F. Gary Gray Biography
Film and video director
"I'm single-minded," F. Gary Gray told The Source magazine. "When I'm working on a project all my attention is there." Gray has the been the object of a fair amount of attention himself, having earned more awards than perhaps any other video director for his work with smash acts like TLC, Coolio, and Ice Cube, as well as his feature film work. After breaking into music clips and making his way to the top of the video world, he directed a funky, low-budget comedy that earned ten times what it cost to make; his next venture, an action drama, saw him enter the Hollywood mainstream. Yet he refused to allow his newfound celebrity to change his focus. "These people will put you on a pedestal," he said of filmdom's star-makers, "and then knock your ass down."
F. Gary Gray was born in New York City, but did most of his growing up in South-Central Los Angeles. The lure of the street there was particularly strong, however, and during his teens he was sent to live in Highland Park, Illinois, with his father. "I went to a predominantly white, rich high school," he recollected in The Source, adding that the resources at this Midwestern institution "were much better than anything I had ever seen. I knew I had to take advantage of this situation."
"Taking advantage" in this case meant exploring video, learning how to direct and edit programming for the school's cable-access TV station. He demonstrated considerable ambition in his chosen field, and upon graduating, he came back to Los Angeles. There he pursued college studies in film and television. "From a young age, I knew I was going to be a filmmaker," he insisted in The Source. He landed camera-operator jobs for various television programs, including Screen Scene for the Black Entertainment Network (BET) and Pump It Up for Fox. At the Fox network, more importantly, he met rappers W.C. and the Maad Circle—which featured a then-unknown MC named Coolio—and talked them into letting him direct their video. "The first thing I did," he recalled, "was use my director's fee to shoot the video in 35 millimeter, like actual films are shot." The larger frame size—most videos are shot in the smaller 16 millimeter format—fit Gray's swelling ambitions.
Fortunately, Gray had talent to match those ambitions, and word of his directorial skill spread to other acts. Soon, he found himself directing clips for Mary J. Blige, Coolio, TLC, Ice Cube. and Dr. Dre, among others. The video for Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" was listed among Rolling Stone's Top 100 Videos of All Time. Gray garnered multiple trophies at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards, including four awards for the TLC clip "Waterfalls"—including Video of the Year—and the Best Rap Video honor for Dr. Dre's "Keep Their Heads Ringin'." A decade later, Gray's video-related honors had swelled to include more than four dozen awards and nominations.
Due to the success of Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day," Gray earned his first opportunity to direct a feature film. Co-written by Cube, Friday is a broad comedy inspired by the pot-fueled antics of 1970s comedians like Cheech and Chong. The novice filmmaker was given a paltry $3 million budget to make it. "I've been doing videos for about four years now, and I've been wanting to direct a feature since I was about 17," Gray told High Times magazine. "I knew that I had to deliver something that was high-quality. There was a lot of pressure, because with making motional pictures, when you're a first-time filmmaker, if the dailies don't look good the first week, if the performances aren't good the first week, the director gets fired."
Any concerns Gray may have had regarding his abilities were unfounded. His instincts allowed him to plan the shoot and still leave room for improvisation. Co-stars John Witherspoon and Chris Tucker, Gray told High Times, "are so funny on the fly and right off the cuff that I didn't want to miss any of that, so I said, 'Stick to the script for the first two takes, and on the third take, do it how you want to do it.' When I got to editing, I used most of the third takes because they were so funny, especially Chris' facial expressions." Cube, meanwhile, "has a lot of discipline," Gray reported. "It helps me as a director for him to have that much discipline and be the star of the movie," he added, "because if everybody wanted to run wild, then it would just be a big babysitting session and you lose a lot of time. Cube doesn't play that whole 'I'm a star' trip."
Friday may not have been a favorite with critics—Times reviewer Peter Rainer was in the majority when he declared the film a "scattershot jokefest"—but its lean budget helped it go into the black quickly, and it eventually earned ten times what it cost to make, and turned out to be one of the most profitable releases of 1995. "These movies are a double edged sword," Gray reflected in the Los Angeles Times. "Though any other comedy would have three times the budget and twice as long to shoot, I appreciated New Line [Pictures] giving me a shot. How often does anyone write a check like that to an unproven 23-year-old?" Gray pointed out that after making such a splash directing rap and R&B videos, "I was besieged by hip-hop offers." After Friday, he explained in Vibe, "I didn't want to be pegged as an in-the-hood-type director. It's just too easy to get that title." He informed USA Today that he "was offered every regurgitated action comedy idea that Hollywood has done."
Instead, Gray took on a far more ambitious project: an urban heist thriller with four female protagonists. Though the hit film Waiting to Exhale had demonstrated the box-office potential of black women, the edgy Set It Off brought in action elements designed to woo male viewers. And, added Gray in Vibe, "these women are just exhaling all over the place." Co-starring rapper and television star Queen Latifah and budding star Jada Pinkett, Set It Off tells the story of a group of down-at-heels women who turn to armed robbery. Gray's conception for the film was, he asserted in Newsday, "dramatic smart action." He had already used many of the elements of action filmmaking—such as helicopters—in his videos, and wanted to reach beyond the usual trappings of the genre. "I didn't want to use the action gratuitously because then it has no weight," he claimed. "The sequences just become set pieces for action. It's not worth it." He had been looking, he said, for material with "something for the emotions."
