Tonight in Toronto, Denzel Washington and his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua will launch a new franchise, The Equalizer, a drama loosely based on the TV series. Thankfully for fans of Washington’s action work, the film is a closer spiritual cousin to Man On Fire, with Washington playing a righteous character who is merciless on the bad guys. Here, Fuqua, who is also mounting a Magnificent Seven remake with Washington for MGM, discusses the star’s everyman appeal and what makes him capable of so many indelible performances.
DEADLINE: Watching The Equalizer made me feel like I’d gotten the Man On Fire sequel I never thought possible when John Creasy died after killing every kidnapper in Mexico. The spirit of the movie courses through The Equalizer. What is it about Denzel Washington killing bad guys that makes it feel like Christmas morning?
FUQUA: [Laughs]. I just think it’s as simple as he’s a guy you like and you relate to and there is a truth to him. He’s not pretentious or fancy. He’s just a regular guy, who happens to take care of bad guys in a very interesting way.
DEADLINE: The Equalizer was that aging actor with the white hair (Edward Woodard). Now, it’s Denzel who gets as badass as you made him in Training Day. How did this come together?
FUQUA: I saw the character as a guy who’s doing the right thing. Denzel called me to do the movie. He is so powerful an actor, to see him handling bad guys himself and handing out justice the way he does, it grounded the whole thing for me and it got me excited. When you shoot action scenes in movies, you ordinarily have to worry about the acting and how it mixes in the scene. The thing about Denzel is, I know I don’t have to worry about the acting at all, that within that action there is still that character and you’ll never lose that character in the action because he won’t allow it.
DEADLINE: You do one movie together 13 years ago, Training Day, and he won the Best Actor Oscar. How hard did you try to make another film together?
FUQUA: We tried pretty hard. We wanted it to be the right movie, the right environment, the right circumstance. We got offered a lot, but as a director, these films take two years of your life and you want it to be just right. After American Gangster didn’t happen, it was a difficult time for me and I needed to take a big pause. He went on and did other things and I had to rebuild. My agent Scott Greenberg said, ‘When Denzel feels it’s right, he’ll call you.’ And he did. I read the script, and liked it knowing he was doing it. But I’d just finished Olympus Has Fallen and I wasn’t available right away.
DEADLINE: Good movie and good you’re launching a new franchise for Sony Pictures, because that film pretty much destroyed that studio’s 2013 summer by making White House Down a moot point.
FUQUA: Hey, I was just doing my job, man.
DEADLINE: You and Denzel got very close to making American Gangster, and Universal unplugged it over budget. How hard was that setback to absorb for an accomplished director like yourself, when you’ve planned the next two years of your life and it’s snatched away? How good are you at taking a punch?
FUQUA: I bob and weave pretty well, but that was painful. You win an Academy Award with someone, and you’re back with them and you have a script from Steve Zaillian. That was a dream job, for myself and Denzel to come back together on something like that, especially after Training Day. I learned some lessons about business and how to navigate things like that. You have to learn to grow. I do believe everything happens for a reason and that made me a stronger director because it will never leave me.
DEADLINE: What was the biggest lesson?
FUQUA: It was how to better navigate something like that. I grew up in a different environment, where your give your word and keep it, and you fight for what you believe in. I learned that compromise is not always a bad word, if you can find a way to not lose the vision for the bigger picture. I also learned that you may lose the battle but you can still win the war. That’s the lesson.
DEADLINE: I might as well confess you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger Denzel fan than me.
FUQUA: I am right there with you.
DEADLINE: So I recall those moments like in Glory, where the tear came when his character was being whipped, and you just watch and go, wow, top of the food chain. He has these singular movie moments and you’ve now directed him twice. Can you recall any specific moments where you’re watching and maybe look back at the dailies and go, I can’t believe what this guy just did?
FUQUA: Man, so many. For me, working with Denzel is like going to a theater and sitting in the front row and just getting lost in it with him. I sit there, as close to him as another cast member, and there are days with Denzel where I would set up the shot, look through the lens, and then I didn’t want to look through the lens. So I would just sit there, literally, on an apple box under the camera, so mesmerized that I would almost forget to yell cut. There was a couple of days he would look at me and start laughing. ‘You going to cut yet?’ I was just like, ‘Oh, okay. Right. Cut!’ That’s how we work together too, we’ll just both go, doing what we do. It’s like music, you’re like a conductor and you’re playing jazz, just rolling with a guy who has a flow. You’re supposed to bring in the strings, but you just going with the guy on the trumpet.
DEADLINE: Can you remember any specific great spontaneous moments?
