It’s day 48 of 60 in the production of Antoine Fuqua’s adaptation of the cult 1980’s TV series The Equalizer, and all things being equal, it seems to be going pretty well. The footage shot so far is exciting and darkly dramatic, and star Denzel Washington seems to be on the verge of creating another iconic character that blends both his dramatic and tough guy chops.
In the original show which ran from 1985 to 1989, English actor Edward Woodward (“The Wicker Man”) dealt out justice free of charge for those who answered his personal ad seeking help. His ex-CIA character Robert McCall took out the trash in the form of rapists, murderers, drug dealers and various other scum-of-the-earth types. The setting for this big screen retelling has been transplanted from the grimy streets of New York to the blue-collar alleyways of Boston, most likely to keep it from crossing too far into “Taxi Driver” ripoff territory.
Gone are the cool car, fancy clothes and English accent, but one of the few things that hasn’t changed is the name of the main character, Robert McCall (Washington), his mysterious past as a covert military type and a passion for getting his vigilante on, in this case to help an underage prostitute named Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz) get out from under the thumb of the Russian mob. Fans of the show may also be wary of the fact that the film’s sole screenwriter Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2) had never seen a single episode of “The Equalizer,” something he felt was an asset when we talked to him.
“The only elements we’ve retained are the title and the element of a man helping people,” Wenk explained. “In this case, in this movie, really helping the voiceless. I started writing this and decided he was a changer of circumstances for people whose circumstances probably would never change. That was the basic concept of the TV show, he put an ad in the paper and helped people who had no other recourse. In this movie there is no ad until the very end. He’s finding that his random acts of justice, so to speak, are who he is and that’s a place where he’ll find a home for himself.”
The literal “home” for today’s shooting is Robert’s place of work, HomeMart –a thinly veiled version of a Loews– shot at an actual abandoned Loews in an area of Massachusetts bordering New Hampshire. You wouldn’t know that this location was literally an empty shell when the “Equalizer” production found it, since the inside has been transformed into a bonafide home improvement megastore with everything from lawnmowers on the shelves, the shelves themselves and a full plant nursery. Way to go, art department!
Currently lensing is a big third act climax in which the main villain (played by Marton Csokas) and his Russian mob cohorts have realized McCall works at HomeMart and take the employees hostage after it closes to lure him out. Big mistake. We see Denzel on a high shelf rigging barbed wire to bags of cement to hurl at the gangsters. Think “Die Hard” in a Home Depot, and likely very bloody.
“He’s just a guy that works at HomeMart trying to fit in,” says Washington of McCall. “As he says in the script he’s done some awful things in his past. He’s tried to put that behind him but circumstances won’t allow that. Circumstances with this innocent child dictate that he step up and do something about it.”
“This guy is much more of a common man, at least on the outside,” director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) remarked. “He works at Home Depot I mean HomeMart. Flannel shirt, bad jeans, he’s a very humble guy, all about helping others, he’s not really about himself. He’s more of an internal character. He loves to read, obviously there’s a reason for that, in search of his own true self.”
Although they almost teamed up for American Gangster before that project was taken over by Ridley Scott, this will be Fuqua and Washington’s first re-teaming since the latter won an Oscar for Training Day. They have remained friends in the decade since, and their on-set chemistry is assured.
“The way we work is cool,” says Washington about Fuqua. “The fact that we worked together and had success together makes it easier. He’s a good guy to work with, he knows what he’s doing. I don’t have to even think about that. He’s a very talented filmmaker. I let him do his thing and he lets me do mine.”
“It’s the same, it’s exactly the same because we have a rhythm and an understanding and we work well together,” Fuqua concurs. “There are times when we don’t have to say anything, we both kinda know where we’re going. We’re friends so it’s not like we didn’t talk and stay in touch.”
One person who doesn’t talk is Washington when he’s between takes. While the crew resets, he sits perched on the shelf in quiet, bald Buddha-like contemplation, totally centered, relaxed, reserving his energy. As soon as cameras roll, he springs into action, wrapping cement bags with razorwire with deadly efficiency. It’s a powerful transition, one we made sure to ask him about.
“I was asleep actually,” Washington laughs about his manner between takes, which dates back to something he saw while still a struggling New York actor in the ’80s. “When I was younger I was walking down Broadway and I got in behind this lady who was obviously mentally disturbed and she would walk up behind someone and as she got close she would go (*growls*) and push them. When they turned around she would just (*back to normal*) and kept walking. (laughs) So I got in behind her and just started watching her. She would act like nothing happened, then would pick another person out and (*growls, pushes*) and that person would freak out! It was the craziest thing! So that’s sorta what it is, you sorta cruise and then you HIT IT!”
