| Denzel Washington at the premiere of Antwone Fisher in Beverly Hills. (AFP)
Beverly Hills, Jan. 29: Denzel Washington needed Emeryville. It’s a small city tucked between Berkeley and Oakland on San Francisco Bay, but in a defining moment, it was the centre of the Earth.
Emeryville was where Washington screened his directorial debut: Antwone Fisher, for the first time. He snuck into the theatre with a baseball cap pulled low over his face after the lights went down. And he waited.
Washington has won adulation in front of the camera. Two Academy Awards, including a best-actor turn for Training Day, have made him one of the most bankable stars. A test screen with studio executives and a real audience, however, can make even an industry giant feel small.
Todd Black, the Antwone Fisher producer who introduced Washington to the script, said he never showed fear during the entire process. “I had to go to a chiropractor, I was so messed up,” Washington confessed in a recent interview. “A couple of days before shooting, it was like: ‘I can’t move; I can’t move.’ And the night before was unbelievable. I didn’t sleep at all.”
Now he was in Emeryville, feeling the anxiety all over again. He settled into his seat and saw the audience laugh in the expected places and squelch tears in the Hallmark moments. He also noticed laughter he didn’t anticipate but understood. Ease descended on him like butter over popcorn. “But I had to get out,” he said. “I didn’t even see the ‘directed by’”
Washington’s directing credit is not seen until the end. It is his way of ceding ego to craftsmanship. He took a modest approach in rendering Fisher’s real-life saga as an abused and abandoned boy who confronts his anguish with the help of a Navy psychiatrist (Washington).
Days before the shoot, cinematographer Philippe Rousselot gave a panicked Washington advice he once received from a famous French director: The camera goes in front.
“In 25 years, 30 pictures, something’s gotta stick,” he said. “You start to realise, you know, I do know a lot of this stuff. I just haven’t had to apply it.”
Before the lights went up, handlers hustled Washington into a closed room to read the surveys. Then he finally exhaled. The picture scored high marks. The studio immediately gave him the green light to help pick a release date. He tested it once more to be sure — but Washington was satisfied.
A choked-up Fisher, who wrote his life story while a guard at Sony, got word to Washington that he was happy with the movie. “Winning for me is Antwone Fisher saying: ‘You did a good job,’” Washington said. “I promised Antwone that I would take care of him. He’s been through enough.”