Director's Chair: Antoine Fuqua — <I>The Equalizer 3</I>
Issue: July/August 2023

Director's Chair: Antoine Fuqua — The Equalizer 3

Director Antoine Fuqua has a gift for making highly charged emotional dramas and action films, and when he first collaborated with Denzel Washington on the acclaimed 2001 crime thriller Training Day, the result was a commercial and critical hit that won Washington an Oscar. 

They reteamed for the 2014 vigilante action thriller The Equalizer, which became a $200 million global box office hit. And now the pair have reteamed for the fifth time, on The Equalizer 3, following the 2016 reboot The Magnificent Seven and 2018’s The Equalizer 2.

The set up? Since giving up his life as a government assassin, retired CIA black ops operative Robert McCall (Washington) has struggled to reconcile the horrific things he’s done in the past and finds a strange solace in serving justice on behalf of the oppressed. Now living a quiet life in Southern Italy, he discovers his new friends are under the control of local crime bosses. As events turn deadly, McCall knows what he has to do: become his friends’ protector by taking on the mafia. Naturally the latest installment in the blockbuster franchise promises plenty of hyper-kinetic action and extreme mayhem — Fuqua specialties.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Fuqua, who was still deep in post production on the eve of its release, talked about making the film and his love of post. 

Successful sequels to hit films are notoriously difficult to make. What sort of film did you set out to make?
“I tried to make the best story I could tell, that’s very grounded, very real, and I wasn’t thinking about the other two films. I just take it one movie at a time, and that’s always been the way we approach it. You don’t want to make the mistake of repeating the same thing again, or just trying to top the last one. I think each movie should be able to stand on its own merits, and I wanted to give some more insight into McCall and his psyche, and where he is in the world today. He’s feeling a bit lost and alone in the world, and looking for his place in the world.” 

Photo (L-R): Washington and Fuqua, on-set

This is your fifth film with Denzel Washington. What does he bring to the mix?

“He’s the man! He brings intensity, honesty and a very high level of professionalism. He also brings this deep sense of character in just who he is — a substance and a weight that only he can bring. And each time he always surprises me with the commitment and insight he brings to every scene. I think of the Equalizer character as like a dark angel and as someone with special skills who can help people get some justice, and Denzel makes you believe in him. I can’t imagine anyone else in the role.”

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?

“Even though we were on-location in Italy, there weren’t really a lot of technical challenges, except that where we were, in Amalfi, the roads are very narrow — and I don’t speak Italian. So that leads to a whole lot of layering going on when I say things like ‘Action!’ You have to wait for the translator to tell you, ‘We’re ready to go.’ All that takes a lot of time on-set. The other problem was that everywhere you go, there are so many steps. You’re in these beautiful little seaside towns, but they’re all steps. It was a big workout every day, especially when you’re having to move all the equipment up 700 steps. When we arrived I asked how they were going to do it, and they said ‘We use donkeys.’ That turned out to be the crew.”

I assume you started integrating post and all the VFX on day one?

“Yes, you have to, but there’s not a whole lot of VFX going on in this movie. As usual, I storyboarded it all out first, and I really like real locations, and shooting as much in-camera as possible. Of course, when you’re doing a big film like this on-location, there are VFX, but it was more about set extensions and fixing stuff in post rather than dealing with huge VFX set pieces. And the real locations we used in Amalfi are so beautiful and stunning in real life that if you have to use VFX to enhance all that, you know you’re doing something wrong.”

Did you do a lot of previs and postvis?

“Not as much as I usually do, as far as the action goes, as this film is more character driven than the other ones. There’s definitely a lot of action, so I did all the storyboarding and shot lists, but it didn’t need much previs. The one big previs sequence I did was the big ending, and even that had more sketches and storyboards, as well as the animation that we did, but not the usual amount of previs.”

You reunited with three-time Oscar-winning DP Bob Richardson, who shot Emancipation for you. What did he bring to the mix and what was your approach to the look?

