Director Antoine Fuqua wastes no time in establishing Boston as the setting for his adaptation of the ’80s TV show “The Equalizer.” The film’s opening shot is of the Zakim Bridge (first seen on film in Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”), and the subsequent action – of which there’s plenty – takes place all over the main and side streets of the city as well as in a few North Shore locales.
Sitting back in his hotel room at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Fuqua said that even before he was onboard, the script had been written with Boston in mind.
“The studio said it didn’t have to be there, but I told them I loved Boston,” he said. “Boston is blue collar, and I’m from Pittsburgh, so I related to that. It’s like that in these smaller, more concentrated places where there are more hard-working people. And the city still has a lot of the Old World feel — the buildings and textures and history are there.”
But Boston also carries bittersweet memories for Fuqua, who before arriving in April of last year to film “The Equalizer” (it opens on Friday) was last here in 2001 doing a press tour for his film “Training Day.”
“It was on 9/11,” he said, quietly. “When 9/11 was happening, I was in a plane. When we landed in Boston, it was chaos. [The airport] was locked down, people were crying; it was devastating for me to come to Boston that way.
“Same thing when I came back last year,” he added. “As I was flying in, the Marathon bombing was happening. I was in the air while they were both happening. That freaked me out, and that’s always going to be something for me.”
But Fuqua soon settled down to work. He had to, quickly. He had taken on director duties just a couple of weeks earlier, shortly after getting a call from Denzel Washington, who co-produced and stars in the film. Washington plays the laid-back but mysterious Bob McCall, a retired CIA agent trying to live a normal life.
“He asked me if I’d heard of ‘The Equalizer,’ ” said Fuqua, who had directed Washington in his Oscar-winning “Training Day” performance. “I said, ‘Yeah, that TV show. And I heard there was a script in development.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve got something you should read.’ ”
The show, set in New York, ran on CBS from 1985 to ’89, and starred British actor Edward Woodward (who nabbed a best actor Golden Globe for the role) as Robert McCall, an embittered, retired, and dangerous CIA agent turned private detective who took out newspaper ads offering help for people with “odds against” them. Washington also plays a former CIA agent, but his McCall has no interest in helping others. He just wants to be left alone . . . until certain buttons are pushed.
Two weeks after saying yes to the script he received from Washington, Fuqua and the actor were in Boston having meetings, scouting locations, prepping the film. For Washington, the trip apparently brought back some unpleasant memories that stretched back 30 years to when his wife, Pauletta Pearson, was in Boston doing a show called “The All Night Strut!”
“The last real fight I had was in Boston,” Washington told journalists at a recent TIFF press conference. “She was doing the show and I came up to visit her, and security tried to suggest I was a pimp and she was a prostitute and I couldn’t stay in the [hotel] room. . . . That was the taste I had in my mouth about Boston. I came back there with those memories.”
And yet, according to Fuqua, the “Equalizer” movie set was a place of liberal, free-flowing ideas.
“Things were happening,” said Fuqua. “Like, Denzel would say, ‘I’m thinking of being bald.’ And then images starting popping in my head, like shooting some scenes in the rain.”
There was also an openness in casting. For the part of a young prostitute whom McCall befriends and then tries to rescue, Fuqua had his eye on Haley Bennett (“Marley & Me”), who was 25 at the time.
“Then, off the cuff, [Sony Pictures cochairwoman] Amy Pascal asked me if I had met Chloe Moretz. I hadn’t, but all I could picture was the little girl from ‘Hugo,’ ” Fuqua recalled. “Amy said [Moretz] was 16 now, but I still thought that was kind of young to play a prostitute. Amy asked me if I would just meet her, and I said OK. So Chloe came in, we talked, and I thought, ‘Done!’ I called Denzel and asked if he knew Chloe Moretz. He said he hadn’t met her. I said, ‘Why don’t you come in and maybe I’ll have her read with you.’ So he came in, she read with him . . . boom! There she is.”
Moretz, also in Toronto, remembered her first meeting with Fuqua.
“I told him straight up, ‘Look, I want to play this character because I love her and I think that I can play her,’ ” she said. “I know it’s written for a 24-year-old, but even though I’m only 16, I can do this. I promise I can do this. These girls on the street are not 24, they’re 16.”
Moretz, who has previously been directed by Martin Scorsese (“Hugo”) and Tim Burton (“Dark Shadows”) was quick to give plaudits to Fuqua.
“He turned out to be very, very personal, very collaborative,” she said. “He’s really hands-on, and he talks to his actors very closely, very intimately. I really enjoyed that.”
Along with his reputation for working well with actors, fans of Fuqua’s earlier films — “The Replacement Killers,” “King Arthur,” “Brooklyn’s Finest,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” among them — have come to expect a combination of quiet, insightful character moments and bursts of outrageous violence. “The Equalizer” spends plentiful time showing McCall in contemplative mode, leading a neat, orderly life. When the film turns to violence, half of it is played out on the screen, while the rest is off-camera.
Asked if that nuanced portrayal of violence was part of his plan from the start, Fuqua said, “I always look at stuff and wonder, ‘Do I need to show that?’ Because the audience is smart; they get it. You see Denzel picking up a sledgehammer, then later wiping it off, but no one wants to see Denzel beat the crap out of a guy with a sledgehammer. A lot of that happens in my own notes. I’ll write, ‘Don’t need to see,’ or in some cases, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ ”
Back when Fuqua came to Boston to promote “Training Day,” he said that he hoped one day to make a film that might inspire another filmmaker to want to keep raising his or her own bar. All these years later, he seems happy with his progress.
“I like to think that I’m evolving and growing and getting better at the craft,” he said. “I’m learning about the power of movies and what I really want to say. Whether it’s a big action thriller or a small independent movie, it’s what do I really want to say? Right now, what I want to say is: Do the right thing. In ‘The Equalizer,’ it’s do the right thing; make the wrong things right. That was the goal.”
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.