Antoine Fuqua interview: The Equalizer, Training Day

The director of The Equalizer talks about Denzel Washington, making Training Day, westerns, The Magnificent Seven remake and much more...

The last time director Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington made a film together, the result was Training Day – the 2001 crime thriller for which Washington won Best Actor and co-star Ethan Hawke was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

The Equalizer is a thriller of a very different sort, based as it is on the 80s TV series of the same name (you know, the one with the really catchy Stewart Copeland theme tune). This time, Washington’s unquestionably the hero rather than the coolly psychotic antagonist – he’s Robert McCall, a quiet, unassuming Boston guy who happens to be extremely good at killing people. When he gets in a tangle with Russian gangsters, it’s clear that his special set of skills weren’t learned down the local DIY store where he works.

Spectacularly violent though The Equalizer is – just as Fuqua’s previous film Olympus Has Fallen was – it nevertheless showcases the director’s ability to create atmosphere and tell a character’s story with economical, observant camera moves. Fuqua gives Washington’s resourceful hero depth and mystery as well as raw strength, and it’s easy to see echoes of the same director who brought us Training Day and the less acclaimed but well-made Brooklyn’s Finest in The Equalizer’s more brooding moments.

We sat down with Mr Fuqua to talk about making The Equalizer, his memories of making Training Day and its subsequent Oscar success, plus a little bit about his Magnificent Seven remake and his ideas for an Equalizer sequel.

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This is the second R-rated action thriller in a row for you. Where most filmmakers seem to struggle to get those made these days, you’ve done it. So what’s your secret?

I don’t know! I guess success with one helps get the other one done. I think that’s really the answer: success. Training Day was an R. Olympus Has Fallen was an R. Now this one’s an R. But I think, part of it, I believe, is there’s a new generation. They see so much in videos and on YouTube – ugly things.

If the film is going to take you to a violent place, hopefully it’s to tell the story or tell you something about a character. I don’t think you should filter it. Of course it’s just a movie and it’s all just pretend, but I think young people go to the movies a lot and see us editing for them. Filtering for them. When I hear the word PG-13, I go, [resignedly] “Nyaah.”

I have children. So I’m watching some of them and they’re pretty violent. You can cut someone’s head off but you can’t show breasts, which confuses me. Or you see a guy get thrown through a wall violently, and then a train comes by and hits them – Shwoom! – but because it’s done with CG, it’s a PG-13. So I go, “Wow. That’s much more violent than punching a guy or stomping a guy in a room. But they got a PG-13 because you don’t see blood or something.”

So I’m completely confused by that balance. I have to go one way, and I’m better at doing that. If I was making a PG-13 movie, then I would truly go at it with all my heart. A PG-13 for kids to see.

You touched on character just then, and the characters in The Equalizer really bring the film to life, I think.

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It’s all about character. 

Yeah. Denzel Washington’s character in this, with his little OCDs and things – I really liked the way you observed those. Were those scripted, or did you develop them with Denzel?

They weren’t in the script. I developed them with Denzel. He came up with it – it was his idea. We developed it further with the writer to incorporate it. In the original script, he kept doing the thing with the watch, but it was never explained. So Denzel came in one day and said about OCD, and he got some books and looked on YouTube. Then I started to see this character develop right in front of me.

Denzel said, “I’m gonna shave my head. He should be low maintenance.” I said, “I like that.” He just sees stuff. All of a sudden, he’d developed this guy. He doesn’t sleep at night, which means he has some issues he’s not dealing with. He’s real quiet, but completely compassionate. He wants to help people, like the heavy-set guy, Ralphie, and Teri, which obviously catapults him into becoming what he really is.

What was your approach to the action? Were you similarly hands-on with that?

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I came up with a lot of craziness! I got together with some friends who are professionals. Navy Seals. Our stunt guy, Keith, he was a Navy Seal. And there was an MMA guy, a martial arts guy. I got together with some guys who do it every day for a living, and some SAS guys as well.

I just talked to these guys, and gave them scenarios and showed them the scene. These guys do this thing all the time. People like you and me, we look around for the most comfortable chair and whatever’s best for us. They come in, and they’re already looking at how to exit, if something happens, what they’d use. Their mind works differently than ours.

So I was incorporating things I’d learned from them, and then I was talking to doctors and scientists. I just happened to go to an eye doctor, and he was looking at my eyes – because I always get them checked before I do a movie – and I said, “What happens to special forces type guys? Have you dealt with these guys? When people get excited, what happens to the eye?”

These people were great. They’d start talking. They’d say, “They iris opens to let in more light, because the eye’s trying to see everything quickly.”

