Antoine Fuqua isn’t here to talk about your feelings about race in connection with Denzel Washington playing the lead in a Western. Fuqua makes it very clear, he’s not trying to make any sort of statement with his new film, The Magnificent Seven, outside of, “If it sounds fun to watch Denzel Washington ride horses and shoot things, you should see this movie.” That’s not to say Fuqua isn’t intrigued by these questions and interpretations about his movie in regards to race, he just wants to be clear, “You brought it up, not him.”
Fuqua is a fascinating filmmaker to talk with. He can be gruff, but in the most pleasant way possible. And for a guy who didn’t make a movie about race (I truly believe that this was not his intention), he does have a lot to say about the subject of a filmmaker’s role when it comes to this subject. And Fuqua is proud of the fact that his The Magnificent Seven stars a black man in the Old West, but the film never once uses the “n-word.” His explanation is simple and true: Why would he or Denzel Washington want to hear that word every day while making a movie? When the subject of Quentin Tarantino’s recent Westerns is brought up, and Tarantino’s use of that word, Fuqua has quite a bit to say about that.
The Magnificent Seven is a remake of the 1960 John Sturges Western, which is a remake of 1954’s Seven Samurai. The plot is simple: Seven rapscallions, from all races and creeds, come together to fight an evil man who is taking advantage of a small Western town. As Fuqua says (a lot) ahead, that’s the story. Anything else a) muddies the waters and b) represents what you are bringing in with you when you see this movie.
Fuqua also discusses what is one of the more, let’s say, eccentric performances of the year with Vincent D’Onofrio, who may be from another planet in this movie. A performance Fuqua refused to see until he started rolling the camera, because he wanted to experience it for the first time just like a viewer would.
There are a lot of The Magnificent Seven interpretations, but when you’re asked about it, your answer is always something like, “Denzel and I wanted to make a Western.” But are the interpretations flattering?
Yeah, it’s okay. People bring things to the theater. Everybody brings their own ideas. And that’s the beauty of making movies: That experience is interesting, how a movie plays with what crowd, or what’s going on with somebody’s life, or in the world even and how it’s interpreted. So, I think it’s great everybody is painting their own picture of what they feel.
And they are with this one…
And that’s something that’s intentional in a way, because I don’t talk about color. There are no n-words, none of that. And people have asked me about diversity and racism: that’s something you’re thinking about, that’s not something I said. [Laughs] I just put it up there on the screen and let you make your own judgment.
I’ve enjoyed some of the interpretations, and they made me think about the fact an African-American is playing the lead in a Western, but my first reaction when I heard about this movie was, “I just want to watch Denzel shoot things.”
That’s what I said! I tell people that all the time, “I want to see Denzel on a horse with guns shooting people.” I can tell sometimes they don’t want that answer, they want more. When I was in the meeting with MGM, I never said, “We should make a black guy the lead.” I looked down the list, and there were some great actors on the list, and I said, “Honestly, I want to see Denzel on a horse.” For me, that’s an event. And MGM and Sony said, to their credit, “Absolutely. Can you get him to do it?” No one said, “Is it a problem that he’s black?” That never came up in that room.
And race isn’t addressed in the movie. And we’ve seen that Western before recently where it was addressed.
Because you muddy it up when you do that. The Magnificent Seven was about seven guys from different walks of life who all came together to do the right thing at the expense of some of their lives – the ultimate sacrifice to fight against bad guys. Seven Samurai was the same idea. I went back to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and said, “What was Kurosawa trying to say?” And the word “samurai” means “to serve.” And I said, “Well, that’s it.” That’s the story: It’s about “in service of others.” And ultimately color, what does it really mean? Besides a conversation about racism, what does that have to do with the Magnificent Seven riding into town and stopping this guy from taking advantage of these people? It muddies the water.
You mention not using the n-word in this movie. I’ve read Tarantino’s explanations on why he did use it in his recent Westerns…
Yeah, for what? For me, what’s the point of it? To degrade a person? You can call somebody an asshole. Does it have to be a word to degrade their race? To identify someone that way, it’s such an ugly word. What’s the point of it? And it’s interesting, if you don’t do it – if you succeed with the characters and the story and tell a good, entertaining movie – in a weird way, people forget. You walk out, “Oh that’s right, he was black, or Asian.” As far as your experience with the story, as long as it has something specific to do with that thing, then what’s the real point? Because it’s an ugly word and none of us want to hear it. I certainly don’t want to hear it. Denzel doesn’t want to hear it. So why would we have to go to the set every day and make a movie and hear that ugly word when we are making a movie about guys who do the right thing? Where does that fit in?
The only time race is really mentioned is when Chris Pratt’s Farraday and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s Vasquez get into verbal sparring.
Yeah, that was just Farraday and Vazquez having a contest about who’s the good-looking badass. That’s just macho shit. And they laughed about it … who’s the coolest of the two. You know, I’ve fought so hard my whole career just to make movies…
And you’ve made almost every genre now.
Yeah, I’m getting there.
Except something set in space.
Not yet, but I will, though. I want to someday.
I would love to see your movie set in space.
Yeah, man. I’m fascinated with that. I’m like a kid. What is out there? It’s fertile playing ground… but, for me, I’m interested in bigger stories than just the color of someone’s skin. What’s the human shared experience that you and I or anybody else can sit and talk about and have some sort of connection to it, outside of, “I’m black and you’re white, so I’m going to tell you about black people.” What’s the point of that? If I just tell you a good human story, then maybe through that journey there might be something I’ll learn about your culture and something you learn about my culture – just through a shared understanding of a story.
That comes through in your movies.
That’s what I’m interested in and that’s the bigger picture. Because you can talk about it all day, you can protest, you can do whatever you want to do. My job is just to do. So, you want to tackle racism? Okay, great! Start it off by, let’s get rid of making everybody think about it every day, unless there’s a reason. This is entertainment. And I believe in the power of cinema. I believe there’s something to take on, a story to take on. But if you really want to do that, be a politician. Really go do a service for no money, like a lot of people do. There are people who really go out there fighting every day and they don’t make a lot of money.
What planet is Vincent D’Onofrio on in this movie?
He’s great, isn’t he?
Does he tell you before you started shooting, “I’m going to do something a little different?”
What I do with actors, there are certain things they want to talk to me about, and there are certain actors I’ll say, “I don’t want to know.” This is so I can have the same experience you have. So I can hear it for the first time, as far as a voice and a behavior. I want to look through the lens and, for the first time, feel the way you felt as an audience member and see how it feels. So when you stand out on that mountain and a guy comes out with a bearskin rug and a heavy coat and a raccoon hat, then he does that voice! [Laughs.] When you’re in that environment, it trips you out!
In the scene when he’s stabbing a guy, I swear he’s yelling “clear vision.”
Yeah! “Clear vision! Clear sight!” And then he turns the knife!
When I spoke to Peter Sarsgaard at TIFF, he mentioned you shot a scene he suggested – when the kid comes up and has to stick his hand in a jar – and he has never felt that kind of freedom on a big studio movie before.
Yeah, it’s great to do that. Great actors! If you can do it and it feels right in the moment, why wouldn’t you do that? He’s so sinister, why wouldn’t he call the kid up? That’s what he would do.
It’s so tense. I didn’t know what was in the jar.
Right. That’s what it is. What’s in the jar? And he makes the kid put his hand in it. It could be a scorpion.
That’s what I thought. I thought it would be a scorpion.
Yeah. You’re with him emotionally and you realize, this guy is just mean. Why did he make me go through that torture? He just does it to make his point. Yeah, it’s so much fun, man, to do it that way, for me.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.