Since breaking out in the mid-'90s with the hip-hop-flavored "Friday" and the young-women-robbing-banks urban thriller "Set It Off," F. Gary Gray has established himself among the handful of former music video directors who graduated to helming big-budget projects.
But after a steady career that included the back-to-back crunch of directing 2003's "The Italian Job" and 2005's "Be Cool" -- two films with more than their share of physical and creative demands -- Gray seemed to vanish, prompting some to wonder about his professional future. Fueling that concern was the lukewarm reception that audiences and critics gave "Be Cool," the "Get Shorty" sequel that earned $56 million at the box office despite an A-list cast that included John Travolta, Vince Vaughn and Danny DeVito.
It turned out that Gray, one of the few African American directors hired to make mainstream studio films, made a move that might seem unimaginable to most Hollywood players: He took himself out of the game for nearly four years.
"I had to take a break," he said. "I was frankly exhausted, and I had to stop and regroup. I had a chance to look at life."
Traveling to several spots, including Egypt and Paris, and doing "spiritual soul-searching" recharged him. Now Gray, 40, seems to have returned with a vengeance with "Law Abiding Citizen," a violently provocative story about, well, vengeance. The Overture Films release, which could be described as "Cape Fear" meets "Death Wish," opens Friday.
A family's murder
The tense drama stars Gerard Butler ("300") as Clyde Shelton, a man whose life is shattered after he witnesses the brutal murder of his family by two hoods. An arrogant Philadelphia prosecutor (Jamie Foxx) makes a deal that allows one of the killers to receive a reduced sentence. Biding his time for 10 years, an enraged Shelton launches a relentless assault not only against his attackers but against the legal system that denied him justice.
Gray describes it as his most accomplished film in what he acknowledges is an uneven resume that includes hits like "The Italian Job" and misses like the Vin Diesel vehicle "A Man Apart."
"I've never delivered a film before that I felt matched my potential," he said recently while relaxing in the lounge of a Beverly Hills hotel. "I've always looked at my first few films as being like boot camp. With this film, people will really get a chance to see the growth."
With "Law Abiding Citizen," Gray was determined to bring an element of moral relativity to the proceedings. He was also compelled by the vigilante theme: Though audiences may initially cheer Shelton's violent campaign, its escalating brutality becomes more and more troubling.
"That's what I really loved about it -- the complexity of the story and the characters," Gray said. "This could have easily fit into the revenge-movie category, but those types of films have been done very well, and I didn't want to go down that path. There's a lot of complexity in bringing humanity to Gerard's character that does heinous things."
Butler, also a producer of the film, was taken with Gray's intensity. "Before we started, he sat both Jamie and I down individually and asked, 'What do you want to get out of this experience? What do you want this movie to do?' " he said. "I don't remember anyone else being that direct. I was very impressed."
Many scenes display Gray's command of pacing his story as he shifts audience sympathies. For example, a quiet cello recital is intercut with a gruesome execution inside a gas chamber. And though Foxx's character is theoretically the hero and protagonist, viewers will more likely side with Butler -- at least for much of the film.
The slickness and design of the $50-million production, shot in Philadelphia, is a long way from the music videos that launched Gray's career. He first made his mark with acclaimed videos for TLC (the award-winning "Waterfalls"), OutKast, Dr. Dre, Babyface, Stevie Wonder and Ice Cube.
A pitch with passion
Gray was not the first choice to direct "Law Abiding Citizen." Frank Darabont ("The Green Mile," "The Shawshank Redemption") was initially attached to the film but left over creative differences. Producers then sought out Gray. "It was his passion during his pitch that was pretty irresistible to us," said producer Mark Gill. "The idea was that you didn't need $100 million to do this movie, which we didn't have anyway. But Gary impressed everyone with his very specific ideas of how to shoot this."
Now that his movie is ready to hit theaters, Gray is spending more time at the Urban Compass program at Verbum Dei High School in Watts, where he has created the F. Gary Gray Filmmaking Workshop, designed to inspire underserved youths to tell their stories through film. He's taking his time planning his next move, but he remains enthusiastic.
"I learned so much before doing this movie, and I learned so much doing it," he said. "I'm very excited about what will come next."