FUQUA: On Training Day, it was almost a daily occurrence. All that stuff, you know, I needed him howling like a wolf, and he’s just screaming and howling. The subtleties, down to the way he walked. He comes up to me one day and laughs and he says, ‘Oh yeah, we gangsters don’t walk, we swagger.’ And I’ll say, ‘Where did that come from?’ And he just starts walking down the alley that certain swaggering way. It was constantly that way and it happened just like that in Equalizer, this magical discovery. As a filmmaker, you have to be extremely prepared working with Denzel because he comes to the set ready, ready, ready. You better be that way too and know what you want, talk him through that and then you just go. At the same time you’ve got to be ready to capture moments, but that only happens when you have a direct sync where, an example, in Equalizer his character has OCD. We talked about it a lot, but then I would just watch him just start unfolding and folding his napkin at the table, doing certain things with the tea and water. He would just do it. We had a lot of other stuff where he would just go fix the curtains because the little pulley on the blinds was swinging too much, and he’d keep stopping it, keep stopping it, just beautiful things. There were several I couldn’t use where I would just stare at it, literally on the first day of shooting I think we shot in that apartment, in the kitchen alone, and stuff that he would do I wanted it so much in the movie. Like he’s sitting on the bed and he started banging his head with the book. Sometimes it’s not big things, it’s just little tiny subtle things…it’s just beautiful. Not preconceived. It just happens.
DEADLINE: I’ve heard that when he comes out of the trailer, it isn’t to socialize.
FUQUA: He walks out of that trailer and onto the set, and you better be ready to roll.
DEADLINE: You talk about learning lessons. Ever make the mistake of not being ready or misjudging the potential levity of the situation and get you know, the Manson lamps?
FUQUA: He’s not that way. We have a huge respect for each other and he’s very professional, but I can always tell. He’s so aware of so many things going on, on set, because he’s directed films as well, and he’s been doing this for a while. He can tell whether it’s the director slowing down, or the DP and he can tell when there are things out of your control. He’s never rude, but what he might do if you’re not ready, or if you blew a light and the DP has to relight the scene, he’ll go, ‘Call me when you’re ready.’ He’ll just walk away, and he’ll go sit in a chair, at a distance, where he can watch the set, be by himself. But you can tell that’s not a good thing to do consistently. You understand?
DEADLINE: Not really.
FUQUA: He subtly lets you know, ‘I’m here. I’m ready. I’m right here. What are you doing?’ And that’s enough, because you get this knot in your stomach and you just don’t want this to ever happen again. He accomplishes this without saying much of anything.
DEADLINE: Being conservative, and borrowing a line from the great Chris Walken, I’d say I’ve watched John Creasy paint his masterpiece in Man On Fire about 65 times.
FUQUA: Oh, yeah. Tony Scott did an amazing job.
DEADLINE: There are thematic similarities between Creasy and Equalizer, one being that if you’re a bad guy and he’s made up his mind you gotta go, you’re done. As you put this together, you are aware of those similarities to what Tony Scott and Denzel did and that his fans want more, but it’s a different character in a whole new movie. Did you think much about this?
FUQUA: Yeah. First off, I was a fan of Tony’s, and I thought he was a wonderful person, and I loved the relationship he and Denzel had as well. And I’m with you, I just love Man on Fire, it’s one that made me feel like, damn, I wish I could have made that movie as well. But there are differences, for me. Just like in Man On Fire, you know Denzel is going to bring that power, and do what he does. What I wanted to do differently, and it’s something I did on Training Day as well, was I don’t like the camera to get in the way too much. Tony did that so well, with the cameras and the editing and the music being a big part of the fabric, and I so respect his style so much that I said, ‘I’m going to go the opposite way.’ I wanted to let it play a little longer, a little more classic style and not make myself as present. Let the narrative, and the acting, and the drama play out more.
DEADLINE: Maybe because he’s clearly too cool to be running around in spandex, Denzel’s never done a sequel. You hadn’t really done one either either, and now you’ve got two with Olympus Has Fallen…
FUQUA: Well, I mean listen, I think it’s exciting on the business side, but Olympus 2 is something I’m not going to do.
FUQUA: Because I didn’t like the script. You never know, things could change. But I’m excited about the possibility of Equalizer 2, for sure. I think it’s fantastic. Unless Olympus 2 was to come back around, and they really want to do it the way I envisioned it, at least to some degree, then I would have two of these things for sure.
DEADLINE: It seemed like the sequel decision was made early. When you, the studio, Denzel, the producers and the writer Richard Wenk feel that way, did you save a lot of the character reveals? There’s a lot about Denzel’s character I don’t know after seeing the movie, what happened to his wife, and how he became this bad-guy-killing machine. He tells a story about how a young man became a killer and you wonder if he’s being autobiographical.
