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August 2015

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DIRECTOR'S CHAIR 12 POST AUGUST 2015 ew Yorker F. Gary Gray first made his name directing hit music videos for such artists as TLC, Cypress Hill, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah and Whitney Houston before helming his first feature film, the urban comedy Friday, in 1995. Gray followed that up with an eclectic string of movies that included Set It Off, The Negotiator, The Italian Job, Be Cool and Law Abiding Citizen. In his new film, Straight Outta Compton, Gray returns to his music roots with a biopic that follows the birth of the gangsta rap group NWA, set against a volatile backdrop of gang violence, police brutality and racial tensions in LA in the late '80s. The film, co-produced by former NWA members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, was released earlier this month by Universal Pictures. Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, the director/producer talks about using music videos as his own film school, making the film, dealing with effects, and his love of post. Did your music video background prepare you for work in features? "When I started, I didn't have the resourc- es to go to film school, so I'd write short sequences and scenes in a cinematic way within the body of the music videos, and try and get as much experience technically that way. So when I did It Was a Good Day with Ice Cube, the song was written like a short story, and while there wasn't a ton of acting, at the end I was able to bring in the SWAT team and cops and helicopters and do an early version of what I eventually did in The Negotiator. The video was on a far smaller scale, but it was like my own film school training." So you're essentially self-taught? "Yes, as that's the only way I could get ex- perience behind the camera and try stuff. It wasn't always good. Some things I tried failed horribly, but a few moments worked out, like Waterfalls with TLC. I worked with some great actors on that and was also able to introduce some complex VFX not really common back then in '95. The CGI water effect had only ever been seen in Jim Cameron's The Abyss, and we shot 35mm with cranes and aerial coverage in a very cinematic way. So it was like a crash course in the technical areas. I felt strong in terms of telling a story, but that real-world experience of running a large crew and dealing with all the VFX and gear and technology was a great learning experi- ence for me." What did you set out to make with Compton, and how did you get beneath the 'sex, drugs, gangsta rap' cliches? "That's a great question because we all know that with music biopics you're gonna get sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll. That's to be expected. But on this, you don't normally associate getting a deeper level of humanity, because of the genre... I really wanted to tap into the 'why.' Why would a 16-year-old write these harsh, edgy lyrics about cops and the system, and describe these really insane street moments that are cinematic in their own right? Do you just wake up in a comfort- able world and you're an angry person? I felt I knew the answer — as I grew up in that environment — which is that LA in the 80's was a rough place and time. There was this huge influx of cocaine, which changed the economic dynamic, and then you had the influx of military weapons flooding the neighborhoods, and NWA wrote about all that. So we knew the 'where' and 'when,' but it's the 'why' that I wanted to explore. That's what I hope sets this movie apart from your typical music biopic." What were the main challenges of pulling essentially a period piece together? "Where to shoot was the first big one. For budget reasons we were originally sched- uled to shoot in one of the tax rebate states like Louisiana, and even cities like Miami, Boston and Vancouver. That's pret- ty weird! (laughs). Take Boston — besides the fact they hate the Lakers, how can you even consider shooting this there? LA's big, sunny, palm trees, like a vaca- tion spot, and yet with extreme danger in parts like Compton. And it was tough getting LA as the real location, but in the end we got a tax rebate, and LA became a central character." How tough was the shoot? "It was mainly location, which is always hard, and we shot for a couple of months, along with some stage work. Shooting's always crazy time, compared with post and editing." What did DP Matty Libatique bring to the project? "He's a genius. This movie would be so different without his expertise. I wanted to create a movie that felt real and authentic, because that's what hip hop is. I didn't want it to feel like a Hollywood movie. I wanted to transport the audience to that time, and to come up with a visual style that helped do that. And it was essential to move the camera a lot, to capture that energy, so we used a lot of handheld, with very few static, well-composed angles that felt staged and carefully worked-out. Instead it's almost a docu-style approach, and it's not easy. "To be able to light African-Americans who're all wearing baseball caps and you're moving the camera constantly, is extremely hard to do well. But Matty managed to BY IAIN BLAIR F. GARY GRAY: STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON THIS DIRECTOR RETURNS TO HIS MUSICAL ROOTS N Director F. Gary Gray was able to shoot in LA, helping to add to the film's authenticity.

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