One movie I desperately wished was at Comic-Con this year was Straight Outta Compton. A panel in Hall H with Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and the rest of the group and filmmakers could’ve been something. Imagine if that Star Wars concert was followed by Ice Cube performing on Saturday ‐ that would’ve made Comic-Con go bananas. Sadly, Straight Outta Compton didn’t have a presence in San Diego.
Director F. Gary Gray, however, was around to discuss his recent collaboration with Ubisoft. Gray directed an animated short for their upcoming game, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Admittedly, not once have I played Assassin’s Creed, but to have the chance to discuss Gray’s work with them and his upcoming N.W.A. film, it was a welcomed breather ‐ a chance to talk about something unrelated to superhero movies.
After Gray spent a little time asking about myself and the site, it led to our conversation about filmmaking, finding support for movies like Straight Outta Compton, and more. Here’s what F. Gary Gray had to say:
Gray: I couldn’t afford film school! We’re on the same page.
So you just picked up a camera and went for it?
Seriously. The camera I picked up a long time ago was a little heavier, but I couldn’t afford it.
Those early days of running around with a camera and learning it by doing it, how did that maybe inform working on an animated short?
It’s all about what you get excited about. You shouldn’t allow money… if you have the passion and appetite for a project, you should just go for it. With a project like this, it is so different from all the live-action movies I’ve put together. It was exciting to get into the video game world ‐ to create something similar to our animatic and storyboards, but with motion comics, 3D mapping, and all that stuff. Then add the layer of effects ‐ sound effects or visual effects ‐ that we’d normally put on a movie into a comic/video game project.
Having the experience with pre-viz, did this not feel wildly different from your past work?
I wouldn’t say it’s wildly different. I don’t have a ton of time for gaming, but I love the worlds they create. I’ve created animatic and storyboards for action sequences, but to just create a project on its own, as a standalone form of entertainment, is something I had never done before. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, the game, is just a really cool game, where you’re transported back to London in 1868, with the Industrial Revolution.
The game takes the best of what I love, which is history and time travel. It’s cool to get immersed in the worlds that they create, and the level of detail that goes into them is pretty astounding. This is something I’ve wanted to get involved with for a very long time. I started with The Italian Job, working on a video game that was kind of last minute, so it wasn’t the best in the world. I thought, When I get the time, I want to jump in.
Most games based on movies don’t work. What’s that process like? Are they usually just slapped together?
I haven’t done it enough to tell you what it’s always like, but there are ways to do it right. When it’s an afterthought is when it could probably be better, where they didn’t take the time to develop it for the years to give it the attention to detail. I’m excited for the Assassin’s Creed movie, which I think stands a better chance of being a great movie, because all the homework is done. With this game, all the gameplay, vehicles, and weaponry, you can tell a lot of research was done.
Obviously a short like this isn’t made for pure monetary reasons, and since it represents the game, Ubisoft wants to get it right. Did that make working on the short more creatively freeing than on, say, a movie that has to make a certain amount of money?
There’s definitely a certain freedom. Doing a project like this is playing; it takes you back to when you were a kid. A world is limitless when you’re given the opportunity just to have fun with it, and that’s what I felt with this one. This was like like, “Here’s the video game, this is what it is, and let’s just have some fun.” I sat down with the illustrator, Pop Mahn, and we dreamt up things that serve the theme of the game. It didn’t feel as complicated as filmmaking can be. You know, sometimes when you’re making a film, it comes with its share of politics, and you just didn’t have that on this.
What were some of the initial ideas you discussed at that meeting?
We talked about gangster films. We talked about Scorsese, and a lot of stuff he’s put together, like Gangs of New York, Goodfellas, and Casino, and the tone of those films. We also talked about Chopper and A Prophet. I love a great underdog story. This has a crime element to it, so we wanted to take the cool, edgy elements from the genre. We thought, How can we still make this feel cool, while connecting with the themes that run through Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate? Even my current movie, Straight Outta Compton, has similar themes in that: underdogs who come from nothing and want to build something for themselves, by any means necessary. They fight and pushback against oppression, in a big, big way.
Is your approach to a piece of material generally dictated by theme?
Yes. I start with what I want a viewer or audience to feel when they walk out of the theater. When we talked about the themes of this, we talked about what we wanted people to feel about them. There’s an element of the story about children being taken advantage of, and how Jacob Frye and Evie Frye standup for the smaller guy, and in their own way create change. Again, it’s underdogs being protected ‐ characters fighting back. Those themes run through some of the films I’ve created in the past, like Set It Off, a little bit in The Italian Job, and definitely in Straight Outta Compton.
Why do you find the underdog story appealing?
I was an underdog myself. Just like you said, you couldn’t afford film school, and neither could I. We’re now here in San Diego, having fun with what we like to do and having a conversation about film and creativity. It’s about not letting the obstacles stop you ‐ that’s personal to me and my story. I love putting those stories on the big screen and small screen and, now, motion comics [Laughs].
Straight Outa Compton is a summer movie, and it’s the kind of film we don’t see often this time of year. Is it tough getting that kind of story made?
Absolutely. Studios don’t normally… I understand the bigger movies, because they’re kind of the guaranteed property. A lot of it’s creative, but a lot of it’s business as well. I love different and unique stories, and sometimes it takes a while to get support for them. I think people appreciate that, though, when they feel they’re experiencing something different ‐ and that’s my whole thing. I love to experience something different. I get bored very easily.
Straight Outta Compton, while it could be considered a biopic, it goes so far beyond the biopic genre. It’s so much bigger than N.W.A. I was having a conversation with Ice Cube yesterday, and he said, “It’s so much bigger than us.” The story has elements of rags to riches, brotherhood, triumph, tragedy, and even some socio political elements. This is different from the normal bio pic genre, and with that, you gotta work a little harder to get them on the screen. Knock on wood, those projects last a little longer.
You said you get bored easily.
What has gotten you excited recently?
Well, I’m not saying this because I’m involved, but I am excited about the game, because I haven’t gotten a chance to play it all the way through to the end [Laughs]. I like different projects, though. I like different movies for different reasons. I love Beasts of the Southern Wild, but that was a couple of years ago.
That was around four or fives years ago.
Was it that long ago? Well, that’s when I started Straight Outta Compton. I’ve been so immersed in putting this film on the big screen I haven’t had the chance to dig into other movies or see a ton of movies, because of development, pre-production, production, and obviously post-production. Straight Outta Compton started at one studio and then made it over to Universal, so it’s been a journey. One movie is Dogtooth…
[Laughs] I can see your face light up when I mention these movies I like! I just like different stuff. Those projects are very few and far between, and I like to get involved with them as much as I can. Again, that’s the reason why this short is different. You know, you wouldn’t expect it from me.
Before you came into the room, I was talking about how fantastic the Straight Outta Compton trailer was. Who cut that trailer?
Thank you. It’s a great trailer. I think Patrick Starr over at Universal marketing is responsible for that. They made a huge promise with that trailer, and I’m glad they did, because the movie delivers.
Straight Outta Compton opens in theaters August 14th.