Monday, November 20, 2017
  • Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016
Denzel Washington's Collaborators Come From Both Sides Of The "Fences"
Director Denzel Washington and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen on location for "Fences" (photo by David Lee, courtesy of Paramount Pictures)
DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen works for 1st time with actor/director while editor Hughes Winborne enjoys return engagement

For Fences (Paramount Pictures), director/actor Denzel Washington brought together collaborators from both sides of the figurative fence--prime examples being cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen and editor Hughes Winborne. 

The latter has worked with Washington before, cutting the second feature film directed by the actor, the 2007 release The Great Debaters. (Washington’s directorial debut, Antwone Fisher, came five years earlier.) 

By contrast, Fences marks the first collaboration between Christensen and Washington. The two first met during an exploratory meeting. Christensen recalled she was in NY at that time wrapping shooting for The Girl on the Train when Washington happened to be in the city. What the DP thought would be a 15 to 20-minute encounter turned into what she described as “an intense, passionate discussion” lasting over four hours. The two struck up a rapport, talking about how they interpreted stories, “how we read and understand culture and history, whether it’s Africa-American or mine which is Scandinavian. We agreed that family stories are universal and that we both in our own way could relate to the story of Fences.”

So what Christensen regarded as a long shot at best turned out to her ultimately getting the call to lens Fences. “Denzel has worked with so many wonderful DPs. I felt incredibly lucky to somehow be picked for this film,” said Christensen whose other credits include The Hunt (2012) and Far from the Madding Crowd (2015). She was nominated for the Golden Frog at Camerimage in 2010 on the strength of her work on Submarino directed by Thomas Vinterberg.

For Fences, said Christensen, Washington’s goal was to do justice to the script penned by August Wilson. Fences--the third feature helmed by Washington, a two time Oscar winning actor (for his performances in Glory and Training Day)--is based on Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same title. It’s the first work of the late Wilson to be brought to the big screen.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences introduces us to Troy Maxson (portrayed by Washington), a sanitation worker who once dreamed of a professional baseball career but was too old when the major leagues began admitting black players. That injustice gnaws at him as he struggles to provide for his family. At the same time he makes a life decision which threatens to tear that family apart, jeopardizing his marriage to Rose (Viola Davis). Washington and Davis reprise their roles from the 2010 stage revival of Fences which garnered Tony Awards for both actors. Also coming to the film from that Broadway production were Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby and Stephen Henderson. Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney round out the film’s cast.

Christensen said that the best advice she received from Washington was simply to “let the actors act.” She explained, “You can get in the way sometimes with lighting and the camera. The fact that I’m a script-crazy person helped me. When I light, I’m not lighting to just make a pretty shot. I light and frame to get whatever I can from the actors, to do justice to their performances, to advance the story. The reasons and decisions are based on the script--in this case the great words of August Wilson. Denzel wanted to honor August Wilson throughout, which meant not running away from the play as we were trying to make it into a film. We still had to stay true to the source material. In a number of the scenes we started with the camera in a wide shot as though the audience might actually be sitting on a stage and looking towards our set as they would in the [Broadway] theatre. But then we would cut in--based on when it was right in terms of the story and performance, with close-ups which brought in the cinematic element.”

Also bringing the film to life was the Hill District in Pittsburgh which served as a historically rich neighborhood setting, including a narrow row house which served as the Maxsons’ residence. The limited confines of that house contributed to the desired feel. Restriction is important to the story, particularly for the characters, observed Christensen. The actors being in a real house, creating this truthful story, was essential. “Denzel at one point said we could have never done this on a soundstage and I totally agree,” related Christensen. “It would have been a very different movie.”

Washington and Christensen also concurred on 35mm film being the right choice for Fences, lending itself best to the period piece story. The balancing act, though, concerned the rather long dialogue and monologue scenes in the film, which meant, per Washington’s preference, that the camera would have to keep rolling. “We were shooting in 35 millimeter, which means we were restricted in terms of the number of shooting minutes,” related Christensen. “We would often run the full roll to capture the full impact of the scene and the actors’ performances within the allotted time. We put everything we could into the roll without cutting it, tracking the actors, their movements and work throughout.”

Washington also wanted to shoot with anamorphic lenses while Christensen’s initial instinct was to opt for spherical lenses. “Denzel said that the anamorphic lens is an actor’s performance lens--once you pull from background to foreground, the focus is on the face. He showed me what he meant through test shots that anamorphic was the way to go.”

Hughes Winborne
A Best Editing Oscar winner for Crash in 2006, Hughes Winborne, ACE, has ties to the two stars of Fences, having previously cut for director Washington and editing The Help for which Viola Davis received a Best Leading Actress Academy Award nomination. Winborne also won an American Cinema Editors (ACE) Eddie Award for Crash, and last year earned a second career Eddie nomination for Guardians of the Galaxy (shared with editors Fred Raskin and Craig Wood).

