Nine years after directing the well-received The Great Debators legendary actor Denzel Washington decided to once again sit in the director’s chair to bring award-winning theatre production Fences to the big screen. The result was a film that received a Best Picture Academy Award nomination. It also saw Washington nominated for Best Leading Actor while it picked up a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Viola Davis who plays Washington’s embattled wife in the film.
For Washington this was a passion project and it obvious listening to him talk about the film that he fell in love with this story way back in 2010 when he appeared in the play the film is based on on Broadway. He begins by recounting what it was like to meet with the play’s author – the late August Wilson – for the first time. “I spent a lovely day with him. I flew up to Seattle. It rained all day and he just smoked cigarette after cigarette and he was writing… I don’t know who set it up… but he was writing Gem Of The Ocean and it might have been my agent who suggested that I go up there, but I went up to see him and we just talked all day. He talked about how he writes plays, how he locks the doors, shuts the windows and he basically writes what the characters tell him to write so I guess he was telling me ‘I’m not just writing for you I’m writing what I’m compelled to write’ which was just fine with me. I just remember that day was a lovely day.”
Not many actors get to reprise their role from a theatre production up on the big screen and Washington is only too happy to talk about what the differences were playing Troy on the stage to what it was like bringing the character to film. “I think it only helped that I was able to, I couldn’t imagine trying to do this having not done it on stage first. There was no time to try and figure out who Troy was when we were shooting the movie so to number one know the character and to know that we did a production that worked, you know we got the response from the audience and the accolades and that kind of stuff, so I knew it worked but that also added more pressure because it was like ‘don’t screw it up now.’ But I just knew I had to get the camera in front of the actors and just let them do what they had been doing all along.”
So what did he focus on capturing as director? “The truth!” he exclaims. “The truth. That was it – period. The camera is always going to capture what you are doing so if you are lying and you’re not supposed to be then it is going to catch you doing that. The universal stems from the specific, so everything down to the last button. If it says 2.30 on the clock on the wall then it should say 2.30 on the watch – whether you see it or not.”
As we saw on Oscar night it was the stars around Washington in the cast that also made Fences such an enjoyable film and Washington is not only full of praise for all of them but tells us what it was like to direct them. “You never want to crush an actor,” he explains. “I’ve been on the other side where a director has been like ‘well I think he would do this’ and I’m always like ‘well why don’t you get up here and do it then if that’s what you think?’ There are all kinds of truth, just because I’m the director that doesn’t mean that I know THE truth, I’m there to discover just like everybody else. You know what they say – eighty percent of it is about casting, so get the best and let them do what they do then just see what happens. With Jovan Adepo (who plays Washington’s son) I remember him coming in and I wasn’t hard on the young actors but I wanted to push them around to really see if they could handle it because Jovan and Saniyya Sidney (who plays Washington’s daughter) they had to catch up to the rest of us, especially Jovan, and he was just head-and-shoulder above the rest. He just had this naturalness and honesty in him. He was actually up for a role with Antoine Fuqua (who directed Washington in Training Day) and he said he was the best kid going around and I said ‘well why aren’t you hiring him?’ and he said ‘well I want somebody edgy in my film’ but he was the best actor who had come in and read. Needless to say that gave him a leg up on everybody else.”
While Denzel Washington himself didn’t walk away with an Academy Award for Fences it is a film that is a highlight amongst his acting career, it is a film that reminds audiences that he is also a fine director in his own right as well.
Fences is in cinemas right now.