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Lift Director F. Gary Gray on Making A Modern Day Heist Film with Kevin Hart

Despite getting his start making prominent music videos throughout the ‘90s, director F. Gary Gray has now been making movies for almost thirty years, with standouts being Straight Outta Compton, Friday, and The Fate of the Furious. He has also returned to the heist genre a number of times from his early film, Set It Off, in 1996 and The Italian Job in 2003, and now with Kevin Hart‘s new Netflix movie, Lift.

Lift is a very different movie for Hart, and fans of The Italian Job should be especially thrilled when the movie opens in Venice, similarly to that two-decades-old classic. In this one, Hart plays Cyrus Whitaker, an art thief wanted by Interpol, who is in the middle of a new job lifting an NFT worth millions, when they’re caught by Interpol agent Abby Gladwell (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). In order to get pardoned, Cyrus and his crew have to help Interpol retrieve (i.e. steal) $500 million in gold that’s being smuggled by investment banker Lars Jorgenson (Jean Reno) for illicit purposes.

Lift takes a far more technological route than Gray’s previous heist films, but it also shows Hart in a very different light, getting more involved in the action, as well as playing a more romantic lead.

Above the Line spoke with Mr. Gray over Zoom last week for the following interview

F. Gary Gray (Theo Wargo/Getty Images, provided by Netflix)

Above the Line: I just rewatched The Italian Job very recently, so when Lift opens in Venice, it got me very excited that this was your follow-up to that movie. How did Kevin Hart reach out to you to direct it?
F. Gary Gray: I believe the president of his company reached out and said that Kevin was really, really interested in transitioning from playing mainly comedic starring roles into a more grounded, action-based character. I met with Kevin… Well, first, I called a couple of directors who worked with him, and they said that he was amazing to work with, and probably one of the nicest guys in the world. After I got that intel, I sat and met with him, and it was true, he was probably one of the nicest guys I’ve met., and definitely one of the nicest guys I’ve worked with. We talked about what he wanted to do, and his vision for Lift, and it was very interesting to me. We partnered up, and I made it my own, and here we are.

ATL: I don’t think I realized, as I was watching this, that he hadn’t really done much action, except for maybe things in Central Intelligence, but not actual fighting like he does in this one. 

Gray: As a leading man, ordinarily, in this genre, you would have a Brad Pitt type or George Clooney type or someone in that realm, playing a lead in a movie like this. He doesn’t have The Rock or Ice Cube with him on this  – he had to do this one on his own, and I felt this guy’s ready for it, and Lift is proof of that. And I think he did a great job.

ATL: He’s also playing a romantic lead, he hasn’t really done that either. He’s had wives in movies, but with Gugu, they just have this great romantic thing going on amidst the action.

Gray: They had great chemistry, so for him to step into this space as not only an action hero, but to have a love interest like Gugu is definitely something different. I think this is something that the fans are going to, hopefully really enjoy, because it’s something different for all of us, but especially for Kevin.

ATL: Who originally thought of Gugu to play opposite him?

Gray: She was my first choice, and you know how that works. Just because it’s your first choice doesn’t mean it’ll become a reality, but she read the script, she responded, Netflix was extremely supportive, as you can see, and I love the fact that I got my first choice in Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

ATL: Had she done action of any kind before? I feel like she’s danced in earlier movies like Belle and Beyond the Lights, but not really fighting so much.

Gray: No, I don’t think so. I think this is one of her first times, and she has an amazing background. She studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, and I don’t think they train in action films, and things like that. She came in, she gave a great performance, and she adapted to the action really well.

ATL: They might teach sword fighting at the Royal Academy, but I’m not sure if that helps with a movie like Lift.

Gray: She did play Juliet, but I don’t think there was a ton of action with that role in Romeo and Juliet. It’s a little different than sword fighting.

A scene from Lift (Netflix)

ATL: I think Cyrus’s entire crew was just great casting all around. I obviously knew Vincent Donofrio and Billy Magnussen from other stuff. How did you put together the rest of the cast? It seems kind of similar to putting together the team for The Italian Job, and you probably also added some new members when you did Fate of the Furious. Here, you have a lot of new faces.

