"Denzel Washington IS The Equalizer. "
This is the evocative promise from Columbia Pictures, which is spinning the crime-drama series from the 1980s into a Denzel Washington-fronted crime thriller that will hit theaters hard this September.
The Equalizer follows Robert McCall, a former black ops commando who has tried to leave behind his life of violence and the blood on his hands by retiring to Boston. There, this night owl forms an unexpected bond with a homeless teen (Chloë Grace Moretz) who has been forced into sex work. To save her, he'll have to come out retirement and take on a crew of merciless gangsters.
Last fall, Columbia Pictures invited Cinema Blend up to Boston, where production on The Equalizer was in full swing in a shuttered Home Depot that had been transformed into a knock-off "Home Mart," where McCall works by day. Between takes on a scene that had its hero kicking ass and demanding to know where hostages are held, we sat down with Denzel Washington, director Antoine Fuqua, and producer Todd Black to learn what makes The Equalizer tick.
Expect A Hard R For Mouth-Shattering ViolenceWith thrillers like Training Day, Brooklyn's Finest, and Olympus Has Fallen to his credit, it should come as little surprise that Antoine Fuqua's latest aims for a hard-R rating. As you can see from the trailer above, The Equalizer's hero (Denzel Washington), is a skilled and efficient fighter. I walked among the luxurious office where we see Washington get equal on a band of Russian thugs. Shattered glass littered the floor, and stage blood paltered the desk and the painting behind the cushy desk chair. Afterwards, Fuqua spoke with us about the movie's intense violence.
"I’m a product of older filmmakers of the past, where you get to make movies and scenes are what they are," Fuqua explained. "If you think about Scorsese back in the day when he was making Taxi Driver or (Francis Ford) Coppola, (John) Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet, they got to make films where you witness violence in a real way. And sometimes violence in a very real way is much faster and more impactful because it feels real. You’re watching it happen, and you’re watching your star do these things. So it’s not like he’s doing superhero moves."
He went on, "The violence that you witness is Denzel doing it…When you see something happen, it’s happening in front of you, as opposed to cutting away or doing a bunch of tricks. It’s in front of you, so it’s hard not to make it a hard R, if you see a guy get punched and teeth wind up in somebody’s knuckles or something. You know what I mean? I don’t think we could get away with a PG on that one. There are some other things I could tell you. You’ll never look at corkscrews again. I’ll tell you that."
Don't Expect The Equalizer You KnowIn case your unfamiliar with The Equalizer TV series, the above intro can give you a clue to its tone. The show centered on a retired intelligence officer who has become a sort-of vigilante for the people. In this version, Robert McCall (played by Edward Woodward) advertised his services in a New York City newspaper with this motto: "Odds against you? Need help? Call the Equalizer." The background of Denzel Washington's Robert McCall is far more mysterious. He has special skills to kill, but how he got them is only alluded to in the film. Plus, he doesn't seek out victims to help, but McCall can't ignore the plight of Chloe Moretz's put-upon teen prostitute.
Producer Todd Black was up front about how much of the original series the creative team took in this adaptation's creation: practically nothing. "So the show," he began, "Here's what happened. We found out that the rights were available…Once we found that out, we jumped on them, because my partner and I love the title of what that is."
He realizes that audiences under 50 might not remember the show, "But the title, in my mind, was a great title, was a great, great title. Particularly when you say 'Denzel Washington is the Equalizer.' That kind of matches to me, it's peanut butter and jelly. So we went after the title and the concept of it was great. We weren't really hung up on what the show was and all the machinations of what Robert McCall did or didn't do, and what his backstory was. We knew that that didn't really matter because it was a whole new audience, so we took the concept and we took the title and we made it our own."
He added, "(When the original show ran) that was a long time ago and it wasn't the most popular show on television, and we didn't feel like we had this hardcore responsibility to satisfy those 100,000 fans. We wanted to make something really great and different, and the concept we honor." Beyond that, Black feels people will connect to the idea of feeling voiceless and wanting an Equalizer to step in and save the day for them.
Fuqua, who said he has some familiarity of the show, put it this way, "The basic concept is there. It’s just a different movie. Totally different actors, different filmmakers, different script. Same concept."
The Equalizer: An Action Hero With OCDOne of the major changes from the original Equalizer is that the movie's version has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Washington was quick to clarify that McCall's OCD is "just a layer" to who he is, and not a problem the film's story demand he overcome.
"We added it, you know. So he’s not just action guy. He’s troubled, flawed," Denzel Washington told us. "It’s not like suddenly at the end he’s fine, but you know, it’s been an interesting development as we’ve gone along. We started talking about it and adding things, opening doors five times. Obviously I did a lot of research about it."
