In Portrait Of A Boxer, Fuqua Takes The Action Outside The Ring
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Director Antoine Fuqua's films - blockbusters like "Training Day," "Olympus Has Fallen" and last year's hit, "The Equalizer" - feature heroes who are handy with a weapon and not squeamish about revenge.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EQUALIZER")
DENZEL WASHINGTON: (as Robert McCall) I've done some bad things in my life. I promised someone that I love very much that I would never go back to being that person. But for you, I'm going to make an exception.
CORNISH: Even now, Antoine Fuqua is in the middle of filming a remake of the gun-slinging western, "Magnificent Seven". But his new boxing movie, "Southpaw," it's different. On the surface it looks and sounds like it's going to be violent. But Southpaw's hero, a man named Billy Hope, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, struggles most outside the ring. After tragedy strikes, he loses his championship, his fortune and nearly his family. In the movie, his wife, played by Rachel McAdams, worries that Hope's anger will destroy him.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUTHPAW")
RACHEL MCADAMS: (as Maureen) The more you get hit, the harder you fight. I get it.
JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (as Billy) I don't want to hear this right now.
MCADAMS: (as Maureen) Only now you're taking way too many hits before you get off.
GYLLENHAAL: (as Billy) Hey, listen to me. This was a good night.
MCADAMS: (as Maureen) I love you. You are all I care about. The three of us - that's it. That's all that matters, so I'm going to tell you the truth. You're going to be punch-drunk in two years, if you keep this up.
CORNISH: Director Antoine Fuqua knows this world because he used to be an amateur boxer. I asked him why he thinks movie audiences are so drawn to the ring.
ANTOINE FUQUA: It's a very focused sport. It's an individual sport. There's no one to pass the ball to, so an audience can really walk into a character. It's like a character study, and a lot of these characters - some of them are desperate and poor like in "Million Dollar Baby" or even Billy Hope, who was an orphan who never really got his anger in control, but somehow found a way to use it and become wealthy. But he never learned how to be a father, learned how to really function outside of that world. So I think that they're very interesting characters.
CORNISH: You know, this still feels very different from your other films. I mean, this is a character who - it's his job to be violent in a way, but he doesn't feel that way, right? Like, he's a father and a family person and very much is quieter, I think, than some of the other characters in your films, which are fun thrillers. And some of them, you know, are shoot-em-ups, right? Like, these are people who - the body count gets pretty high, but you don't feel the effects of it. And with this I felt like I felt every blow - both personal and physical.
FUQUA: It's definitely a much more personal film for me. And it's more about a father-daughter story. When I first read the script, it was something that touched me - you know, obviously I have children, so I've had "Southpaw" for maybe five or six years, trying to get it made. And it just wouldn't let me go, and of course every time I look at my kids faces, I felt like I wanted to tell the story about a father and a daughter - what it takes to be a parent.
CORNISH: Because for some of your fans there aren't going to be any explosions. I mean, I can give them a spoiler alert now, right? And you know, the little revenge he thinks of seeking - it's not a kind of typical Fuqua film in that way.
FUQUA: No, no because he's not a killer. He's just - he's a fighter. He's an athlete. But, you know, anger is blinding and revenge is blinding. And I just wanted to capture that in this film to show that that's - there's never any good that's going to come out of that.
CORNISH: On this program we've talked in the past about what it means to be a man and kind of the changing cultural conversation around manhood and responsibility. And your films are so much about American men, and I wonder if you feel that there's - what shift you see in terms of what it means to be a hero.
FUQUA: Yeah, I mean, I think we grew up - I did at least - you know, we grow up and - in fact, I'm making "Magnificent Seven" now - we grow up with these icons and these images. And we grew up being tough like in the world of boxing or playing sports or any young man is told - you know, don't cry when you're little. Suck it up. Be tough. And that's OK, but sometimes it's damaging because you don't know as a man how to mourn or if it's OK to cry or that it's OK to be gentle. It's OK to discuss your problems and not punch the other guy in the face. And then you become a father, and you have a family, and you have to teach your children the proper way of growing up. And you don't really know how. In our culture, I think that there is no markers anymore. Young men don't really have something that says you're a grown up now, until you have a baby.
CORNISH: But it's interesting because as a director and as such a successful director, you are actually in a position to create new images. And is that something you think about as you look at projects?
FUQUA: I do, especially with men. You know, I think men under pressure - I mean, that's what brings out the worst and the best of us. I like to explore that quite a bit in my characters because I don't see a lot of it on the screen that moved me like the films that I grew up with - that are honest, at least, about honest emotions and honest heroism. In this film, the heroism isn't doing anything fantastic - it's not winning a fight or losing a fight. The heroism is getting back up when life knocks you down and taking care of the people that are counting on you, especially your children.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: One more thing - this film was dedicated to composer James Horner. He did the music for the movie, and he died in a plane crash last month. What was it like working with him?
FUQUA: Oh, wow. James is - he was an incredible human being. He was a filmmaker through and through. He was one of the most gentle people I've ever met. Even the way he spoke was very soft and thoughtful. He was magical. And he had this childlike wonderment in his eyes, but he was an amazing artist, an amazing poet. And I loved him, and we became friends. And James was a family man. He loved his children. He called me on a Saturday, after he watched the movie, and I said I don't have any money because it wasn't a big budget movie. And he said to me, I love the movie. I love the father-daughter relationship. Don't worry about the money. I'm just going to do it. And he did it for nothing. He paid his crew out of his own pocket. And I just found out a couple days ago his team flew out here to Baton Rouge, and they brought me all the music from "Magnificent Seven" - he had already wrote it for me based on the script.
CORNISH: Oh, my God.
FUQUA: And he did it all off the script because he wanted to surprise me. And I thought it was a gift or something. And they all came out here and they said, Antoine, James wrote the music for "Magnificent Seven" already, and it's just glorious. And that's my memory of James.
CORNISH: Antoine Fuqua, thank you so much for speaking with us, and for sharing stories about this film.
FUQUA: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: Antoine Fuqua. His new film, "Southpaw," opens next Friday.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.