Synopsis : Police drama about a veteran officer who escorts a rookie on his first day with the LAPD’s tough inner-city narcotics unit. “Training Day” is a blistering action drama that asks the audience to decide what is necessary, what is heroic and what crosses the line in the harrowing gray zone of fighting urban crime. Does law-abiding law enforcement come at the expense of justice and public safety? If so, do we demand safe streets at any cost?
Q&A with Director Antione Fuqua and Actor Ethan Hawke
Q: Going back to 2001, Training Day premiered at the Venice Film Festival. And then made its North American premiere here in Toronto as a Gala Presentation. That was a big night for us, but this movie has since become iconic; it’s part of popular culture now. I wonder, for both of you, that night when you were in Toronto and showing it to a public audience, did you guys know what you had?
AF: It’s hard to know. I had a lot of people come up to me afterwards and said they felt it in their gut. I remember people saying they felt like they got kicked in the gut. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad; it was hard to know. But then I heard people talking about Ethan and Denzel’s performances, and I got the sense that it was striking a nerve with people.
EH: I remember the night it premiered at Venice, which was a couple of nights before Toronto, a friend of mine, who’s a fellow filmmaker, Richard Linklater, was sitting down with Antione and I. He said to us, “You guys made a classic; this movie’s going to be a classic.”
I remember thinking what a good friend he was for being so nice. He was like, “No, I’m not being nice; this movie’s going to last over time. It’s hard to take the cop genre and do something different and revelatory with it in some way.” But we weren’t sure that we had done it.
But I can tell you that being around Antione as he was prepping for the movie, you got a feeling that he was swinging for the back fences. When people wouldn’t give you something that you thought was important, Antione, about a location, it felt life-or-death in his eyes. For Denzel and I as actors, it was really exciting to be around the captain of the ship who was going to do everything possible to make this thing work.
Of course, Denzel was in another league. It was like he was playing with Miles Davis at the peak of his career, or make whatever analogy you want to make about a person who works at a level of greatness that’s beyond the ordinary excellence. Antione and I were just trying to keep up.
AF: Yes, definitely. I would often forget to yell “Cut” because I was watching Ethan and Denzel and the rhythm they had. They would have to drive the car around blocks and through lights, and there were days where I wouldn’t yell “Cut” and let the camera roll. They would look over at me and ask, “Are you going to cut?” I was just so captivated by them that I would forget to, and they’re a reminder of why I love movies. I came up through music videos and commercials, which have a lot of visual aesthetics. Then watching Ethan and Denzel reminded me of why I love actors and what they do.
Q: You mentioned your music videos, and you directed videos for Stevie Wonder, Prince and Toni Braxton. You also directed two action features, The Replacement Killers with Chow Yun-fat and Bait with Jamie Foxx, before Training Day. How did you come onto the project and get to direct Ethan and Denzel to his Best Actor Oscar? This seems like it was a big project, and a bit of a leap from those two first movies.
AF: Well, not really. The short story is, I was avoiding stories that had to do with the so-called hood and ghetto, and stuff I grew up with and knew really well because I didn’t want to be put in a box. At the time I was developing and writing a script that was based on Monster Kody’s life. He was a gang member who recently passed away. I knew Monster when he was up in Pelican Bay State Prison.
But no one would let me make that movie as it was a little too violent. I probably would have screwed it up anyway because I would have made it about him and not his mother, who’s the real hero.
So David Unger, who was my agent at the time, knew what types of films I was really interested in making. I was experimenting with Bait and The Replacement Killers, which was fun as a first movie. But David got me the script for Training Day, as he knew it was in my wheelhouse. I read it one time and went crazy.
The way I got the movie was through Pauletta, Denzel’s wife. She told Denzel that he should meet me because she saw me on the cover of a magazine-I think it was Rolling Stone-with a group of other directors, including David Fincher and Michael Bay. She said, “Who’s the Black kid?,” and started looking at my work. She then said, “Denzel, you should meet this kid.”
I knew Denzel from church, so he wanted to sit down and talk about the movie. As soon as we sat down, we had a rhythm and didn’t skip a beat. What you saw on screen was kind of like our first meeting. We talked about it in the same tone and rhythm, and it never changed. Then when Ethan came on board, I felt like I couldn’t have gotten a better script for me at that time.
Q: Ethan, you’re working with Antoine and this really strong script from David Ayer, but you also had to develop a rapport with Denzel. What got you there, in terms of the chemistry that you two have together in Training Day? Did that happen before set or while you were on the set? How did that develop?
EH: It’s interesting. Antoine, I’ve never heard you say that before about Pauletta, and I think we all owe a lot to Pauletta. Antoine and I had met, and we had a great meeting. We met in a bar to talk, and there was a woman at the end who stopped us and said, “What are you two talking about, because it seems like the room is about to catch on fire!” Our conversation just exploded.
I can’t explain it, but sometimes you just have to feel it in your gut. I felt the call to do this movie, and I needed to communicate that to Antoine. I was so happy that we got along so well.