“He’s such a great artist and our process is finding the texture and look of the film based on the locations we’re in. A big inspiration was Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and we wanted the same slow-burn feel with color that captured the richness of the Amalfi coast, that had the look of a painting — not a bright one, but a moody one full of contrast. We shot on the Arri Alexa, and I love old anamorphic lenses, so we did a lot of testing and playing around with the look in prep as (Bob and I) were based in Rome, and on weekends we’d go and walk all the steps in our locations. We’d take a lot of photos and we both lost a lot of weight doing that.” 

Photo (L-R): Washington and Fuqua

How tough was the shoot?

“It was tough in terms of all the logistics. The Amalfi roads are so narrow and crowded. We also shot in Naples, and that was really tough. It’s a rougher city that reminds me of New York in the ‘70s. Everyone was very cooperative, but it can be quite dangerous. In the end we were on-location for 72 days and I was living there for six months, from the start of prep to wrapping.”

What was the most difficult sequence to shoot?”

“The whole ending was the most complicated, as we had to shoot it in a few different places in order to create one place, mainly because of our schedule and the locations. We had to pop around and redesign some buildings that we’d used before so we could use them again. It wasn’t the plan but it’s hard to get permits there, so it was complicated in that way. But the filming itself wasn’t a problem.”

Where did you do all the post?

“All here in LA, and I did a lot of it at my home, although we were set up on the lot at Sony for all the sound mixing and effects and so on. During COVID we began using Evercast, and I find it so helpful doing the editing with Conrad Buff. It’s just the two of us in my home office, and we work as long as we want. No more commuting.” 

Talk about editing with Conrad Buff, who’s cut many of your films and who won the Oscar for cutting Titanic.  His credits include Snow White and the Huntsman and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. What were the big editing challenges?

“After all the movies together, we know each other pretty well and this one needed to find its footing and balance, especially as it’s set abroad. It’s all about finding the right pace and rhythm and tone, and I wanted that slow-burn, where the character gradually unravels and you peel back the layers. But there’s also the pressure of keeping an audience really with you, in an era where movies often feel like fast food to me, so that was a big challenge.” 

What was the most difficult sequence to cut?

“Getting the ending just right is always tricky and I discovered it in the last of the test screenings we did. We shot three different endings, although I knew what I wanted, which was a little darker of an ending. I thought we had it, but then we reworked it after that test, and then the audience were clapping and cheering at the lighter ending, and you realize that people want to leave feeling good. You have to satisfy the audience, especially in a film like this where there’s violence and darkness.”

You’re well known for your love of location shooting and doing as much as possible in-camera. Fair to say you’re not a big fan of working with VFX?

“You’re right. You need VFX on pretty much every movie nowadays, but I don’t lean towards using them and I just don’t have the patience to deal with the process. I usually work with VFX supervisor Rob Legato, who won Oscars for Titanic, Hugo and The Jungle Book, but he shot 2nd unit on this, and James McQuaide was the VFX supervisor. Most of the VFX were adding to and enhancing locations, so when we shot a vineyard that was supposed to be in Sicily, we used them to add the background mountains. As for the explosions in Naples, we did them live on-camera, but then used VFX to add to the plates, as I couldn’t shoot on the streets in Naples, so we shot it in Rome and did plates in Naples. Something like that is where VFX are so helpful.”

Talk about the importance of sound and music to you.

“It’s hard to over-stress their importance and how powerful they are in the whole experience. I love music and sound design, and they help color a scene and can transform it and make it stronger. They can tell a story, but I also think there’s often a tendency to over-use score, and sometimes it’s far more effective when you use music sparingly, or even not at all in places. I worked very closely with my composer, Marcelo Zarvos, who also scored Emancipation for me, about the storytelling, and then with the sound team at Sony, and it’s one of my favorite parts of post.”

What about the DI?

“I always work with Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3, and he and Bob, the DP, already worked very closely on the look and baked it into what we shot, along with the DIT. And I’m also very involved in the DI sessions.”

I hear you’re doing a biopic about Michael Jackson next? 

“Yes, it’s going ahead and we start filming this October. It stars his nephew, Jaafar Jackson, as Michael, and Graham King, who did Bohemian Rhapsody, is producing, so it’s very exciting.”

Dealing with some of the darker issues in his life will be tricky.

“You’re right, but you can’t ignore them — and I don’t want to. It’s going to tell his story and the truth, and let the facts fall where they fall.”