Gray: That’s part of the draw to a project like this. I had an amazing time casting, for instance, my first heist movie, Set it Off, with Jada [Pinkett] and [Queen] Latifah and Vivica [Fox] and then going into The Italian Job with [Mark] Wahlberg and Charlize, Mos Def, and crew. I obviously had another opportunity to assemble a great cast with Kevin and Gugu and Sam Worthington and Donofrio — and I can just go down the list. Not to give you a bad sports analogy, but to give you one, Coach Phil Jackson had a chance to work with, to coach Michael Jordan to a few championships with one team. And he did the same thing with Kobe Bryant with another team. I am fortunate enough to be able to have worked with some great actors in this genre, and hopefully, the audience sees it the same way I saw it, when we were casting. I had the full great support of Netflix, had a great support of my producers on this movie. We thought a little bit out of the box, and I think you’ll experience that when you watch the movie.

ATL: Are you able to use a lot or some of the heads of department you’ve used in the past on other projects, even if it’s just your editor or DP? Or do you always put together a completely new below-the-line crew for each movie?

Gray: I look at each movie differently, because I don’t stick to one genre. So I cast my crew in a similar way as casting a movie. The movie tells you what it wants, and I search for those people, whether it’s the cast or the crew. It’s great to work with people you’re familiar with, but my job is to serve the story first. The story tells you what it needs and what it wants. So, for instance, my DP, Bernhard Jasper, he’s a younger guy coming up, and I really enjoyed his work. I said he would be perfect for this movie, considering the tone, and we’re shooting around Europe, and his sensibility was fantastic. Instead of going with a DP that I’ve worked with in a different genre, I really gravitated toward him as a DP. I did that across the board with, for instance, my production designer, Dominic Watkins. His sensibility really worked for the story that I had in my head, or the vision I had in my head for this script. It’s a case by case basis, and that’s how I see it, and that’s how I make film. Sometimes, it’s a challenge because you’re finding yourself having to get to know someone from scratch, but I think, all in all, it’s worked for me, this approach for me and my career, so I’ll continue to do that.

ATL: You actually shot in many of the actual locations, including Venice and London and others, some that you’ve been to before. How was it shooting this and moving locations so much, especially on the tail end of the pandemic, where you have so much cast and crew to move around?

Gray: Even though I’ve had a chance to shoot in Venice and London and a few places, it’s always a different experience, it really truly is. You always find something new and something different. And again, because it’s a different story, a different cast, a different tone, it all feels fresh and new to me. For instance, we had the premiere a couple of days ago, and you could just feel the audience and their response to be taken on a trip around Europe and around London and Ireland and Triest and Venice. At least the response I’ve been getting up to this point is people really appreciate that. While I have had experience in some of these places, that’s 20 years ago. Venice today is somewhat different than it was 20 years ago, and so on and so forth. Because it’s a different story and a different cast, in my opinion, it’s just a fresh approach and a fresh experience.

A scene from Lift (Netflix)

ATL: This is a lot more of a technological-based heist movie than some of the other ones you’ve done, and you can be honest with your answer or not. How much of it did you understand when you first read the screenplay about how that technology works when it comes to the heist? 

Gray: I’m not that familiar with heisting things. [laughs] What I love about the process of making a heist film now in 2024, in this current era, the technology is so different than it was back then, so the story is going to be different, the technology’s going to be different. So I feel like a kid in the candy store, because I’m kind of a tech guy, and I love all the newest toys, whether it’s the filmmaking toys, or the toys that a character would use to pull off a heist. There’s some entertainment in the process of making the film, and there’s entertainment in delivering the film and experiencing in the film. It’s always something new, and back then, I’m not gonna age myself by making that reference, but it was a lot different back then than it is now. And so I enjoy the process of being exposed to the newest things, and I think that’s what it does, as far as the technology.

ATL: You’ve been doing this for almost 30 years now, so is there anything that you haven’t done that you really want to do, whether it’s a genre or something else? If you imagine that the sky and budget is no limit, what would you want to do?

Gray: I always have a hard time answering that question, because when you read scripts, something will either speak to you or not. I have a few ideas, and I have a few nonfiction subject matters that I would like to put it on the screen. But until I get closer, I tend not to go into detail, because I find that in Hollywood, sometimes there’s more talking than there is delivering. I prefer to be the person who just delivers something and then has a conversation about it, then just kind of talking about something I may or may not do. But yeah, there are a few things. We may talk about what that is in the next year or two when I deliver it.

Lift is now available to watch streaming on Netflix.


Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.


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