Comic-Con 2015: F. Gary Gray on ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and ‘Assassin’s Creed’

Don’t try to tie F. Gary Gray down. The director of FridayThe Italian Job and this summer’s Straight Outta Compton – a biopic about the rise of the legendary rap group NWA – wants to tackle every damned genre imaginable. That’s a big part of the reason why he accepted a gig to direct an animated short based on the upcoming video game Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, a period action thriller set during the Industrial Revolution.

We sat down with F. Gary Gray at the Hilton San Diego Gaslamp, right across the street from Comic-Con 2015, to preview the new Assassin’s Creed short and come to the disturbing realization that a film about NWA is technically also a “period piece.” Gray also reveals his plans for the music in the upcoming drama, and finally tackles a big question we’ve always had about the 1998 thriller The Negotiator, which starred Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey.

Straight Outta Compton comes to theaters on August 14, 2015. You can watch the Assassin’s Creed Syndicate short below, and play the video on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on October 23, 2015.

CraveOnline: I haven’t seen anything like Assassin’s Creed from you before. What got you interested in this particular project?

F. Gary Gray: I love video games but I don’t have the time to play them the way I would love to because of my schedule. When I got the call, immediately I’m like, “Hell yeah, I’d get involved in something like this.” It’s an extension of what I do anyway, with animatics and the motion comics. It’s kind of just the next level.

Motion comics are an interesting format. How do you approach them differently than, say, an animated movie? Or is it the same thing?

You know, I’ve never done an animated movie so I don’t know the approach, specifically, but I just go with story first no matter what it is. It’s like I try to identify a theme, and with Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate the theme’s already been established. It’s an underdog story. How do you serve that theme? I love a great underdog story.

The credits say “reimagined by F. Gary Gray.” 

Well, it’s reimagined, really just the short. It’s really about me giving input on my take on the game, and how that’s kind of presented in the short. It was fun, you know? It was fun. We came up with the script and… I haven’t really had my coffee yet… no, it was a cool process. They called me in, said “We’re working with UbiSoft and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and would you like to get involved with the short?” I said “of course” and they explained to me the storyline of the game and I gave them my input on the story, gave them my input on the shots and the animations, stuff like that. They brought Pop Mhan in to realize the script and the visuals of the script and the action, stuff like that. The rest is history. It’s a lot of fun.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate Pop Mhan

So is this a condensed portion of the game’s story, or is this content original and entirely different?

No, it is a condensed version of the game. There’s elements in this story that happen in the game, for sure.

You said you don’t have a lot of time for video games anymore. Had you played the Assassin’s Creed games?

Yeah, actually. I definitely played but I can’t say I played every single game all the way through to the end.

That’s fair. What do you think is the appeal of Assassin’s Creed, specifically, over other games?

Just transporting in time. You get a chance to go back to, in this game in particular, London 1868, the industrial revolution. To be transported with that level of detail, from the costumes to the streets of London, the vehicles. Who wouldn’t want to time travel? I think that’s part of it, and if you can kick some ass and blow up things, I think that’s the other part of it. For me, that’s for sure.

I haven’t seen you do a lot of period stuff. Is that something you want to get to? It sounds like it interests you…

You know, I just finished my first period picture, which is Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton Cast

It’s interesting that early ‘90s is now a period picture.

You know, ‘80s and ‘90s is now period, for sure.

God, I’m old…

You’re old? They hired me because I knew about it, because I know about that era. So yeah, you could consider that a period. You have to look out for all modern things when you’re shooting on location, things like that. You have to be conscious of all the cultural things that were happening at the time. It’s not as extreme as London 1868 but you still have to be very, very aware.

Did you have a jump-start on that movie, having worked with Ice Cube around that time?

No question about it. I was there. I not only grew up in South Central L.A., at that time I was probably a couple of miles away from Ice Cube when we were teenagers, so the impact of the music, the impact of the culture all happened all around me at the same time. I definitely had a head start on that. Somebody told me the other day, “You were born to make this movie!” And I didn’t know how to take it.

I think you were “raised” to make this movie.

You know, I didn’t know how to take it but I said, “You know what, it’s probably true.” I didn’t have to do a ton of research but that’s what made it fun. Although it was a challenging film to make it was very, very rewarding in a lot of ways. Very personal to me and very close.

Straight Outta Compton 2015

I was wondering, because we see a lot of musical biopics – it’s a genre unto itself – what makes NWA’s story different than the rest that we’ve seen, which follow a very familiar format?

Well it’s bigger than [that]. This story, Straight Outta Compton is so much bigger than the group. They are still relevant. The story is still being told. It’s almost, in a strange way… we’re in Comic-Con right now, we’ve got superhero stuff going on… in a strange way they have a pretty incredible story as well. They started from nothing. One becomes a billionaire from starting out making beats in his garage, and the other one becomes a Hollywood mogul, started with absolutely nothing, comes from an environment that could be considered dangerous and in some ways destructive, and did something constructive. So beyond the music and the rags to riches, there’s a kind of triumph in there that goes beyond music and I think that’s part of what makes it unique.

When you’re recreating music that’s so recent and so famous, do you have the actors perform it? Or are they going to be lip-synching to the original tracks?

It’s a combination, it’s a combination. The actors I think did a great job performing it but there are times when you just want to hear the original stuff. I’ll let the fans figure out what we did during these songs, but it was interesting.

We keep hearing that there might be another Friday someday. Would you be involved in that? Would you want to be?

You know that’s really kind of up to them. I had fun making the first one…

Did you follow the series after you left? It went in some odd directions, I thought…

I saw the other ones. I thought they were funny. I just wanted to do something different, that’s my thing. I don’t really stick to one genre and that’s why Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate… that’s why I was enthusiastic about getting involved in this, because it’s different.

You say you don’t get bogged down in one genre but you’ve done a lot of action movies…

Have I?

The Italian Job, The Negotiator, a fair number.

The Negotiator, you know, I love when people tell me that’s an action film. There’s not one car chase. It’s really two guys on the phone.

Samuel L Jackson The Negotiator Kevin Spacey

But it feels like an action movie.

There you go! It’s suspense! I appreciate that and I take it as a compliment, but it’s a taut thriller and it’s still a different genre. Italian Job, it has car chases and all that fun, a little bit of fighting and this and that. With The Negotiator it’s something different. You can’t say the guy who made Friday made Law Abiding Citizen.

It seems like a major shift.

I love doing that, so the opportunity came up to do this.

One question I’ve always had about The Negotiator. In the trailer Kevin Spacey says, “Now you’re going to have to deal with both of us,” and that’s not in the movie, and that plot point isn’t in the movie. Was that intentional misdirect or was that something that got cut out?

Probably something the marketing guys thought would put asses in seats. Who knows? It was so long ago.

Do you even remember shooting that?

It’s not that I don’t remember shooting that, I just remember I had an issue with the trailers back then because I felt like it gave up too much. But I was a kid back then, I was 26, 27 years old, so it was like… who knows, man? I don’t remember that specific point but I always thought with the marketing of that movie they gave up too much.


William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and the host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.