SPOILER ALERT: This story contains minor spoilers for “Lift,” now streaming on Netflix.
From “The Italian Job” to “The Fate of the Furious,” F. Gary Gray is no stranger to heist movies. When tasked with directing “Lift,” the new Netflix film starring Kevin Hart, Gray knew he needed to add something fresh to the genre.
“Lift” follows Hart’s Cyrus Whitaker, who leads an international heist crew that specializes in stealing art. When Cyrus’ ex-girlfriend, Interpol agent Abby Gladwell (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), catches the team lifting an NFT, she recruits them to lift $500 million in gold off a plane to prevent a terrorist attack.
“It’s a beloved genre. A lot of times, the motivations are different, and I was really satisfied with the reason they wanted to go out and pull off this particular heist,” Gray said.
Gray sat down with Variety to discuss his approach to setting “Lift” apart from other heist films, making audiences root for criminals and the possibility of a sequel (or franchise).
What drew you to Dan Kunka’s script?
I was contacted by one of the heads of Kevin’s production company, Hartbeat. Bryan Smiley mentioned that he was a fan of “Set It Off,” which was the first heist movie that I did, and he mentioned “The Italian Job” and went into saying he had a heist movie that Kevin’s starring in that he’d love for me to consider. At first, I wasn’t sure because I was just like, “What could I add to this genre that I haven’t already done?” But he said Kevin is one of the nicest, most versatile people that he’s had the opportunity to work with. I made a couple of phone calls to a couple of directors that I’m familiar with that have worked with Kevin, and they echoed that sentiment. He’s a great guy, and he’s really looking to make a transition from mainly comedic leading roles to a more grounded action character. When I sat in and met with him, he was everything that everyone described, very nice guy, really had a great vision for what they wanted to do with this. We sat, we met, we talked, and a couple of weeks later, I was in Europe prepping the movie.
Like you said, you’ve done so many heist films throughout your career. How did you plan to make “Lift” stand out from the others?
One of the biggest differences is the cast and the fact that this heist takes place 40,000 feet in the sky. That is way different than any heist film that I’ve ever done. What I’m used to seeing is leads that were used to playing in these roles — there’s Pierce Brosnan or Brad Pitt or George Clooney or Mark Wahlberg, for instance. I thought this would be really interesting to see Kevin pull something like this off. I would want to see that.
The technology is so different, not only in just the filmmaking process, but just the process of pulling off the heist. The law enforcement has different technology to hunt down, to track or to prevent criminals from committing crime. And the criminals have different technology currently than they did even five years ago. I’m a little bit of a techie and just to play in this world, I’m like a kid in a candy shop when I get the opportunity to go in this space. You do have to do research, and so you have access to people you wouldn’t ordinarily come in contact with. They give you all of their little secrets and details, and it works well for the film, but it’s also personally interesting to me.
Right off the bat, the idea of stealing an NFT is so new.
Exactly. That was something that wasn’t in the original script, and I felt like if we could pull off something that would be not only very interesting but very current.
What other changes or additions did you make to the script?
I felt that opening the movie in Venice would give the movie a certain flair, and it would automatically set the tone — like this is a global movie, and we’re going to take you to a different part of the world that I think people could and would appreciate. Venice was one of the adjustments we made, and I’m glad we did it because to open the movie with a boat chase in Venice, I thought would be really satisfying.
I think we massaged some of the characters. We improved the dynamic between the main characters, especially the two main leads, played by Kevin Hart and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. There were changes there to help develop that relationship, especially given the cast and really make it personal. Billy Magnussen, who gives a standout performance, he’s very funny in the movie. And once he was cast, we did quite a bit to show what he can do and his strengths. It’s hard to watch this guy and not to be entertained by him and his choices and the way he performs and the way he entertains. There was quite a bit that he delivered that wasn’t in the script, so that was part of the process and part of some of the stuff we massaged and changed as well.
One thing that set “Lift” apart from other heist films is that the team is not trying to pull off the heist to get rich, but rather to save the lives of millions — however, they end up getting rich in the end anyway. Can you talk through that plot twist, and what it says about the characters?
I want people to see how the movie plays out. But I will say that it is important that when you have characters committing crime, and things like that, you better fall in love with them because they’re already starting off on the wrong foot by being criminals. It’s my job to make sure that you fall in love with them and you’re invested in them. And so their intentions and their objective, it works better in a film like this if it’s not a selfish intention, if it feels like they’re doing it for something more than just their own selfish needs. I think it’s easier for the audience to cross that bridge and go along for the ride than if it’s just for selfish needs.
What was the most difficult part of the heist to film?
I think shooting in multiple countries during COVID. We were fortunate to be able to shoot in Belfast, Ireland, London, England and Trieste, Italy, and Venice, Italy, and different parts of that part of the world. But again, every country has different rules for COVID, and when you’re traveling around with the crew, you try to keep everyone safe, but you’re also shooting an ensemble cast. It comes with its own share of challenges, so it was a much different approach than we were all used to. But we made it work, and I say that based on the response we’ve been getting from the audience.
Do you think there’s any chance for a sequel? Maybe what they’re spending the gold on or Huxley seeking revenge?
After the premiere, that’s exactly what we keep hearing from the people who watch the movie, like, “We want to see more of them.” I think that’s a Netflix choice. I think they have an opportunity for a sequel. They may have an opportunity for a franchise. I think that’s above my pay grade, but I do believe that based on the response, there’s an opportunity there, and I think Netflix and Kevin and the cast will have a lot to do with the choice if that happens or not.