Antoine Fuqua on Directing Golden Globes Honoree Denzel Washington: "It's Like Hearing Miles Davis Play"

directing denzel washington - H 2016
Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

In his own words, the 'Training Day' director explains the Cecil B. DeMille Award recipient's power and leadership on their three films together, including an upcoming remake of 'The Magnificent Seven.'

This story first appeared in the Jan. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

What’s it like finding out Denzel Washington wants you to direct his next movie? It’s like getting a phone call from Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan saying they want you to coach them. I was still fresh in the business when Denzel signed on to Training Day back in 2000. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Glory. He was electric. Even his smile had a power to it. And he also turned out to be one of the nicest guys I’d ever met — charming and funny and very curious about the material. He’d ask questions about story and character that no one had ever asked me. He wanted to make sure I understood the character and had a clear vision of the story. You can’t come to him with an idea that’s not thought through — he’ll shoot holes in it. I call him the “logic monster.”

Denzel saves every single version of a script, every single revision, and carries them around in a black bag. (He’s not a technical guy. Forget the computer thing — that will never happen.) Each one is filled with notes and chicken scratch and folded pages. While we’re shooting, he’ll say, “Didn’t the version of this line from the third draft sound better?” And he’ll recite the line.

I’ll never forget watching him and Ethan Hawke riffing off each other on Training Day. It was like hearing Miles Davis play. His speech — “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!” — that wasn’t in the script. That came out of somewhere deep down in his soul, just exploded out of him. I remember after we did it, Denzel walked over to me and he just looked exhausted. He said, “You need that again? Because I don’t think I could do that again.” When I watched it later and realized it was out of focus, my editor, Conrad Buff, said, “Antoine, no one will notice, trust me. It is so powerful.” We put it in. (And if you look closely at the shot, it’s out of focus.)

Being there the night he won his second Oscar for Training Day was an eruption of joy, because wow, I was a part of that history with Denzel. We’ve since done The Equalizer and now we’re working on a remake of The Magnificent Seven with Ethan, Chris Pratt and Vincent D’Onofrio. Denzel is the lead in the film and he’s definitely a leader on set. But he believes in leading from behind — something he learned from Nelson Mandela, who always said that “the sheepherder leads from behind.” At the beginning of the shoot, Denzel went into every castmember’s trailer and had a talk with each one. Martin Sensmeier is a young Native American actor in the cast with the least experience, and Denzel really helped him through scenes. He also is great with Chris, because he knows what it means to suddenly become very big in Hollywood. He spent a lot of time with Chris just discussing the business, the opportunities and, always, the work.

I was sitting on the porch of a saloon one night chatting with Denzel and Chris and before we knew it, it was about 5 o’clock in the morning. Denzel wandered off, and Chris and I stayed back discussing a scene. A few minutes later, who comes back but Denzel, in a fresh change of clothes. And the three of us sat there for another hour, till the sun came up, just talking.

That’s who he is: Denzel cares about other actors, he cares about the bigger picture, he cares about the business. He doesn’t just come and go. He comes in and makes sure all of it is working.