Fences: Denzel Washington–Producer, Director, Star–Part 2

Playwright August Wilson, wo won the 1987 Pulitzer and the Tony Awards for Fences, passed away in 2005.  He had completed all the plays in his American Century Cycle, but he did not live to see his script of Fences brought to fruition.

Mark your ballots: Paramount is releasing the emotionally powerful, splendidly acted version of Fences in December.

Interview with Denzel Washington (Part 2)

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Shooting sequentially, which is rare in film

DW: I’m an actor first and I know how important that is. I know how I felt as an actor.  You get there on Day One and we’re going to shoot the end first. Well, you don’t even know how your character got there yet. So we did try to shoot in sequence whenever possible.
Any obstacles?

DW: None that stopped me. I mean, weather, rain, whatever, you just keep shooting.

Functioning as actor, director, producer?

DW: This is what I do. It wasn’t like, “Oh, man, this is going to be extra.” And, not to say it was easier, but it was an advantage having done the play. It wasn’t like I was learning lines at night. I had to re-learn them sometimes, but when you’re in the middle of it, you’re not thinking about it. You’re just doing. Two hours of sleep, three if I was lucky, get up and hit it.

Important things as a director?

DW: truth. The truth. The truth. Honesty, period. The camera’s going to catch you. All it’s going to do is record what you’re doing. So if you’re lying and you’re not who you’re supposed to be, then it’s going to catch you doing that. And the universal stems from the specific. So everything has to be right, down to the last button. If it says 2:30 on the clock on the wall, then it should say 2:30 on your watch, whether we see it or not.
Costume or props as touchstones for Troy?

DW: Probably my pint of gin, you know. His Friday night pint. It’s part of Troy and Bono’s ritual. Everybody knows where they’re going to be. Troy’s going to tell the same lies. Rose is going to say he’s lying. He’s not going to listen. It’s a hard life, but it’s a good life. Everybody’s leading a hard life. Some of the shots in the street, you see the smoke stacks and you feel that factory back there. It’s a hard life, but there’s a lot of joy. Troy’s the one who upsets the cart, with this other woman. Troy, Rose, Bono—they bring joy to their lives. Troy’s the one who screws that up.

Costume?

DW: I didn’t have to worry about it. Sharen Davis is a great, great costume designer, and I’ve worked with her a lot over the years. She gets it. She has great taste and she knows how to deliver so I just trusted her.
Music by composer Marcelo Zarvos?

DW: Well, the words are the music. And Troy doesn’t stop talking from the start of the movie for 46 minutes almost. So there are no cues, until 40-some minutes in and he tries to bring his brother Gabriel in the house. Troy never shuts up, so we know how he feels. We don’t need violins to tell us.  What I said to Marcelo is that less is more, in every aspect. It’s like a home. If each room is overdone, it’s too much. The rooms need to be complementary to make a beautiful home, not each one too loud, too strong. Not to say that’s what Marcelo was doing, but I have to shape all of those different elements into a film— music, dialogue, sound effects.

Why didn’t jazz or blues work for the score?

For one thing, Troy says he doesn’t like jazz. His older son, Lyons, is a jazz trumpeter, but Troy says he doesn’t like all that “Chinese music.” And it’s not a movie about jazz. The music has to support the words. You can’t do a four-page monologue and bring in the whole orchestra the whole time. It’s just too many elements for my taste.

Gospel, jazz, and R&B songs?

DW: We had a great music editor, Jay Richardson, and I said, “Go, do your research, ’57, spring of ’58, go for it. Let’s see what we got.” So he was bringing a bunch of stuff and, you know, a movie will always tell you what it doesn’t want. You could try to force something in there, but it’ll tell you. And I’ve got a good sense of that, usually.

Editing process?