He wasn't the only one. Director Antoine Fuqua also delved into OCD research, and told us he himself might be considered OCD. "I’ve been told I have OCD. I didn’t think so, but lately they’ve told me I have OCD," Fuqua confessed. "OCD we’ve discovered, is a lot of different things. It’s not just washing your hands. It’s whatever you’re obsessed with. It could be the way you hold a pen, it has to always be a certain way, or the way you have to eat your food, it depends. So something that as a character I thought it was really interesting, because sometimes it’s used in the film where it is OCD, and sometimes it’s strategic. So, if you see somebody laying out knives and forks consistently, but one day those knives and forks become weapons, you’re not sure if he does that as a warrior, that’s just his thing, he gets ready for war all of the time, or is it really OCD…This guy, it’s hard to figure out. He has some strange habits, but you know, we learn to love him and discover more about him and where it comes from."
The Script Was Tailored To Appeal To Denzel, But He Doesn't Know HowBefore the screenplay was penned, producers were considering Russell Crowe for the role of Robert McCall. But Black tells us Washington was just a better fit for the concept. The producer pitched the concept to Washington over lunch, promising him a script tailored for him. Black told us Washington said, "Make the script great, and I'll commit." After a few months of drafting, Richard Wenk's script was sent to Washington, and it quickly won him over. Washington accepted the role within three days by calling Black and answering, "I'm Robert McCall, how are you?"
With Washington on board, Black offered The Equalizer to Sony's Amy Pascal the next day. And it was greenlit within 24 hours.
Nonetheless, when asked about how the script was tailored to suit him, Washington seemed genuinely surprised by the notion. "I don’t know what that means. I’m sad to hear that, and what does that mean? I’m playing a man who kills. What does that mean?" We'll have to wait and see I suppose.
Boston Beat Out New York CityWhile the television series' backdrop was a gritty, untamed New York City, The Equalizer movie is proudly and clearly set and shot on location in Boston, Massachusetts. The script was originally intended for New York, but the city's tax breaks couldn't compete with those in Boston. So the story was tweaked to accommodate this other historical American city.
Again, Black was frank: "There have been a lot of other studios that are coming here because Boston offers -- there are three states right now that offer above the line and below the line tax rebates, which means your actors, your director, your producers, your writer, those are all called above the line."
A $50 million movie has limitations. "Unfortunately, we couldn't have made the movie in any other place but these three -- New Orleans, Atlanta and Boston -- because anywhere else, you don't get your above the line rebates," Black detailed." So we saved so many millions of dollars by shooting here. We would have loved to have shot in New York; it was written in New York. We rewrote for Boston -- it had no impact on the story at all so we were very lucky. It's been great. It's been great shooting here, and it's great to be able to call the place that you're shooting the place and not disguise it. "
The Equalizer Is Primed For A Sequel…Or NotWith Olympus Has Fallen being spun into a sequel, it seems any successful thriller could snag one. Fuqua would be happy for The Equalizer 2 to happen, but he's not getting ahead of himself, "I would love for it to become a franchise. I would love for it to be a hit and all that great stuff, but who knows. Just make the best movie you can make. Eat the elephant one piece at a time, so to speak, and we’ll see what happens. I would love for it to be, but..." (He trailed off.)
"We're all committed to do a second movie til there isn't a second movie," Todd Black offered. He was very up front that the movie's story leaves room for a follow-up film, and that was part of The Equalizer's appeal for Denzel Washington, who Black told us was looking for a franchise of his own.
Just before the set visit, Washington was near the top of a list of the highest-grossing stars who've never made a sequel, and honor he seemed proud of when we mentioned it to him. "They’ve got more categories. Stars who have NOT done franchises. Is that a compliment?" I told him it was intended that way. "Good, good for me."
But when we asked directly if he was looking for The Equalizer to become a franchise, he rebuffed the idea, saying, "No, no. Everybody else is, but not me. I’m like, 'Let’s make one.' You don’t have a sequel without a good film, so I’m not. There’s no point in thinking about sequels. I’m just trying to be part of making the best film I can…Obviously I guess when you have a name Spider-Man or something, some name brand thing, there’s that potential, but you know, no. You don’t look at Training Day and go, 'Oh, let’s do Training Day 2.' You know what I mean? I don’t look at it that way. I’m not, I never have."
Denzel Wants To Work With De Niro, Pacino And StreepOur final question with the star with the signature laugh and mega-watt smile was who he'd like to work with that he hasn't yet. As he had all afternoon, he answered with a grin and a bit of humor:
"Well, any actors last name ends with O. De Niro, Pacino... You know, there’s so many. I was watching Mean Streets the other night. You ever see that? It’s amazing, Harvey Keitel and all those guys. Yeah, there’s a lot of, but, you know, it’s harder I guess than you think to hook up with some of the people you want to work with, because (of busy schedule on both side). You know, the schedules have to work together and it has to be the right material. So yeah, there’s a lot of great directors I haven’t worked with [yet]. And great actors, [like] Meryl Streep."
Hollywood, please make a De Niro/Pacino/Washington/Streep movie happen. Thanks.
The Equalizer opens September 26th, 2014.