"Citizen" gathers three Hollywood meteors in Philly
By Carrie Rickey
Inquirer Film Critic
'City Hall has no bad angles," notes F. Gary Gray, admiring the Second-Empire tower Wednesday during a break on Law Abiding Citizen. His $65 million psychological thriller stars Jamie Foxx as an assistant DA and Gerard Butler as a vigilante out to bring him down.
Gray, the bearded bantam with heavyweight cred, is the guy who made the musical trio TLC walk on water in the video for "Waterfalls" and Mini Coopers go airborne in The Italian Job. "But," he says, "a man who can take a city hostage from behind bars in a jail cell is even more gravity-defying."
In the film, Foxx brokers a plea bargain with the murderer of Butler's wife and daughter, provoking the traumatized man to exact blood justice from the city. To get into the mood, Gray listens to the Doors' ominous "The End" on his iPod.
On Day 35 of the 48-day shoot, Gray and Butler, cheerleaders for Philadelphia, share their impressions of the movie, the city and its mayor.
"Mayor Nutter - nicest guy in Philly, a lovely, big soul who's supportive and welcoming, indicative of its citizens," says Butler, the strapping Scot who starred in 300 and Phantom of the Opera.
The challenges that Mayor Nutter has seem small next to the crises his movie counterpart (Doubt's Viola Davis) faces with the man who brings Philadelphia to its knees.
The story behind the story of the ironically titled Law Abiding Citizen, the first production from Butler's Evil Twins company, is likewise the story of where professionalism and ambition meet.
The script gestated for seven years, going through almost as many screenwriters, including Shawshank Redemption writer/director Frank Darabont, who initially was to direct. Scouting locations in 2008, Darabont fell in love with City Hall and rewrote the film - set in Los Angeles - for Philadelphia.
When Gray came on board in October, he was already sold. "Philly has so many things that L.A. does not: historic landmarks, height, density." And cinegenic prisons. Gray shot pivotal sequences at the George Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County, a forbidding stone structure he compares to a castle.
"In what other place could City Hall be our backlot?" asks producer Lucas Foster, effusive about the support from the Greater Philadelphia Film Office in expediting permits and street closings.
Just as essential as the scenery that will help Gray achieve his "neo-noir" vision are Pennsylvania's tax credits for filmmaking, now threatened by pending legislation in Harrisburg.
When production wraps on March 29, Citizen will have spent about $40 million locally. That represents a lot of hotel rooms occupied, cars rented and drivers hired, caterers cooking and as-yet-uncalculated wage taxes paid by 250 locally based crew members, 1,000 extras, 45 actors, and 20-plus stunt players.
In the life of a film professional, a movie is one small glimmer in the Hollywood sky. What's fascinating about Law Abiding Citizen is that its director and leads (Gray and Butler are both 39, Foxx is 41), prolific workaholics, are also meteors ascendant.
Gray, the soft-spoken and self-taught maker of imaginative music videos, directed crowd-pleasers such as Set It Off and The Italian Job that have made him one of the most successful African American directors in Hollywood.
Butler, the rowdy, rugged, and ripped Edinburgh attorney who left the law for the stage and screen, has, in less than a decade, established himself as a leading man.
Foxx, the classically-trained pianist turned standup comedian turned Oscar-winning dramatic actor turned chart-topping R&B vocalist and satellite-radio host, has established himself as a master of all media.
While Foxx was working in the City Hall basement, Gray and Butler spoke about how their nontraditional paths came to cross in Philadelphia.
F. Gary Gray - F is for Felix, but call him Gary - was one of the boyz in the 'hood of South Central L.A. in 1983 when a family friend took him to the Inglewood Playhouse. Not only did it get the 13-year-old off the streets, but it also gave him experience working with lights and actors.
For high school, his mother sent him to live with his father in the upscale Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Ill. There was production equipment and a high school TV show that aired on cable.
He made films, edited and broadcast them. He put them on his resume without mentioning that they were high-school productions.
"In my Life Skills class I learned the importance of setting goals," he says. He had three: To direct movies, buy a ranch, and buy his mother a home by the time he was 40. Financially, college was not an option.
In L.A., his clip reel enabled Gray to "hustle his way into the industry." He met Foxx during the 1990s at Fox, where the performer was a member of the In Living Color ensemble and the filmmaker an assistant cameraman on the rap show Pump It Up.
He worked his way up the ladder, banking every penny to make a film short that would be his calling card as a director. When he asked his friend, the rapper Ice Cube, for completion money, "Cube said, 'Why not make a feature?' " Which is how Gray came to direct Friday, the amiable stoner comedy starring Ice Cube.
Long story short: Its success made possible subsequent Gray films such as Set It Off (introducing Queen Latifah). By 30, Gray had achieved his goals - a decade early. These days, he donates equipment and time to the 112th Street Elementary School in Watts. His other passion project: A film biography of soul singer Marvin Gaye, one of two in the works.
While Gray, who couldn't afford college, was climbing the Hollywood ladder, Butler applied himself at college and law school. "But the law for me as a career didn't make sense," reflects the T-shirted actor with biceps the size of coconuts.
At 25, with only a children's theater performance in Oliver! behind him, Butler headed to London, where he won parts in West End theater. Butler scored a cameo as the brother of Queen Victoria's servant in Mrs. Brown. Since then Butler's career has run at a gallop.
If actors were mutual funds, he would have the most diverse portfolio around: actioners such as 300, romances such as P.S. I Love You, musicals such as Phantom of the Opera, and family films such as Nim's Island.
"My gut questions what I haven't done, and that's how I make my movie choices," he says.
While Gray pumps up by listening to the Doors, Butler calms down with the meditative rock of the Scottish group Mogwai. Butler would love to be in another musical. His manager (and Evil Twin partner) Alan Siegel thinks he would make a terrific Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls or Harold Hill in The Music Man. Who would disagree?
Butler enjoys "the ease of Philadelphia," where he dips into theater (loved the production of The Odd Couple), samples steak houses, and "made the pilgrimage up the Rocky steps at the museum." His passion project: a biography of Scottish bard Robert Burns. Hear him recite "Ode to a Mouse," and you sense it's going to happen.