'The Equalizer 2' Director Antoine Fuqua On Denzel Washington, 'Miami Vice,' And More [Interview]

If we're lucky, Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington will make Equalizer movies until the end of days. In a sea of +100 million dollar franchises, Fuqua and Washington are making a series unlike any other in major theaters right now. No franchise star today is as hard-hitting, violent, and as well-spoken as Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), whose eloquent threats and promises of vengeance are as crowd-pleasing as his fighting skills.

But don't call this Equalizer series a franchise or blockbuster to Fuqua, because he's more interested in telling a good standalone story than making a sequel that's really just a bit more of the same. Like Washington, Fuqua had opportunities to make prequels and sequels, for both Training Day and Olympus Has Fallen, but they never made sense to him. The world of Robert McCall, on the other hand, was rich enough for the filmmaker to continue to McCall's journey.

Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down with the always passionate Fuqua to discuss The Equalizer 2, working with Denzel Washington for the fourth time, Miami Vice, and even his fond memory of working with Prince.

For a sequel, the movie feels like a very natural and organic continuation.

Great. Yeah, good. That means the most to me, man. I keep hearing sequel, sequel, sequel, but you know, it's like you make a movie you just want to make, the best movie you can make of each piece of material you have. So, I'm not really trying to top one of the others, just trying to make sure that this movie is just as satisfying as the other one, or more.

Did the reaction to the first movie influence you at all, knowing what worked for audiences?

Yeah, I was listening closely. You know, it's funny because the action stuff you kind of get a sense that they'll enjoy it if it's justified. You gotta earn it, though. What I learned is that people are much more patient than sometimes we give them credit for in our business. They're obviously much smarter than sometime we give them credit for, you don't have to spell everything out to people. They like that. Also, people are more connected to small things, small emotions than we think. For an example, in the first one, the girl Jenny gets her ring back. Then he gets the hammer, and we cut away, you don't see what he does but when she opens the drawer at the end, the ring's in there. I remember the gasp, and people going like, "Oh, she got her ring. That was cool, right?" I thought, wow that worked. I didn't think people would connect it like that, but they do.

Then, on this one, I'm not going to give anything away, but there's moments in there where there was conversations, like, should we trim that down, cut that back, is he in the way of the movie? Now see, that's the human quality that people connect to. It's those small things that people respond to, he could just painting a wall that needs to be fixed, but people seem to care about justice is not just violence, it's just correcting a wrong.

The first half of the movie has a very patient pace focusing more on Robert than plot. When someone as watchable as Denzel Washington is your star, does his presence give you more confidence to let scenes breathe longer? 

Yeah, because he's got so much going on, you know what I mean? And as I said, people are smart. They can see if he's in pain about his wife, or he's missing her. As an actor, he's just in the moment. If he's in the feelings of missing his wife, I know as a director that I can put my camera on certain spots, and do certain things, and you'll feel it. Because people know the truth. It's just about finding the truth in every moment, so they know. Some people can't do that because they're not in the truth, and the audiences are smart. They're not buying that, man. You can feel it when you watch it with the audience when they're there or not.

When Robert smiles and mocks the villains in the suburbs, my audience got a huge laugh from that. Did you want to use more of Denzel Washington's comedic chops this time? 

No, it wasn't intentional, he just does it. Like I said, sometimes he's just in the moment. You're in the moment. You don't know whether the audience will find it funny or not, you just do what you do, and that's what he does. But I remember when he did it I had to hold my laugh back. I'm sitting there trying not to laugh, you know? That's like, you never know what the audience is going to do. But the funny thing I've learned is that if you do it, and you and I are in the room and we are doing something, and both crack up laughing about something, the audience is probably going to do the same thing, because they're more alike than different. Sometimes people talk themselves out of something like, "Oh, we can't do that." Why not? We just had fun doing it. So you have to sort of trust yourself.

I really liked the idea of Robert working as a Lyft driver because it just makes sense. He likes people and being around people, and you see that. Was it easy getting the OK from Lyft? 

Yeah. I mean, it was more the producers, Todd Black, and those guys, and Sony. It was a business thing. Also, they came to the set, and we met them. But no, they were cool, man. They were happy we were doing it, you know? I mean, there's some violence happening in their car, in the Lyft car. They were cool.

I think it's a great image for Lyft, this part-time driver, part-time vigilante. 

[Laughs] Right? A side hustle, right? No, it's hilarious, man. We had fun doing it.

That fight scene in the car is so concise, clear, and fast.

I was just trying to put you there as much as I could. I was just sort of, me and Oliver were working on that with our stunt guys. I was just saying, let's just get as close as we can to the real action. So we got some real stunt guys, this guy Clay is an amazing driver, and we just put the cars in a position, and we covered it. But it was one of those scenes where I just wanted you to really be in the car. You know, if you were a passenger you really want to feel like you're there in that car, experiencing that move, and him turning the car, and spinning, and all that stuff. What would that be like? So for me, just as a director, I was like, all right if I was in the back of that car, or a passenger in that car, what would that feel like? That's what we were trying to capture.

How did you and [DP] Oliver Wood want to visualize Robert's point-of-view in the sequel? How did you want to change things up?

