Antoine Fuqua shot The Magnificent Seven — a remake of the classic 1960 Western about a septet of hired guns who agree to defend a small town from a rapacious strongman — just as Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign and injected divisive, racist rhetoric into the national conversation. While the filmmaker never intended for his film (which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8) to dovetail so closely with the zeitgeist, he always set out to make a movie that touched on the importance of recognizing each other’s humanity. The lead gunfighters, for example, are former Union and Confederate soldiers who became good friends after the Civil War.
“The movie’s really about the best qualities of human beings, putting other people before yourselves,” Fuqua told BuzzFeed News in March 2016 in his office on the Sony Pictures lot. “We get caught up in a lot of the symbols: flags, and whose side’s on who, Republican, Democrat, and all of that. But ultimately, man, that’s another human being across from you, you know? You never know when you might need each other. So it was important to show that everyone in the world is not racist or hateful. … It’s great to see the diversity of it, because the statement is that we’re all Americans.”
If that sounds idealistic, it’s because Fuqua — who has largely built his career directing gritty, contemporary thrillers like Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen, and The Equalizer — has always seen Westerns as an escape. “Whenever I get a little depressed, I go watch a Western,” the 50-year-old director said. “They were pure in the sense that the stories are simple, really. Characters can be a little more magnified. They’re a wonderful dream, you know?”
And while Fuqua was intimately familiar with the classic iconography of Westerns, from the start he was keen to update at least one aspect of the classic Western: He wanted Denzel Washington in the lead role of the bounty hunter, played by Yul Brynner in the original.
“I thought it would make it more of an event to see Denzel on a horse at this point, be a cowboy,” said Fuqua. Washington signed on immediately to play Sam Chisolm. “He was like, ‘If you get a chance to make your Western, let’s do it!’” Fuqua recalled with a laugh.
For the two biggest supporting roles, Fuqua turned to newly minted box office superstar Chris Pratt as the quick-draw scoundrel Josh Farraday and frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke as the troubled military legend Goodnight Robicheaux. But the filmmaker was careful not to surround Washington with just a bunch of white guys.
“We don’t live in that world anymore,” said Fuqua. He filled out his seven leads with Native American newcomer Martin Sensmeier as the lone warrior Red Harvest, Mexican actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series) as the outlaw Vasquez, South Korean star Byung-hun Lee (Terminator Genisys, G.I. Joe: Retaliation) as Robicheaux’s lethal companion Billy Rocks, and Vincent D’Onofrio as the frontiersman Jack Horne.
“This movie’s really important to me because it’s diverse,” said Fuqua. “You miss out on that talent, you miss out on what they bring to the screen if you just thought that old-school way. They all bring something different. If everyone’s the same, what’s the point of that?”
Fuqua appreciated that unlike, say, a superhero movie — which is based on sometimes decades-old source material that many fans believe to be sacrosanct — the Western genre can more easily accommodate his revisionist approach to casting. “The Western is wide open. There’s so many stories to be told,” he said. “Very few times have you seen a Western truly told from a Native American’s side, not from a white actor playing Native American. I think there’s things like that to be done.”
The Magnificent Seven premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8. A previous version of this story misstated the date.