Antoine Fuqua On Legacy, Music Videos, & ‘Serious’ Films

To many people, Antoine Fuqua will always be the director of Training Day. The 58-year-old filmmaker has helmed countless projects since breaking into the industry in the early 1990s, including critically acclaimed dramas, heavy-hitting documentaries, and a slew of blockbuster action hits. But it’s his 2001 masterpiece, starring Denzel Washington, that has become his cinematic calling card. Fuqua himself has never been fully satisfied with that reputation. While he is proud of his achievement — not blind to popular sentiment, he recognizes the movie’s stature and enduring legacy — he’s committed to proving that he is more than merely the director of one great film.

“You’re always sort of chasing that dragon,” he says, taking a break from postproduction to discuss his background and ongoing career. He’s gearing up to release The Equalizer 3, which finds him reuniting for a fifth time with Training Day’s Washington for a third instalment in the action-drama franchise. Following historical slavery drama Emancipation, the film stands testament to the breadth of Fuqua’s work. For, whether war flicks, medieval epics or electrifying paranoid thrillers, his films are among the most varied of any director of his generation, making him an auteur of singular unpredictability. It’s ironic, then, that he should continue to be associated with one movie. Because, if there’s one thing you can say about Fuqua, it’s that you truly never know what he’s going to make next.

The Equalizer is the only sequel either you or Denzel Washington have worked on. What is it about this material that was compelling enough to return to, and with The Equalizer 3, to return for a third time?

Speaking for myself, I love working with Denzel. That’s always the motivating factor. But I also love the character — he’s a working man’s hero, if you will. There’s no flying around or anything like that. It’s all about justice, and that’s very important to me. I think that dealing with a character who is dealing with his own demons, a guy who is relatable, is very satisfying for me as a director. The focus has always been to help people who can’t help themselves, in a grounded way — or as grounded as a Hollywood movie can be. I find that interesting. That’s part of who I am. I don’t like bullies.

Antoine Fuqua standing

At what point in the process did you begin thinking about a sequel? Was that something you were interested in from the start?

I didn’t really think about it all, honestly. I was just trying to make the best film in front me with the material. Once it was a success, and considering the feedback from the fans, then I started thinking about it more. I had wanted to do something more international, that wasn’t in a small box, but the goal was always to open it up a little bit more, to make it a fish out of water. When I read the script, it seemed like the right thing to do.

You were just coming off The Magnificent Seven at the time, also with Denzel. Was that something you two discussed together on set?

We don’t really talk about it like that. We’re friends, and we spend time together outside of the Hollywood scene, but we don’t really talk about it. The right material comes along, or I create something, but we only discuss it when it becomes more realistic. For The Magnificent Seven, we went to lunch, and I remember I said, “I want you to play a cowboy,” you know? He kind of looks at me, and thought about it for a minute — he didn’t say yes immediately. I had some selling to do. He said he’d think about it, and then a couple of days later, he calls me and he’s like, ‘Okay, I’ve slept on it a little bit. Let’s do it.’”

I want to ask about your early work as a music video director. Were you actively working towards making feature films at the time?

I’ve always wanted to make movies. I always wanted to tell stories. At the time, I was writing a lot, and I was trying to figure out the journey that would be best for me. I had read a book by Monster Kody, about an LA Crip. I became friends with Monster and I wanted to tell his story. I wrote a few scripts based on that story, but I couldn’t get it made — it was too violent. It’s probably good that I couldn’t, because I had the wrong hero: I thought it was Monster, but it was actually his mother, fighting to save her son. I was too young to know that.

Antoine Fuqua talking to people on set

Where did you go from there? What was your big break?

I did the music video for “Gangsta’s Paradise” for Jerry Bruckheimer. That kind of opened the door — Michelle Pfeiffer was in the video. I became friends with Bruckheimer, and that kind of started the conversation, where I was taking meetings and agencies were interested in signing me and discussing what I wanted to do in the future. I got a call from Matt Baer, Amy Pascal, and John Woo about Chow Yun-fat. They asked me if I wanted to make a film with him, which ended up being The Replacement Killers.

What was it about that project that interested you?

