The Equalizer: Set Visit with Denzel Washington

I don’t go on set visits very often. I don’t have the time, quite frankly, and I don’t fly well. But I’ll fly any damned where, any damned when for Denzel Washington, whose upcoming film The Equalizer was shooting in Haverhill, MA last year.

If it sounds glamorous, get this: the studio was a converted Lowe’s home improvement store, which was filled with detailed sets of the vigilante hero’s apartment and the office in which Washington’s character, Robert McCall, has a particularly violent altercation with Russian mob goons. This set looked for all the world like a bomb went off in it, but – perhaps ironically – we weren’t allowed to touch a thing. You wouldn’t want that tiny piece of broken glass in a different place from shot to shot. Audiences notice things like that.

Audiences may also notice that this version of The Equalizer bears only a passing resemblance to the original CBS TV series that ran for four seasons from 1985 to 1989. The TV version of “The Equalizer” starred The Wicker Man’s Edward Woodward as a former spy who retired, but still drove around in a sexy Jaguar and saved the day for helpless individuals who responded to his advertisement in the newspaper. “Odds against you? Need help? Call the Equalizer. 212-555-4200.”

“The only elements we retained were the title and the idea of a man helping people,” says screenwriter Richard Wenk, answering questions after screening two rough scenes from the movie. “In this case, in this movie… really helping the voiceless. We started writing this and decided he was a changer of circumstances for people whose circumstances would probably never change. So that was the initial… that was the basic concept of the TV show. He put an ad in the paper and helped people who had no other recourse. In this movie there is no ad until the very end, so he’s finding that his random acts of justice, so to speak, are who he is and that’s a place where he’ll find a home for himself.”

Richard Wenk, a veteran of action thrillers including The Expendables 2 and The Mechanic, was quick to point out that he had never seen the original series, and so were Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua, who took time out of shooting an action sequence at the “Home Mart” where Robert McCall works in the movie version of The Equalizer

“I actually didn’t look at the original,” says Denzel Washington. “Maybe I did. When did it come on, in the Eighties…? I remember it but I don’t remember watching it. British guy, I remember that. Dressed well. Snappy dresser. But I didn’t look at it leading up to this or in preparation for this.”

Antoine Fuqua doesn’t even plan to include any references for fans of the original series. Not even the iconic trench coat, or the snazzy Jaguar.

“I never thought about it that way, at all. Like I said, as a kid I remember the Jaguar and the nice clothes, but I think the heart of it was always because he was helping other people,” says Fuqua, who is reunting with his Training Day star over ten years later. “If you were a fan of the show, a true fan of the show, you were a fan of the show because of his actions, not because of the car. Because as I said, it wasn’t something I ran to see, and what I remember is that he helped others and had a really cool car. You know what I mean? But in this obviously you don’t see the car. But you do see him do some pretty amazing things that that Equalizer didn’t do, as far as his skills.”

Although The Equalizer won’t have any of his signature gadgets in the movie version, Fuqua does promise that this new Robert McCall has his own way of meting out justice.

“You’ll never look at a corkscrew again the same. I promise you that. He improvises more. He’s a guy that doesn’t carry guns and things like that. That’s part of his past. He has one, you see that, but he would prefer not to do that. So you see more hand-to-hand combat but also more improvised violence.”

Does that mean The Equalizer will be rated R? “Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I mean, I don’t know how you’d cut the stuff I’ve been shooting,” adds Fuqua. “It’s pretty nasty. It’s pretty nasty. It’ll put your mind in Taxi Driver. It was violent.”

Related: Denzel Washington Kicks Ass in the Trailer for The Equalizer

Like the “hero” in Taxi Driver, Robert McCall is pulled into action by an underage prostitute, played in The Equalizer by Chloë Grace-Moretz. In the scenes previewed for the press on set, McCall attempts to buy her freedom from a group of Russian gangsters. He doesn’t have much – he only works at a Home Mart – and needless to say they don’t take the deal. As we wait for the scene to explode into the chaos that the soon to be demolished set promises, we notice a new wrinkle in the mythos of The Equalizer. Robert McCall now suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

“I forgot how it got started,” Denzel Washington says. “I think it was my idea. Just wanting to add layers so he’s not Action Joe, runs around kicking butt, you know? He’s an ordinary guy with his own issues and he’s trying to overcome those, as well. He’s just tidy. He’s really tidy.”

“I read a book called I Never Wash My Hands – yeah, interesting title – and it talks about [how] ‘obsession’ is a big word,” Washington elaborated. “You can be obsessed with a lot of things, it’s just that OCD people know certain things. People count or wash their hands or things like that. But you can be obsessed with microphones or phones or chairs or… I don’t know how or what makes it happen. It’s just obsessive behavior.”

Denzel Washington is no stranger to the action genre, but working in a housewares store? That’s a new one for the actor. Fortunately, he has some personal experience.

“This is actually fun! You know, when I was a kid… You guys are all too young, I don’t even know if they have ‘em anymore, there used to be a department store called S. Klein’s. They’re like a Sears or something. Anyway, my father was the night guard there. He’d work the midnight shift so sometimes he would take me and my brother to a place like this, but it had a food court and toys. And toys! We’d get there at midnight and work till sun up or eight in the morning or whatever. Oh, we wouldn’t work. He worked. And we just had free reign of the whole place. So we ended up in the candy department quite a bit, it was fun riding bikes around, up and down the aisle. So it’s not quite like that, but it is. You realize things you need around the house.”

“Where would a marginalized 50-year-old man be today?” added screenwriter Richard Wenk. “He’d be at a Wal-Mart or a Home Mart or a Home Depot or those kind of places, where you can be around and invisible at the same time. It actually really works well for the balance of character.”

Audiences will find out just how well that balance works when The Equalizer arrives in theaters on September 26, 2014.

This Week in Film News – Week Ending 06/20/14

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and the host of The B-Movies Podcast and The Blue Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.