Still Running: The Fugitive director Andrew Davis on the 30th anniversary of his boffo blockbuster

Harrison Ford is a man on the edge in The Fugitive (1993).
Harrison Ford is a man on the edge in The Fugitive (1993).

With the arrival of The Fugitive’s 30th anniversary 4K Blu-ray, director Andrew Davis looks back on his cat-and-mouse classic, its chaotic production and Tommy Lee Jones’s gift for improv. (Plus some Holes chat for those who celebrate.)

We showed the movie to the studio for the first time and they said, ‘Don’t touch a frame. We love it. It’s perfect.’ We made 1,500 changes after that.

—⁠Andrew Davis

That Harrison Ford movie about his wife may refer to a handful of titles (seriously, it’s a thing), but the one that made it a standing point in the lexicon was undoubtedly The Fugitive. Andrew Davis’s adaptation of the popular ’60s television series about surgeon Richard Kimble (Ford), who is framed for the murder of his spouse and goes on the run to clear his name, was an utter sensation upon release, notching up the third-highest domestic gross of its year after Jurassic Park and Mrs. Doubtfire.

Writing on Letterboxd, Fugitive fan Sam praises the film as “a three-star thriller on the page that is made better and more interesting with every choice, starting with casting (Ford, Jones, Joey Pants, some ace local talent), some outstanding location shooting, cinematography (oh, the beauty of just about anything shot on film), and editing.” Released in August 1993, it was so darned good it pierced the blockbuster bubble of the Academy Awards with seven nominations including Best Picture, and scored a Best Supporting Actor win for Tommy Lee Jones as the US Marshal assigned to hunt Ford down.

For 30 years, The Fugitive has been the kind of movie that you might catch on cable at any point in its runtime and have no choice but to sit down and watch to completion. “After re-watch 46875, still a stone cold classic,” declares Remobo, while Amy’s recent rewatch had her “bumping this up to 4.5” because “I’ve got zero chill when it comes to big love for The Fugitive.” It’s Dad Cinema to the max. There truly is “nothing quite like Harrison Ford punching people in the face.”

From iconic moments like the train-crash sequence (which they somehow captured in a single attempt) and one of the greatest line deliveries in cinema history to peak performances from Ford and Jones, The Fugitive endures as a landmark of pure, old-fashioned cinematic entertainment. It looks and sounds better than ever now with a stunning new 4K UHD Blu-ray release from Warner Bros, and it was a great pleasure to ask director Andrew Davis about beard chronology, playing cat-and-mouse with a Steadicam, and Jones’s improv expertise.

Let’s start with one of The Fugitive’s most impressive elements: Harrison Ford’s beard. He looks so incredible in it, but I know it was quite a contentious thing. Harrison wanted it, but Warner Bros chairman Bob Daly was strictly against it. What was your opinion on the beard?
Andrew Davis: I don’t remember the exact chain of events, because it’s perfect to have him shave the beard off when he wants to look like somebody else, so story-wise it made total sense. We had to shoot everything in continuity, so we must’ve known we were taking it off at that point, because we didn’t shoot anything without the beard before that.

So I think it was a great idea. He wanted to be a Bohemian doctor, sort of an artistic character, and he had a beard. He spent time with arrogant doctors in Chicago, and he understood what that meant and how to look, and so I think it just worked out fine. That scene where he’s shaving the beard and the nurse comes into the room and almost catches him—it’s fun, it’s a lot of fun.

That scene speaks to the great balance the film has between the silliness of the concept and the grounded approach you take that allows us to really invest in the journey. You’ve got a guy screaming frantically about the one-armed man who killed his wife, and yet it feels so real.
We had to learn about myoelectric arms for that. We had to create a whole laboratory. We had real people in there who had lost limbs and they were working with us. I always like to have things fairly real, because it has a greater emotional impact. It resonates more if things seem real. Fantasy is wonderful and humor is wonderful, but in terms of this story, it didn’t need it.

