Director Antoine Fuqua and star Denzel Washington first teamed up on Training Day (2001), a movie that earned Washington an Oscar for Best Actor and Fuqua a steady supply of work on films like King Arthur, Shooter, Brooklyn’s Finest and last year’s White House terrorist thriller and surprise hit Olympus Has Fallen. Now Fuqua and Washington have reunited for The Equalizer, a gritty, violent thriller based loosely on the 1980s TV series.
Washington plays McCall, a reserved yet strangely intense loner who keeps a low profile, works at a Home Depot-style store, reads classic literature and tries to forget his bloody past as a government agent. When a local prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) that he’s befriended is put in the hospital by her pimp, McCall must put his special skills to use as he finds himself drawn into deadly battle with a Russian crime lord and his army of assassins.
The movie puts Washington in full bad-ass mode, a zone that he and Fuqua seem to be quite comfortable working in and that few leading actors can pull off these days. We got on the phone with the director earlier this week to talk about working with Washington again, crafting the film’s hard-R violence and action, and whether The Equalizer is the start of a new franchise.
Den of Geek: What was your take on this when you read the script? What were the possibilities that you saw in it?
Antoine Fuqua: Well the first thing I saw was a great opportunity for an interesting character with Denzel. I liked the idea that this guy’s not a superhero, I mean he’s a very real person. I think that was fun to explore. The other thing is the idea that there’s a possibility to do it again, certainly the feeling that this could be an interesting franchise if the audience responds to this. It would be an interesting franchise with a guy that could grow and evolve into a character that could be anywhere in the world, you know, and change like a chameleon. So I just saw a lot of possibilities in it.
Did you ever see the original TV show and did you want to pay some sort of tribute to it?
I’ve seen the show — but it was more my grandmother’s and my mother’s show. I watched Miami Vice more, I think that was on around the same time, because it was just sexier to me with the cars and all that stuff. But every once in a while I would sit there and watch it with my grandmother. And the thing about the show was that it was always about a guy doing the right thing and helping others. And he had a mystery about what his background was. He was kind of a cool guy that came from some other place. I thought that was cool. So when I read the script that Richard Wenk wrote I thought yeah, that’s still there. The heart of it’s still there. The origins of it is what I liked, you know. In the show he’s already helping people whereas in this one the guy is discovering what his calling is.
Working with Denzel again, how in your mind have the two of you changed as actor and director in the 13 years since you first got together?
Speaking only for me, I mean, hopefully I’ve grown and evolved to become a better director and I’m much calmer about certain things now, and I’ve got a better sense of the business than I did before. Denzel’s always just been consistent, great actor, powerful actor. He’s much calmer as well it seems like. He’s pretty calm in this situation. Training Day was intense because I was shooting in some gang infested neighborhoods and he was a whole different character. Alonzo was a wild character. So it was a different experience although we got along really well and had a lot of fun, a lot of laughs. We were just much more intense. This guy (McCall) is a more quietly intense guy. A much calmer guy. So as actor and director we had the exact same rhythm we had on Training Day but a much calmer environment.
It’s getting harder to find really powerful leading men in the movies these days. Denzel’s really one of the last guys standing when it comes to somebody who can just command a film from start to finish.
Yeah. It’s true. It’s true man. It’s tricky, you know. For me, in terms of the movies I grew up watching, you know. Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood — back in the day you’d see guys that had a lot of weight to them. They had a certain gravity to them. They had a certain toughness. You think about Humphrey Bogart and those guys. They were men. There’s something about them. They didn’t have to be big. They didn’t have to have a bunch of muscles. But they were men. There’s something about them that had a gravity. We’ve kind of gone in the other direction where we get some interesting guys but some of them are so young.
Did Denzel have input into the script or did he have suggestions that he wanted to work in as you guys went along?
Oh absolutely, yeah. The idea that the guy had OCD came from Denzel, you know. It’s always character first with Denzel. That’s the first thing we talked about. We talked about the script only from a character perspective. And that’s how I shoot it, you know. So he brings a lot of that to the table, which is a director’s dream. He’ll bring ideas and I’ll bring ideas — we trust each other and there’s a freedom to that trust. Both director and actor know that I’m gonna embrace his ideas and he’s gonna embrace mine when they work.
Giving the character OCD gives him a little bit of vulnerability that you may not see in a movie of this type all too often.
