Last summer we visited the set of The Equalizer and producer Todd Black, who spearheaded the project’s development, began the day by playing for us two scenes from the film and chatting with us for an hour about how late it came to be. As its title would indicate, The Equalizer is based on the concept behind the ’80s TV show of the same name where an ex-CIA operative helps those in need by “equalizing” the odds so to speak.
After we watched the intense footage we spoke in depth about how he helped get the rights to The Equalizer and brought it to Sony after they expired at The Weinstein Company and why the lead role went to Denzel Washington instead of Russell Crowe. We also talk about how The Equalizer script easily won over Washington (and Sony boss Amy Pascal) and how it could be the star’s first franchise, a “hard R” franchise.
Our interview with Todd Black – who worked with Washington on Antwone Fisher, The Great Debaters, and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 previously – covers everything from the mysterious background of the film’s vigilante antihero Robert McCall (Washington) and how the concept of an Equalizer is relevant now more than ever to how the film could be cut in two different ways depending on whether or not they choose to make a sequel. We also talk about how this film represents the re-teaming of Denzel Washington with director Antoine Fuqua, after Nicolas Winding Refn and Rupert Wyatt almost were set to direct, and how Chloë Grace Moretz and Marton Csokas were cast as supporting leads.
I’m definitely curious about the rating on this one.
Todd Black: G.
[Laughs] Exactly. Well, Antoine [Fuqua] is known for doing some violent movies and showing excessive violence, which I’m a fan of. I’m just curious what you’re going for in terms of what we’re going to see on screen?
Todd Black: You’re going to see a very hard R movie. It’s called The Equalizer and it’s about a guy who takes care of people who either can’t or don’t know how to take care of themselves because they’ve been done wrong by really bad people. And he takes care of those people that have such a wrong doings it done to them. And he gives the bad people a chance to rectify it at every turn, as you saw on here. And when they don’t take him up on his chance he violently, violently takes care of them in a way that they will never breathe again.
We see Chloe [Grace Moretz]– we see him dealing with Chloe’s situation. Is this the only situation that he deals with in the film or is there other – are we going to see other things? You know what I mean.
Todd Black: Can I talk about the whole story Sid?
Sid (another representative in the room): Yeah.
Todd Black: Okay. So basically there is an organization that is run by a very powerful man and he has people that work for him in Boston. He’s all on the East Coast and he has a lot of people that work for him. And his organization has girls, gas money, laundered money, oil, shipping stuff; he has his fingers in lots of stuff that take place in American cities and he has a lot of people that are on his payroll. And these people recruit or force innocent people into helping them make the money for our powerful guy. And so ultimately the story is Denzel [Washington] has to weed out who the people are who work for this uber villain and then ultimately get to the head of that organization to ultimately get to the uber villain. Does that answer your question?
It does. Can you talk a little bit about Denzel’s backstory?
Todd Black: Yeah. That’s a good question. We – it’s funny, we struggled with not revealing that much in the first tale because we’re hoping that if the movie works some of it’s answered as you’re watching it and some of it isn’t answered. I think we all agreed, Denzel agreed with us and the writer that so often times in these movies as you guys know everything’s spelled out so there’s kind of nothing for you guys to figure out when you’re watching the movie because it’s all laid out there. And we thought a little bit of a mystery, that’s why he talks about his wife but doesn’t really answer it and just little things along the way.
So you do find out a little bit about his background. There is a scene in the script that he goes and he goes to somebody that he used to work with, Melissa Leo and her husband Bill Pullman and he asked them for help in his quest to find the uber villain and his group. And you come to discover that Denzel was a very, very high up in some kind of organization. You don’t really know what up to the very end, but you know he is highly skilled, probably more highly skilled than anybody in any movie you’ve ever seen, we hope, and knows how to kill people in a way that nobody else does. And you kind of find out that he’s at the top of his game and he’s trying to escape it, but it’s just his natural thing that he can never escape it. So you kind of find that out progressively, and God willing if the movie works, God willing, and you guys support it, the second movie you’ll find out even more. But even if there isn’t a second movie you find out enough that I think it works.
So, Denzel is committed to the idea of a second movie at this point?