Harrison Ford aids in that grounding quality, as he threads the needle between the screen presence of a capital-letters Movie Star while also feeling like a guy we could bump into on the street or at the corner store. What do you think enables him to have that special something?
Well, I think he doesn’t mug for the camera, as some other movie stars do. He’s not a pretty boy. He’s handsome, but he’s not a pretty boy. He’s from Chicago, so he’s grounded in a reality because of all that stuff. He was a carpenter. He worked hard, he struggled, and he likes process. He likes the idea of how things are put together and how craftsmen work and craftspeople work together, so that goes into the details of who his character is. I think he was terrific for being that character at that time.

Julianne Moore makes an early career appearance in a role that was originally much larger.
Julianne Moore makes an early career appearance in a role that was originally much larger.

The train-crash sequence is unbelievably impressive, and what I especially love about it is what a great character moment it is. Richard Kimble sees this train coming right for them, and he’s got this injured guard who needs help. The other convict bails, the other guard ditches them, but Kimble stays to help this injured man. It’s a great example of having character drive the action.
He can’t get rid of the Hippocratic oath, which is to do no harm. He has another sequence like that in the movie, where he changes the orders on the kid who Julianne Moore sends down. There’s a really interesting story where I met this doctor in Santa Barbara who had a Coen Brothers poster on the wall [of his office]. I said, “Why do you have this on the wall?” And he said, “Well, I took care of their kids.” I told him that I made a movie about a doctor once, and when I told him what movie, he stepped back and he said, “When I saw The Fugitive, I was at Harvard and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. When that scene was over, I said, ‘I’m going to be a doctor.’”

Wow.
That was really moving for me. He’s an eye doctor, and he’s got a specialty in children’s eye problems. That was the character. That was one of the best things that came out of the series. Kimble was willing to jeopardize himself and help people. There’s that scene in the hospital when he’s about to steal the ambulance and he gives over the guy on the stretcher and says, “He’s got a punctured spleen and a gastric ulcer, blah, blah, blah.” [Laughs] How the hell did he know that just by looking at him?

Speaking of Julianne Moore, I know that she was initially supposed to be a love interest for Kimble, but you left that on the cutting room floor.
For sure. He was going to go home with her, and they were going to even take a shower and clean up together. My dear producer Peter Macgregor-Scott came to me, said, “Andy,” with his British accent, “you can’t do this. He’s mourning his wife, he can’t get involved with another woman right now.” I agreed, so we said to [producer Arnold] Kopelson, “Arnold, you better call up Julianne.” [Laughs] I don’t think she’s still mad at me. Probably… she probably is, but we couldn’t let that happen. She’s great in the movie.

Top o’ the morning to ya, Dr. Kimble.
Top o’ the morning to ya, Dr. Kimble.

There are several sequences in The Fugitive that make me think, “I can’t believe they pulled that off.” One of them is the St. Patrick’s Day parade scene, which you filmed during the actual parade, navigating Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones through all of those crowds. How difficult was the execution for that?
It was easy! We had a Steadicam and another camera off to the side, and we basically said, go on Harrison, get in there. He grabbed a hat out of a garbage can to cover himself up, but the plumbers’ union knew we were going to be part of them. Tommy just started looking around and it was this great cat-and-mouse with him and Harrison. Steve St. John was a great Steadicam operator who shot that. It’s a ballet, with all of that incredible sound of the bagpipes and the cymbals and the drums. I think they’re going to rerelease the movie on St. Patrick’s Day, and they can use that as a launching idea for it.

On Letterboxd, there are a lot of members who regularly rewatch it on that day. It’s like a St. Patrick’s Day tradition.
[Laughs] Wow!

That sequence has a very improvisational feel to it, where we’re discovering it in the moment with the characters. That kind of spontaneity was integral to the process, as you filmed without a finished script. What was that storytelling process like, with you and the actors coming up with scenes on the day?
It depended on the day-to-day issues. For example—I don’t remember how this happened, but—Tommy’s arguing, yelling orders about “find this thing and get me this information”. And this is after the train crash. It’s in the morning after, and he’s standing there talking to Joey Pants and the rest of the marshals, and he says, “Newman, what are you doing?” He says, “I’m thinking.” so Tommy goes, “Well, think me up a cup of coffee and a chocolate donut, all those sprinkles on top.” [Laughs] That was made up in that moment. I had no idea he was going to say those words. It was just perfect.

