Their initial encounter began inauspiciously enough, that of a seemingly aloof movie star and a master craftsman behind the camera on the film “Remember the Titans.”
“We had a polite, distant relationship,” recalls Philippe Rousselot of Denzel Washington, who plays two roles on “Antwone Fisher” — supporting player and first-time helmer. “He wasn’t very talkative. To be honest, I didn’t know what to think when he asked me to talk about shooting his first film as a director, but my wife had read the book. She said, if for nothing else, I should do it as a tribute to the real Antwone Fisher.”
Washington gave Rousselot — whose credits include an Oscar for a “River Runs Through It,” and nominations for “Henry and June” and “Hope and Glory” — a lot of sway in deciding how best to shoot “Fisher.” “We talked about the story, and I asked Philippe where we should put the camera in certain scenes,” says Washington. “He said, ‘I don’t know. We can put the camera overhead and point it down, but who’s point of view is that and how would it help tell the story? I guess we’ll put it in front of the actors.’ He helped me keep it simple and elegant.”
Rousselot suggested composing “Fisher” in widescreen anamorphic format. Washington embraced that concept as a comparatively inexpensive way to give the film a bigscreen look. Rousselot also wanted to use longer anamorphic lenses to create a more intimate connection between the characters and audience.
When it came to the opening dream scene, in which a young Fisher stands in a field in front of a barn and then goes inside to join his extended family and ancestors for a sumptuous banquet, Washington followed his d.p.’s lead.
Riches in nature
“I imagined that scene as an Andrew Wyeth painting,” Washington says, “but because of budget constrictions, we had to eliminate the exterior, and we just had one day to shoot the interior. Philippe suggested filming the boy outside while the actors were dressing in period costumes. He said let’s look around and find something great.”
They found a field with an endless horizon of beautiful golden flowers. The anamorphic format allowed Rousselot to take close-ups of the boy framed by the flowers, which Rousselot characterized as a happy accident.
“I didn’t think of Denzel as a first-time director,” Rousselot says. “He was very open. He accepted ideas he liked and rejected those he didn’t. His instincts are fantastic, and that’s what directing is about. It’s not knowing about lenses or where to put the camera. It’s about knowing how to tell a story and he has a very good sense of that.”
“It was more about capturing his spirit,” Washington says of Fisher, played by newcomer Derek Luke. “The story is really about what was happening in this young man’s mind, so I told Philippe we wanted to show the audience what was going on between his ears. His close-ups are like portraits.”
What’s next for Washington? He laughs and answers, “I hope to direct again, and I’m probably going to be a pain in the neck to every director I work with.”