Todd Black: You know, we’re all committed to do a second movie until there isn’t a second movie. I mean if it works and the audiences like it and it works critically and financially, I’m sure Sony and Denzel and all of us will want to do a second movie, but you never go into these thinking that because you never know. So you do have to satisfy certain questions that are necessary to answer in case there isn’t a second one, but you hope for a second one.
In that case does that change how Denzel deals with this organization? Like is this entire story going to deal with this organization or is this an organization that we can see pop up again?
Todd Black: Very smart of questions here. No, this story will end if we cut it – it’s funny, we can cut it two ways; I’m really letting you guys in right now. Is this okay that I’m really going there? Okay. It really depends – we can tell the tale in different ways. We can tell the tale with it being a standalone or we can tell the tale just the way it’s been constructed with it maybe coming back again.
Is that’s something that you determined based on test screening?
Todd Black: You know, honestly two things: yes for sure test screenings, but also ourselves. We have to put the movie together; we have to look at it in November and feel it. Just as the filmmakers you sit in a room and you put it on it’s feet when it’s all done and you can feel if you went too far with a storyline, you can feel if the endings not satisfying, you can feel if the ending is too much information. So it isn’t just the test screening, for sure that’s a part of it and you for sure want to see if the audience is engaged and you ask them, you know, you can feel it even before you ask them any questions if there’s a want to see. So if there is then maybe you re-cut the ending a little different to leave it a little bit more open. But we’ve constructed it, I think, I hope we’ve constructed it in a way that we can have our cake and eat it too I hope, but you don’t really know until you’re done. I mean there’s no science in this. You do the best you can and then you have to see it on his feet before you can really answer those questions.
What are some of the other marked traits of our hero? Like he obviously has some OCD tendencies and he’s very quiet and retired, what kind of differentiate him from other…?
Todd Black: Well, he has OCD, which is really fascinating because in his job it worked beautifully for him, but in his life he struggles with it. And it’s interesting because our prop master she – I don’t know if I should be telling – she has OCD. She readily admitted it. And so when Denzel met her, she’s a local here in Boston, he got a lot from her in kind of working out his props that he was going to use because so much of the movie he uses – he never use a gun in the movie so he has to use whatever is around him, the skulls that you saw on the desk, whatever is around him he will use as weapons because he is, for the moment, anti-gun, which you’ll find about that also. So his OCD serves him really well in that regard. You don’t understand the OCD completely until you kind of go through the story with him. You know that he’s widowed. You know that he is highly, highly skilled and educated. And you know that he is a master of disguise; you find out he works at Home Depot in the daytime and he comes home and he lives alone in a very ordered apartment. He’s very skilled; he’s a skilled laborer. He knows how to put on – he can be whoever he needs to be in the situation that he’s in. It’s not that he’s a master of disguise but he is very good at being able to move from city to city and become who he needs to become to do what he needs to do.
Is he like a martial artist or anything like that? Denzel is obviously very varied in his physical background.
Todd Black: His abilities to take care of people are varied with different weaponry and different fighting methods. So yes he is.
So, the fact that he doesn’t use a gun that breaks quite directly from the show. Are there any other big changes that you guys –
Todd Black: Yeah, so the show – here’s what happened. We found out that the rights were available because the rights holder Michael Sloan, who created the show, had had them set up in The Weinstein Company. And they reverted back to him at a certain point if he wanted them back and he did want them back. He had the right to do that, even though Harvey wanted to keep them. And once we found that out we jumped on them because my partner and I loved the title of what that is, even if you didn’t know the show. And then there’s a lot of people – I mean your guys age never knew that show. I mean I kind of knew that show pretty well and then when you get in your late 50s and 60s everyone knew that show. But the title, in my mind, was a great title – is a great, great title, particularly when you say Denzel Washington is The Equalizer.
That kind of matches to me as peanut butter and jelly. So we went after the title and the concept of it was great. We weren’t really so hung up on what the show was and all the machinations of what Robert McCall did or didn’t do and what his backstory was. We knew that that didn’t really matter because it was a whole new audience, so we just took the concept and we took the title and then we made it our own.