Equalizer, The: Fuqua’s Vision of Action

To realize the action of The Equalizer, the conversations began between Antoine Fuqua, Denzel Washington, and Keith Woulard, one of the film’s stunt coordinators.

“There’s a tendency in shooting action to shake the camera and move things around – the audience can’t tell what’s happening,” says Fuqua.  That’s just what they didn’t want to do.  “My goal was to take acting and make it action,” says Fuqua.

Inspired by Real-Life Boxers

Fuqua’s inspiration for the way he would shoot the action scenes with McCall (Washington’s character) was influenced by his interaction with real-life boxers.  “I happen to have a very good friend who’s a great boxer – Sugar Ray Leonard,” he notes.  “He’ll tell stories, and you’ll realize how smart a boxer can be.  Sometimes they’ll touch you – hey, how you doin’ today? – and that’s their way of checking you out, seeing if you’re in shape, if they think you’re a threat.  Or they’re watching you a certain way, to see how you move, how your body language is, what your strengths and weaknesses are.  They can pick you apart.  McCall is trained that way, too – he notices these things and uses them to his advantage.  We had to show that.”

Fast but Personal

The next step was to slow it down.  “When we first did the scene in the bar office, it was quick – really fast.  I said, ‘It should be fast, but it should be personal.  Let’s slow it down, let’s look at it like it was a scene of dialogue, so I can still see him as a character within all of this movement.  How would that be done, where it’s Denzel doing what he does?”

Realism

It was also important to Fuqua that the scenes be realistic.  “We asked ourselves, Can it really happen?  Can you really physically do these things?  What happens to a human being who is capable of doing that?  And it turns out for most people, ordinary people, it’s not possible – you get into a car accident, your heart beats faster, you panic.  For people like McCall, though, it’s just the opposite.  Their heart rate slows down.  The breathing slows down. Everything around them slows down.  Their pupils open up to let in more light.  It’s all really happening as they assess a room in seconds.  And then, when they have it all figured out, they go into action.”

Straight Street Fighting

For Woulard, as a stunt coordinator, the process began by breaking down the script into its individual set pieces.  “We talked to Denzel and Antoine about what they wanted to do,” he says.  “In this particular case, Denzel didn’t want to do a lot of martial arts-type of fighting – he wanted straight, street, slick, creative fighting.  And Antoine, of course, agreed.”  Woulard brought his own experience in the military, including Special Forces, in creating the fights for the film.

For this particular film, it was imperative that the stunt team work closely with Washington and create action that the actor could perform himself.  “We set up all of the action facing us.  You see Denzel maybe 95% of the time,” Woulard notes.  “So, about a month before we started shooting, I started training him – and we trained every day.”

Training was imperative, as the character is highly trained and an expert.  “If you’re holding a knife in a knife fight with the blade sticking out, anybody who knows their stuff will say, ‘OK, you’re going to get the drop on this guy really quick,’” Woulard says.  “But if that knife is turned and the blade is running down the palm of his hand, and his holding it like he’s boxing, well, that’s a guy who’s got some experience.”

Using Items of Environment

One thing that sets Robert McCall apart is that he does not use a gun – he uses his environment, whatever is at hand, against his opponents.  “There could be an ashtray on the table, a letter opener on the desk,” Woulard continues.  “There could be a vase, a fork, a cup, a book.  And when he’s fighting in Home Mart, he’s on his home turf – he can gather things up and combine them.”

Equalizer-Vision

In that way, the specific action of The Equalizer doesn’t end with the stunts – it cuts across all aspects of filmmaking, including photography and production design.  “Antoine was the one to come up with the idea of Equalizer-vision, if you will,” says producer Todd Black.  “It was completely Antoine’s idea from the beginning, from the first meeting.  We brought him back together with Mauro Fiore, the director of photography, who he’d worked with on Training Day and won the Academy Award for Avatar, and Naomi Shohan, his production designer on Training Day, and the three of them worked out this idea.”

“When we hired Naomi for this movie, she said, ‘It must reek of realism.  You must feel like Robert McCall could live right next door.  When you walk into Home Mart, it must feel like that kind of store,’” Black continues.  “But she also said, ‘Even though it’s real, it doesn’t have to be gritty or dirty – it has to have a soul, it’s got to have candlelight, it’s got to have warmth.  McCall has to have a warm soul, or he wouldn’t be The Equalizer.’”

Shohan says that a large part of her challenge on the film was creating sets that would carefully set up everything that McCall would need for the action sequences – without giving the game away – and then paying off that setup in the action sequences.  “Set decorator Leslie Rollins and his team studied very carefully – we talked about what would be interesting for the fight scenes, and knowing that we needed to introduce those in the beginning and reuse them later for the fight.”

Shohan also created the diner set where Teri and McCall make their connection.  “The idea was for the diner to have wrap-around windows, to become a bowl of light in the darkness,” she explains.  “It was so hard to find that –we looked all over the place.  And then we saw just what we were looking for – these amazing windows – but it was a floor store.  So we asked if we could borrow it, and if it could be a diner for a while.  We took everything out, we made a counter, we changed the floor, we put in a fake tin ceiling.  We hung the lights, and we painted it a color that we hoped would seem a little murky and underwater, but also glow.  We used the palette from the famous Hopper painting, which has a similar wall color and a feeling of green, and a red counter.  It’s not a novel idea, but it worked well – it looked like it was stuck in time, a place that hadn’t changed since the 1940s.”