Well, what I realized is that when I tried to make “Monster,” I was fighting the same thing I was fighting when I was making music videos. Back at that time, Black music videos, especially R&B videos, weren’t as supported. I found myself getting put in a box with R&B and rap — which I love, but I wouldn’t have minded working with Sting or Madonna or Aerosmith to expand as an artist. I stopped shooting music videos and started making commercials so that people wouldn’t see the colour of my skin. When it came to making a feature, similarly, mainly what I was getting offered were urban films. What I wanted to do was more expansive. So when The Replacement Killers came, I took that job because it wouldn’t put me in a box.

I imagine that was a bit of a change, coming from the music video world. What was the experience like for you?

It was tough. It was my first movie, and it was a studio movie. I wasn’t mistreated or anything, but I was learning. As a music video director, you have a vision of wanting to be a Scorsese or a Coppola. But when you do a studio movie, especially your first movie, you quickly realize that you don’t have a lot of power. The reality is that this is not a little independent movie. There are politics to deal with.

What did that experience with the studio system teach you?

The biggest lesson I learned is to get out of my own way. As music video directors, we come from a visual medium; a lot of it is shorthand. Quick images. Strong images to grab your attention. Provocative imagery. You want to bring that to cinema, and you do bring that — Tony Scott did it, Fincher does it, I like to think I do it. But you’ve got to know when to get out of the way. The features are about the characters. If it’s just pretty pictures, nobody cares. The audience has to be invested in the characters. Cinema is a visual medium, and music video directors have a lot of visual literacy, but it can be difficult to transition because you have to deal with three-dimensional characters and there’s a lot to learn.

A lot of music video guys were criticized on those grounds in those days — this idea of style over substance. Did you have to deal with that bias?

Yeah, I did for a long time. Up until Training Day, really. When Training Day came, it was an opportunity for me to show that I can direct actors and engaging, believable performances. Up until that point, I was considered a shooter — that was the term for it, a shooter. It’s almost like dismissing the possibility that I can really deal with character or the development for character. Just get the dialogue and do what you do. Just shoot. That happened, for sure. Coming out of music videos and commercials, it was up to us to prove otherwise.

Training Day is obviously a great film. But it came out over 20 years ago and trailers for your new movies still usually say “from the director of Training Day.” Do you feel like you’re still living in the shadow of that legacy?

I love the film. I’m proud of the success of the film, but it’s bittersweet, because you want to be known for more than just that, obviously. You’re always sort of chasing that rabbit. I was sort of hoping that Emancipation would help with that — trying to do more serious material. One of the choices I have to make as a director is the different type of films I’m going to make. So it’s bittersweet, but it’s more sweet than bitter. I’m proud that Denzel won an Academy Award and I’m proud that Ethan was nominated. But it’s always that thing that I’m compared to as a director. It was like my height as a director. I’m much stronger as a director now, I believe, than I was then.

Antoine Fuqua directing

Your filmography is pretty evenly divided between commercial films and more serious, awards-season movies. Is that balance on your mind when you’re choosing your next project?

Now it’s on my mind a lot. Now it’s about making clear choices about where I want to go and what I want to do over the next ten years as a director. You only have so many movies in you. I’m thinking about it much more. I’m looking to develop or find much more grounded material, but I believe I can do both — I can make a film that’s both financially successful and critically acclaimed, not that I have any control over that. I want to make films that have a much more serious subject matter.

Is it harder to make that kind of movie now than it was 20 years ago?

Absolutely. It definitely is. Because there’s been so many big blockbusters — the franchises and the superheroes, that sort of thing — it’s hard to find a gap in there where you can make a film that has real substance and a decent budget and gets the distribution and theatre time and all that. After COVID for sure, it’s tougher because everyone is trying to get the movie business back on its feet. It’s harder to get a ‘yes’ on films that are just a little heavier. The streamers, of course, are a place where you can get that done. Apple did Emancipation and Netflix did The Guilty.

How do you feel about the difference between streaming and theatrical? Do you feel protective at all over that traditional moviegoing experience?

I got in the business to put images on the big screen. When I shoot, that’s what I’m thinking about. I still love that. But I do believe that, creatively, the streamers offer great opportunities to make things that the studios might not want to make. Plus, you don’t have the same stress about opening weekend box office. You get a lot of eyes on the work right away. What I love about the streamers is that there are a lot of actors and filmmakers that you get to see that you might not have been aware of otherwise, at least for me. I think it’s a plus for all of us as filmmakers, because again you have that other avenue to have your film made. You think about a film like Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. Scorsese had to scrape to make that. Today, that would have probably been made for one of the streamers. So there’s room for both. But, for me, at the end of the day, the goal is to make films for the big screen.