- The Washington Times - Friday, December 20, 2002

LOS ANGELES — "It was a slow process," Denzel Washington says, recalling the steps that led him to make a double commitment to the new movie "Antwone Fisher" first as an actor and then as director.
Although produced by Fox Searchlight, "Antwone Fisher," which opens today in Washington and several other major markets, grew out of several associations that had the Sony-Columbia studio in common.
For starters, the subject himself, a former sailor, worked as a security guard at Sony in the early 1990s. He thought his story might make an interesting picture about the need to overcome a grim start in life. Born in prison and put up for adoption, he had been raised in a Cleveland foster home dominated by a woman who took some kind of pleasure in brutally mistreating the children in her care.
Mr. Fisher reached the conclusion that enlisting in the Navy saved his life. Consultations with several Navy psychiatrists tamed a belligerent streak that could have landed him in the brig or worse.
Eventually he decided to confront the origins of his problems. He made a pilgrimage to Cleveland, where he met the biological mother he had never known and also discovered several members of his father's family. His father had been murdered before Mr. Fisher was born.
This is the chronicle the movie summarizes and fictionalizes in several respects. Newcomer Derek Luke is cast as the title character during his Navy service. Coincidentally, Mr. Luke worked at the gift shop on the Sony lot while auditioning for the role.
Mr. Washington is cast as the Navy psychiatrist assigned to the Fisher case, an invented character named Jerome Davenport whose concern for the young man coincides with some kind of estrangement in his marriage.
The film's producer, Todd Black, has been based at Sony for several years. He met Antwone Fisher through a friend named Chris Smith, a high school teacher who also writes screenplays and conducts a beginning course in screenwriting at an African Methodist Episcopal congregation in Los Angeles.
Mr. Fisher had enrolled in the course, and Mr. Smith arranged a meeting that led not only to interest in a Fisher biographical project, but a decision by Mr. Black to encourage the novice to write the screenplay about his own life.

That definitely was an unorthodox command decision. Assigning the project to an experienced writer would have led to some ready money and perhaps hastened the start of production. Mr. Black stuck to his guns and shepherded the work in progress for a year or two, waiting patiently through numerous drafts. The deal remained a Fox Searchlight project even though Mr. Black had moved on to Sony.
The finished screenplay was brought to Mr. Washington's attention in 1995 by Mr. Black, who wanted Mr. Washington to play the psychiatrist.
"At a certain point, he remarked that I was sounding more like a director than an actor," Mr. Washington recalls. "I had to kind of acknowledge that, but I wasn't prepared to jump into that role just yet."
Not for another five years. Mr. Washington, who turns 48 next week, resumed discussions with Mr. Black between roles in major movies. He also met Mr. Fisher and talked about the project with him.
"I took such a long time to get to it," Mr. Washington reflects. "I guess I needed the time to assure myself and have enough confidence. I began thinking about all the directors I had worked with and decided to start preparing while I was still acting in several films.
"I got Philip Noyce's entire shot list during 'The Bone Collector' and studied that closely. I don't like watching myself, but I made myself look at all the rushes during 'Training Day' and 'John Q.' I knew the day was coming when I would have to criticize myself or fire myself
"But, you know, 25 years in the business and 30 movies, something's gotta stick. I started to realize, I do know a lot of stuff. I just had to apply it in a different way. I'd always done it one way in the past like an actor."
Of course, Mr. Washington was still shouldering an actor's burden while also worrying overtime about the performance of Mr. Luke, who had never appeared in a movie.
"I wanted to focus on Derek," Mr. Washington recalls. "The most important thing was to help him in every way possible. Now I find myself in the scene with him and have to act. So that tends to blow the focus. Then I have to look at every take afterward on the video monitor. It was definitely a more demanding workload. I did get to shoot for a good three or four weeks before I had to play a scene, so that helped .
"The crew members weren't there just because I was, though. I think everyone really responded to this young man's story. They wanted to be a part of that. They weren't there for the money, I know that. I was losing money."

He was losing a substantial amount, as a matter of fact, because Mr. Washington can command considerably more than the film's $13.8 million budget as a leading man. Given the delays and uncertainties already built into Mr. Fisher's inexperience as a writer and Mr. Washington's inexperience as a director, it was perhaps inevitable that the casting of the title role turned into another suspense element. Derek Luke remembers auditioning four times.
"We had been reading people for years," Mr. Washington recalls. "Somewhere in the process, I realized that it would be better to have an unknown. Derek came in. He was exceptional. He just won the part. He was very shy and quiet at the start, but I started to work with him and thought he had an edge that felt right. But we did bring him back three or four times because we just weren't sure. After all, the guy has never acted in a movie before.
"But then you think, 'Well, Denzel, you were that guy at one time. It turned out all right for you.' I believed in Derek, finally, and I believed that I could work with him in ways that compensated for the lack of experience."
Mr. Washington declines to pass judgment on his directing debut.
"It's too early," he says. "I just want people to see it. It was frightening, but I did enjoy directing. I liked the nature of the collaboration with other talented people. It was the most fun I've had in a long time, and I will do it again.
"I've got some ideas. But not right away. I've got commitments to act in quite a few pictures. I've just finished a movie with Carl Franklin, who did 'Devil in a Blue Dress.' It was such a relief not worrying about the things a director needs to worry about. I could just hang out in the trailer again."

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