FUQUA: Yeah, we did, but I believe in mystery, anyway. It allows you to paint a picture that is much stronger. Like you said, you hear him tell stories and you go, ‘Is he talking a little bit about himself, or is he talking about this other guy? What’s his past? Why did he disappear? Who was his wife?’ I think that leaving mystery is wonderful because that’s the thing that makes you want to come back for more if you care for the guy, for the character. In this case, we talked about that a lot, and we just didn’t want to give too much away because what do you have left to come back for, but more of the same? It’s peeling an onion, you know, you just get a chance to reveal more. And the thing that’s interesting about this character is, he can go anywhere in the world. He may show up somewhere in Italy or Paris or Brazil. He can go work somewhere there, and he’s just a regular Joe. You know in his past life he was probably pretty international in what he did, and that he speaks several different languages and can live anywhere comfortably. He’s not slick on a James Bond level, but this make it fun, opening things up and providing an opportunity to be pretty big if it all works out the way we hope.
DEADLINE: You don’t see many adult stories like this framed for sequels. Sure he blows s*** up, but this is a mature guy who uses his wits to solve problems for underdogs. How appealing was it to try and construct a franchise from this, as opposed to the superheroes that usually get them?
FUQUA: It was very appealing. We made sure to take our time with the story, despite the question of whether an audience will have the patience to let a story unfold. Can it be a slow burn? Because, you know it’s coming, you know Denzel Washington is in the movie and you’ve seen the trailer. So how fascinating would it be to just watch this guy, unfolding and refolding a napkin, reading a book. Will they have the patience for it? It remains to be seen completely, but so far the response has been positive. I think people want to be given more than just blowing s*** up right away. They want to be allowed to get to know the world they’re in a little bit more. Training Day was the same thing for me, a slow burn. The guy’s in the car driving around the city talking, and doing these little things, pit stops here and there. It’s a slow burn, like lighting a stick of dynamite. We love staring at the fuse, it’s sparkly, and it’s Denzel, and you know it’s going to blow at some point. But it shouldn’t happen too soon.
DEADLINE: What I most appreciated about that film was, you didn’t know his character’s heart until Ethan Hawke has that scene with those guys holding his head in the bathtub. And you go, ‘Holy crap, Denzel’s character is as bad as I feared he might be.’
FUQUA: Yeah, that was some reveal. He was a bit evil. A sick individual I think, more than anything. A sickness he never dealt with.
DEADLINE: This seems a good time for you. You just finished the boxing drama Southpaw with Jake Gyllenhaal.
FUQUA: I’m so pumped, man. Jake is going to change how people see him. I had him training twice a day in the boxing ring, he did two-a-days seven days a week. I pretty much had him with me and my trainer every day. I took him to almost every fight. I had him train at Floyd Mayweather’s gym in Vegas and we watched Floyd’s fights, and the Manny Pacquiao fight. He trained in New York at Church Gym with real fighters. We literally turned him into a beast.
DEADLINE: You were a fighter. Could you kick his ass?
FUQUA: Oh, yeah. But Jake, my god, he’s a very electric, powerful fighter in this movie, and a guy who fights for his daughter. I’m confident that this will change how people see Jake, as a leading man. He sure has grown up. I love this guy. I met Jake years ago before he did End of Watch, and I saw something in him. I told him he needed to do more masculine films because I could see he had this power in him, and good size, and great expressive eyes. When I met him I said, ‘You’ve got to start doing that.’ And I watched him start. Working with him was a great experience because he’s so committed and gives his heart. You’re going to see in this movie, how far he has come. I asked this guy from day one, ‘I need you in the gym every day. I need you to train every day.’ And I said, ‘The word is sacrifice.’ Literally. I think he broke up with his girlfriend because he was just in the gym every day. He was training like a fighter. I had him sparring, really getting hit. I put him in situations where I wanted to see what he was made of. No one but fighters understand the sacrifice it takes to be a fighter.
DEADLINE: They say you learn a lot about yourself when you get knocked down and have to get back up. How did he handle that?
FUQUA: Oh, he got tagged a few times. By the trainer, Terry Claybon, who trained Denzel for The Hurricane. He got tagged in New York by a couple of fighters he sparred with, including Victor Ortiz, who fought Mayweather. Victor got him a few times, really laid it on Jake. I shot those fight sequences very real and there’s no stunt double.
DEADLINE: You hope that while he’s going down, he’s not shouting his lawyer’s phone number. How did he respond when he got knocked down?
