Andy Davis may have moved out of Chicago before making his first movie, but over the course of his career, he’s made more movies in Chicago than any other Hollywood director, proving that you can leave Chicago, but Chicago never leaves you.
His first feature, the 1978 film Stony Island, was largely shot in the working-class East Side neighborhood where he was raised. It was about a mixed group of young musicians who form an R&B band and featured a young Dennis Franz and Susanna Hoffs, who later achieved fame through her real band The Bangles. Davis also is one of the credited writers of Beat Street and was its first director. As fate would have it, he would be fired from Beat Street and go from making music-related films to action, being hired to direct Chuck Norris in Code of Silence. Action became the genre that Davis would be known for. From Code of Silence, Davis went on to direct The Package, Above The Law, Under Siege, and his most famous film and one of the best films ever shot in Chicago, The Fugitive, which earned Davis a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director and was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
On the surface many of his action movies may seem like they consist of “a good guy versus many bad guys plot line,” but most tackle deeper issues that are still relevant, as Davis explained. For instance, Above The Law is really about the Iran/Contra scandal; The Package dealt with governmental disarmament; and The Fugitive was about a drug company willing to kill to cover up a failed drug protocol and Code of Silence is about police corruption — issues still in the headlines today. Another staple of Davis’ films are his tendency to use real people such as real police officers and real reporters to give his actors and his films more realism.
While his action films were all done after Stony Island, he also made Holes, released in 2003, which was a feature adaptation of a children’s novel that’s been named one of the 100 Best Family Films of all-time, proving Davis’ versatility. His last completed feature was The Guardian, in 2007. Despite the long layoff, Davis, who has worked with several Hollywood icons, from Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman to Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, Michael Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger, is not done making films. Recently in town to visit family, Davis took time to speak with Bob Chiarito of the Chicago Ambassador about his career and his current projects.
CA) What’s the latest on the rumored “Tortured Chicago” project, the story of CPD Detective Commander John Burge and his crew who allegedly tortured dozens of suspects?
DAVIS) What happened was, the nephew of one of the guys who was involved in the case. I didn’t know much about it but read the script and it was pretty interesting. Then I did a lot of research and found out more, but I’m not going to do it for a variety of reasons. The nephew put something in the trades about it and that’s how it [the rumor] started.
CA) Did you ever know Chuck Adamson?
DAVIS) Just through his relationship with Michael Mann.
CA) He was a retired Chicago cop who wrote a lot of screenplays and a pretty nice guy. He always told me that they should make a movie about Burge. Maybe someday someone will.
DAVIS) It’s interesting because I had a meeting this week with John Conroy, the guy who wrote all the stories about Burge in the Chicago Reader. He’s now at Northwestern. We went into detail about it. It’s something that’s of interest to me, the problem is it was the guy who I met was the nephew of Jeff Fort’s right arm man. He’s a murderer, he killed three people. I didn’t want him to approve of what I was doing.
CA) You’ve written a new screenplay called “The Reckoning.” Can you tell us a little about that?
DAVIS) I worked with a wonderful writer named Jeff Biggers who wrote a book called Reckoning at Eagle Creek. I did a movie called The Package years ago and I think the issues of disarmament and atomic weaponry are still relevant. It’s a thriller about what would happen if there was a strong move to disarm the world. Who would be opposed to it and the blowback.
CA) Where are you on that project?
DAVIS) There is a novel being written about the idea and then the screenplay will be written from the novel. Once we get that done we will try to package it. It’s really preliminary. It’s a complicated, political movie. It may be long-form television depending on how it turns out.
CA) That seems to be the new trend.
DAVIS) The problem is that the marketing of movies is so expensive. You get one shot. With long-form television it could play on television, it could play around the world. Costs are spread out through the gross of the cable system, people paying their monthly fees.
CA) From Code of Silence, Above The Law, The Package and The Fugitive — law enforcement and Chicago have been at the center of a lot of your films. What is it about that genre that keeps you coming back?
DAVIS) In the beginning, I was hired to be an action director. I wanted to find things that were relevant to issues of the day. Code of Silence is a very relevant movie even today in terms of police coverups. Above The Law was about Iran-Contra and what was going on in Central America. The Package was about disarmament and what would happen and The Fugitive was about a drug company who was willing to kill somebody to cover up a failed drug protocol. So the reality was, that having done Stony Island which was about kids making music together and then writing Beat Street, I was hired by Orion to direct Code of Silence and I was able to take my Chicago roots and feelings I had as a kid growing up in a tough city and a tough neighborhood and integrate it with things I found out. John Drummond, the great reporter, turned us on to some things that were going on in the city. I was a journalism major. These are things that came out of real life that were able to be woven into the careers of action stars. I always wanted to shoot in Chicago because it was the best backlot that I could find. I like the people and I had family here.
CA) How long have you been in California?
DAVIS) I left in the early 1970s, right after I started shooting commercials there. I’ve come back six times to make movies.
CA) Whenever talk about doing a Chicago movie is tossed around, your name comes up on a lot of wish lists. There’s a project about the birth of House music and Frankie Knuckles that Joe Shanahan, and Billy Dec have been working to put together. Last I heard they were trying to find a screenwriter. You had something to do with that Beat Street movie in the 80’s, right?
DAVIS) Yeah, I was the original director but [Beat Street Producer] Harry Belafonte didn’t have any music ready and he couldn’t tell the studio. That’s how I became an action director. Harry loved Stony Island but they didn’t have any music ready. They hired this guy named Arthur Baker [to do the music]. Mike Medavoy saw the footage [that I shot] and he hired me to do Code of Silence. I fell out of the window and landed on my feet and became an action director.
