Twenty-two years ago, Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington came to an agreement that neither has forgotten. "Right when we started working together on Training Day, we agreed to never tie each other's hands," recalls the filmmaker. "We agreed to always be open to crazy ideas, and to always be willing to play within each scene."
To date, the duo has made five movies together, beginning with 2001's Training Day, for which Washington won his second Oscar. Their other collaborations include the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven and three Equalizer movies, a franchise which has spanned nearly a full decade. At this point, their appreciation for one another's work is inarguable.
Their latest, The Equalizer 3 — in theaters Sept. 1 — is the "final chapter" in the saga. Arriving five years after the second installment, it follows former government assassin Robert McCall (Washington) as he attempts to settle down in a quiet town on the coast of Italy. When the village's peaceful existence is threatened by the arrival of the Italian mafia, McCall is forced out of retirement as its vigilante guardian angel of death.
"It's just trust and respect, really. I think trust has always been an important part of our relationship," Fuqua says of their more than two-decades of collaborations. "He knows that I'll handle what he gives me with care. He doesn't have to worry about that."
With The Equalizer 3, the two have not only made the first threequel of either of their careers, but Fuqua says they have crafted a movie that is more concerned with "the moral dilemma of violence" than any of their previous films. It is, in other words, not just another sequel, but something completely new for both the director and the star.
A.frame: This film feels more meditative than the first two Equalizers. When you and Denzel set out to make it, what kind of story did you both have in mind for the film?
The first Equalizer was really about Robert McCall finding his purpose. The second was about him dealing with his past and being betrayed by someone he trusted. This film is about him finding a place that he can call home. It's about him finding some peace, but also struggling with the violence he's committed. At what point are you enjoying it so much that you've become the monster? That’s really what he's struggling with this time.
Richard Wenk is the one who wrote it into the script, but it really began with a conversation that Denzel and I had years ago around the time of the first Equalizer. He's been going to Italy ever since his kids were little, and I know how much he loves it there. I was actually there with him once when we were promoting The Equalizer, and a crowd of people came just to see him. It was so many people. I was like, 'Get me the hell out of here,' because he was just surrounded. But I saw how much they loved him in that moment, just as an actor, and I thought, 'It'd be cool to actually bring Denzel Washington here to make a film.'
I talked to Todd Black, the film's producer, about it, and then Richard went off and wrote the script with that in mind. We really scouted everywhere in Italy, too. We looked all over the place, and then, when I finally found Atrani, the little town in the film, I just fell in love with it, because it immediately felt right.
The film has a very specific look: There are moments where it almost looks like a black-and-white movie that was shot in color. What did you and your cinematographer, Robert Richardson, want to evoke with the film’s aesthetic?
It was all about highlighting old-world beauty. When we found Atrani, it was like going back in time because of all the textures of the town — all the white walls with the peeling paint and the cobblestone streets. It really became about communicating and recapturing time, which is what the movie is about, too. The film's all about time and about Robert running out of time. Visually, the town gave us the chance to make something that feels like an old painting. So, when Bob Richardson would walk throughout it, he would just send me stuff.
Neither of us would ever really sleep at night, and I would get images from him all night. It'd be four in the morning and I'd be like, 'What are you doing awake?! Why are you calling me?' But he'd have an image that he'd have captured or come up with, and I'd look at it and go, 'You're right. That's it.' He would get up and wander around Atrani in the middle of the night and come back with these beautiful ideas and images.
Denzel is an actor who is capable of really filling the frame. There are moments where you juxtapose him with stained glass windows and other religious iconography, and it works because Denzel feels that powerful on-screen. As a director, how freeing is it to have an actor who can be that formidable and commanding in front of the camera?
There's nothing like it. There's a lot of symbolism in the film, and you have to be able to trust your actor's ability to play that and communicate it subtly. The film incorporates images of, for instance, Saint Michael stepping on the devil's head. Those images are there, and you need an actor who can help you connect and sell those metaphors without thinking about the fact that they're doing that. Denzel can. He's never thinking about that stuff. I am, but he's not.
This is the first time Denzel has worked with Dakota Fanning since Man on Fire. Where did the idea of reuniting them in this film originate?
I got a call one day from Todd Black, and he was like, 'Do you like Dakota Fanning?' I was like, 'Uh, yeah.' He told me, 'She's interested in doing the movie,' and I said, 'Nah, really? I gotta meet her today then! Right now. I want to have lunch with her.' He called me back a few minutes later and was like, 'She’ll have lunch with you.' So, we did. And, you know, we've seen her in so many movies, but it's just impossible to get the image of her as that little girl in Man on Fire yelling for Creasy out of your mind. So when I saw her, I just said, 'Please do this movie.' We talked about it some more, and then I called Denzel and he started laughing right away. He was like, 'Absolutely. I love Dakota!' Then when I saw them together, it really was like going back into Tony Scott's movie. Just watching them together was really special.
Speaking of Man on Fire, there's a moment early in The Equalizer 3 where Denzel puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger, but the gun doesn't go off…
[Leaning in, smiling] Yeah?
Is that a Man on Fire reference?
I don't know, man — is it? [Laughs]
I'll take as a yes. You've been making movies for many years now. How has your personal creative process changed throughout your career — if it has at all?
It's definitely changed. Hopefully, it's matured. It's definitely slowed down a bit. You know, I've always put a lot of thought into everything I've done, but I feel like I'm putting more thought into it now. It's like an athlete when their game slows down a bit. You can suddenly see things you didn't see before. You always stress out over things at first. And then I think you reach a point where you just realize, 'I don't need to worry about that. I'll deal with it later.'
When I was younger, I was always yelling and obsessing over certain things, and then the audience would basically say, 'Oh, we don't care about that.' Gradually, you learn to recognize that and find a balance between everything. And I've matured, for sure. I've learned quite a bit, and I've gotten much more patient than I used to be.
I know you're busy working on Michael, but do you and Denzel have any more plans to work together?
Yeah, we've got a few things we're talking about. I hope we will. Honestly, I just love working with him.
By Alex Welch