It’s very different, because you know what the words are. I did what I call a performance pass to try to let the editor assemble the film, put his version of it together. I looked at that and then I started looking at the performances. It was a slow process, because we know where we’re beginning, and it’s not like we’re rewriting the third act. We know what it is. The question became, who would the camera be on? When people have these speeches, you just can’t stay with the person doing all the talking. So the question becomes, when would you cut to the other person?  I remember talking to my wife about it and she said, “It’s different, I don’t get to watch everybody all at the same time.” I said, “It’s a movie now.” In a play, they’re sitting up there in a box and you can decide who you want to look at. You can look at somebody who’s never talking. But now, in a film, you just can’t sit outside and hold this wide shot. Now everybody’ll be in profile. So you got to make decisions. And that was a slow process. Why are we on Cory and not on his mom, even though she has the monologue? When is it important for us as the audience to know that he’s listening? Or for us to see what effect it has on him? Things like that.

Tips to Viola on her big final scene with Cory?

DW: There’s really no such thing as a monologue. You’re always talking to someone. That speech, it’s for him. And so if you don’t convince him, that’s something active to give an actor. “Do you think he believes you? When you’re directing an actor, you try to ask the right question.  Because you don’t want to crush an actor. I’ve been on the other side of it, where a director says, “I think he would do this.” And I’m like, “Then why don’t you get up there and do it, because that’s what you think.” There are all kinds of truths. Just because I’m the director doesn’t mean I know the truth. I’m there to discover like everyone else, whatever they say. Eighty percent of it is casting. Get the best and let them do what they do and let’s see what happens.
Ritual of every day asking the spirit or soul of August Wilson—what he thought of what you were doing. It wasn’t just a ritual. If I didn’t have an answer to some problem or challenge or choice, sometimes I’d go, “Maybe that’s not what August wants.” That was throughout the process. Why didn’t he put this in there? Well, maybe he didn’t want it. Well, I wonder why. What would happen if you did? You know, sometimes you fiddle around with ideas like that until you realize, okay, that’s not a good idea. But you need to wake it up. You need to keep asking. I was just aware of not wanting to rely on our past success. We were very successful as a play and that’s great. Now we’re starting over or at least like to look at it that way. We’re starting fresh.
There was a particularly poignant moment that happened as you were shooting the last scene. Gabriel is blowing the trumpet, trying to get heaven to open up to accept Troy. He comes running in, he opens the gate in the fence that Troy had put up. And it stays open. He runs all the way into a wide shot that I stayed in a lot of the time. And he calls on Troy and just as he calls, he points at his trumpet and says, “Troy.” And at that moment, the gate closed by itself. People were, like, “Wow. That’s August, August wanted to be here, too.” So he walked in and closed the gate behind him. He said, “All right, now we can, now we can finish the movie.”

Final shot with the heavens opening?

In the stage directions, August writes that heaven should open up as wide as God’s closet. So how do you do that without it being too much? How quickly do we get off of the shot? What did we see? It’s not so much, you know. But you don’t actually see the shark that much in Jaws. We don’t want to see too much, we want to see how Rose and Cory and the rest feel. As for what we think we saw, something’s left to our imagination.

August’s relationship with religion?

DW: I like to use the word “spirituality” because “religion,” that’s when man gets in it. Oh, mine is right and yours isn’t, you know? August obviously has this spiritual essence, as do I. I try to make that a part of everything I do. I start my day with a prayer. I’m not telling you what you’re supposed to believe or I don’t even like that word religion. Because that’s, that’s a man-made thing, it smells like man to me.

Fences is set in a precise time–1957–how it can speak to the present day?

DW: Malcolm X said that in order to know where you’re going, you got to know where you came from. So I think history is a big part of it—to embrace it, to acknowledge the struggles that were made, the sacrifices that were made before you got here. But you can’t force it. You can’t do anything on purpose to be “relevant.”
How the universal stems from the specific?

chords? That’s what you do. You do what you do and then you see how it affected you or the feeling you got. I’m not trying to tell people what they should feel but, you know, August Wilson wrote a masterpiece, and God only knows how it affects people. And that’s the beauty of it. Come in, sit down, and we’ll find out or you’ll find out.  I’m happy now that Fences goes to the masses. I was reading about how much it is taught in schools. So a lot of young kids may know more about it than our generation might. So to be a part of spreading the words of August Wilson is an honor and I take it seriously and I know it’s a responsibility. It’s part of our job, my job to, to share him with more people. So they’ll find out why he’s with the greatest ones. You’ve got Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, August Wilson. I’m happy to do my part and to help share his brilliance with the world.
Jovan Adepo is Cory

