“When MGM asked me about making a Western, I got excited about the possibility of it, because I grew up with Westerns,” says Antoine Fuqua, who re-teams with Denzel Washington in the story of seven outlaws, gunslingers, gamblers and bounty hunters who band together to save a town under the thumb of corruption in The Magnificent Seven. “So I asked myself, ‘Why make a Western now? Why would it be important?’ And the answer was, the idea of tyranny, happening in our world today – that’s what made it timely. You’d need a special group of people to come together to fight tyranny.” Fuqua also has an affinity for the genre, having as a young boy watched Western films with his grandmother.
“There’s a theme about being unselfish and self-sacrificing – these men, all of whom live outside the law, do something selfless to help a community, and there’s nothing in it for them except helping others,” says producer Roger Birnbaum. “They pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and dig deep inside to fight an outside force, facing impossible odds… seven men against an army… they know people will die… and they do it for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do.”
“An older generation might know this title, but today’s generation doesn’t, and that made it ripe for a retelling,” says Todd Black, who joined Birnbaum as a producer. “Antoine’s visceral, intense filmmaking brings a very contemporary and stylish feel to a classic story about a band of brothers. At its heart, it’s a simple story of men doing what’s right – that’s something I try to find in every movie that I do.”
The idea began with Roger Birnbaum, who previously served as Co-Chairman and Co-CEO of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, coming in to head the studio with his former partner, Gary Barber, in 2010. “At the time, there wasn’t very much in development, so we had to start from scratch,” says Birnbaum. “We were looking at MGM’s wonderful library, and staring me in the face was The Magnificent Seven, a film I loved as a young boy and later on as a student of cinema, when I learned of the evolution of the film from The Seven Samurai. It’s a classic story and I thought it was worth retelling.” Later, when Birnbaum left the studio to work as a producer, The Magnificent Seven became his first project. Columbia Pictures came on to partner with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer on the project.
In this way, Fuqua’s retelling of The Magnificent Seven would be a retelling for our time, and the filmmaker approached that in several ways – most notably, with the lead actors. “I needed something that you haven’t seen yet, a perspective that has not been on the screen with the Western,” Fuqua recalls. “So I said, ‘What about Denzel Washington?’ And the room went completely silent – until there was an eruption. ‘That would be amazing. You think he would do it?’”
Fuqua and Washington have a very strong relationship. “Antoine and I have obviously had great success,” says Washington. “We won our Academy Award® with Training Day and had great financial success with The Equalizer. He’s a master filmmaker – he knows what he’s doing and he allows me to do what it is I know how to do. We’re a good fit.”
Black says that he thinks Washington was likely drawn to the project for a number of reasons. “I think Denzel wanted to do it because he had never done a Western. He rarely does ensembles, and I think he thought it would be fun to do one. It was a different way for him to do an action film. He had a strong relationship with Antoine. But most of all, it was different, and he’s always looking for different.”
Naturally, Washington was also drawn by the chance to play Chisolm, the leader of the seven. “There are those who have been put on this Earth to protect the innocent,” says the actor. “For this town, he is the right man at the right time.”
With Washington leading the way, the filmmakers reached out to Chris Pratt to play the gambler Josh Faraday, Chisolm’s right-hand man and the first person who joins Chisolm in the seven. Pratt jumped at the chance, speaking for many of his co-stars when he points out that the chance to play real-life Cowboys and Indians was irresistible. “I’d put it out there that I wanted to do a Western, and when I was able to read the story and see the vision for the movie, I got really excited,” says Pratt. “The reason I was so excited to do a Western was to get the chance to do the horse and gun training. Getting to hang out with Bobby, our horse wrangler, and all of the real cowboys was an absolute treat. Getting to play with real Colt Peacemakers, .45 long Colts – shooting them, spinning them – was so much fun. We were a bunch of big kids out there.”
In fact, the actors became a real-life band of brothers, becoming close friends in a way that mirrored the characters in the film. “There was a real playfulness between the guys,” says Birnbaum. “Not only were these guys the best and most committed actors we could have asked to fill these roles, but they are also just terrific people who made every day on this movie that much more enjoyable.”
Once Washington and Pratt were cast, the filmmakers began to think about the roles that would surround them. “Denzel and I sat and talked about it. We started reading all the books about the West and how diverse it was then. There were people from everywhere in the world – Mexico, Ireland, Russia. I thought, ‘I wanna see THAT West,” says Fuqua.
Besides portraying a reality that has been little-seen on film, it would also reflect our world today. “It’s very cool to have these amazing actors that you don’t normally see in this genre,” says Fuqua. “I thought that was really unique and contemporary. I got really excited about that contemporary feel yet sticking with tradition.”
With that in mind, the filmmakers, along with screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, would create new characters played by a diverse group of young actors: Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux; Vincent D’Onofrio as Jack Horne; South Korean star Byung-Hun Lee as Billy Rocks; Mexican-American actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez; and Native American actor Martin Sensmeier as Red Harvest.
All of these characters join the fray for different reasons, says Ethan Hawke: “One person’s there because he had a dream. One person’s there because he lost his family. One person’s there for a friend. One person’s there because he has a secret he’s not telling. One person’s there just because he didn’t know what else to do. None of them are there for ethical reasons, but they accidentally find themselves doing the right thing, and it feels good and that propels them.”
Indeed, the themes of The Magnificent Seven are so strong that they relate across cultures and generations – as evidenced by the fact that the original film is, of course, itself a remake. “Kurosawa influenced American films more than people realize, and The Seven Samurai informs our film in every way,” says Antoine Fuqua. “That is the DNA; it’s the mother of these movies. I saw that movie and it made me want to be a filmmaker. Kurosawa shot that movie with the depth of field, the strong foregrounds, the big, sweeping shots, and he played in the shadows with the samurai, whether they were good or bad. Kurosawa’s characters are ronins, a little dangerous and men of violence, but also men of service, which is what samurai means. That all informed Sturges’s film, of course, but even more this one.”
“Sturges’s film is an amazing film, made at a time when America saw themselves a certain way,” Fuqua continues, describing the difference between the 1960 film and the new film. “There was a time that the Western hero had a black-and-white wholesomeness. But the Western hero changes with time, and that determines his translation in the world. Later, the Western hero got darker, more complex, a little more dangerous. The John Wayne from Stagecoach became the John Wayne in The Searchers; after Vietnam, you have movies like The Wild Bunch, where they are bad guys but you fell in love with them anyway. People could relate to a character that was more complex, wasn’t so wholesome.”
“Today, as long as his morals are still intact, you can make a darker hero, you can make him more complex,” Fuqua says. “You can make them reflect how the world is today. Denzel Washington playing the lead in a Western back then would never have happened, because Americans never saw themselves in that way – but today, the Western has to feel like the world we live in. Still, no matter what, good guys are good guys and bad guys are bad guys; as we prepared this movie, I’d go back and watch The Seven Samurai to make sure that the DNA of this movie stayed in place, which is, morally, no matter who you are or what you’re doing, you have to do the right thing for people who need help.”
In Fuqua’s vision, the film was shot in a classic way – avoiding visual effects when possible, and choosing instead to work with some of the world’s greatest stuntmen to perform practical stunts, capturing the action in-camera. Chris Pratt was impressed: “I’ve done a lot of big movies similar in scale and scope with giant sets, but most of those – Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World – relied heavily on visual effects,” he says. “On this movie, we did practical stunts. Every horse fall you see is a stuntman falling off a horse traveling at a fast speed, and there are hundreds of them.”