Director F. Gary Gray is no stranger to the music or back story of N.W.A. He grew up in the same neighborhoods as the South L.A. rap group, worked on Ice Cube’s early videos before directing the rapper’s first major film, “Friday,” and worked with Dr. Dre.
But Gray, 46, still treated his latest project -- the N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” -- as though he were approaching alien territory.
The film chronicles the group’s rise from obscurity in the late 1980s to a cultural force that changed the direction of hip-hop and pop culture at large. “It had to be authentic, and not just go with the obvious, “Hey, there’s cops, Jheri curl and lowriders!” said Gray of the film, which opened Thursday night to strong reviews and a promising ($5 million) box office. “I had to dive deep and do some serious research to make this real.”
Gray spoke with The Times about reconnecting with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, the challenges of re-creating 1980s South L.A. and why the film is relevant in our post-Ferguson world.
You grew up in the same areas and at the same time as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. Where exactly was that?
In South-Central, or what you call South L.A. now, but off of 126th Street and Normandie. I went to Washington High School and Henry Clay Junior High. I lived over by Crenshaw District in Leimert Park, right near where we shot [part of] the film. We didn’t have much money growing up so we hopped around L.A. a lot in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. I’m very familiar with the shifting culture there. The influx of cocaine, military weapons . . .
And the battering ram – a tank-like machine the LAPD used to destroy crack houses. You open the film with one of those monsters ripping a house down.
Yes. Full-on military warfare in civilian neighborhoods. You don’t want to justify criminal acts, but it wasn’t like these [people] were terrorists. There probably wasn’t a need to tear the whole front of the house down [laughs]. But in certain areas there’s over-correction. And there were times when they actually hit the wrong house and a person would be standing there with their living room out in the middle of the street. It’s like oops -- our bad.
Despite your firsthand knowledge of N.W.A, you went into “Straight Outta Compton” like you would any of your other films [“The Negotiator” or “The Italian Job”] and approached it like you were tackling an entirely new subject.
It’s easy to say, “I know it because it’s part of my life.” I grew up a few miles away from Cube. The culture was the same. Our trajectory was somewhat the same – he was in music, I was in film. But I had to make sure I approached it the same way I would approach something I didn’t know. That means go in deep, dig for details. If I were to do a movie about “Apollo 13,” I’d be at NASA studying what it took to go into space. It’s part of your job to go deep, to interview the right people.
But backing up far enough to become an outsider is easier said than done.
I made no assumptions. I’d write notes about what affected me and what I knew to be true about the group, about Los Angeles, then I’d go further by interviewing them all: Eazy[-E]’s widow, for hours and in some cases for days. I went on vacation with Dre for two weeks on his boat, and I’m grilling him about every detail. What happened in the studio? What were some of the idiosyncrasies of the group? Who smoked, did anyone have favorite food? Disagreements?
What were the challenges of getting it right for those who know hip-hop while at the same time appealing to a wider audience who know nothing about N.W.A?
The fans, their mantra was, “You better not screw this up!” I’m a fan too so I felt that way from the start. It was a hard film to make, and there were a lot of ways to get it wrong, so I better get it right. But over the course of 20 years directing film, I learned a lot about [the art of] storytelling. I saw there was a story that was bigger than the group and the music. There was an opportunity to go beyond the average biopic or the normal music movie. All these things kind of intersected at once.
The film does go beyond their story by giving a vivid picture of the boiling pot that was L.A. in those days preceding the Rodney King verdict and the riots.
I didn’t want this to feel like a making-of-the-band movie. They meet, disband, then Eazy’s demise. That would have been too simple — something you can just Google. And if you’re a fan, you already know these things. I was tapping into themes that transcend a genre of music, the group.
Now you get a better sense of why [N.W.A] created this type of music. It wasn’t just a bunch of foul-mouthed kids causing trouble. There were other factors. Of course they had fun, but you get a peek into their back story and the motivation.
The police brutality toward young black men depicted in the film is sadly relevant today. But you started on the film before Ferguson erupted, right?
Yeah, four years ago, before Ferguson and before all this other stuff came up in the spotlight. But there are things that are universal with the movie.
It really gets at the circumstances that gave rise to the group – and how demoralizing poverty, urban blight and police brutality can be. It humanizes it all.
There were a number of different ways we could have gone with that. I was conscious that you have good cops and bad cops. I don’t want to oversimplify – this movie is not a police movie. It talks about what happened at the time, and it’s unfortunate that a lot of things that were happening then are happening now. It’s clear there needs to be a shift, and sadly it’s nothing new.
I wish this was just a period piece and we could look back and say, “Hey, remember back then when these things used to happen. I’m glad it’s changed.” It’s unfortunate every week now there’s something similar going on.
When I visited you on set last year, Dre, Cube and DJ Yella were there. Did N.W.A’s surviving members visit the set a lot?
Yeah. And at Skateland I think they all came together for the first time in 26 years. To get them all in the same space was pretty hard, then to jump in one of those pictures . . . It was pretty amazing.
Marion “Suge” Knight [who was once Dre’s partner] also tried to visit the set when a commercial for the film was being shot. After he was turned away, police say he ran over two men, killing one of them. The film got a lot of early publicity connected to that incident.
I wasn’t there for the incident, but as far as his character [in the film] was concerned, I just went based on research. Dre had a lot of knowledge what was going on at Death Row [records] obviously because he was his partner. All that stuff was just researched.
In the film, N.W.A’s manager and the co-founder of Ruthless Records, Jerry Heller [Paul Giamatti], is portrayed both as a force that helped them break through and someone who eventually ripped them off. Did you talk to him for the film?
No. He wrote a book called “Ruthless,” that described his relationship with Eazy and the whole N.W.A journey. I studied that book, and that was enough. There was a lot of documentaries, and a ton of things already out there from Jerry, so in between that and interviewing those who worked for Jerry, at Ruthless, with Eazy — who experienced that relationship — I think I got enough to tell that story.
Any early reaction on the film so far that’s stood out to you?
When we were out on tour, I had a police officer with me that was there to manage things. I cringed when “F— tha Police” came on. It was like, “OK, what is this guy gonna say?” Then he said, “I love it!” I’m going to bring my wife to see it when it opens.
Could a group like N.W.A ever happen again?
I don’t think so. N.W.A influenced a lot more than people think. They [were behind] a tectonic shift in popular culture from ‘80s groups like Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna. They did what was called reality rap at the time. They were kids who didn’t [care] what you thought about what they were saying. N.W.A tapped into the rebellion we had growing up — or maybe that we still have. That’s why I think this film is going to work.
Follow me on Twitter: @lorraineali