AFTER the rigours of 2001’s Training Day, Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar for his role as a burnt out cop, has been loyal to the film’s director Antoine Fuqua, starring as a formidable hitman in The Equaliser. Ethan Hawke, Washington’s more honourable Training Day buddy cop, has likewise stuck by the director, also appearing in Brooklyn’s Finest.
“Training Day was a hard movie to make and we filmed in a rough area,” Fuqua recalls. “It was a fight to make that independent kind of movie in the studio system and every day was tough. But whenever you work with friends you know they’ve got your back as I had theirs.”
Now Washington and Hawke are on horseback helping the African American director realise his contemporary take on one of his favourite films, Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, Seven Samurai.
“Both films are about terror and men coming together to do the right thing,” Fuqua says. “Even if it was set in the past Seven Samurai is very contemporary. It’s about bullying and taking advantage of the weak.”
While there’s naturally a lot of John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960) in there too since Sturges closely followed Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Fuqua’s rendering of the story owes as much to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and to the need for cultural diversity of our times, so that an Asian and native American character are included.
Though with prankster Chris Pratt providing the film’s laughs and stealing every scene he’s in, it’s not a film to be taken too seriously. After Fuqua and his cast promoted the film in Toronto, the fun continued and as the film closed the Venice Festival where comparisons to the edgier Sergio Leone westerns starring Clint Eastwood were made.
“We had to create characters that are quite different from Kurosawa’s Samurai or Sturges’ Magnificent Seven with Steve McQueen,” Fuqua says. “The world was different back then; the characters were more wholesome. I don’t think they had any dirt on them. I don’t think any of them sweated! With us the gloves come off because it has to be edgier. Our guys are more The Wild Bunch than Steve McQueen. They’re a little dirtier, a little meaner and most of them are outlaws except for Chisolm, Denzel’s warrant officer.
“If we were sticking to one way of doing something all westerns would be white guys looking like John Wayne in the John Ford movies. Though when he made The Searchers it was darker and even John Wayne’s character was much darker. Then, after Vietnam, we had The Wild Bunch. So westerns change with the time we’re in. We made our film based on the world we live in right now.”
Even so, despite all the mod cons of contemporary filmmaking, outdoor shooting was demanding.
“It wasn’t easy working in 110 degrees with horses, kids, chickens, dogs and rain storms,” Fuqua sighs.
Ultimately what attracted so many stars to the project was the fact that the director allowed his cast to have considerable input into their characters.
“One of the great things about working with Antoine is that he asks you to contribute, so he puts a lot of faith in you,” says Hawke, an experienced director who here plays a sophisticated, tired outlaw named Goodnight Robicheaux. “It’s a really rewarding process.”
Pratt was naturally game as the irascible drunk Irishman, Josh Faraday. (Cliches abound here, right down to the moustache-twirling villain, Bartholomew Bogue, played by Peter Sarsgaard.)
“One of the things that worked was that I was naturally competitive, drawing and spinning my guns!” Pratt says with his usual boyish gusto.
The Jurassic World star, who some view as the new/next Harrison Ford, also loved the wardrobe and gladly indulged in what he so deftly terms “cowboy shit”.
“The clothes make a man! For me standing in front of a mirror and trying on these clothes was one of the most fun elements. It was about finding your own personal style and what sets you apart from the other six.”
The solidly built 37-year-old, in fact, dwarves Washington when the actors are seated alongside each other. Though Washington’s broody bounty hunter is not letting anybody undermine him and the 61-year-old actor still exerts a powerful screen presence.
“My father was a minister in the church and he’d wanted us to go to the movies like The Ten Commandments,” Washington recalls. “I grew up watching westerns and Bonanza on television. So to get to ride around on a black horse all dressed in black was like being a kid again.”
A young woman, Emma Cullen, impressively played by Haley Bennett (from The Equaliser) also figures strongly in the film, as the person who hires Chisolm to take on Bogue. “I got to get my hands dirty,” says the 28 year-old. “Usually women are in the kitchen and not out there shooting guns and riding horses and getting into all the action. It was fun to be part of the boys’ club and they welcomed me and helped me a lot.”
She will not reveal which of the men exerted the most testosterone, even if there was a lot of it around. “Let me tell you, they were all pumping iron! They transformed a little house into a gym. They were doing push-ups and pull-ups and roaring — all of them!”
Pratt’s Faraday is probably the softie of the piece, as the actor seems to be in real life.
“Faraday is a person who suffers the regret of having sinned in his life in a major way,” Pratt explains. “He carries around some pretty heavy stuff inside his heart and has convinced himself that he’s less than savoury. I think you have to face the bad things you’ve done and that’s deeper stuff to have to play as an actor than Peter Quill from Guardians of the Galaxy and many of my other characters.”
Certainly, the environment Pratt was working in was undeniably real and he had to keep his usual clowning around to a minimum around the horses.
“Horses are definitely more dangerous than animated dinosaurs,” he quips, “and I was wise enough at this time in my life to take it really slowly. I’d always treated horses like motorcycles, a piece of machinery. So I’d get on, hit the gas and expect it to go. And I was surprised when it threw my ass off. It’s a living, breathing being and I approached it with enough apprehension this time around to avoid being injured, luckily.”
Ultimately the expansive sky of the western is brought to bear in Fuqua’s film. “I love westerns because of that,” Fuqua admits. “The big sky and the clouds represents freedom and that’s what people dreamt about. That’s what people went to the frontier for — the dream.”
The film is dedicated to composer James Horner (Titanic, Fuqua’s Southpaw) who tragically died at the age of 61 when he crashed his single-person aircraft in June last year.
Fuqua remembers him: “James ironically wrote seven songs for the film before he passed and he was going to give me a surprise based on the script and the discussions we had.
“His music was sweeping because he wanted to make you feel what was going on in the story.”