How much of a gift is that to have as a director? Actors who know their characters so instinctually, that even within a scene they can pull something new out of a hat that’s the perfect thing for their character to say.
I think that the number of times that we improvised was based upon a chemistry that was going on in the set, and it had to have a humor and dynamic and tension and questioning about what was going on. So we would get on the set and we knew what the scene had to accomplish, but the words weren’t exactly pinpointed. I don’t want to work with actors who can’t do that. I want to have actors who can bring me there. It’s like you’re going to have a musician who can not only play the notes but he can improvise a solo that you never could have believed. A lot of that, it’s very much like jazz. There’s a certain rhythm, and now you get in there and you make it different.

Tommy Lee Jones putting the clues together.
Tommy Lee Jones putting the clues together.

I realized this could really resonate with families. An older grandma could take her teenage grandson to see this, and they could both relate to it. That was a glimmer of hope.

—⁠Andrew Davis

We’ve got to talk about the “I didn’t kill my wife”/“I don’t care” scene, which is absolutely iconic. Legendary. There’s some different lore around where the “I don’t care” line came from, with some saying it was always in the script and others saying Tommy came up with it in the moment. What’s your recollection of that bit of movie magic?
I think both are for real. Because I always thought it was something that was made up on the set that day, and then somebody wrote an article recently—there’s been an amazing amount of research 30 years later. Somebody found this old draft that Walter Hill was involved in where he says, “I don’t care, you’re a fugitive”. But it probably made a lot of sense to Tommy on the day to say that, whether he read that or not.

The same thing with the “outhouse/henhouse”, that sequence. I thought that was brought down by Warner Bros’ marketing for the trailer. Tommy didn’t really want to say those lines, and we did it a couple of different ways. Then years later, it turns out that David Twohy wrote a draft, which had that line in it. So, I owe apologies to some of these people where others got credit for those lines, but in fact, they were sort of embedded in old drafts somewhere.

I wanted to talk about Tommy Lee Jones a bit, as this was your third time collaborating with him after The Package and Under Siege. You two clearly have this great working relationship together. Where did that kinship come from?
Wow. Well, it was interesting. When I first met him on The Package, he was on the Harvard football team. The quarterback of that team was Georgie Lalich, who was the quarterback of my high-school team. [They were a] Serbian family on the south side of Chicago by the steel mills. So I was able to sort of make a connection there because Georgie Lalich’s father was betting against him, I think. He was a gambler. A gangster. I don’t think he was having the kid fix the game, but he was betting against his son. [Laughs] Anyway, so that was going on. Tommy, I don’t know, I think I just kept it real. I wasn’t being a prima donna, I wasn’t being fussy about stuff. I don’t know, just who I am and who he is, we were able to relate to each other.

I feel like there’s some kismet with you and Tommy where you both have this really efficient, no-nonsense approach to your work that pairs remarkably well. The Package is this great little gem that I’m always recommending to people.
It’s interesting you say that, because The Package has inspired a novel I just finished with Jeff Biggers, this wonderful writer. It’s called Disturbing the Bones, and is coming out next summer. It is a political thriller based upon what would happen if a peace treaty came around where they’re going to get rid of the nukes and what the generals would do about that. Which is very similar to the themes of The Package. Hopefully, Tommy can play the bad general in that. [Laughs]

Andrew Davis and Harrison Ford on set. — Credit… Warner Bros
Andrew Davis and Harrison Ford on set. Credit… Warner Bros

He worked hard, he struggled, and he likes process. He likes the idea of how things are put together and how craftsmen work and craftspeople work together, so that goes into the details of who his character is.

