Physicality is central to the films of Antoine Fuqua: though the director’s breakout hit “Training Day” added some signature lines to the pop culture lexicon, it also featured Denzel Washington’s swaggering actions and the camera to follow them. With his latest film “Southpaw,” written by “Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, and 50 Cent, that visceral quality is notched up ten-fold.
Known previously as the “Eminem boxing movie,” structured similarly to “8 Mile” around the rapper’s experiences and themes. After Eminem dropped out it shifted gears into another grueling body transformation for his replacement, Jake Gyllenhaal. An initial set photo of Gyllenhaal, bloodied and sweaty in the ring as boxer Billy Hope, proved a shocking hint of the visceral drama to come, and Fuqua was right there for all of it, training every day alongside Gyllenhaal until they saw the results needed to serve the film.
Turns out Fuqua was following that routine well before the film, and we talked about that physical and mental conditioning and more recently with the director in Los Angeles. But our conversation started off with his next project, a remake of John Sturges’ 1960 western “The Magnificent Seven”, with none other than Denzel Washington as the lead of the ensemble.
Where are you shooting?
Baton Rouge. 100-and-something degrees, it’s crazy, but’s it all good. It’s an outdoor adventure. We built a town there, and then I’m going to New Mexico to shoot out there for three or four weeks. Baton Rouge is cool, man. It’s Louisiana — low-key, laid back. Gotta be careful what you eat, cause there’s a lot of good food out there. Spicy, salty, and I’m trying to stay clean. But the people are nice.
Are you one to easily shift out of that mode into talking about “Southpaw” now?
Not at all, I’m in ‘Mag Seven’ mode. So for these questions I really have to think about and remember, but you know, the movie is so personal for me anyway. I was in it so deep, so it was just a natural thing. I box every day, I have a gym built wherever I go so I still got my gym. Everyday I try to get in there and work out the mitts. So I stay in a certain mode, but I got my cowboy hat waiting for me back in Lousiana.
It’s interesting, with “Seven Samurai” and the original “Magnificent Seven” there was a certain cultural or pop culture attachment to each of the cast members. It seems you’ve done the same thing here.
Yeah, I knew I wanted Denzel, obviously. And then Ethan [Hawke], and Vincent D’Onofrio — they were the first phone calls I was making. Got Chris Pratt, who I love. Byung-hun Lee, the Korean actor — I saw him in “A Bittersweet Life” and “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” and just wait ’til you see him in this. And then I found an unknown but great Latino actor, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and also a Native American actor, Martin Sensmeier, who’s hardcore with a mohawk in this.
When I look at the picture and see all seven of them, they’ve all definitely got a different pop culture feel, with Denzel in the middle where Yul Brynner was. All different types of actors and ages, it keeps me going every day when it’s hot and hard and the horses don’t wanna do what you want. “Hey, it’s ‘Mag Seven’ and I got my boys.”
What was the last day on set like before you came here?
It was a beautiful day, actually. I left town Saturday, and on Friday, it was hot, I was hustling. But it was beautiful because there was one shot where the sun rays were coming down off of this water, and I had my cast all down there digging this ditch, and they started laughing and having fun. And we all saw it, the camera guys and me, and we ran down there and captured this moment. It was like a gift from God. The water, the sun breaking through the clouds, it was the last shot of the day, and such a high — like “We’re getting to do this! We’re getting to do ‘Mag Seven’!” So that was my last day there. Looking forward to tomorrow, get back in it.
How long have you been boxing?
In the family?
No, I played basketball, grew up in Pittsburgh. Boxing was big there. A lot of fighters came out from that way. But they had the Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and all that. The winters, those places are so cold you go indoors to find activities, so there was basketball, boxing, that Golden Glove program. I just joined up, started doing that. I played ball for years too, and when I played ball in college, we did a little boxing for foot movements, for feet. And then when I came to LA I found Terry [Claybon] at Pound for Pound, who trained Denzel for “The Hurricane.” And we became friends — have been for 14 years — so I’ve been training with him ever since. Everywhere I go, though, Church Gym in New York, Mayweather Gym in Vegas.
So it’s an essential everyday thing for you?
Yeah, as much as you can, being a director. Sometimes you’re tired cause you’ve been up all night. But it is essential, I normally have my trainer with me, and then at lunchtime we might hit the mitts a little bit, get the blood flowing. Or if I can’t do it during the week I’m in there Saturday or Sunday, early. My office and gym are right next door to one another. It’s good for your mental and physical game, and it’s humbling too. It reminds you how vulnerable we are.
If you get past your normal physical capabilities, you have a bit more strength knowing you can go there if needed.
That’s right, for the work. You know the work’s gonna be hard, it’s gonna be stressful, and if you can keep yourself at that fighting level, you want it because you’re in that fighting mode. But if you let yourself lull, and you gotta deal with studio or financial or production issues, the stress alone will leave you not as sharp. Because you let it get to you as opposed to dealing with it as a challenge. And it should all be a challenge, it’s a gift. It’s another round.
Up until now you’ve really focused on staging sequences of gunplay and other weapons; this is the first time where we’re really seeing you get into hand-to-hand combat with [Fuqua’s longtime DP] Mauro Fiore. How was it working that language out with him?
Mauro’s funny, man, he loves what he does. He’s a kid, that’s what I like about him, he’s still got that laugh. But for me it’s easy, it’s shorthand. I know I can tell Mauro something and he gets it, and then there’s days where I know… Mauro’s a DP, and he wants to do this [motions a wandering camera], and I’m like, “Yo, I need to tell a story. We’re not gonna make it about you today.” [laughs] Because we’re friends I can do that to him, and he just starts laughing, like “Alright, alright.” He’s doing ‘Mag Seven’ as well, so he’s doing good.
When “Southpaw” originally had Eminem attached. How did it change for you when he dropped out and Jake replaced him?
It was so much like him, but I think it was good for the movie, because with Em — and he was smart enough to see it too — you expect certain things with him. With Jake you don’t expect him to be that kind of beast. A lot of people didn’t see Jake having that in him. And I think that’s a nice surprise, to see an actor stretch himself and be something different. I think with Em people would’ve said, “Well, yeah, that’s kind of how he is, he’s got those issues” — the people who don’t know him but think they do, I mean. But with Jake, it was fun because I could stretch him more, and see him trying to find where his anger comes from. It made it fun for me, and for Jake, too.
I think Em would’ve surprised people too, though, but your heart has to be there. He was focused on his music at the time, as he should’ve, and when I told him I needed him to train twice a day, seven days a week, he was honest. He said, “Dude, I can’t give you what you need to do that.” And I appreciate him for doing that. He watched the movie and turned to me and said, “I couldn’t have done that. Jake killed it.” So I love him for that, because he was straight up about it.
And you were staging these fights like actual events?
What I did was train Jake so that he — we would go six to eight rounds of conditioning, jumping rope and moving around. So I said, to Mauro too, “Look, I’m going to shoot this like a fight. If you’re tired, just avoid getting hit.” We would do the three-minute rounds, and I wouldn’t cut. So it was good to do that and train with Jake, cause he knew I wasn’t going to cut unless he was hurt. He was sparring, basically, with no helmet. He’d get popped, take a couple licks, sting him, and then come back. And after we got our rounds in, I’d have to remind the actors about the choreography — “In this round you have to go down, or this round you have to say this.” But some rounds we’d see what happened. One time they both threw a punch and hit each other. I kept that in the fight, them just cracking each other for real. I’m like “Keep going!” That was the fun — that was the beauty of it, man.
“Southpaw” hits theatres on July 24th.