Oliver, we talked a lot about just the difference between this one and the first one. The first one was a little slicker because we were introducing you to him, and it was a little more distant from McCall, he wasn't as personable. You know, he wasn't cracking jokes as much, he wasn't driving the car where he was around different type of people. He was just working at that place. I said this one's going to be a little grittier, a little dirtier, and a little more brutal. So the fighting could be a little nastier, as far as brutality.

The other one was clever stuff in that warehouse with the drill, and different stuff. Then the noose we made out of barbwire. And that was fun. It was like, how about we have some fun? [Laughs] It was sick. This one was personal. It was like okay, how did you get really personal? You've got to get up close and personal, and you got to do things that are pretty vicious. We shot it like that too. If you notice as we go closer towards the metaphor of him going home, the storm and all that stuff, it gets more gray. It gets darker, and just sort of the color starts to bleed out of the thunderstorm.

Something I've always appreciated about your body of work is that, even in your most commercial movies, the violence is brutal and visceral. Do you ever get pushback about that from studios? 

I haven't really, no. I mean, I've had questions, people ask me. I'm a director, I'm an entertainer, as far as you know what I mean, I'm not advocating anything. I just want people to have fun and enjoy them. I mean, I grew up watching those types of movies. I watched gangster movies, and westerns, and action movies and stuff. The kid in me still has fun watching the stuff, and you have to always remember to keep that alive in yourself and knowing the difference between real life and movies. But also, the filmmaker in me, my thing is I don't want to do action and brutality in a movie this, that doesn't feel as real as I can get to it. If it was just a Marvel, big superhero movie like that... Even that stuff is brutal sometimes. I understand that's more cartoonish, people get hit and fly through buildings, and getting up and walking.

This appeals more to me. I think if you can do this right, in the right story first, it has more impact because it feels more real for people. So it has more of an emotional connection. The audience, there's spectacle, and then there's emotional experience of violence. Two different things.

Completely. Before I walked into the movie, I was in the mood to watch Denzel Washington kick ass.

[Laughs] Right, right.

And there's fun in that, but it's still authentic and sometimes dramatic. 

Yeah, that's the idea. That's what I tell everybody. Get it as authentic as you can, but still so the audience is having a good time with it. You know what I mean? Because you can always go further with it, but it's like, I just want authenticity. It has feel like something that, yeah, Denzel Washington can do at his age, if he were trained to do that, that's what that guy could do. It's not like he's running and diving over one building to another building, and grabbing on the other side and all that. You know, there's a certain age you can do certain things, but doesn't mean you can't be just a brutal, or vicious. You just have to know how.

[Spoiler Alert]

I imagine it's hard finding actors who can convincingly go toe-to-toe with Denzel Washington in a fight, but Pedro Pascal has a big enough presence to do that. 


The scene where Pascal's character lays it all out on the table with his family home is a good face off. What do you recall from shooting those scenes with the both of them and crafting that turn?

Because you can only get away with that when you've got great actors like that because that scene was written, and rewritten, and rewritten. Then one day I was talking to the writer and I said, "You know this is a personal story, and you've got a family," the guy has a family. The character told us that on the bench. McCall's going to go to him there because one, it's the safe zone in a weird way because he's got kids and his wife there. So he's not going to do anything stupid to jeopardize that. On the other hand, for the audience, it's like a ticking bomb because what if something does go wrong and you've got the kids and the wife here?

As a director you're trying to play with the suspense of that idea of keeping them alive, and the sound mix when they went upstairs, you could hear them movie around so I kept that alive too. The whole idea there was just so the audience go to a place that's familiar. Not they're gonna meet in the parking lot, and the choir plays, and that kind of thing. I was like, no.

[Laughs] Not interested in a late night knife fight at the beach?

Yeah, no night time at the beach, or like all of a sudden now you're at a warehouse. I was like no, it's at his home. In the cul-de-sac, I wanted it in the cul-de-sac. I really wanted it to be like that's home, and we all can relate to that.

[Spoiler Over]

You have a lot of moving players and pieces in that final fight in Robert's hometown, plus the weather conditions.

Oh, man.

How difficult was it getting the geography of that action scene right and filming those days? 

All I can tell you is that there's some days when I'm shooting that it's so cold, over by the ocean, the wind and the storm, and you know we've got stuff flying everywhere, and goggles on, and we're doing the stuff, and I'm sitting here going, man I just need a small little drama [Laughs]. I was like, I miss that scene in the house with just them talking, because it's hard. It's exhausting, man. Because every morning you got to get up super early because you're trying to beat the sun, you don't want the high noon because that doesn't really work for the scene. You need it to be no sun in the sky, like a storm. We had to put that into the back of the schedule for the colder weather, and over by the ocean so it's really cold. Then you got actors that are getting wet and soaked, and we created those huge waves we had like tons all the way down the beach, of these giant cannons with water tanks and machines. So it would hit and fly over, and get like 25 foot waves and stuff. It was one of things where, man, I was like from Mag Seven with horses today. I don't make it easy for myself.

Magnificent 7 sounded like an especially tough shoot. Why was it tougher than usual?

