Toronto: How Antoine Fuqua Persuaded Denzel Washington to Join 'Magnificent Seven' (Q&A)
The director, whose classic Western remake opens the Toronto film fest Thursday, also discusses how he's pushing for more diversity in Hollywood and working with composer James Horner on his final film.
Antoine Fuqua has loved Westerns since he was a young boy, watching them at home with his family. But it was the possibility of his Training Day and The Equalizer star Denzel Washington sitting astride a horse that got Sony and MGM's remake of the 1960 classic The Magnificent Seven (itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai) galloping into production.
Ahead of its world premiere as Toronto's opening-night film Sept. 8, Fuqua, 50, talks about the remake's diverse cast (including Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and being gifted with the late James Horner's music for the composer's final film.
What was your relationship with Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and the original Magnificent Seven?
I grew up loving Westerns. I used to watch those movies with my grandmother and my mother. That was our thing: watching Westerns, especially Magnificent Seven. [My grandmother] loved Yul Brynner. But also that movie was the first time I saw a film that seemed to want to deal with prejudice. The first time I saw Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen decide to bury the Native Americans in the graveyard — for no reason except to do the right thing — I remember that having a profound effect on me. And they were just the coolest guys I'd ever seen.
This is your third film with Denzel. How did that happen?
The conversation came around about actors, and I said, "For me, the event would be to see Denzel Washington on a horse." [The producers] all kind of paused in the room. They asked, "You think he would do it? Because he hasn't done a Western." I said I'd fly to New York and talk to him.
Was he open to it?
I had lunch with him in New York, and he kind of smiled when I said, "It's a Western." And I started describing to him what I saw in my head of him coming over a hill on a white horse. I had some Sergio Leone music on my phone that I played as I started describing it to him. He kind of laughed, and he goes, "All right, let me read it."
Many remakes haven't worked at the box office, as recently as Ben-Hur a few weeks ago. Was that on your mind when you took on this project?
When I first said yes, it was on my mind. Absolutely. But once you go in, you just go in. You just say, "OK, I'm going do it and make my version of it." My big lesson so far is that when you do that you have to respect the film's DNA and you have to respect certain elements of the film because when you respect that you're respecting the people that love the film. Sometimes when people see movies they take whatever is going on in their life into the movie theater. And if the movie affects them a certain way, if you don't give them at least that feeling again or that idea again — even if it's done in a different package — then it's difficult to satisfy them. On Magnificent Seven, I kept reminding myself of when I was a 12‑year‑old boy, when I was a kid watching it with my grandmother, what was the feeling I had? How much fun was it? How cool were they? For me, I always had my grandmother in my mind when making a film. Would she enjoy this film?
By now, audiences have seen it all when it comes to special effects and fight scenes. How did you balance making a Western and keeping the audience entertained?
It's hard because now there's just so much action. And then you're in a Western so you're limited to the tools. But I kind of took that cue from Kurosawa and made it more about guerrilla urban warfare. They had to use the tools they had. And then, of course, choreographing it was really difficult to do, to make it so modern, but still classic. You're not taking anyone out of that world.
Chris Pratt must have been getting offers for everything at that time. How did he come onboard?
The hardest thing was who would play [the role played by] Steve McQueen [in the original] because he was like the coolest guy in the world. I heard Chris loved Westerns and we talked about it. He was flirting with other stuff. Then he called me a few days later and he started singing "Oh Shenandoah" on the phone. I said "He's it. He's Steve McQueen."
What do you find challenging about the studio system?
The challenge for a director, and I think a lot of directors feel the same way, is that today we have to put on a producer's hat too. Meaning, you have to sometimes think of it being "business show," not just "show business." They're not making as many movies as they used to. I think you have to be a little more cognizant of that. And I think that diversity is an obvious thing. I think that's a change that's coming. That has to change. So, I think the studio system is slowly starting to adjust to the changing times.
The cast is very diverse. Do you feel pressure to push for more diversity in Hollywood?
Not pressure. Responsibility. My responsibility is, I'm always trying to look for new people of color or even artistic people who need a chance. I ran into a young African-American woman in the production office, and she was doing a TV show. She said, "I feel so sad that there aren't enough female or African-Americans we'd like to shoot." And I stopped her and said, "You ain't got but one job to do right now." I said it's OK to feel sad, [but] you've got to put that away and just do great work. Because the only way you're going to make a change is by doing great work. And then color can go away because it's just like sports. At one point, there wasn't a black quarterback in the NFL. When you start winning, then you start seeing more. Jumping up and down and screaming and calling people names is not going to change anything. The best thing I can do, if the opportunity's coming to me and the responsibility falls on me, is to do my best, right?
This film was James Horner's last project. How much of the score did he complete?
James passed away when I was three weeks, four weeks in. We didn't get a chance to talk about the music much. We had talked about it when I was making Southpaw. After he died, his team called me and said that he had left me a gift. James had all these toys from around the world that he kept in a room in his house. So I thought the gift was one of those things. But they said he wrote seven songs that he was going to surprise me with. He wrote them off the script. They played it for me, and it was just glorious. It was a tough shoot. So I'd play his music for the crew on the speaker, and it just inspired everybody how important the movie was.
Any other film you'd like to remake? You were recently mentioned as possibly directing a remake of Scarface.
I'm having a conversation with Universal about it now. It's just more of a revisiting of it. We're in a different time. Their take on it is very timely, and it's different enough where it's very modern and dealing with subjects of today, of a lot of things that I do know a lot about. So, I felt like it could be, if all goes well, it could be something that I would do next.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.