TIFF's opening night screening showcased the new faces of Hollywood.
At a time when the film industry is distressingly risk-averse, film festivals provide the last bastion of hope for unheard voices and talents.
So why did TIFF 2016 open with Antoine Fuqua’s new guns and grit Western,The Magnificent Seven? After all, the festival is known for premiering groundbreaking films; when Festival Artistic Director Cameron Bailey took the stage before the screening, he quipped, “TIFF is the original Views from the 6,” referencing another outlier-turned-mainstream-success, Toronto-born-and-bred rapper Drake. In fact, TIFF’s own tagline for 2016 is “Infinite Views,” signaling the diverse range of artistic voices being heard at this year’s festival.
The Magnificent Seven— with an ensemble cast led by Denzel Washington—is not your typical indie flick. It's a re-remake of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), which in turn is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Seven Samurai (1954). In the eyes of your average moviegoer, this signals sellout commercialism or even a lack of originality. But think again.
Fuqua is no stranger to film. He's been at TIFF twice before, first for Training Day and then again for The Equalizer. And, as it turns out, Seven is an unexpected champion for diversity. Helmed by a black director and black lead actor, Seven’s cast includes Mexican Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Korean Lee Byung-hun, and Native American Martin Sensmeier.
"The diverse cast makes the film relevant," declared Fuqua at the film’s press conference.
"The film is not trying to make a statement about race. We just wanted to make a good movie."
Director and cast alike were quick to dispel any notions of racial tokenism. "The film is not trying to make a statement about race," said Fuqua. "We just wanted to make a good movie together. I just wanted to see Denzel Washington on a horse. Everyone else kinda fell in place around that. The only reason we’re talking about race now is because you guys talk about it! Denzel walks into a room and everyone stops. Clint Eastwood walks into a room and everyone stops. Is it because he’s a gunslinger or cause of the color of his skin? We let the audience decide."
Washington agreed: "It’s a movie. What you’ll get from it is what you bring to it."
Openness was a key element of casting and production. Another of Fuqua’s longtime collaborators, Ethan Hawke, attested to this. "The good thing about Antoine is that his primary request is for you to contribute: to bring your character forward for him to photograph," he said. "He puts a lot of faith in you, which in turn makes it a really rewarding process."
"It was a reminder of why you make movies: you fall in love with characters, and nothing else matters."
Each cast member was allowed to come up with the attitude and look for their characters. "My character being Mexican, I was a little worried they were gonna have a cliché about him,” explains Manuel. "But Antoine gave us a lot of creative freedom.”
Spontaneity was also a big part of the film’s production. Despite all the available references to earlier versions of Seven, Fuqua and his team tried not to use a template, an approach that helped them to avoid retracing earlier Hollywood mistakes. "We made our film based on the world we live in right now," the director said. "We didn’t try to redo any former Westerns." Washington admitted that he had yet to see the original Magnificent Seven, but that he did study Seven Samurai.
The camaraderie and flexibility of cast and director led to dynamic characters. "There are days I would forget to look at the monitor and I would forget to yell 'cut,' 'cause I was watching them like watching a play," Fuqua explained. "I would get so taken by watching them work. It was a reminder of why you make movies: you fall in love with characters, and nothing else matters. I could do fancy shots, but that wouldn’t matter. Movies are so hard to make that you will surely hate [it] unless you have a deep love for the people you’re working with. My team had my back the whole time."
When asked why he agreed to do the film, Washington gave a simple response: "Well, because Antoine asked me. I speak for everyone involved with the film when I say we’d follow him anywhere."
Fuqua isn’t one for political spins, but at the press conference, he doffed his cap to the studios. "You gotta give credit to MGM and Sony. They put this movie together; they said yes to everybody at this table without blinking an eye. Is Hollywood changing? You have to acknowledge the studio when they do something like that."
At the end of the press conference, Fuqua reminded us of the film’s message: "The best of human beings evolution is to do right by others, even at your own cost. For me, that’s a timeless story."
Fuqua and the studios are doing right by others, too. When the old guard opens the doors of Hollywood to unheard voices, the mix speaks to the power of film at its most basic level: as a collaboration. Sure, in many ways The Magnificent Seven may be your typical Hollywood blockbuster, but this film has heart. The camaraderie of the characters wins your affection, which is not an easy feat in today’s sequel-chasing superhero Hollywood. These guys are heroes—especially to each other.
Even the film’s sole female actor, Haley Bennett, confirmed that she was "part of the boys club, both on and off set."
"I got to get my hands dirty, out there shooting guns and riding horses with dresses on," Bennett said. "As a woman in the 1800s, I would want to be just like my character–strong, independent, speaking up, and fighting back." When a reporter asked her to single out which male cast member had the most testosterone on set, she demurred: "I’m not gonna turn against my men. I can’t do that. We’re bonded here."
Fuqua backed her up. "A Western doesn’t have a required format," he said. "You could make The Magnificent Seven with an all-female cast!”
Maybe that's the next step in Hollywood’s evolution.