KING ARTHUR - Q&A with director Antoine Fuqua
At the age of 38, Antoine Fuqua has established himself as one of Hollywood's most respected young directors and his latest film is also his most ambitious to date - a startlingly new take on the mythical story of King Arthur. Starring CROUPIER's Clive Owen in the title role, King Arthur is produced by Hollywood heavyweight Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer behind last year's box-office behemoth PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL. Pirates actress Keira Knightley plays Guinevere, Ioan Gruffudd is Lancelot, and a host of accomplished actors - including Ray Winstone and Stellan Skarsgard - star alongside them. "We shot the film on location in Ireland and we cast the film in the U.K.," says Fuqua, who adds that he was determined never to lose focus of the human story at the center of KING ARTHUR, albeit that the film is full of breathtaking battle sequences. Born in Pennsylvania, Fuqua got his start directing TV commercials and music videos before making Hollywood sit up and take notice with the critically acclaimed TRAINING DAY, for which Denzel Washington won an Academy Award. Other credits include TEARS OF THE SUN with Bruce Willis and Fuqua's feature film debut, THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS, starring Chow Yun Fat. Fuqua will re-team with Washington on his next project, TRU BLU. The director spoke to us just hours after putting the finishing touches to KING ARTHUR.
What made you decide to cast the film in the United Kingdom rather than in the United States?
When I first sat down with Jerry Bruckheimer, I told him that it would be great to do this movie but I didn't want to use any American stars because it's a British story and I'd rather have British actors, even if they're unknown in the United States. I wanted to reach overseas and bring this talent back so American audiences could start to see some of the great actors who exist in other parts of the world. Frankly, my goal was to grab some of these guys and pray to the heavens that their movies are big and successful so that we can have some fresh faces to see onscreen. I'm sick of seeing the same people. It's boring as hell. I want to see guys who are different. I want to see guys who are willing to do what these actors did for me. Ray Winstone and these guys learned how to ride horses in three months - none of them rode horses before this. And they rode the horses past fire, swinging swords for three months, and nobody complained. Nobody came to me and said, "Antoine, I'm not doing this - this is ridiculous. Call my agent!" Nobody did that. European actors love acting. They love being on the set. They don't make $20 million and they don't require their own big private huge trailers or private jets. Nobody's worried about the coffee being too cold - they're just happy to be there. They are hardworking, serious actors who created a great atmosphere. When I said, "Cut!" they'd go over and chat and talk and have some coffee and wait for me. It was great.
How did Keira Knightley get cast? Was it Jerry Bruckheimer's doing?
One day Jerry said to me, "You should know this girl, Keira Knightley. She's really talented, and I just worked with her." So he showed me a little bit of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and I thought, "Yeah, she's great." But I still didn't quite understand why there was so much hype about her. Then I met her and I started to get it. She was special. She's really sweet and really smart, and for someone so young, she's quite the lady. So I had her come in and do a screen test with Clive Owen and I was blown away. She's like Audrey Hepburn on the screen - she has such a unique quality about her. It's like the camera just ate her up.
What would you say is Clive Owen's unique quality as an actor? What made you decide to make him your King Arthur?
Clive is very internal. He doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeves. I was trying to differentiate each actor, each character, as much as I could and I wanted Arthur to be a quiet leader, almost a reluctant leader. Clive reminds me of Steve McQueen ... there's a lot in his eyes and he's very thoughtful, and I think if you're gong to be a leader you have to be thoughtful. Good leaders aren't consumed by their selfish needs. They think about everybody else and that's what I saw in Clive. When I first sat and talked to him, I found him to be a funny, witty guy - something you'd never guess by the kinds of movies he's made. But when I met him I really liked him a lot and during the process of making the movie I came to like him even more. He's subtle - he doesn't try to be big, which worked for this movie.
Talk about casting Stellan Skarsgard as Cerdic.
Isn't he a great actor? It took a few phone calls to get Stellan. I had to call him up and say, "Come on, Stellan. Do this for me." His eyes are so intelligent and he's such a great actor. He's like a lion. You know how lions will usually just sit there with birds sitting on their head, but if you get too close they'll rip you in half? That's Stellan's character. He walks slow, doesn't raise his voice, but he's a big guy who can be very, very dangerous.
With so much acting talent out there in the world, do you think the era of the big star is coming to an end?
We're not coming to an end of the era of the big star. The Denzel Washingtons and Al Pacinos of the world aren't going anywhere. And those guys are only considered stars because everybody calls them stars. But in reality, they're great actors. I think a big star is a separate and different business than the movie business. The big star business is all of the magazine covers, all of the entertainment news shows, all of the hype. What I would like to see is more actors from other parts of the world being introduced to American audiences. Take a film like CITY OF GOD, for instance. The majority of the kids in that film are still living in the slums because nobody's reaching out and pulling them over here and saying, "You know what? I'm going to teach you English so you can play some roles here," or "I'm going to write a role for a guy who's from Brazil." There's so much talent out there, and I think our movies are suffering because we're not getting to see it.
When you're directing a film, how do you know when you're on the right track?
You show people you trust. You bring in other artists or friends and you say, "Take a look at this and tell me if it works. Just look at it." So you kind of go through this process with people you're close to, and then you show it to a test audience and you get further direction from that. What parts didn't satisfy them? Is there anything they want more of?
How much computer animation went into the battle sequences?
I was really only focusing on the characters. Of course, I wanted to make them visually interesting, but I really just wanted to concentrate on the people. I think that sometimes we get too far away from any human emotion in movies because of all of the computer-generated imagery. It's sort of like a decision is made to do all of this digital stuff and then there's some guy in a room by himself creating it. I just wanted to make these battle scenes as organic as possible. I wasn't trying to outdo anybody. I didn't think about that. I was just thinking about the characters because ultimately, that's what it comes down to. Do you know whom you're watching, and do you care? That's what I learned from watching films like SEVEN SAMURAI. The only reason films like that work is because you love the characters. The filmmakers took the time to explore the people and build their emotional arcs.
Why do you think the legend of King Arthur still resonates with people?
Because a group of men sacrificed their lives for something bigger than themselves. Everyone in history whom we admire, whether it be Gandhi, King Arthur, Martin Luther King - we still talk about them today cause they self-sacrificed. And if the truth be told, there's very few of us who exist today who would do that. I don't know of a leader today that's out there really fighting for the right cause. And I'm not talking about passing a policy - I'm talking about somebody out there marching, fighting, getting their hands dirty, picking up children that are being abused. I don't see it. I don't see Tony Blair doing it. I don't see George Bush doing it. Do you?
So would you be willing to take on another epic film?
It was difficult, no question, but I enjoyed the challenge of it all. I just don't know if I want to go work with horses again or film in Ireland right away 'cause the weather there is so unpredictable. When we were shooting there, my driver, who was Irish, used to crack jokes everyday about turning on the Weather Channel. I'd say, "Mike, what's the weather going to be today?" He'd put it on and it would say, "Possible clouds, possible rain, possible snow." It was very funny. Actually, I was really kind of lucky. I think the Irish gods were smiling down on me because I had some decent days.
What can you tell us about your next project?
My next film is another big one. Denzel Washington and I are hooking up again, this time with Benicio Del Toro. It's called TRU BLU and it's a true story about America's involvement with the heroin trade from the Vietnam War back to Harlem. It takes place from 1969 to 1973, and it's a big film with big battle scenes in Vietnam. But just like KING ARTHUR, it's character-driven. It's all about the characters. It has to be. Otherwise, what's the point?
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