lot of those details, it just wasn’t necessary to create them. They happened and, you know, that was hard, but what was great about it was there was no shortage of details.
Speaking of details, for me, who didn’t grow up in that time period or area, I really felt like this was what actually happened. I don't know how close you were to the actual events, but was it hard creating that detail?
I was almost a part of them. You know, when I first started in the business, I started pretty much with Ice Cube. The first movie was 'Friday' and I was 23 years old and he was 24 years old, and we almost started in the film business together. The set of 'Boys in the Hood' we [did] together; I directed music videos for him and also for Dre and so there are moments in the movie where you can argue that I was close in the vicinity because of the nature of my relationship with them back in the early '90s as a music video director and as a young filmmaker. So I was very familiar with what was going on back then and in some cases, although indirectly, mildly involved. I can give you an example: When Ice Cube went solo from N.W.A. I did do quite a few of his videos as a solo artist post-N.W.A.
I did a music video with Dre that I think won a Grammy or MTV award when he was with Death Row. That music video had Tupac and Ice Cube in it. So I was the guy who bought Ice Cube and Dr. Dre back together post N.W.A. on the small screen. So, I was very aware of what was going on then and of course now.
So, this story must be very personal to you specifically?
For a number of reasons, yeah. Not because I’m relating with them, but because the trajectory of my life is very similar, though it’s not music, it’s film. I didn’t grow up in Compton; I grew up in South Central L.A. a few miles from Ice Cube. We were born the same year; we experienced a lot of the same things. You know a lot of the stuff they wrote in their songs, I experienced or witnessed a lot of the same things, and that is why it's been personal to me because I can identify with not only their art or what was written, but why they did it. We’re part of the same generation.
When the movie was greenlit, were you the first choice [for director] they went to or were there other choices?
I’m not really sure, but I’m sure they considered a few guys. I’m glad and honored to have had the opportunity to show them that I have a very specific point of view of their story and, you know, I pitched it and had a very detailed presentation for it and they went for it.
When you were making the movie was there a lot of pressure from fans or criticism, or was it pretty smooth the whole way through?
Hell yeah! Figure you have hip hop fans that love the music, love the culture, then you have people from different parts of the world, different parts of the country, different parts of Los Angeles that flow on one side or the other. You have East Coast and West Coast, you have Crips, you have Bloods. Music artists, you have rappers, you have hip hop artists, everybody has their own relationship with N.W.A. white, black, yellow, brown. You have to process the full spectrum of people who have some sort of connection, good bad or indifferent with this group and their music. And most people didn’t feel like you could get it right and they weren’t really that wrong. And what I mean by that is there are so many ways you can get it wrong. It can come off as a parody, a bunch of guys running around with Jheri curl wigs and low riders, you know, it’s very easy to become comedy. Or it can become too serious.
But I was very clear about what the story should be and what we should focus on, and I think the humanity, behind the artist, behind the group, behind the music, is something that I pitched. What’s extremely important, and that I think was surprising to most people, was that you don’t normally associate a lot of these feelings and emotions with this type of music and so I think people left pleasantly surprised. And when they watch the director's cut they will be more surprised with some relationships with the women, the change in brotherhood and family, and things like that. Again, you know, you don't normally associate these things with this type of music and it’s fun and entertaining, you’ll dance, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, but I think ultimately I wanted to surprise people and that’s the response I’ve been getting across the board.
How do you think this has impacted the younger generation, like my age, someone who’s 20 and under? Because this was really my first real introduction to N.W.A.; it was the first time I actually saw what was going on in that time period.
Well, I think that for some people who experienced this back in the day, it was a trip back down memory lane. It’s informative; we fill in a lot of blanks, but for the younger generation, I think it’s probably entertaining. It’s also, in a strange way, an edgy history lesson, you know? You get a sense of where maybe a lot of your favorite entertainers came from and who they were inspired by.
A lot of artists were inspired by the honesty that came from N.W.A. Again, you don’t have to love all the music or all the lyrics, however it works out. But when you don’t follow the herd or pack—which they didn’t, they carved their own path and spoke their own truth—that’s empowering, especially to artists. So when you listen to your favorite rapper, or you listen to your favorite artist and they go deep and they expose themselves, you know, you can kind of bring a lot of that back to some of the artists from back in the day. Way more specifically, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, a lot of these guys speak to some of their influences. Time and time again you hear about N.W.A., or some artist that came from N.W.A., or some artist connected to N.W.A. There’s no Eminem without N.W.A. There’s no Tupac the way there was Tupac, and you know, if you look at the family tree, it’s connected and I think that the younger generation now has a sense of the epicenter of powerful street art, powerful art. These guys, I don’t know if they set out to do that, but certainly that was the outcome.
I definitely got that vibe. When I watched it yesterday, the scene when they do 'Fuck tha Police' and they're laughing in the police van, I just thought that was such a cool scene. They still got one over and I really thought that was an inspiring moment.
Well good, it should be, and that’s the point, a lot of times when you see young men with those types of backgrounds and that environment, the objects are different. You don’t normally see them standing up for themselves, you don’t normally see them standing up for what they believe in. With the images you see in television and sometimes in film, you know the compromise, they’re scraping and scratching and not necessarily really standing up. And I think that’s one thing that’s powerful that came from not only the group, but performances from the actors, is that you need to stand up for yourself. You don’t have to agree with everything we’re saying, but we're not gonna just lay here and be abused by law enforcement and be abused by the entertainment industry, we're not gonna be abused by outsiders. And you also get a dose of real life: Don’t take for granted the things you have in your life, the love in your life, you know, they were brothers. I think the fame and success got to them and there’s something you can take from that. You can learn a lot from watching the story above and beyond just memorizing the lyrics. Hopefully, your generation and everyone can see that.
And there you guys have it! I was super excited to interview F. Gary Gray, seeing as his movie was one of my favorites of last year! Be sure to check out Straight Outta Compton as it came out on DVD and Blu-ray this past Tuesday, January 19th! That's all I have for you guys for today. I'm the Messiah, and this is Messiah Entertainment. I'll see you guys next time. Peace!
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Thanks again to F. Gary Gray!
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Hope you guys enjoyed!