That’s right. It’s a great thing to do because it grounds him so it’s much more real, you know. He has his own issues. Everybody goes through different things so I think it’s nice to see a guy that’s not perfect, a guy that has some issues, a guy that’s dealing with his own self-doubts or torments.
This is a hard R-rated movie from the start. How free were you to go with the violence in the film and how did you want to present it?
Well my own personal line was as long as it stays true to the events at hand, as long as it was informative to the character, and it felt grounded in a very real way, then it can all be done. That was the first thing, without it becoming just silly. The other thing was I had complete freedom with the producers and Denzel. They relied on me to come up with these ideas about how to handle his skills. It was always like, “Go make your movie Antoine.” That’s what they said to me — go make the movie and then make sure it just stays true to the character.
Everything I shot was based on the narrative. It wasn’t just to shock people. It was, “What would you do in this situation? How would a guy like this handle himself in the room with no gun? What would he use?” And all that came from discussions with guys who know how to do that for real. Richard Wenk came over my house and I brought my buddy over and he brought a big black bag with him and laid everything out on the table and said, “Okay, the bar scene — these are all the things that could become a weapon if you’re the type of person that thinks about this stuff.” And I thought, “Man, you actually walk in a bar and this is what you’re thinking. I’m not gonna have drinks with you anymore.” I’m sitting and thinking, “There’s a nice bottle of wine.” This guy’s thinking about what you can do with a corkscrew (laughs).
You put some of that in the film where he walks into the room and he’s mapping it all out in his head before anything happens.
Oh yeah, it was all based on those talks. None of that was in the script. I would take a list of stuff and I would have literally have Denzel and the producers come into my office and they’d start laughing and they’re like, “You’re a sick man Antoine.” But it made logical sense. Based on that character, that’s why it made sense.
In the film you touch on the fact that he’s got this mysterious past. He mentions being married once. I know in the TV show he had a son. Are these all things that you could possibly explore in future installments?
Absolutely, yeah. There’s a lot of mystery there. That was done intentionally to make room, you know. First so that the audience still gets some mystery. You’re not spelling everything out. And the other thing is to have the possibility of little by little giving them more and more and more so it’s evolving, you know. It’s all about discovery and I think all that’s important.
Denzel has never done a franchise before, but do you think this may be something that he’d like to pursue too?
You’d have to ask him really. I mean we talked about it in the sense of the audience response to the movie, if it does well and it’s a great script and Sony wants to do it. There’s conversations for sure about that.
What’s your philosophy on filming action these days? There are a lot of movies where it’s hard to see just what’s going on and you seem to work hard to make sure we do.
Action scenes are like narratives. You need to be able to know who you’re talking to. When people shoot action scenes sometimes it’s a separate entity from the movie…it doesn’t tell you anything. We’ve seen that a thousand times as opposed to saying, let’s shoot it like a narrative. Let’s shoot it in a classic sense but keep all the edge and the ugliness in what’s happening on the inside of the frame as opposed to the frame itself. The frame itself flying all over the place doesn’t make it edgy. It’s what people are doing in the scene that makes it edgy. You think about films like The Godfather when Sonny got shot, the camera wasn’t bouncing all over the place. When you watch Apocalypse Now you see everything.
I’m probably just as guilty as anyone else because I came out of music videos and commercials and stuff. You can try to move stuff and see if it works. But then it becomes sort of the norm and that’s ridiculous because I think the norm for movies should always be, let people see what they paid for. Let people see the movie and see the actors doing it. It’s not about you as a director. It’s about the actor and about the scene. Somehow it’s become more about, “Well I’m the director and I’m gonna do something cool so it becomes all about me.” And it should not. It’s not about the director. It’s about the scene. In fact the director shouldn’t even be noticed until his name comes up. It should be about the movie.
Are you involved with the Olympus Has Fallen sequel at all?
No, I’m not doing Olympus 2 at all. I didn’t like the script.
Talk a little about your next film, Southpaw.
Southpaw I’m editing now. It’s with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rachel McAdams. It’s great. It’s a great drama and a boxing story that’ll blow you away. It’s so real. And Jake Gyllenhaal is transformed. You’ll see him and it will remind you of De Niro. He’s really intense, man. It’s a whole other physical transformation from what you’ve known him to be.
The Equalizer is out this Friday (September 26).