These types of guys, I learned, their heart rate goes down. They get calm. They find comfort in chaos. Whereas you and I would be like, “Get me out of here. I want to get out of the room!”

These guys go right at the action. They go about it in a very calm, precise way. Which is not normal – they’re trained that way.

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So the idea with the action scene with the Russians is, that this man who’s gentle and compassionate, and seems to be so peaceful, can be so brutal. But you don’t know much about his past – that alone informs you that his life is different than yours. Each time that happens, it becomes like a dialogue scene, as opposed to exposition. I’ll just show you something, in detail, that tells you who he is.

The audience is amazing, because they go with you. The audience brings so much into the theatre, with all their knowledge and everything. They start to figure out who he is, or they’ll start to figure out, in their minds, where he comes from, which I think is more interesting. 

I think, even knowing what we know about Denzel Washington from his other roles, is that he’s really good at ambiguity. He’s the hero, but there’s something in his eyes. Something dark. Violence.

You can see it. I call it sustained intensity. He’s struggling. He’s a gentle person even as a guy. He laughs a lot. He’s Shakespearean to me when I watch Denzel. He’s so full of life and witty, but I know him, and I can also see that… thing. Rumbling. It’s like a volcano in a bottle. It can just erupt.

That’s a good thing, because what it means is there’s promise for every scene. There’s promise for the audience. Where will he go? What will he do? Especially for this sort of story. There’s promise in the next cut. This film takes its time, and when we were cutting, I said to my editor and producer, “I don’t want to rush it. I think the audience, they’re smart. They see action and superhero movies all the time, where the first scene has to have an explosion. Let’s not do that.”

It’s almost quiet, where he’s working at the Home Mart. I said, “He’s an interesting actor. A powerful presence.” And sometimes, people try to manipulate actors like that into letting the action drive the movie. I said, “Let the actors drive the movie”. The audience is patient. When they come to see a Denzel Washington movie, they’ll have patience. I believe – we’ll see!

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I liked the way it bides its time. I liked the opening shot you did, where the camera pulls back through his apartment, and lets you notice certain things. Ah, he wakes up before his alarm…

That’s right. He gets up, his bed’s made perfectly. He’s military, or at least disciplined, for sure. He cleans his shoes with a toothbrush, which is something military guys do. He’s shaving his head, so he’s low-maintenance. His clothes aren’t fancy. He has his watch, and he sets it. So there’s a mystery right away.

I was setting the tone of the movie with the first shot, which is that you take your time and let the camera tell you a lot of things. See, it’s amazing what people see in two seconds. Whereas sometimes films seem to want to over explain. I come out of commercials, and I know that in two, three seconds [snaps fingers] – they got it.  They’ve moved on. So you’re explaining exposition or something, and your audience has just gone, “Okay, I’m gonna go get some popcorn, because I figured that out in the first shot.” [Laughs]

It’s a waste of valuable real estate on the screen.

But that’s what cinema does, isn’t it? If you could describe a difference between cinema and TV, that’s it. Cinema gives you visual cues rather than heads telling you stuff.

That’s right. That’s how it should be. Everything about cinema should give you cues. Every lens you pick tells a story. If I’m shooting you now with a 75mm long lens, it tells you a different story. If I put an 18mm lens right close to your face, it’s going to tell another story. Especially on a screen that big, in a movie theatre. The audience gets it. I find that sometimes – sometimes – there’s a struggle when dealing with this kind of material, there’s a tendency to ‘fast food’ it.

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In the States rather than in Europe, I have to say. When I see a European film, it’s really cool the way they take their time. In the States, there’s a tendency towards what I call fast food cinema. I said, “Well, people go to see characters.” Very people can tell you the plot of their favourite films, but they could tell you about the characters, and certain scenes that really moved them.

So the attempt was, as in Training Day, because he’s an actor who can hold the screen, to not rush it. Let it be a slow burn. The writer wrote it that way as well. Like I said, there’s a tendency sometimes, when there are ‘voices’ saying, “Come on, get to that scene faster”. I’m just going, “Why”.

I have to say, now you’ve mentioned Training Day, that I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen that film.

That’s great.

What are your memories of making that?

Intense. Intense. A lot of things happened on that movie. My memories… I don’t want to get too heavy, but I lost a kid when I made Training Day. So in the middle of dealing with Bloods, Crips, gangs, Alonzo, who was a wild character and had to die because he was just a bad human being. He was sick. A sociopath. It was tense, every day making that movie. I went through that [bereavement] as well, in the middle of shooting that movie.