When you first read the script, you can see it as a great Denzel Washington vehicle, and Antoine saw it as a great film, and how important the world was, and how important my part was. Every day, from the time I met him to the time we finished shooting, Antoine treated me with so much respect. He treated me the same respect he treated Denzel, but quite frankly, it didn’t feel like I warranted that kind of respect.
But the beautiful thing about treating people with respect is that they try to act like they’re worth that respect. So I came in and was the person that Antoine wanted me to be, which was to be as good of an actor as Denzel.
I’ve seen every Denzel movie, and the actor in my brain sometimes thinks that people are afraid of him, and they great room for him to be great, but they don’t play their part. But he can’t act both parts; it’s not fair to him to not play your best and just constantly make room for him.
So Antoine gave me the respect that Denzel was primed to like me because Pauletta had seen a film I did, Hamlet. She told you about it, Antoine, so I knew that I had support from behind you. The studio didn’t want to let Antoine hire me. I remember Denzel saying to me once, “You’re lucky my wife likes you.” Pauletta’s a big theater fan, and so am I.
The biggest thing I felt to creating a rapport with Denzel was to do a good job. You just have to do your job; if you don’t do your work, he’s not going to respect you, because he’s working really hard. He thinks deeper than most people think, and his imagination is way deeper. Most people don’t even understand the way his imagination works, but I’s very multi-layered.
AF: When I first sat down with him, the first thing he said was, “Who’s your Jake?” I had no idea at the time. Then Pauletta told me about Ethan, and I saw him doing an interview on one of the tonight shows. It was like a lightbulb then went off, and I was like, everything about him is Jake.
I auditioned about 12 other actors with Denzel; he came in and did readings. They were really great actors, but they just didn’t click.
Then like Ethan said, we met and talked for hours. He was on his way to the airport and I called him and said, “Can you come audition?” I think he cussed me out, but he came in.
EH: I was pissed that a screen test was dropped on me on the way to the airport! But he said, “You’re not going to get the part if you don’t do it.”
AF: But he came back. What was great was that he came back and came into the room, and I said, “This guy’s pissed off.” But he then went outside and came back in, and he and Denzel read it one time. Denzel then said, “That’s him, I’m out,” and left.
Q: Do you remember what scene you two read?
EH: It might have been the diner scene when we first meet. I remember what was intense about it was that when the scene was over, Denzel started improvising with me. He asked me what kind of car I drove. That’s when I felt the challenge was set up.
AF: He also talked about family, the wife and kids.
EH: He wanted to see how big my backstory was. I then got the call from Antoine, saying he was glad I came in. I was so happy.
AF: When I saw you guys riffing, I saw the movie working. I remember then calling the studio and Lorenzo di Bonaventura, to his credit, said “You’re right, he’s the one,” and that was that. We were off and running, and everyone was with me every day.
EH: We had some wild days. Do you remember the day that the Monte Carlo got stolen?
AF: Oh yeah!
Q: Somebody stole the Monte Carlo?
AF: Yes, but I think it was back within 24 hours, in the exact same spot that they stole it from. We had a lot of support.
EH: It was one of the only times in my life that we were working so hard that when I got home at night, I would be buzzing with what happened that day. Do you remember, Antoine, there would be so many takes from different directions? You were very confident and relaxed, and would really let Denzel play.
Denzel was then really encouraging me to play. Every situation we came in had a feeling of jazz to it, meaning that we knew what we were doing, as well as the mood and melody. It wasn’t clear what was the best path, but we were just hunting every day for real beats and something that wasn’t fake or tired.
Antoine, Denzel and I did these ride arounds, and that was new to me. My brother’s in the military, so I thought I had a hit on who Jake was, and where he came at all of this from. But seeing that world and riding around in L.A. was extremely helpful.
AF: It was really interesting to see these guys in gangs, including the sort of respect and relationships they had on the streets. There aren’t any secrets on the streets, and there’s no such thing as he’s deep undercover; everybody knows everybody. So we got support from the Latino gangs, the Bloods, the Crypts with open arms to come into these areas, as they were excited about the film.
What I think Ethan was trying to say was that we set up compositions, but sometimes gang members, would flow in. So right in the middle of filming, there would be these real guys all up in there. We weren’t going to be like, “Get out the frame,” because they were right there and wanted to be a part of it. So the actors were weaving with real gang members in the scenes.
EH: It was beautiful to watch because Denzel likes to talk to people. I would watch him absorb the language that people were saying. He would hear something that some guy would say by a bodega, and then it would come out of his mouth during the improv in a scene two weeks later. He absorbed the world and atmosphere, and let it ride through him. I’ve never seen that up close before, but I’ve done that since. I watched the way he lived inside a character, and it was incredible.
I remember we were doing a scene with a Latin gang towards the end of the movie at Smiley’s house, and somebody’s phone rings. The guy just picks up his phone and said, “Hey, yo, we’re rolling. I’m acting in a movie. Denzel Washington’s supposed to be here, but he’s not even here!” He’s looking at me and says, “I don’t know, some white guy! Yo, yo, I’ll call you back later.” I then just heard Antoine from behind the monitor go, “Okay, let’s go from the beginning.”