FUQUA: He got up. He just kept going. I’d check on him when he got tagged hard. He’d say, “Yeah, let’s just keep going. Let’s keep it going.” And then later I would call him that night to see was he all right, and he’d be in an ice bath. I made sure all those huge fight scenes were done upfront. I tried to explain to everyone, even the producers, who thought I was crazy. I said, ‘I’ve been training this guy for six months every day to be a fighter, there’s no way for him to maintain that and hand him these dramatic scenes for 40 days. I needed the first two weeks to be all the big fight sequences right away, right at the beginning, while he’s in that mindset. Because he’s used to now being hit, punched, he knows how to move with his body aching. There’s no way he’ll sustain that from now all the way to the next 40 days, and perform.’
DEADLINE: Contrast getting a young guy to that level with working with Denzel. He was in amazing shape, playing Rubin Carter in The Hurricane and still looks good.
FUQUA: You got to know that Denzel’s a boxer. You know that right? We have the same trainer. When I’m in the gym, normally, I get in there earlier before I have to edit, and as I roll out of the ring, he rolls in. So he’s always in shape. You would never have to ask because he already knows. You tell him what you need, the fight sequences that are in my imagination, and he’s ready. He starts training with the stunt guys, himself. In Boston we had a room that we put the mats and everything down, and he did all of that.
DEADLINE: You shot Boston in a most interesting way. There’s one long shot in particular, with Denzel on the beach, I don’t know how you got that water to look so blue.
FUQUA: Oh man, I’m glad you noticed. That rhythm with Denzel I mentioned, you can’t do it with everybody, but when you’re in sync you can do anything. That scene wasn’t written. He’s there on the beach, thinking about his wife and twisting his wedding ring, and he actually dropped a tear or two. It was one of those moments where I’d just go, ‘wow.’ It was the end of the day, when you’re always nervous to ask stuff of an actor because you don’t know the reaction you’ll get. I said, ‘D, please man, can you run down to the sand?’ We ran all the way down, I look and see the sun going down, and that water is beautiful blue because the sun had just dropped behind it. I say, ‘I’ve got to get you standing out there like the invisible man. I’ve got to shoot this right now.’ And literally I grabbed a camera, my crew grabbed cameras, and we ran down there. He beat all of us, and he stood there, and said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ I said, ‘Just be here, contemplating and thinking about your life, thinking about the future, thinking about your wife, and where you’re about to go next.’ I said, ‘And he’s the invisible man, like the image on the book.’ And I just shot it. I just stole that moment. And he knew it, and saw it before it happened. He looked at me and he started laughing. That’s what I mean, like that rhythm, those things happen with me and him all the time that make working with him so special. He’ll look at me and say, ‘You want to get that, don’t you’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, D, please. If you can just run down there. I know it’s kind of crazy.’ He goes, ‘Let’s go. And he outruns all of us to get to the spot.’
DEADLINE: You often hear that actors who direct sometimes impose their will on the director…
FUQUA: Never. He’ll recognize opportunities and tease me. I was much younger when we did Training Day, and I remember coming to the set and thinking, ‘Denzel and Ethan Hawke, man, these are some real actors.’ We did a few scenes and I waited for him to come to the monitor and look. He never did. I went over and said, ‘You want to see?’ He said, ‘You got it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I feel good about it. Do you want to see it?’ And he goes, ‘No, you’re flying this plane, man.’ He said, ‘I signed off a long time ago.’ And he goes, ‘Call me when you need me’ and heads for his trailer. I want to try something, he’s always game. He’ll say, ‘Antoine, I want to try something,’ and I’ll go, ‘Okay.’ He does it and we’ll both go, ‘Yeah. We’re good.’ And then he’ll walk away, he’ll go, ‘Okay, call me when you need me.’ With him, the first take is normally the one I use. We spend a lot of time talking about it, we’re both locked into that rhythm and that character. We’ll go over the day’s scenes in the morning, and if something happens, like those tears falling, and we want to push that further…we don’t say, ‘We want you to cry.’ He’s so in the moment, always and that’s the beauty of it. You don’t say, ‘I need you to smile and laugh.’ It would sound ridiculous. You let him go and if he smiles and laughs, good and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t. You always get what the scene needs, because we talk it out ahead of time.
DEADLINE: I’d like to share my one good Denzel story and then let you go. We did the Playboy Interview years ago in Miami. We had a long dinner at this hotel, and sometime during the evening the bar you had to exit through had turned into this gay-themed affair. We both realized it at the same time, made eye contact and smiled. When we exited, I said, “You know, if a married guy like me has to be seen walking out of a gay bar, I could do far worse than walk out with Denzel Washington.” And he sized me up and goes, “Speak for yourself.”
FUQUA: [Laughs]. That’s how quick he is, with a line like that.
DEADLINE: There was also that truth you mentioned, Antoine. Because really, he was way out of my league.