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My memories of that movie are so intense. I didn’t even do this kind of publicity on that movie – I went to Venice, and I think that was about it. I needed to step away from it for a bit. I knew all these gang members and so I needed to get myself away from that. As a director, you immerse yourself, or I do. You become a part of it. Your lens is another character, and all of a sudden, you find yourself in it too much. I had to pull away from it. That’s my memory of Training Day.

So after that intense experience, what was it like to emerge from it and see the reaction?

Pretty amazing. I don’t even remember it getting to the Academy Awards.

I remember going to the Academy Awards [ceremony]. The good part of the story I just told you is that my wife got pregnant again with my daughter, Asia. So I remember going down the aisle with my wife, I’ve got my tux on, and Denzel’s there with his wife, and everyone’s going crazy, and I think, “I’m at the Academy Awards!” [Laughs]

You know what I mean? Because you just make the movie. I never thought… Ethan [Hawke] reminded me of this – I was just in the zone. Ethan reminded me, we were shooting a scene in the car, and I said, “You get this right, Ethan, and you’re gonna get nominated for an Oscar.”

He came up to me at the Academy Awards and said, “D’you remember you told me about this?” And I said, “I don’t remember anything about it at all.” He said, “I remember, and I thought you were fuckin’ losing your mind. I thought you were going insane.” [Laughs]

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He told me that, and I said, “I don’t know.” But I must have felt something, just in that one moment. There was something there.

It was overwhelming, because no one knew me. So when I was walking down the red carpet, if the publicist didn’t say anything, no one gave a shit. It was like, “He’s the director… there you go.”

In fact, my seat at the Academy Awards was a few rows back from Denzel. Most directors are sitting right next to the star. So I was like second class already. My wife was like, “How come you’re not sitting next to Denzel?” I was like, “Ahh, whatever. I’m here. I’m at the Academy Awards. It’s cool.”

That’s why, when Denzel says in his speech, “The director, Antoine Fuqua, he’s out there somewhere…” [mimics shading his brow to look at something on the horizon] Because he didn’t even know where I was sitting! Afterwards, he was like, “How come you weren’t sitting next to me?” I just said, “Whatever.”

My wife told me, after he won, that the phone was ringing, people were trying to get in touch with me. I’d already gone off to do Tears Of The Sun. I just kept moving. I flew out a couple of days later. So I missed all the fun on Training Day! My memory was all about the work. Denzel won the award, and I’m happy. 

Do you think you’ll do another cop thriller like that again, because it seemed to be something you had a real affinity for.

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Oh yeah. Yeah. I’ve got something that I won’t talk about here. I’m just trying to get it right. But, phew, it’s really powerful. I dunno, I’ll see if I can get Mr Washington to do it, but I think he might. This one is intense. And different than Training Day. Very different characters. So I’m working on it.

The thing I loved about Training Day, and it’s true of The Equalizer as well, is that you’re very good at capturing cities. Of imparting the flavour of a city. Is that something you consciously consider?

Big time. Richard [Wenk] set the script in Boston, but the producers said, “We can check out New York, we can check out Pittsburgh.” I said, “No, Boston’s right.”

To me, the city is the character, just as much as the actors. They are not separate entities. The actor, the city, the music, my lenses – it’s all one entity. They’re all characters, they all play a part of how you feel when you view it.

Boston’s really interesting, because Whitey Bulger – the Irish gangster, who just got caught after so many years in Santa Monica living under everybody’s nose – his trial was going on. Then the Boston bombing happened. I remember thinking, Boston’s a great place, because it’s kind of known for Harvard and education. It’s known to be one of the most European cities in America because it’s among the oldest. People eat clam chowder and stuff.

But Boston has secrets. Boston has all the Irish gangsters who’ve always been there. And now they have the Russian gangsters. I thought about Boston, the ports. Anyplace with ports and water always has the other elements. And it’s a very working class, blue collar city. A guy could just blend in and nobody would really notice him. So Boston played a big role.

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LA played a big role in Training Day. The environment is just as important as casting.

The other thing I thought about The Equalizer was that it’s very much a vigilante movie…

I don’t really see it that way, but let’s talk about that.

Okay. It struck me that America makes them so well. There are a couple of films in England that are also  classics, but in America they’re made with a lot more conviction. I wondered if you thought that was because they’re derived from westerns.

I think they come from westerns. I think so. I grew up with westerns. But I… you’ve made me realise that. I think you’ve made me figure out something.

I grew up with westerns, watching them with my grandmother. And it was always the quiet, Clint Eastwood guy or Shane who would have to clean up the mess. Normally the sheriff was a rascal and wasn’t doing his job or he was a weasel. I remember there was a moment in Pale Rider where Eastwood takes the badge off the sheriff and puts it on the little person. Then he takes the mayor’s hat and puts it on his head.

