Last August we had the opportunity to visit the set of The Equalizer and watch director Antoine Fuqua work again with Oscar winner Denzel Washington. Knowing the premise of the '80s TV series where this film gets its name from, and knowing what Fuqua and Washington's last partnership produced (Training Day) it's easy to understand the potential surrounding this particular Sony-Columbia Pictures project.
It's a hot summer day and we head to set, 45 minutes outside of downtown Boston. It's day 46 of a 60-day shoot and the crew is setup at a massive empty Lowe's Home Improvement superstore that had moved to New Hampshire due to sales tax reasons. It was the perfect venue to build a set doubling as a Home Depot (since it practically is one) and it had enough room for another stage that represents Robert McCall's apartment.
At the time we traveled to set Chloë Grace Moretz had already wrapped for her scenes so the day was focused on watching Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua work. In the film, Washington's mysterious character Robert McCall works at this Home Depot (branded "Homemart" in the film) and the entire movie takes place in Boston, where it's being shot thanks to the state's film-friendly tax incentives. No doubling as another city required.
As we arrive on set we enter a trailer fitted as a screening room where producer Todd Black talks to us about the film and plays for us two bits of footage so we know what we're getting into. The scenes don't involve action, but instead focus on dialogue and drama, highlighting who Robert McCall (Washington) is and what he stands for. In the TV Series the film is loosely based on, McCall was ex-CIA and given what's shown in the trailer, Denzel Washington's character has similar specialist training. The Equalizer is a vigilante of sorts, someone who brings a little bit of balance to a society overloaded with injustice, doing bad things to bad people to help those in need. Black explains how relevant this is right now and how everyone could use an Equalizer to help out with issues that pop up in their lives.
The first clip is in a diner where McCall goes late at night (he has trouble sleeping) and he converses with an underage working girl (Moretz) who's stuck in a bad situation. There are glimpses of this in the two Equalizer trailers so far. We learn about the ideologies of each character through the conversation and it's emphasized that McCall suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder through how he arranges items on the table. The second clip precludes a violent action sequence teased in The Equalizer trailer where McCall enters the domain of a criminal group involved with Moretz. This is the "16 seconds" sequence referred to in the trailer.
After watching the footage, Black asked me how I would describe the footage in a word and I said it was "gripping" because it made me want to turn the page and he explains that that is exactly it, and how this movie got picked up. For The Equalizer, Black says it's going to have a "hard R" rating and that its protagonist, McCall, is more skilled than any other character in any other movie. If there's a sequel - and the producers have had that in mind since pitching it - we'll learn more about McCall's history so it's not going to be fully spelled out in this first film.
McCall's OCD tendencies are an important layer for the character and one we talk about in our interviews with Todd Black, Washington and Antoine Fuqua that day on set. McCall is a character who's lethal but doesn't need to walk around with a gun. We explored McCall's apartment on set and it's perfectly organized and arranged in a very specific way, and that'll be a reoccurring observation viewers will make wherever McCall goes. He's widowed, he's a master of disguise, and he's amazing at his job - no matter what the job is. He has seemingly settled down in a quiet life outside of Boston but because of who he is and what he stands for, he gets pulled back in and is now facing the Russian mob.
From what they were shooting and what's planned, they could cut the film in two different ways, one as a clearly defined standalone piece and another that sets up The Equalizer 2. Obviously, in the months since our set visit we've learned that Sony is indeed planning a sequel after early test screenings earned overwhelmingly positive responses.
Due to the nature of what was shooting that day, we didn't see too much and the focus was on learning how The Equalizer came to be and why it's unique. We watched Denzel entering a room, armed during what appears to be a hostage situation at the Homemart. Fuqua is very patient and calculated and takes all the time he needs to get the perfect angle and lighting. There's so much attention to detail in things that you'd normally not spend much time on and it's one of the reasons this movie is different.
Denzel Washington fans who like seeing him as the cold and confident badass with a heard of gold, will get a lot of that in The Equalizer. It's a hard R action movie but action isn't the focus. That's how its strong script was pitched to Washington and it's what may allow it to become the first film the star could make a sequel to. It's also what made picking the right actors and right director a challenge, but they found exactly what they wanted in Washington, Fuqua and the supporting players.
The Equalizer Interviews
The Equalizer hits theaters September 26, 2014.
Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes.
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