Winborne connected with Washington through producer Todd Black. Winborne cut The Pursuit of Happyness for which Black served as a producer. Black’s next film was Washington’s The Great Debaters, and that helped bring Winborne into the fold for that picture. 

Last year Washington reached out to Winborne for Fences. “I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t familiar with August Wilson’s work at the time,” said Winborne who upon reading the screenplay assessed, “His writing is astounding; it’s of another world, which is the challenge for an editor. The challenge is to get the rhythm and language right, translating that rhythm from the play to the film. In this respect, Fences is like no other movie. The language is more like music than dialogue. The movie has little music because of that. For the first thirty-five to forty minutes of the film, Denzel and the cast are going eighty-five miles per hour, and trying to maintain that pace keeping up that rhythm was really important. You break it and you lose the flow. Denzel talked to me about that when they did the play on Broadway where they had to keep the rhythm up as well. But when people laugh, and oooh and aaah, the temptation for actors is to take a pause. You can’t do that. You have to keep on keeping on. You don’t have to catch every word because the words are like a song. You get the rhythm of the language. It’s almost like at times in the movie you get the meaning without hearing the content. 

“The goal,” continued Winborne, “is for the editing not to get noticed. For me, when not to edit was in some respects the hardest decision. And once you make the cut, you start another rhythm. For this film, trying to put the cut in the right place was challenging. You have to be careful. I can’t cut in such a way that might divide a sentence and consequently distract from the meaning of the full sentence. Denzel was there to monitor me. If I was off, rhythmically, he’d say, ‘I think you’re several frames off.’ He was usually right.”

Winborne said cutting Fences was a privilege. “It’s an emotional and deep feeling movie. When you live inside a movie like that, it affects you. You can’t help it. It’s one of the gifts that this business of editing can give you. I got to live in August Wilson’s work for seven months, to experience all that emotional depth. It’s a movie about life. August Wilson is a wonderful playwright.”

This is the seventh of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards. The Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live by the ABC Television Network. The Oscar presentation also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

Credits for ScreenWork: 

DIRECTOR DENZEL WASHINGTON
SCREENPLAY BY AUGUST WILSON BASED UPON HIS PLAY
CINEMATOGRAPHER CHARLOTTE BRUUS CHRISTENSEN
PRODUCTION DESIGNER DAVID GROPMAN
SET DECORATOR REBECCA BROWN
FILM EDITOR HUGHES WINBORNE, ACE
COSTUME DESIGN SHAREN DAVIS
ORIGINAL SCORE MARCELO ZARVOS
SOUND MIXER WILLIE D. BURTON, CAS
RE-RECORDING MIXERS SCOTT MILLAN, GREGG RUDLOFF
SUPERVISING SOUND EDITOR  PER HALLBERG, M.P.S.E.
MAKEUP DEPARTMENT HEAD CARL FULLERTON
HAIR DEPARTMENT HEAD LARRY M. CHERRY
VISUAL EFFECTS SUPERVISOR SEAN DEVEREAUX

STARRING DENZEL WASHINGTON | VIOLA DAVIS | STEPHEN MCKINLEY HENDERSON | JOVAN ADEPO
RUSSELL HORNSBY | MYKELTI WILLIAMSON | SANIYYA SIDNEY

Credits for ScreenWork: 

Screnplay by August Wilson, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Denzel Washington, director; Charlotte Bruus Christensen, DP; Hughes Winborne, editor. Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson and Viola Davis portrays Rose Maxson in a scene from Paramount Pictures' "Fences"

Credits for ScreenWork: 

DIRECTOR DENZEL WASHINGTON
SCREENPLAY BY AUGUST WILSON BASED UPON HIS PLAY
CINEMATOGRAPHER CHARLOTTE BRUUS CHRISTENSEN
PRODUCTION DESIGNER DAVID GROPMAN
SET DECORATOR REBECCA BROWN
FILM EDITOR HUGHES WINBORNE, ACE
COSTUME DESIGN SHAREN DAVIS
ORIGINAL SCORE MARCELO ZARVOS
SOUND MIXER WILLIE D. BURTON, CAS
RE-RECORDING MIXERS SCOTT MILLAN, GREGG RUDLOFF
SUPERVISING SOUND EDITOR  PER HALLBERG, M.P.S.E.
MAKEUP DEPARTMENT HEAD CARL FULLERTON
HAIR DEPARTMENT HEAD LARRY M. CHERRY
VISUAL EFFECTS SUPERVISOR SEAN DEVEREAUX

STARRING DENZEL WASHINGTON | VIOLA DAVIS | STEPHEN MCKINLEY HENDERSON | JOVAN ADEPO
RUSSELL HORNSBY | MYKELTI WILLIAMSON | SANIYYA SIDNEY