Denzel Washington's new movie, Antwone Fisher, tells the amazing story of a young Navy sailor who conquers the psychological demons from his troubled childhood with the help of a Navy psychiatrist.
Washington found the tale irresistible. "I just couldn't believe this story," he told Primetime. "I mean, it was such an amazing story. And then I got the opportunity to meet Antwone. I was hooked."
"Antwone" is Antwone Fisher, the man whose life inspired the movie. After meeting him, Washington signed on as director — his first directing project ever.
The movie tells the tale of a sailor who is sent to see a Navy psychiatrist because he is prone to violent outbursts. The psychiatrist helps him confront the physical and sexual abuse he suffered during a childhood spent in foster care.
Washington, whose normal fee is reported to be $20 million, took a huge pay cut to work on Antwone Fisher, which ended up costing $13 million overall. In addition to directing, he agreed to play the role of the psychiatrist, which would help the film attract financing. He learned on the set that it is hard to direct a movie you are acting in too. "It's enough just to direct the first time out, you know. And to have to act and direct — that was very difficult," he said.
During filming, he insisted that the focus not be on him. "It's about the boy. That's what I kept telling the crew. That's what I kept telling myself. That's what I tell everyone. It's about Antwone. It's not about me," he said.
Working as a Security Guard on the Sony Lot
The story the film tells is amazing enough. But what it does not cover — the story of how Fisher's life made it to the big screen — is perhaps just as incredible.
After leaving the Navy, Fisher, who is now 43, eventually got a job as a security guard on the Sony Pictures lot. He decided to write a screenplay about his life, and took a free screenwriting class in a church in South Central.
The teacher of the class was impressed with Fisher and set up a meeting for him with Todd Black, a powerful producer who is co-head of the Sony-based Escape Artists production company. Fisher's story was so moving that it left Black and his partner Jason Blumenthal in tears, according to Fisher.
Fisher had always wanted to write his story himself, but most people he talked to in Hollywood told him he wouldn't be able to because he had never been to college or film school.
Black, on the other hand, agreed that Fisher should write the screenplay himself. Knowing that no one would pay an unknown security guard to write a screenplay, Black took the unusual move of putting up his own personal money. "I called my wife and I said, you know, I want to write him a check out of our checkbook, out of our account, because I think he can do it and I think it is the right thing to do," he said.
Fisher gave up his security job, and Black set him up in a bungalow on the same Sony lot, so he could write in peace.
Four Years and 41 Drafts
It took Fisher four years — and 41 drafts — to finish the screenplay, but he got there, with help and advice from Black and Blumenthal.
After Washington agreed to direct the film and play the psychiatrist, the film's producers at Fox Searchlight still needed to find an actor to play Fisher. The actor they ended up choosing, 28-year-old Derek Luke, turned out to come from the same place Fisher had worked as a security guard: the Sony Pictures lot.
Luke was working as a clerk in the Sony gift store when he says he sneaked into an audition for the film. He was later called back to audition for Washington. On the strength of his performance, Washington decided the young actor "had what it took" for the part.
When Washington and Black went to give Luke the good news at the Sony gift store, by coincidence Fisher just happened to be in the store too. Ignoring Fisher, Washington walked right up to Luke and greeted him "Hey, how you doing, Antwone?"
When he understood what Washington was saying — that he got the part — Luke was overjoyed. "I, like, just fainted," he remembers. "I don't know what I did. I think I kissed him, hugged him, like, tried to squeeze him until he turned red."
The scene was an emotional climax for all four of them. Black remembers "four grown men sitting on the steps of the Sony store, crying."