Andrew Davis made a great Chicago movie. Here are some of the secret ingredients

CHICAGO — “The Fugitive” remains singular in the career of Chicago-born director Andrew Davis, raised first in Rogers Park and then, mainly, in the South Side Jeffery Manor neighborhood.

The 1993 thriller starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones was a huge hit, Davis’ biggest. But in another way “The Fugitive,” released in theaters 30 years ago this month, is not singular: It’s one of several movies Davis, 76, shot largely in his hometown with a keen, non-touristic eye.

Take, for example, Davis’ 1985 dirty-cop drama “Code of Silence,” the one verifiably good Chuck Norris movie in existence. “There’s a lot of the Southeast Side in that one,” Davis told me, from his oceanside home in Santa Barbara, California, in a recent Zoom interview. “All those grain towers along the Calumet River. I guess I just keep going back to the old neighborhood.”

“The Fugitive” filmed in North Carolina and Tennessee as well as all over Chicago, from Pullman to the Loop and points west. Making the movie, as various stories in recent years have revealed, the actors were dealing with an ever-revised script and their own, varying degrees of pessimism regarding the probable outcome. As Jones told me in 2007: “The script was always in trouble … (on his last day of filming) I remember thinking, well, I’ll never work again. This is about it. It’s been a good go.” And then he won an Oscar for “The Fugitive.”

Davis, who has a novel coming out next year, talked to me about the permutations of “The Fugitive” script; memories of watching old World War II and Korean War footage on Saturday morning TV with his brother and a stack of Oreos; and the very different “Fugitive” storyline 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 led to “The Fugitive”?

A: I get the call on a Sunday night. Harrison had seen “Under Siege” (Davis’ action movie starring Steven Seagal) opening weekend. The call from Warner Brothers is, “Come to a meeting Monday or Tuesday, we’ll send you the script.” I read the script and I thought, oh, man. This doesn’t make any sense.

Q: So the premise was that Gerard, the Tommy Lee Jones character —

A: In that version, Gerard was the one who hired the one-armed man who ended up killing Kimble’s wife, because Kimble screwed up an operation on Gerard’s wife! It was a disgruntled-marshal movie. They had been through many ideas, many drafts, by then.

Q: And you have your sister to thank for a major plot point, yes?

A: Yes! The whole drug protocol idea. (In “The Fugitive” Kimble learns of a sinister corporate conspiracy involving a pharmaceutical company and a new drug being rushed to market that causes fatal liver damage.) I called up my sister, Josie, who was a nurse at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in LA, and said, “Jo, what could get a doctor in a lot of trouble?” And she said, “I’ll get back to you.” She called a doctor she knew in Iowa, I think. And he’s the one who came up with the drug protocol idea.

It’s funny, I don’t remember being pressured during the shoot about trying to make the Aug. 6 (1993) release date. But as soon as we got into post (production), the theatrical distribution head at Warner Brothers, Barry Reardon, who really was a genius — he realized we had something good. He’s the one who told me he wanted to hit the August release date, and get it into theaters a few weeks before Labor Day. Then the pressure was on. We cut it in eight weeks, and got the music, the sound, all of it done.

Q: Something struck me the last time I saw “The Fugitive,” when you were down at Ebertfest in 2018. There’s some fairly harsh violence in your film, but if someone made a movie out of “The Fugitive” today, using the basic premise of the ABC TV series, as yours did, it’d likely have three times the violence and one-third the character interest as the 1993 version.

A: Right. My dear friend Jeff Bridges has a series on Netflix, “The Old Man,” and I watched the beginning of it, and Jesus! So violent. Drama traditionally is about life and death, and fear. I realize that. But most violence I see today in movies, it’s just not something I want to be part of. Fear is another thing altogether. Fear is the thing that translates all over the world. Not comedy. Not even love.

By the way, may he rest in peace: William Friedkin was a big influence on me. “The French Connection” especially. He hired my father (longtime Chicago actor Nathan Davis, a frequent presence in Davis’ films) for something when he was still a wholesale drug salesman.

Q: Do you have an early moviegoing memory that sticks with you?

A: You’re gonna laugh, given the movie we were talking about, but: “Little Fugitive.” You know that one? (Yes, and it’s great.) My mother took me to see it, at the Fine Arts, I think. It’s about a kid who thinks he killed his brother. That was powerful to me.

I also remember visiting my sister at UW-Madison, she was four years ahead of me. I went up on the train to visit her, and some of her buddies took me to see “The Magnificent Seven.”

On Saturdays my little brother and I, we’d get up, six in the morning, we’d eat a row of Oreo cookies and watch “The Big Picture,” with these U.S. Army films from World War II and Korea. As a Jewish kid, I was already learning about Auschwitz. I saw pictures of the camps when I was very young. My parents didn’t want to shield me from that.

Q: What are you most pleased about regarding the longevity, the popularity, of “The Fugitive”?

A: Well, it’s interesting. This is a movie where I was handed the most beautiful ingredients and no recipe. The studio had an idea of what kind of meal they wanted, but no recipe. So I had to figure out how to run the kitchen and make it work. And it turned out really well. I was able to use my instincts and my resources, and I got very lucky with this incredible group of people both in front of and behind the camera. I didn’t really feel the pressure making it. I thought: “Get the day’s work done. The dailies are looking good. Just keep shooting. Just keep making the people come alive on the screen.”

People still tell me that whenever it’s on TV, they watch it all the way through again. Even if they have to pee. As a director, what more could you ask for?

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