"Don't make a grown man cry now," Denzel Washington said to the DGA member audience in New York as they gave his directorial debut, Antwone Fisher, a standing ovation. He took the stage to participate in a discussion about his film with director Jonathan Demme.
Fisher is the story of a young man who is only able to confront his horrific childhood when he is sent to see a U.S. Navy psychiatrist to uncover the reason for his violent outbursts.
"It's already a very powerful story and an honest story with wonderful performances," Washington said, "so the thing I had to remember as a director was to just stay out of the way and not tell you how you should feel. Just allow you to feel what this young man is going through."
Washington said that from the start of his acting career he's lived by the maxim that "less is more" and he carried that into his direction.
He also praised the performance of Derek Luke in the lead role. Luke had never appeared in a film before. "But he has a spirit about him, an honesty, and is an emotionally available artist," Washington said. "He tapped into his anger. He's really soft spoken so I had to really tap hard."
"I wish that young man was here," Demme said.
"Here in the theatre?" Washington responded. And to the surprise of both Demme and the audience, Luke was indeed there, sitting in the second row. Luke joined the two on stage.
The film opens with a sequence inspired by the real-life Fisher's (who also wrote the screenplay) childhood dreams. The dreams provided him with a sanctuary from the troubles of his early life. Demme remarked that this sequence was unlike anything he had seen before.
"I was always impressed with Andrew Wyeth," he said. "I just thought of it like a Wyeth painting." Originally the scene had been cut for budgetary reasons, but Washington insisted the scene make the film. He even offered to pay for it himself, and finally the execs relented. "As fate would have it, when we went to scout the location, it was all green. But we had pushed it so far back in the schedule that when we get there, everything was golden. And, I said this is like Wyeth."
In addition to Luke's performance, he also praised the work of his cinematographer (Philippe Rousselot), sound man (Willie Burton), and his editor (Conrad Buff who cut Titanic and Training Day). "I knew that even if I stink [as a director], it's going to look good, it's going to cut together well," he said.
Washington also talked about the cooperation he received from the Department of Defense, particularly from the Navy. All of his actors playing sailors were able to attend a boot camp to learn how to wear their uniforms and "in a small way, become sailors."
In the end, Washington said, "Now I really understand what it means for a filmmaker to not want to let that film go: 'Just let me do one more thing, just one more thing!'"