CA) Have you heard anything about the Frankie Knuckles project? Bob Teitel is involved in it also.
DAVIS) I don’t know anything about it but I’d like to meet him [Teitel] some day.
CA) I’d love to see a well done movie about the 1968 Democratic National Convention that took place in Chicago. I know that you worked on Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool as an assistant cameraman. Would you consider doing a film about the 1968 DNC?
DAVIS) Sure. It would be really hard to make though. I had an idea about an undercover intelligence guy who spies on the left but falls in love with a hippie woman. That would be interesting.
CA) You’ve worked with some iconic actors. Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Costner, Michael Douglas. Is it harder to work with legends than newcomers or does it depend on the person?
DAVIS) Those are all great actors and you have to try to create the best environment for them to create their best work. Everybody has their own personalities but they are all pros. I tend to surround them with real people who can help them get into the genre or the mood more.
CA) Yes. You also seem to like working with real people — like the late Chicago Police officer Joe Kasala, reporters Lester Holt, Pam Zekman and John Drummond. What do they bring that actors can’t?
DAVIS) They bring the reality. They bring honesty and keep the Hollywood actors real.
CA) You worked with Steven Seagal twice – Above the Law and Under Siege. I heard he’s trying to get Above the Law 2 produced. Planning to direct it?
DAVIS) I don’t know, that’s been on the books for years. He can’t get a movie made in America. Maybe Putin will pay for it.
CA) Did you write the script for it?
DAVIS) No, no. I wrote the original script so they have to give me some sort of credit. It’s all bullshit.
CA) You were hired as director of the original The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He described your firing as a terrible mistake. What happened?
DAVIS) It was a situation where I was the fourth guy hired to direct the movie. The producer was a guy named Rob Cohen, he’s a real piece of shit. They told me that he’d take care of all the logistics. We were 5 or 6 days into shooting and the wardrobe wasn’t ready. I shot what I could but we needed to stop and regroup. They used that as an excuse. It was funny because the trailer had a lot of my stuff even though I only shot for a few days. The guy they ended up hiring was a nice guy, Paul Michael Glaser. Cohen wanted to really direct and it’s funny because later, one of the producers was connected to The Fugitive. I said if this guy shows up I’m not doing the movie and I never saw the guy.
CA)Years later you got a chance to work with Schwarzenegger for your movie Collateral Damage. What was he like?
DAVIS) He’s great. Very easy to work with, very supportive. That was a strange movie because it was originally set in the Middle East but I didn’t want to be Arab bashing so we set it in South America. We made the movie and then 9/11 happened and they had to hold the movie because it had firemen in explosions it was too hot to handle at the time. They delayed it about five months.
CA) The closest thing you’ve ever made to a love story would probably be “A Perfect Murder.” Would you ever consider doing a traditional love story or drama?
DAVIS) I wouldn’t call it a love story. [Laughs]
CA) No, but would you consider doing a love story?
DAVIS) Yeah, if the script was great and it was something relevant to me, sure. I did Holes which was not an action movie. Stony Island wasn’t an action movie.
CA) Did Michael Mann use the same cinematographer for Thief that you had in Stony Island [Tak Fujimoto] ?
DAVIS) No. He wanted to hire him to do Thief because he say Stony Island before he did Thief and saw those wet streets and loved the look of it. My father [Nathan Davis] is actually in Thief.
CA) That’s right. He was the guy who makes the torch for James Caan. That was a great movie and he was a great character… Your last feature was The Guardian in 2006. What have you been doing since then?
DAVIS) I’ve been developing scripts and doing things that I’ve really wanted to do. The business has really changed a lot. They do comic books and I’m sort of spoiled because I don’t want to work on things that I don’t care about or with people that I don’t like. I’ve been developing several things, it’s just very hard to get financing for movies these days.
CA) Is that the main difference in the industry now as compared to when you first started. The whole world-wide market.
DAVIS) Yeah, it needs to play in Russia. It needs to play in China. Because of the marketing, the studios want a movie that will travel around the world. So television has replaced the type of stuff that I was doing but I still think in terms of feature films.
CA) Would Stony Island be made today?
DAVIS) Stony Island is actually something that is relevant today, but I’m not sure how it would travel. Music that is popular here may not necessarily be popular in China. I like the idea of doing family movies that you can take your grandchildren to but are made for 20-year-olds. I think that this Treasure Island project that I’ve been working on is like that.
CA) What is that?
DAVIS) It’s a new take on Treasure Island set in Louisiana about the treasure of Jean Lafitte. It has a type of Robin Hood story to it.
CA) Will that be episodic or one film?
DAVIS) That’s a feature.
CA) You’re a big White Sox fan. How many of movies have had a character named “Nellie Fox” in them?
DAVIS) I know he was in Above The Law. He may have been in Code of Silence also. I name a lot of characters after friends of mine also.
CA)Are there any young filmmakers coming up that excite you?
DAVIS) This kid Cary Fukunaga. He did Beasts of No Nation about child soldiers in Africa. Fukanaga is a really gifted filmmaker. I haven’t really followed a lot of young guys and gals and some of them are over-rated. I didn’t like Wonder Woman at all. Visually it was amazing but the content was weak. I also think there are a lot of great filmmakers who haven’t had a chance yet.
CA) What advice would you give to young filmmakers or students in film school?
DAVIS) Start a hedge fund. [Laughter]. It’s hard, there’s so much out there and so many people trying to make films. When we made Stony Island there were 500-600 movies [a year] and now there’s 4,000 submissions to Sundance every year. It’s hard to get people’s attention.