For cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, costume designer Sharen Davis and composer Marcelo Zarvos, “Fences” marked a return to a spare, theatrical, emotionally raw cinematic experience. The challenge was to retain the power and poetry of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play without it seeming claustrophobic or opened up to the point of distraction.
Fortunately, actor-director Denzel Washington (who earned a Tony for the 2010 revival along with co-star Viola Davis) had the right instincts and vision for a big screen adaptation. And, as a result, the Oscar contender is both visually and rhythmically compelling in its depiction of a struggling African-American family in 1950’s Pittsburgh.
However, shooting on location in Pittsburgh’s iconic Hill district (where Wilson lived and set his plays) and on 35mm film was central. “We’re in a small house and in a backyard and it doesn’t go broad,” Christensen told IndieWire. “But the reason why Denzel wanted to go film and with anamorphic lenses is because he said again and again, it’s an axis lens, and when you pull focus, the distortion makes you focus on the face.”
But it was tough shooting interiors in a row house that was about 10-feet wide with low ceilings. “We could only light in through the kitchen and that’s a lot of light inside when you can’t remove a ceiling,” Christensen said. “You’re basically lighting two feet away from the actors. But having seen the movie, the fact that we’re on location gives it that honesty.”
Yet filming Davis’ “What About Me?” moment (watch below) about the pain and sacrifice of marriage — with dashed hopes and dreams –was one of the most challenging. “We were all searching for that little bit more and it was a very intense afternoon,” Christensen said. “I think we did nine takes and everyone was drained.”
For both Washington and Davis, though, it was an opportunity to experiment without being stage bound. “He kept saying now we have the close-ups and I can feel something when I’m turned away,” added Christensen, who could become the first female cinematographer to earn an Oscar nomination. “It was very important from a camera perspective and a lighting perspective to not overdo…when the camera should stay still.”
When it came to the wardrobes, Davis (Oscar-nominated for “Ray” and “Dreamgirls”) strategically used neutral colors because most of the action takes place outside and inside the brick house.
“Denzel was married [only] to the silhouette of his clothing from the play,” Davis told IndieWire. “But he didn’t have much clothing: half a dozen shirts, two pairs of pants, a light and heavy jacked and two hats.”
Actress Davis significantly wore a yellow plaid dress and a gray one for church with a sweater. “You could see where her journey went through how she dresses from 1950-1965,” Davis said.
The toughest challenge was dressing Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel, the brain-damaged but spiritually-touched brother of Washington’s Troy. His outfit from the play was too symbolic for a movie. “I needed to convince you that he could be that type of person,” added Davis. “We made a simple coat and aged it…almost biblical.”
For his minimalistic, melancholy score, which isn’t introduced until 30 minutes into the movie, the Brazilian pianist-composer Zarvos took his central cue from Gabriel. “He serves as the conduit for the score — the Greek chorus,” he told IndieWire. “He carries a trumpet, he talks to the angels, he fights the hellhounds. He appears to talk nonsense but he’s genuinely touched.”
But Zarvos also realized that the music was going to have to fight its way into the movie. He settled on a universal classicism, constantly stripping away the excess.
“Denzel said August Wilson is the blues — we don’t need to add to this,” the composer said. “It all dials back to the performances. Is this better with or without music?”