—⁠Andrew Davis on Harrison Ford

With how masterfully calibrated The Fugitive is, it’s remarkable to know that it was quite the chaotic production, with you needing to turn it around quickly and having six editors working to get it ready for release. Was there ever a day when you panicked and thought it wasn’t going to be complete in time?
Sometimes when you’re up against the gun, you get creative and you do things that you never thought you were going to do—and they work out fine. I never felt like we fell flat on our face because of time. In terms of post-production, Peter Macgregor-Scott was a wizard running a cutting room and organizing. We were cutting and pre-dubbing and looping and doing all kinds of stuff while we were cutting. Peter was able to navigate how that would turn out, so we could get it completely done and in the theaters in eight or ten weeks. That was a real feat.

We showed the movie to the studio for the first time and they said, “Don’t touch a frame. We love it. It’s perfect.” We made 1,500 changes after that. There were trims here and there that we wanted to do, and Dennis Virkler and Don Brochu and Dov [Hoenig] were doing all that stuff.

A lot of the actors, including Tommy Lee Jones, were saying that this movie was going to kill their careers. You were the only one who held onto this faith that it was going to work out in the end.
[Laughs] What else could I do? I have to think positive. We have to go to work with an upbeat feeling. I saw some cut footage early on with James Newton Howard in Chicago, when he came to talk about the music. We had done The Package together before that. I looked at some cut footage, and I realized this could really resonate with families. An older grandma could take her teenage grandson to see this, and they could both relate to it. That was a glimmer of hope. I don’t know, I was just so busy and so up to my eyeballs in terms of just getting everything done and staying healthy to get to the set every day.

The Fugitive has had such an enduring legacy in pop culture, with references in things like The Simpsons, John Mulaney’s stand-up and, of course, its own spoof feature, Wrongfully Accused. Do you have a personal favorite homage to your film?
Oh, boy, I’m trying to think. John Mulaney’s skit is great. He’s in the ballroom and he’s acting out all of that stuff. [Laughs] That’s pretty good. I’ve seen so many of those different references to it. There was a moment when I realized that we made it. This happened twice in my life; it’s the pinnacle of my career. I was in San Francisco after Under Siege came out, and in Mad magazine or Cracked, they did a parody of it called Under Sludge. Then, when The Fugitive came out, they called it The Stoogative. When you resonate that way with comedic cartoons and comic books, you know you’ve made it.

You’ve said before that you’re always referred to as “the guy who directed The Fugitive”, or for a younger generation you’re now “the guy who directed Holes”. Outside of those two films, are there any in your career that you have a particular affinity for that we could recommend people seek out if they haven’t seen them?
Thank you for asking that. First of all, Stony Island has been getting some theatrical rereleases lately and playing on all these different platforms. You can find it on AndrewDavisFilms.com. Then I’d also love to say Steal Big Steal Little. There was this new company named Savoy, and they asked me for a three-picture deal to do anything I pleased. I made this movie, which was based on a documentary I had done. It starred Andy Garcia and Alan Arkin. I’m really proud of that movie, and I think it’s actually very timely today. That’s the baby that never got to grammar school, you know what I mean? I think it’s one of Alan Arkin’s best performances, and Andy’s great in it as well. It’s a really heartwarming movie. It deals with greed and immigration. It’s based on a true story, too.

Holes (2003) had personal significance for Andrew Davis.
Holes (2003) had personal significance for Andrew Davis.

Speaking of heartwarming, I did want to mention that I revisited Holes a few months back, and it’s pretty impressive how well that film holds up. It’s your most popular film on Letterboxd, even more so than The Fugitive. Do you have a favorite memory from working on that one?
It was such a wonderful book, and [author] Louis Sachar and I really appreciated each other. The fact that the movie was so revered by librarians, by teachers… We really didn’t want them to be disappointed in the movie, so that was great. It was just a challenge to put those kids out in that heat and figure out how to make it look real.

One of the things that’s wonderful about Holes is that my father’s in it. The grandpa was not in the novel, but we added that role in there. My father was part of the Tony Award-winning company of Grapes of Wrath on Broadway, came out of Steppenwolf in Chicago, and he had had a bit of a stroke. I wasn’t sure if he could handle it, but he came on the set and he was loved by Henry Winkler and Shia [LaBeouf]. That was great to have him in that movie.


The Fugitive’ is available on 4K Blu-ray now from Warner Bros.

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