Q: One of the other things you did was get all of these people from hip-hop culture and the R&B world in the film, including Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. It really feels like it’s a product of not just the gang and cop culture inn L.A., but also the music world, as well. Antoine, how did you get that woven into the movie, as well?
AF: I love Snoop and Dre; they’re friends. I knew Snoop wanted to do more acting at the time, so I was trying to figure out how to use him in the film. I was on the street one day, and some someone in a wheelchair. So I thought about putting Snoop into a wheelchair, and it kind of evolved. We then got the whole idea of the chase in the wheelchair.
Like Ethan said, it started to evolve because we were just in it. There were things that we were seeing every day that we were translating into the film.
With Dre, he didn’t want to do acting at first, but he read the script, and Ethan and Denzel signed on, so he said, “I’m down.” I first started talking to Dre about music, but then I said, “No, you should play one of the crew.” He said, “You really think so? I don’t know about the acting thing.” I said, “Ethan and Denzel got you, don’t worry. There’s something interesting about him that pops through.
I remember that Dre then took some gum out and started chewing it because he was a little nervous. But it then became part of his character.
With Macy Gray, I had met her before, and I think she reached out to me about it. When I read the script, I could hear her.
The thing that was interesting is was that since the movie’s so intense, everything cut threw. When you have Ethan and Denzel, how do you cut threw? Meaning, how do you make it memorable with their performances? So I thought, I grew up around this, and my memories of where I grew up started coming back to me. The movie felt like it needed the whole culture of L.A., and people like Snoop and Dre came off the streets.
EH: Everybody bought in. I remember I was so impressed with Dre because we were shooting and it was Grammy night, and I think we won a couple of Grammys. He then came in at 4 in the morning to get his hair done the way he needed to get it done. He was all in. I expected him to be late or ask for the day off, but he was on set, ready at 5:30am to shoot. It was awesome.
Q: What I’m hearing a lot is that you had a script, but a lot also came from improvising and responding to the environment you were shooting in, and what the actors were giving you, and that changed the movie a lot. There was another big piece of improvisation you had to do because four days after the movie was here at the Toronto Film Festival, 9/11 happened. You had to delay the release of the film by a couple of weeks. What was that experience like, responding to that cataclysmic event? You knew you had a great movie and wanted to get it out there, but you had to change your plans. How did that work?
AF: I have to give Lorenzo di Bonaventura a lot of credit. He was running Warner Bros. at the time, and he had to take the movie to the shareholders and show it to them, and have everybody sign off on the film being released at that time. When they saw the movie for the first time, the first thing they hear is racial slurs. To his credit, he pushed hard on it, and stayed with us to get it released at that time.
It was tricky because we didn’t have a premiere; we had a screening at the P.G.A. You could see that people didn’t want to see a movie that was watered down. I think 9/11 woke everyone up to the real world that we were living in. I think people were just in the mood for something real. Like I said, they kept saying, “I felt it in my gut.”
I think that had to do with the world we were living in, as people wanted some reality. Obviously, it was a movie, but they wanted some reality. So we took the movie into as much reality as we could, and I think that’s what people were feeling. I think 9/11 sparked that feeling in everybody.
I didn’t know what was going to happen with the movie, though, but Lorenzo pushed hard to have it still come out at that time. We were just in it, day-by-day, and I knew we made the movie that we wanted to make.
I was proud that we could through it. It woke me up to seeing great actors do what they do up close like that every day. I wasn’t even sitting at the monitor most days; I was sitting as close as I could get to Ethan and Denzel, like I was in the scene. That’s why I would forget to yell “Cut” because I wasn’t near the cameras.
EH: I had a funny moment about three or four days ago that made me think about you, Antoine. I was in a pizza shop in Budapest, and this Hungarian guy who runs it loves movies. On the walls, he had a big picture of Brando in The Godfather and Pacino in Scarface.
He also had a picture of Denzel and I in Training Day up on the wall. That made me think about you, Antoine, and that first meeting we had where you said, “I want to make something as good as Apocalypse Now, that works as good as a genre movie and as an overall film. I think this can be that.” I thought at the time that we could because it has that in its DNA. When I was in the pizza shop, I thought that if you could have told me that 20 years later that I’d be in Hungary and see our picture up there with these movies that I love, I wouldn’t believe it. It felt amazing.
AF: That was the time when digital was taking over film. I remember after meeting with Ethan and Denzel and going through our process, there was something about it that made me want to shoot on film. The studio was saying to shoot digitally, but I not only wanted to shoot it on film, but I also wanted to shoot it on anamorphic.
So people were looking at me like I was crazy because shooting cars on anamorphic lenses meant that it had to really be on point. But if you look at the classic movies, those guys were so good at what they did, so I said, “I’m going to shoot it that way.”
My DP, Mauro Fiore, said, “Really?” I said, “Yes, I’m going to do it on anamorphic film.” But there was something about it that made us, as filmmakers, disciplined in what we do. We couldn’t get caught up with lifting the cameras up to the ceiling or low to the ground, because who’s perspective is that? So I was like, I have to capture what these guys do, period, by any means necessary. When you know you’re shooting on film in anamorphic and in a moving car, you have to wake up every day on point.