In Set It Off, Gray found the right combination of elements. "It takes a lot for me to get passionate about something," he told Thulani Davis of Newsday. The film, he ventured in Detour, "has always been in me. But it was definitely a leap. I would shoot for 14 hours, then I would watch dailies for two, then I would rewrite and work on the script for three hours. If I got five hours of sleep it was like heaven: usually it was two or three." "Perhaps the biggest challenge of the film," Gray mused to Davis, was its female focus. "It's a male-dominated industry," he averred. "Stories are told from a male point of view. I wanted to create a women's perspective." He sat down with the cast members and talked about a range of issues; but he also took them to a firing range to make sure they looked natural using guns onscreen. "I would also create special rehearsals," the filmmaker told Detour. "Normally, you go straight for the script, but when you have characters who have a history with each other, you have to create that feeling, and it has to be as genuine as possible. So for the first week, I would take the actors out for meals and movies to create a camaraderie that comes second-nature." The results, he added, were "fantastic."
Critics didn't entirely agree, however. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times admired the production's style but complained of "genre contrivances that are the obstacles to [the film's] being taken seriously." The director received both praise and blame in Turan's review. "Though he is obviously talented," the critic wrote, "Gray is also 26 years old, and Set It Off is characterized by the youthful director tendency to be overambitious, to try to squeeze every possible movie moment into one finite film." USA Today's Susan Wloszczyna, meanwhile—admitted that the film was "more fun to watch than it has any right to be"—but, nonetheless dubbed it "overlong, overdone, and over-wrought." Gray, she continued, "knows how to ignite high-octane action, but the dramatic passages drag like a rusted tailpipe."
Although he hasn't dwelt on it much in interviews, Gray's celebrity derives in part from his success in the mainstream as a black filmmaker. Yet he never claimed to have encountered adversity because of race. "The strong battles, the battles that re historical for blacks in Hollywood, I haven't experienced any of that," he pointed out in Newsday. "I've had the opportunity to make a film that I think is good." And in USA Today, Gray warned against pigeonholing audiences. "I know a lot of people who enjoy rap music who aren't black," he pointed out. "You can't just say it's black music. To segregate films the way Hollywood likes to segregate films, ultimately everyone loses." Gray's assessment of the present-day situation in Hollywood was mixed. "I can honestly say it's changing," he said. "I can see my colleagues getting opportunities they didn't have even five years ago. In the same breath, it still needs more of a major change. I think ultimately black filmmakers need more options and more support—everything from getting the best material to getting the best financial support to make it right."
Gray shared a bit of his creative method with Detour. Budget constraints, he allowed, forced him to "prioritize" shots in order of importance. With that part of the process completed, "I'll sit back with a cigar and some classical music, and read the scene, start to envision it, and write it down shot for shot," he explained. "Sometimes you can't come up with a shot to save your life, and sometimes shots come so fast that you start misspelling words because you're writing so fast." He added that his visual sense compels him to "put the camera where the story is, so I dissect a scene and think about it in the context of the whole movie and decide how I'm going to cover it." He discussed his strategy for overcoming a lack of creative flow in Vibe, "Sometimes I get slowed down by writer's block or visual block where I can't find the shot," he admitted. "But I don't worry. Creativity is a mansion. If you're empty in one room, all you have to do is go out into the hallway and enter another room that's full."
After the release of Set It Off, Gray's career itself began to resemble such a mansion. The Los Angeles Times deemed him a "face to watch in 1997," and he discussed his options with the paper. "I'm not afraid of a big studio film; I trust my instincts," he insisted. "But for me it's not really about the box office. It's about looking back on your work and not having to apologize for it. I'm trying to keep my blinders on and continue to perfect what I do, because I'm very young and I have a lot to learn." At the same time, Gray recognized that he brought something unique to the table. "I think the movie audience is starving right now for new material and fresh ideas," he noted. In Detour, he described directing as "a love it or leave it job," and confessed to feeling doubts at times. "Sometimes you think, Am I out of my mind for doing this?" he reflected. "But then you sit back—I just got back from the Boston Film Festival, and we had a standing ovation for [Set It Off]—you take really deep breath and you say, 'It was all worth it.'"
Gray used his up-and-coming notoriety to land several more high-profile films. In 1998 he directed Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey in The Negotiator, a film about a standoff between two top police negotiators. Critic Roger Ebert praised Gray in the Chicago Sun Times, for directing one of the year's "most successful thrillers." He wrote that the film, which "essentially consists of two men talking to one another…could have dragged." But "it doesn't" because "Gray makes us care about the characters …, to get involved in the delicate process of negotiations." Although his direction of Vin Diesel in A Man Apart earned less praise, Gray rebounded in 2003 with a remake of Michael Caine's 1969 film, The Italian Job. In this story of a group of thieves who plot to steal back their money from another group of crooks, Gray's "direction never loses the dramatic thread in the slow scenes and never loses control in the chases," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The African American Film Critics Association honored Gray for demonstrating "strong growth and a solid command of the filmmaking process" with a special achievement award, according to America's Intelligence Wire. Gray was planning to direct a sequel to The Italian Job as well as the sequel to Get Shorty in early 2005.
Set It Off, 1996.
The Negotiator, 1998.
A Man Apart, 2002.
The Italian Job, 2003.
America's Intelligence Wire, December 23, 2003.
Chicago Sun Times, January 29, 1998.
Detour, November 1996, p. 70.
High Times, June 1995.
Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1995, p. F2; April 23, 1996, p. F1; November 6, 1996, p. F1; January 5, 1997, (Calendar) pp. 6-7.
Newsday, November 3, 1996, p. C14.
Rolling Stone, April 4, 2003.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 10, 2003.
The Source, January 1996, p. 27.
USA Today, August 21, 1996, p. 7D; November 6, 1996, p. 8D.
Vibe, September 1996.
Additional information was obtained from publicity materials provided by Bragman Nyman Cafarelli, 1996.
—Simon Glickman and
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