BY BILLY SUTER
AUGUST Wilson’s 1985 play, Fences, a family drama set in the 1950s, ran for 525 performances on Broadway, the longest run there for any of Wilson’s plays, and scored a hat-trick of playwriting honours: a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award and a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
A 2010 revival on Broadway, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, won Tony Awards for best revival, best actress in a play for Davis, and best actor in a play for Washington.
Now Fences is a film, directed by Washington and also starring him and the wonderful Davis – and it is a contender for Oscars for best film, leading actor, supporting actress and the screenplay by Wilson, who died in 2005.
The film, opening in South Africa on February 17, tells the story of Troy Maxson (Washington), a mid-century Pittsburgh sanitation worker who once dreamed of a baseball career, but was too old when the major leagues began admitting black players.
He tries to be a good husband and father, but his lost dream of glory eats at him, and causes him to make a decision that threatens to tear his family apart.
The film, produced by Washington, Scott Rudin and Todd Black, needed no extra motivation to be made other than the fine script, Washington says in the movie’s production notes.
“It came from the material. And it came from August. I was just trying to serve August the best I could. I felt a responsibility to not screw it up. When in doubt, go to the source, you know?
“If there are 25 000 words in the screenplay, 24900 of them are August Wilson’s. I may have added a line or an ad-lib here or there, but it’s August’s words.”
Washington adds in the production notes: “When people ask me what I expect people to take away, I always say that it depends on what they bring to it. I know they’ll be entertained and enlightened. I know that they’ll see great performances, some great actors up there on screen.
“And they’ll hear a voice that they haven’t heard before, yet is familiar. The rhythm, the music of it.”
Asked about the difference between playing Troy on stage and on screen, Washington replies: “I couldn’t imagine trying to do this film, having not done it on stage first to figure out who Troy is. There was no time to be trying to figure that out when we’re shooting a movie.
“So, number one, I had time to know the character. And I knew that we did a production that worked; that we got the response from the audience and the accolades and all that kind of stuff.
“I knew it worked. I don’t know if that’s more pressure. It’s like, ‘Don’t screw it up now’. But all I knew is that I just had to get the camera in front of the actors and let them do what they’d been doing all along.”
Were there things Washington was able to use from the stage production, he was asked in an interview for the production notes?
“When I steal, I steal from the best. I mean, the shape of the film was fundamentally the shape that we had found, or at least the characters had found, doing the play with [director] Kenny Leon.
“Now we could take it inside the Maxsons’ house. It’s not all in the backyard, the way it was on stage. We go to different places. But other than obviously Jovan Adepo [as Cory] and Saniyya Sidney [as Raynell], the little girl, nobody else had to catch up.”
Asked what made the cast click, Washington replies: “Unselfishness. There’s no magic. With the Broadway revival, we had 100-plus opportunities to practice with a sold-out audience every night. So you could find out what works, what doesn’t work.
“Sometimes we had matinees with 1 200 high school kids who were talking back, and once I remember having to stop. I just stopped in the middle of the play and just stood there and looked at the audience. And they giggled and then they started shushing each other and then they got quiet.
“And I was like, okay, and I picked up. So we had to deal with everything.”
For cast members, what were the challenges of doing the same roles in live theatre and then on film?
“I told the actors, ‘Don’t worry about that. Don’t change.’ There’s no such thing as movie acting, in my opinion. Don’t say, ‘I’ll have to be small’. Well, then that’s what you’ll appear to be, unless it’s right for your character to be small. Just let me, as the director, worry about that, and we’ll move the camera. When you’re big, we’ll back up if we have to.”
The entire play took place on a back porch and backyard. In the film, we get to enter the Maxsons’ house and to see how much Rose cares for it.
Says Washington: “Yeah, poor doesn’t mean dirty. In fact, poor people scrub what they have harder. That house was her castle and she kept a beautiful home, especially with the plastic on the furniture, protecting the good stuff.”
Washington explains in production notes that he shot the film sequentially, which is relatively rare in movies.
“I’m an actor first and I know how important that is. I know how I felt as an actor. You get there on Day One and we’re going to shoot the end first. Well, you don’t even know how your character got there yet. So we did try to shoot in sequence whenever possible.”
Did it present any obstacles?
None that stopped him, says Washington: “I mean, weather, rain, whatever, you just keep shooting!”
Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson round out the supporting cast of a film that has met with good reviews.
It has already received the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards for best actor and supporting actress, while Davis has also taken Bafta, Golden Globe and Critics Choice awards.