Magnificent Seven: Director Antoine Fuqua on his Remake, Casting Denzel Washington, and Diversity in Hollywood

Director Antoine Fuqua, whose Western remake The Magnificent Seven opens the Toronto film Fest, has loved Westerns since he was a young boy, watching them at home with his family.

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But it was the involvement of his Training Day and The Equalizer star Denzel Washington that got Sony and MGM’s to remake the 1960 classic, itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

Fuqua, who’s 50, talks about the remake’s diverse cast (including Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and being gifted with the late James Horner’s music for the composer’s final film.

Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and the original Magnificent Seven?

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I grew up loving Westerns. I used to watch those movies with my grandmother and my mother. That was our thing: watching Westerns, especially Magnificent Seven. My grandmother loved Yul Brynner. But also that movie was the first time I saw a film that seemed to want to deal with prejudice. The first time I saw Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen decide to bury the Native Americans in the graveyard — for no reason except to do the right thing — I remember that having a profound effect on me. And they were just the coolest guys I’d ever seen.

Third film with Denzel Washington

Talking about actors, I said, “For me, the event would be to see Denzel Washington on a horse.” The producers all kind of paused in the room. They asked, “You think he would do it? Because he hasn’t done a Western.” I said I’d fly to New York and talk to him.

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Was he open to it?

I had lunch with him in New York, and I said, “It’s a Western.” And I started describing to him what I saw in my head of him coming over a hill on a white horse. I had some Sergio Leone music on my phone that I played. He kind of laughed, and he goes, “All right, let me read it.”

Directing a remake

When I first said yes, it (risk) was on my mind. Absolutely. But once you go in, you just go in. You just say, “OK, I’m going do it and make my version of it.” My big lesson so far is that when you do that you have to respect the film’s DNA.  Sometimes when people see movies they take whatever is going on in their life into the movie theater. And if the movie affects them a certain way, if you don’t give them at least that feeling again or that idea again — even if it’s done in a different package — then it’s difficult to satisfy them. On Magnificent Seven, I kept reminding myself of when I was a 12‑year‑old boy, when I was a kid watching it with my grandmother, what was the feeling I had? How much fun was it? How cool were they?  I always had my grandmother in my mind when making a film. Would she enjoy this film?

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Making an Entertaining  Western

It’s hard because now there’s just so much action. And then you’re in a Western so you’re limited to the tools. But I kind of took that cue from Kurosawa and made it more about guerrilla urban warfare. They had to use the tools they had. And then, of course, choreographing it was really difficult to do, to make it so modern, but still classic. You’re not taking anyone out of that world.

Chris Pratt?

The hardest thing was who would play [the role played by] Steve McQueen [in the original] because he was like the coolest guy in the world. I heard Chris loved Westerns and we talked about it. He was flirting with other stuff. Then he called me a few days later and he started singing “Oh Shenandoah” on the phone. I said “He’s it. He’s Steve McQueen.”

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Diversity in Hollywood?

Not pressure, but responsibility. My responsibility is, I’m always trying to look for new people of color or even artistic people who need a chance. I ran into a young African-American woman in the production office, and she was doing a TV show. She said, “I feel so sad that there aren’t enough female or African-Americans we’d like to shoot.” And I stopped her and said, “You ain’t got but one job to do right now.” I said it’s OK to feel sad, but you’ve got to put that away and just do great work. Because the only way you’re going to make a change is by doing great work. And then color can go away because it’s just like sports. At one point, there wasn’t a black quarterback in the NFL. When you start winning, then you start seeing more. Jumping up and down and screaming and calling people names is not going to change anything. The best thing I can do, if the opportunity’s coming to me and the responsibility falls on me, is to do my best.

James Horner’s last project

James passed away when I was three or four weeks in. We didn’t get a chance to talk about the music much. We had talked about it when I was making Southpaw. After he died, his team called me and said that he had left me a gift. James had all these toys from around the world that he kept in a room in his house. So I thought the gift was one of those things. But they said he wrote seven songs that he was going to surprise me with. He wrote them off the script. They played it for me, and it was just glorious. It was a tough shoot. So I’d play his music for the crew on the speaker, and it just inspired everybody how important the movie was.