Two decades into his filmmaking career, and director Antoine Fuqua has started to receive a new kind of feedback — from fans on the street. After his “The Equalizer” hit screens in 2014, audiences started stopping the filmmaker to offer up their ideas for where the film, a Denzel Washington-starring version of the 80’s TV series of the same name, should go next. Fuqua was happy to listen, though he wasn’t always keen on taking their suggestions into account.
“I listened to the audience a lot,” Fuqua said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I would walk through the airport and I would listen to what people would say. Whenever someone would stop me and talk about the movie, I would see how enthusiastic they were about certain things and the questions they had. Those are the things you want to make sure you satisfy.”
Washington starred in that film as former CIA black ops agent Robert McCall, who moves from a life of quiet isolation to one of vigilantism, spawned by his realization that he can use his very special skills to avenge some of the world’s worst deeds. Fuqua said film fans were eager to learn more about Robert McCall’s personal life, including his wife, his living situation, and what his next job was going to be.
But the director wanted to cast aside some of the other elements that his audience loved about the first film, including a banger of a final action sequence (set in the Home Depot stand-in that serves as McCall’s day job) in which Washington uses corkscrews and power tools to kill off his assailants.
Moviegoers ate that stuff up, but Fuqua wasn’t inspired by the idea of building another third act around how proficiently his hero could kill people with random household items. “I wasn’t really trying to do that as much,” he said. “Those things are just part of the environment, so you just use whatever is necessary.”
He also wasn’t exactly enthused about being cast as a “franchise” filmmaker. He doesn’t see the value of labeling his career as such, and it’s sure as hell not the way he approaches his work. First known for his deep oeuvre of music videos, Fuqua moved to features in 1998, thanks to the Chow Yun-Fat-starring “The Replacement Killers,” a film that kicked off a nearly two-decade career making brutal action films. A dozen films in, Fuqua has finally made his very first sequel, but he did it his way.
“I tried to just omit the idea of the word ‘franchise’ in my mind, because it’s too much pressure,” he said. “And that’s more of a business word for the studios, ‘franchise’ and all that stuff, because as a filmmaker, you just have to make the best material that you have.”
Fuqua is armed with one of his most reliable weapons, though: Washington (also making his first sequel), who has previously starred in three other Fuqua films, including “Training Day,” which won him an Oscar for Best Actor. The film made nearly $200 million in global ticket sales, Fuqua’s highest-earning film yet. Of course it spawned a sequel, but Fuqua wasn’t eager to make a retread of what happened to work the first time. He may have even been a little scared of trying to do that.
“If you try to outdo yourself, or try to match what you did before, you could fall into a deep hole, and it’s a mistake just make the best material out of what you have,” Fuqua said. “You just do the best you can and hopefully you grew from the last one, right? You learned some things and you do that better. … I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t repeating itself. That was first. Then I wanted to make sure that what I learned on the first one, as far as what people did enjoy of the movie [was taken into account], which is not to lose the essence of that character.”
The second film also offered Fuqua the chance to get more emotional, even among the brutal violence that McCall so often engages in (at least one person in the film gets a hand literally ripped in two by the man, and that’s just in the first act).
The first “Equalizer” was driven by the unexpected bond between McCall and Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenager who has been forced into prostitution by the Russian mob and ultimately inspires McCall to become the eponymous Equalizer. Moretz’s character isn’t back for the sequel, but the screenplay builds in another young foil for McCall to help, though that relationship is very different than the one McCall and Teri formed in the first film.
This time around, it’s McCall’s young neighbor Miles (“Moonlight” breakout Ashton Sanders) who catches his attention. A talented artist who is flirting with the idea of joining up with the kind of gangbangers responsible for his brother’s recent death, Miles needs a mentor. McCall steps up, no corkscrew kills necessary.
“He needed somebody to believe in him,” Fuqua said. “He needed somebody to actually physically grab him and tell him, ‘You have a chance to make it. Don’t do anything stupid that’s going to completely ruin your life, and someone else’s life, and for what?’ Sometimes it’s necessary to do that and not just kill somebody with a corkscrew or a power drill. That’s just fun.”
Miles isn’t the only person who benefits from McCall’s unique sense of justice and empathy. Richard Wenk’s script (he also wrote the first film) imagines that McCall spends his off-hours as a Lyft driver, a gig that allows him the chance to meet people from all walks of life, including those who might need his help. One of those people is retiree Sam (Orson Bean), a Holocaust survivor who has a standing weekly ride with McCall.
