“The Fugitive” remains unique in the career of Chicago-born director Andrew Davis, who grew up first in Rogers Park and then in the South Side Jeffery Manor neighborhood.
The 1993 thriller starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones was a huge hit, Davis’ greatest. But on the other hand, “The Fugitive,” which hit theaters 30 years ago this month, isn’t singular: It’s one of the few films by 76-year-old Davis, largely shot in his hometown with a sharp, non-touristy eye.
Take, for example, Davis’s 1985 dirty cop drama “Code of Silence,” a demonstrably good Chuck Norris movie. “There’s a lot of Southeast Side in that,” Davis told me in a recent Zoom interview from his oceanfront home in Santa Barbara, California. “All those grain rigs along the Calumet River. I think I’ll keep going back to the old quarter.
“The Fugitive” was filmed all over North Carolina and Tennessee, as well as Chicago, pointing west from Pullman to the Loop. While making the film, the actors were grappling with a constantly revised script and varying degrees of their own pessimism about the likely outcome, as various stories from recent years reveal. As Jones told me in 2007: “The script was always in trouble… I remember thinking (on the last day of filming) that I would never work again. This is about him. It was a good ride.” He then won an Oscar for “The Fugitive”.
Davis, whose novel is due next year, talked to me about the permutations of the “The Fugitive” script; Memories of watching old WWII and Korean War footage on Saturday morning with her brother and a pile of Oreo; and the very different “Fugitive” story that Davis inherited when he took on the project. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Can you tell me about the phone call that resulted in “The Fugitive”?
A: I get a call on Sunday evening. Harrison had watched “Under Siege” (Davis’ action movie starring Steven Seagal) on the opening weekend. The phone call from Warner Brothers said, “Come to the meeting Monday or Tuesday and we’ll send you the script.” I read the script and thought, oh, man. This makes no sense.
Q: So the premise was: Gerard, the character of Tommy Lee Jones —
A: In this version, Gerard was the one holding the one-armed man who killed Kimble’s wife because Kimble screwed up a surgery on Gerard’s wife! It was a disgruntled marshal movie. By then they had gone through many ideas, many drafts.
Q: And you have to thank your sister for an important plot point, right?
A: Yes! The whole drug protocol idea. (In “The Fugitive,” Kimble learns of a sinister corporate conspiracy with a pharmaceutical company to launch a new drug that causes fatal liver damage.) He traveled to Los Angeles and said, “Jo, what trouble can a doctor get in?” she said. “I’ll get back to you,” she said, too. I think he called a doctor he knew in Iowa. And he’s the one who came up with the idea for the drug protocol.
Funny, I don’t remember being pressured during filming to try to make the August 6th (1993) release date. But as soon as we started post-production, Barry Reardon, head of theater distribution for Warner Brothers, who was truly a genius, realized we had something good on our hands. He was the one who said he wanted it to hit its August release date and hit theaters a few weeks before Labor Day. Then the printing started. We cut it in eight weeks and we did the music, the sound, it all.
Q: One thing caught my attention the last time I watched the movie “The Fugitive”. While at Ebertfest in 2018. There’s some pretty brutal violence in your movie, but if someone today made a movie like yours from “The Fugitive” using the basic premise of the ABC TV series, it would probably be three times the violence and one third the violence. Character relevance as the 1993 version.
A: Right. My dear friend Jeff Bridges has a series on Netflix called “The Old Man” and I watched the premiere of it and Jesus! For this reason severe. Drama is traditionally about life, death and fear. I understand. But most of the violence I see in movies today is not something I want to be part of. Fear is something else entirely. Fear is what is translated all over the world. It’s not comedy. It’s not even love.
Meanwhile, rest in peace: William Friedkin it had a big impact on me. Especially the “French Connection”. While still a wholesale drug dealer, he hired my father (long-time Chicago actor Nathan Davis, a frequent feature in Davis’ films) for something.
Q: Do you have an early movie memory that sticks in your mind?
A: You’ll laugh at the movie we’re talking about, but: “Little Fugitive.” Do you know this? (Yes and this is great.) I think my mother took me to see her at Fine Arts. It’s about a boy who thinks he killed his brother. This was strong for me.
I also remember visiting my sister at UW-Madison, who was four years ahead of me. I took the train to visit him and some of his friends took me to see “The Magnificent Seven.”
On Saturdays, my little brother and I would get up at six in the morning, eat a row of Oreo cookies and watch “The Big Picture” with WWII and US Army movies from Korea. As a Jewish child I was already learning about Auschwitz. I had seen pictures of camps when I was very young. My family didn’t want to protect me from this.
Q: What are you most satisfied with about the longevity and popularity of “The Fugitive”?
A: Well, interesting. This is a movie where the best ingredients are given to me and there is no recipe. The studio had an idea of what kind of dish they wanted, but no recipe. So I needed to figure out how to get the kitchen up and running. And it turned out really well. I was able to use my instincts and resources and have been very lucky with this incredible group of people both in front of and behind the camera. I didn’t really feel the pressure doing it. I thought: “Finish the day’s work. Newspapers look good. Keep firing. Keep bringing people on screen.”
People still tell me that whenever it’s on TV, they watch it over and over again. Even if they have to pee. What more could you want as a director?
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.