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I think those influenced me for a long time. Then when I was growing up I had a love-hate relationship with police officers as a kid. Whether it be colour or just feeling powerless. That’s why Training Day was so appealing to me, because I had known some black officers who were worse, because they were part of the neighbourhood, so they would manipulate that situation. I think that has a lot to do with it.

In America, to answer your question, there’s… we have a system that works. We do. It does work. Because if it didn’t, there’d be total chaos. And we have very good people doing their jobs.

And then, whenever it goes badly, based on who we are, I believe, and there are protests, it erupts. Certainly where I come from, there’s a certain suppression of people. At times, you know? People get frustrated. America is a place of the western: big skies, the American Dream. You can get it – you just have to search yourself and do these things.

But then it turns out not to be true for certain people. Because the idea of America that is always placed on us is not true. Not really.

I mean, some people are highly educated, go to private school, but other kids can’t. Now, it’s okay to go to a private school, but let’s make sure the teachers are paid well so they can educate the kids properly and be motivated by that.

The playing field is not level. So the frustration kicks in. Whereas in a lot of European countries, they put a lot more into the education system. A lot of people can get an even education, so to speak. Obviously, if you’ve got money, you can get more. But I find that in a lot of European states, most of the young folks speak different languages early in their lives, and are exposed to other things.

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Whereas in the United States, we have these pockets. It’s the haves and have-nots. But yet it’s the American Dream.

In a western, you can stake in the land and claim it. But that’s not true, right? I think that might be why certain filmmakers make movies to show the little man fighting against the machine. Dog Day Afternoon – people get so frustrated, they just go into a bank. Even if they’re a little whacky, they’re right about what they’re saying. They’re wrong by doing it that way, but they’re making a statement, do you know what I mean?

Training Day – I grew up with that. I’ve seen that. I know that guy. That guy choked me out before. I was just a kid who was playing basketball and walking home with my friends. You just go, “Well, what is that?” It’s all about the abuse of power.

Like you just saw in Ferguson in the United States. It’s constantly there. Here, you have cops on horses, I don’t think they have guns. It seems to be that there’s a certain amount of honour and pride in the oath you take. Even guys that are waiters, in Europe. It’s for life – it’s a craft. It’s hard to find that in the States. In New York you can, because it’s a lot older world there. So I’m saying there’s a different perspective of justice. 

I hadn’t thought about the American Dream in Training Day. It shows how the American Dream can be somehow toxic.

That’s right. Power.

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Grasping for money over everything else – over morality, your job, what you should be doing as a cop.

“Hey, look. Roger’s a bad guy. Fuck him. Put a couple of bullets in him. He was selling drugs to kids. That’s right – fuck him. He’s a bad guy.”

But not like that. Put him through the system. We do have a system. But why put him through the system, because then all that money we found will have to go through the system. Let’s do it ourselves, and take the money. It’s a murder scene of a drug dealer, and everybody’s happy. That’s the American Dream. Right? That’s the opportunity we take.

That’s not right. It’s wrong in every way. That’s why me and Denzel – Denzel especially, he said, “This guy has to die violently. The wages of sin is death.” And I said, “Absolutely, man. We’ll take him out.” We took him out in the worst way. Because that’s the point!

[Publicists arrive at the door]

I’m going to try to sneak in one more question.

Sure, man. I got your back.

What have you got next? Because I’ve heard that you might be making another Equalizer if this one’s popular. But also you’re doing The Magnificent Seven.

We’re certainly doing The Magnificent Seven, me and Denzel. We’re both locked into that. I’m excited about that.

Is that going to be a western or are you going to modernise it?

Oh, it’s going to be a western. Oh yeah, man. I’m shooting on film, anamorphic. IMAX. We’re going for it. I’m gonna do what I did on Training Day to a western. Because Training Day’s about cops, and I’m going to do that  with cowboys, my way. So I’m excited about that.

And yeah, if all goes well – because the audience decides – but if the audience wants to see more Robert McCall, that means we’ll go. I would love to make another [Equalizer], absolutely. I think there’s a lot of stories to tell, and I don’t think it has to stay in the United States. I think he can travel anywhere. He’s a mystery. He may be in London, working down the sandwich shop. Why not? He could be here helping someone.

There’s a bigger world to Robert McCall, in my opinion. Sony may say, “No, we’re going to keep him right here in Boston,” so then I’ll be shooting in Boston. But, my dream would be for him to evolve, and become more international.

Antoine Fuqua, thank you very much for your time.

The Equalizer is out in UK cinemas on the 26th September.