With the release Friday of "The Magnificent Seven," the idea of taking a well-known film and running it through the remake machine continues, even though it's a practice that doesn't usually pay off. For every hit remake ("Scarface," "The Fly," "Ocean's Eleven") there are manifold flops ("Ben-Hur," "Point Break," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Psycho," "Sabrina," "All the King's Men"). Oddly, a genre that was once a Hollywood staple, the western, remains relatively untapped The only two in recent years that come to mind are "True Grit" (hit) and "3:10 to Yuma" (flop).
So it's hard to predict if the moviegoing public is ready for a bigger, supposedly better version of John Sturges's 1960 "The Magnificent Seven," itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 "Seven Samurai." All three films feature stories of a small town threatened by villains and how the inhabitants look for assistance from a septet of men who would never pass as good guys, but are willing to help out these folks.
Action director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day," "Southpaw"), a fan of westerns since he used to watch them as a kid with his grandmother, has long wanted to make one, but wasn't sure what to do when first approached by executives at MGM.
"I was asked if I wanted to remake 'The Magnificent Seven,' " he said by phone from Los Angeles. "I thought for a moment and said, 'I don't know. That's a beloved film.' But we met and talked, and they gave me the script. When I read it I was pleasantly surprised because the DNA of Kurosawa's film was there, and the DNA of Sturges's film was still there. I'd seen 'Seven Samurai' hundreds of times. But after I read this script I went back and really studied it, and then I started to look into the word 'samurai,' which translates as 'to serve.' I realized the whole reason to make a movie like this is to remind us that to be a truly evolved human being is to put everything on the line for someone else."
The casting process began shortly after Fuqua agreed to do the film.
"I told the guys at MGM that this movie needs to be an event," he said. "The Sturges 'Magnificent Seven' was an event, with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, and movie stars were needed to make this one an event. I said they needed Denzel Washington to be in the Yul Brynner role."
Fuqua remembers that the room went quiet, then someone said, "Do you think you could get him?" Fuqua, who directed Washington in his Oscar-winning turn in "Training Day," went to New York to ask. Washington listened intently when Fuqua said, "I can see you riding over the hill, with the sun behind you." Washington started laughing when the director pulled out his phone and played the theme from "The Magnificent Seven."
"Then," recalled Fuqua, "Denzel said, 'When do you want to start?' I said, 'Now. I need you to start riding horses now.'"
Washington re-read the script and a week later said yes. Fuqua soon started casting the rest of the film, eventually signing on Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, and, one of his first choices, Chris Pratt. He would play Faraday, a sort of combination of the Steve McQueen and James Coburn roles from the previous film, but with multiple layers of his own creation.
Sitting in a hotel room at the Toronto International Film Festival, Pratt ("Guardians of the Galaxy," "Parks and Recreation") said, "Faraday is a gambler, and a bit of a rowdy drinker, and a person you wouldn't want to cross. But I think you can also say [of him] that just because you've done bad things doesn't mean you're a bad guy."
Pratt, who's currently back in the booth for voice work as the unintentionally heroic Emmet in the sequel to "The Lego Movie," and has already finished a "Guardians" sequel, didn't have to think too long about saying yes to the Faraday offer.
"I was moving into that territory in my career where I get to be a little more in control of the choices I make," he said. "I knew that a western would be different for me, and something I really wanted to do.
"I didn't mind that it was a remake," he added. "I guess if it was a scene-by-scene remake of something, I wouldn't necessarily be interested. I saw 'The Magnificent Seven' many years ago, and I remember that it had that iconic western title, and it had Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. And it had a very simple idea. But with this one, we got to take that simple idea and build upon it, make it contemporary, stylish, cool."
Pratt also mentioned that it was cool working with Fuqua. But he didn't know that the director, as he had already done with Washington, enjoyed using music to make a point.
"Antoine is always thinking, but he doesn't want to overtalk it," said Pratt of Fuqua's on-set style. "He's not one of these guys who sits down and has a long conversation about the characters. So I felt I was given the freedom to do what I wanted. There were moments where he would come up and say, 'Just remember this or remember that,' or he'd put some music in my ear and say, 'You feel this vibe? This is it. Remember, you're not a goofball, you're dangerous.' "
Pretty much every major character in the film is dangerous, and as in most of Fuqua's earlier work, there's a great deal of violence.
"I think the violence in a movie like this, particularly because I was leaning more toward the Kurosawa film than the Sturges film, is sort of an homage to [Kurosawa's] climactic battle scene," he said. "That battle scene went on for a while and it was pretty over the top. I think you have to do that to have some fun in a western. I wanted to make the battle epic. Before that, you're gathering the men, and that's great character stuff, with some humor, where you get to know them. But the battle still has to be satisfying and worth the wait."