While the majority “The Equalizer 2” concerns McCall bringing to justice people who have done something horrible to someone from his past, Sam’s own story eventually dovetails with the action. It’s also got the kind of emotional weight that bruising action films don’t often pack, an idea that Fuqua wanted to expand upon after a similar beat in the first film unexpectedly resonated with his audience.
The director was surprised how often a relatively small subplot from the first film would come up in his conversations with fans. In “The Equalizer,” one of McCall’s coworkers at the Home Mart is the victim of a robbery, during which her assailants don’t just empty her cash register, but also steal a cherished ring. Later in the film, McCall gets the ring back and delivers it to Jenny (Anastasia Mousis) by placing it in her cash register, sparking a moment of genuine joy in an otherwise dark film.
Audiences latched on to that, so the director made sure that “The Equalizer 2” offered its own version with Sam’s story. Still, Fuqua said there was some discussion about cutting Sam’s subplot down, but both he and Washington felt it was important to keep it in, all the better to emotionally ground McCall.
“It’s nice that he’s not just beating people up, he’s spending time with people,” Fuqua said. “Sometimes that’s just as important, or more important. It’s about justice, and justice is bigger than just beating people up.”
It’s a noticeable change from not just “The Equalizer,” but so much of Fuqua’s previous works, which leans towards violence and revenge with regularity. “Training Day” is riddled with shoot-outs, including an actual death by firing squad, while his Mark Wahlberg-starring “Shooter” is loaded with shots of people getting their brains literally blown out. And that’s to say nothing of his “Tears of the Sun,” which follows a special ops team trying to save a group of Nigerian refugees, complete with machete wounds of every possible stripe.
“People said, ‘Oh, Antoine, you’re getting too sentimental,'” Fuqua said. “And I was like, I’m not. Sometimes in my business we can get cynical and a bit jaded, in our business of reading books and reading scripts. Sometimes we get [that] what really matters to people is not always the big things. It’s something like that, something really emotional. It just connects.”
Fuqua has become increasingly prolific in recent years, turning out nearly a film a year since 2012, and that’s not including his many producing credits in both the film and television realms. But he’s not doing quite as much as has been reported by the entertainment press, which has attached his names to projects like “The Street,” “Wolf Boys,” and “Narco Sub” over the years, few of which might actually be coming to fruition with Fuqua at the helm.
“I keep telling everybody to stop doing that,” Fuqua said when asked about the slew of projects his name is attached to. “It’s amazing. It’s like if I have a meeting they put it in the trades. I don’t understand it at all. I’m not attached to as many things as you think.”
One thing he is working on, though, is that long-gestating “Scarface” reboot, a Universal property that Fuqua was first attached to back in 2016, before leaving a year later, leaving room for director David Ayer to step behind the camera. But then Ayer left the project mere months later, allowing Fuqua to return to the project in February. The film is still not ready to roll, however, and it recently picked up yet another screenwriter, tapping Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer to rewrite a script that’s already gotten passes from Ayer, Jonathan Herman, and the Coen brothers.
“We’re just trying to get the script right, because I don’t want to do that until the script is right,” Fuqua said of the long-in-the-works remake.
Fuqua said he’s also developing a film version of Jeff Hobbs’ biography “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.” He’s not going to direct that one, but he’s got plenty of ideas for how it should play out. That includes casting, as the filmmaker said he has already spoken to Sanders about possibly taken on the lead role, a Newark native who attended Yale and appeared to be escaping an impoverished childhood before his murder at age 30.
He’s also working on yet another fact-based film based on a book, as he’s currently producing an adaptation of “Not Without Hope,” the true story of the at-sea tragedy that took the lives of three football players, including NFL stars Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith.
As for his directing desires, Fuqua is understandably interested in teaming up with Washington again, and he said he wants to do another “epic film” with his frequent star, perhaps a big screen take on the life of the iconic Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca.
And what about another “Equalizer” sequel? He’s not ruling it out.
“I’m not even thinking that far ahead,” Fuqua said. “Honestly, my dream, if it were to work out, would be to have ‘Equalizer’ take place in Europe next. I don’t know, we’ll see how this does.”
“The Equalizer 2” opens on Friday, July 20.