Any time you do an outdoor adventure in any way anything that you can't control, like the sun, you're already dealing with some things because you only have a short window if you're dealing with a storm because you gotta shoot early, or you gotta shoot late when the sun's gone. Which is tough. You got a short window, so you gotta really be tight with everything. Then, it's cold, and it's wet, then you got a lot of moving parts. Every time you move down, you gotta move all your jet fans, and everything has to go, and you gotta get everything out of the way so you don't see anything. You gotta figure out how to do all that, and then you do a big wide shot, and not see yourself. It's a lot logistically, and keep everyone safe.

On Mag 7, I had 112 degree, most of the time, Louisiana, burning hot, I don't know how many horses. They get too hot, they don't want to do anything. People shooting with guns, and extras, and all that choreographed stuff. Rattle snakes, we had a rattle snake guy that had to come get the snakes all the time. Just kind of like outdoor adventure, man.

You just sit there some days and you go, "Man, what am I thinking when I sign on to this stuff?" And then you see it on the big screen, and when you finish it after you wash all the dirt off, or you get warm from the storm, and you watch it with an audience and you go, "I'd do that again."

Yeah, you got to shoot a western with Denzel Washington in anamorphic. 

Yeah, you know what I mean? I'd do it again. It'd be painful, but you know. Because the end result is to get to see it on the big screen with an audience and to be able to experience it in a different way. Because when you're in it you're just in it, it's work. It's work. It's like there's nothing glamorous about it. But what an amazing job. I'm reminding myself of that everyday, even on this one. On Mag 7 sitting on the steps of the saloon with my script, and the heat, and all kinds of stuff going on, watching people clean up horse poop, and think, "fuck this, man." Then I'd see Denzel, Chris Pratt, Ethan and those guys are all coming around the corner and laughing, doing their thing, and I'm like, "Fuck I'm making a western with all these nuts, this is like the best thing in the world."

Same thing with this one, you're doing the storm and everything and then my AD called Denzel to the set, and he comes to the set and look around and Pedro is there, and I'm like, you know, it's the best job in the world.

On some of those days, do you ever have a desire to make a smaller drama?

Yeah, I do sometimes. When I read it, but then I don't know. I read some good scripts sometimes, I'm like I could do a little small movie like that. I don't know. Maybe somewhere down the line I'll do that later.

You've managed to consistently work in a budget range we don't see often from studios anymore, especially this time of year. Is that still becoming more challenging, making movies like Brooklyn's Finest and Southpaw?

It's tough, man. Because you're not the Marvel $150,000,000 movie where you have all that machine. And you're not independent, so you're kind of like an independent studio movie. So it has to still be commercial, and once you're with a studio then people look at it as if it's $100,000,000 movie. Because the advertising and everything it's like oh, this is going to be a big movie but it's hard because you want to make it feel worth the money. And that is a, what do they call it? A blockbuster, whatever that means. Yet just trying to stay true to the scale of the material. You can try to outdo yourself and then you can wind up nowhere. You can wind up not a $150,000,000 big splash spectacle, or you wind up not enough. Or too little of it, because you made it too small. It's a weird balance. But I love this range, actually. I do, I think it's a good range where you just get enough independence at a certain level where they don't bother you as much.

I know I'm running out of time with you, but I wanted to mention I really enjoyed your tribute to Prince after his passing. I'm just curious, when you think about your experience with him on "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" music video, what memory first comes to mind?

First time I saw him, yeah.

In the red suit? Only he can rock that.

Only he can rock that, man. But you can't help but smile when you see that because it's Prince, but there's a moment in your brain where you're just like, is he really wearing this, man? Is he really coming down these long steps in this outfit like, you know, he got no underwear on or nothing. It's just like nuts there and he come walking down and he's like, "Is this funny?" And then Prince, he has a deep voice. So it just trips you out, man. I think he knew it. He knew what he was doing. He had a sense humor, he was funny. But he knew entertainment. He knew, meeting him what that meant, and I think him and people like Michael Jackson, those guys never failed to give you what you think they were.

Always put on a show.

Always put on a show.

I know you're a big of the show Miami Vice, so you must've gotten a kick out of working with Oliver Wood [who shot 18 episodes of the series] for the first time, right?

Big fan. I had so many questions for him about that show, and you know, I'm friends with Michael Mann and I just, man, I love that show. I would love to do a T.V. show right now, Miami Vice.

Was that show a big influence on you? It always sounds like it was.

Yeah, it was. It was so much — the music, the atmosphere, the cars, the guys, the relationship between the guys. I always thought that that was a good show about men under pressure. It was men under pressure, on a job. But it had style, and it made it fun. They didn't shy away from being dramatic and having some heart in it. And losing people, and the complexity of doing that kind of job where there's one hand where you're busting somebody, and sometimes it got cartoonish but the guys had families. They were human. It was hilarious that he had, what was it? A crocodile [Laughs]. Or it was an alligator. On the boat, you know, it was hilarious. That's entertainment though, right? It was supposed to entertain them. Miami Vice was something that I used to watch, and I remember it was entertaining, and that's what we do, right?


Equalizer 2 is now in theaters.