And “hit it” he does, as evidenced by an extended rough cut scene we’re shown in a trailer outside the set. The scene begins with ominous music as tattooed thugs in a gold-lined Russian office/bar put money away in a safe and drink vodka. Their security computer malfunctions, and in walks Washington’s McCall, dressed in humble jeans and shirt. He slowly approaches the bad guy behind the desk with an envelope containing nine thousand dollars in exchange for Teri’s release from prostitution. They reject his offer, to put it mildly, which leads Robert to position crystal skulls on the man’s desk in a threatening manner.
McCall heads to the door, then a curious thing happens: he opens and shuts the door seven or eight times in Obsessive Compulsive fashion, then locks it. The screen cuts to black and we’re not allowed to see what happens, though a brief tour of the aftermath on the office set and the copious trails of blood splatter make it obvious that gore fans are in for a treat.
“It’s pretty nasty, will put your mind to ‘Taxi Driver’ it’s so violent,” Fuqua promises of his hard R-rated action. “You’ll never look at a corkscrew the same, I promise you that. (laughs) He improvises more, he doesn’t carry guns, that’s part of his past. He has them, you’ll see that, but he would prefer not to do that. You’ll see more hand-to-hand combat but also more improvised violence.”
As for the OCD aspect of the character, that was a little something Washington brought to McCall to give him a little more depth and modern relevance.
“I think it was my idea,” says Washington. “It adds layers, so he’s not just Action Joe running around kicking butt. He’s an ordinary guy with his own issues. He’s trying to overcome those he’s just tidy. (laughs) I read a book called ‘I Never Wash My Hands,’ and it talks about how obsession is a big word, you can be obsessed with a lot of things, it’s just that with OCD it’s certain things, like people count or wash their hands, things like that. You can be obsessed with microphones or phones or chairs. I dunno what makes it happen, it’s just obsessive behavior. I think its fear. You fear something so you try to handle it.”
“The Equalizer” is about more than instilling fear in the hearts of men, it also deals with the tender relationship between McCall and the teen prostitute portrayed by Moretz, who had already finished work on the film. The in-demand child star of Hugo, Carrie and of course the delightful Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass is channeling her inner Jodie Foster for the part of Teri, who reveals her real name as Elena as well as her desire to one day be a singer during another scene we screened in which the two of them sit down over coffee and cake at a diner:
TERI: You know what I really am I mean, I wanna be a singer. I think I can be a singer but that doesn’t really make me one.
ROBERT: I think you can be anything you wanna be.
TERI: Maybe in your world, Robert. Doesn’t really happen that way in mine.
ROBERT: Change your world.
TERI: I’m sorry there’s no ring, on your wedding finger, there’s no ring.
TERI: No Mrs. Robert at home?
TERI: Was there ever?
TERI: Did you break her heart?
ROBERT: She broke mine.
TERI: You know I see a lot of widowed guys. Something in your eyes it’s not sad, it’s just lost, y’know? But it’s sweet.
The scene is indeed sweet and tender as the friendship between these two lost souls is fostered over a simple conversation at a late-night eatery. Both scenes show a commitment to character as well as action that is composed and deliberate, a far cry from Fuqua’s previous film Olympus Has Fallen, which relied on shaky-cam aesthetics.
“Different script, and obviously different actors allow you to do different things,” admits Fuqua of the style change. “Me and Denzel are friends and are very honest with each other. For me he brings out in me what you saw in ‘Training Day,’ which is composed compositions, a little more cinematic approach to it because you can do that with actors of that weight. You can take your time. It’s a different way of filming.
“You know he’s gonna bring you so much,” he added about Washington. “You don’t need a lot of tricks around someone like that. You need to really capture the performance and tell the story. In ‘Olympus’ it’s a lot of run-and-gun, a lot of stuff going on, you gotta do a lot of tricks, move the camera more. It’s a little thinner, obviously. This one has a little more weight based on the character we’ve been developing.”
Ultimately Fuqua promises to deliver a leaner, meaner and more full-bodied experience for fans of The Equalizer when it hits screens on September 26.
“As a kid I remembered the Jaguar and the nice clothes, but at the heart of it was always about him helping other people. If you were a true fan of the show you were a fan because of his actions not because of the car. In this obviously you don’t see the car, but you see him do some pretty amazing things that the other ‘Equalizer’ wouldn’t do because of the skills.”