DW:  I remember him coming in, and I really wanted to push around the young actors auditioning for Cory to see if they could handle it. Because Jovan, and Saniyya Sidney as Raynell, they had to catch up with the rest of us. Especially Jovan, because his part is so large. And he was just head and shoulders above the rest of the actors I auditioned. He just had a naturalness and an honesty to him.
Jovan was actually up for a role with Antoine Fuqua in a series about Training Day [the film Fuqua directed with Denzel Washington in the starring role]. So I asked Antoine about this kid and he said, “Oh, yeah, he’s the best actor by far.” I said, “Well, why aren’t you hiring him?” He said, “He’s not edgy. I wanted someone a little more edgy for our show, but he was the best actor that we read.” So that, needless to say, gave Jovan a leg up on everybody else.

Stephen McKinley Henderson as Bono?

Stephen goes back, as far back as August. I think he’s done all the plays [in the American Century Cycle] and he’s just a veteran in the theatre. It’s a great story for me with Stephen and with Mykelti Williamson, in that they’ve been around a long time, had careers with different directors. They’re veterans, and for each of them, the actor has now met the role. They’re being reintroduced, or introduced, to a whole new generation.

Bono, he’s just like the bass player in the band. He’s just solid on the bottom. We had these shots I’ve used in the film, just him looking. He doesn’t miss much and he looks at the wife, then he looks at Troy. Troy doesn’t even realize Bono’s looking at him. But you feel Bono. Bono can sense things. He’s always watching. He’s always in there. I don’t want to say he’s the moral compass exactly, but what’s that he says to Troy? “You juggle both of them [women], sooner or later you’re going to drop one of them.”

Russell Hornsby as Lyons?

I remember we were shooting a scene outside with Rose and Cory, and I had an instinct. I said, “Let’s get Lyons in here and put him in the kitchen, and shoot him listening.” Here is a man, a grown man, learning about his father from the woman who’s not his mother, telling his half-brother, neither of them knowing that Lyons is listening. Once we set that camera up and I looked at the shot, I said, “Wow, this is something you don’t get to do in the play, unless he was up in the window somewhere, something weird.” But we get to feel him. I liked that moment.

Mykelti as Gabriel?

Mykelti, he’s all love. He’s all spirit, a very strong man, but very sweet. He’s had a very fascinating career and life in in this business, and this film is like a homecoming kind of thing for him. I think for a lot of people in the audience, it’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, I remember him.” Yeah, well, he was good then and he’s just as good now.

Film editor Hughes Winborne

DW: We worked together on The Great Debaters. This is our second film together. He won the Academy Award for Crash. Very sensitive, very wise. And he just has a touch. I like watching him cut, because he’ll start waving his hands around and everything. He gets in there and he feels it and he knows when to cut. I don’t want to say it’s natural, but he has a rhythm that works, and that works well for August. We had to find the rhythm. We had to work on the rhythm. With August Wilson, like Shakespeare, sometimes a paragraph means something. And if there are too many gaps, too many breaths, too much air in between, it could grind to a halt.

Charlotte Bruus Christensen as cinematographer

Charlotte is very gifted. This town is just finding out about her, and now she’s got jobs lined up like planes over Cleveland. Very gifted, very thorough, and very opinionated—which was fine, because we both have strong opinions. But she loves making movies and she comes with tons of ideas and she thinks about things and she writes notes. She’d bring too much which is all you could ask for.
This is a film that has a great commitment to production design, to getting the Hill District circa 1957 exactly right.

David Gropman as production designer?

He is very sensitive and definitely from the “less is more” school, not one to overdo it. And you don’t catch him working. I don’t remember my eye going, “Ah, that’s too much.” Everything was just great. You’re like, “Oh, I remember that kind of glasses, I remember that kind of dish.”