Below the Line recently hosted a screening of Fences, based on the magnificently brutal, Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson, Fences is a family drama directed by the lauded Denzel Washington. Washington serves double duty on the project as he also plays the fifty year old Troy, a hard working garbage collector in sullen 1950s Pittsburgh. Despite his inherent athletic talents, Troy’s burden to bear is that he was too old (and obviously too black), to play major league baseball while he was young. His bitterness informs his life and is palpable as he allows it to sour his relationship with his equally gifted son Cory (played by Jovan Adepo), who is being scouted for college football scholarships. Cory’s long suffering mother Rose, played by Viola Davis, reprises her role from the 2010 Broadway play, as does much of the cast, including Troy’s best friend, the congenial Bono (the flawless Stephen Henderson), brain damaged WWII veteran brother, Gabriel (the ethereal Mykelti Williamson), as well as Troy’s first son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby).
One of the points of contention in the family becomes clear when Rose understands that a college scholarship will obviously open doors for her youngest son, Cory, while the illiterate yet highly verbose Troy, wants a securely proven, paved path for his son, such as working twelve hour shifts at a grocery store. Troy still carries the guilt of being negligent for not being around for the raising of his older musician son Lyons, who seems to only come around to borrow money. His mother is happy to support his creative endeavors, but the awkward dynamic between father and son only remind us how hard Troy’s life truly is and evokes the spirit of Willy Loman.
When the film’s composer, Marcelo Zarvos first read the play, he said he loved it and “like everyone else in the world, was a huge fan of Denzel Washington.” However, because the original play worked so well without music, Zarvos was charged with the job of creating a sense of flow that wouldn’t necessarily drive the film, just subtly enhance it. One of Zavos’ major contributions, was the suggestion to Washington and the producers that “this work should NOT have a bluesy or jazzy score, but something more universal that would support the performances themselves.” Washington took this note under consideration, and his trust allowed Zarvos to weave together a haunting, achingly brooding score that is on the wavelength of film greats such as Howard Shore and Bernard Hermann.
Zarvos also worked closely with Oscar winning sound mixer, Willie D. Burton, CAS, known for such indelible films as The Shawshank Redemption, Seven, and Indiana Jones. Twice nominated for the BAFTA Awards, Burton was also nominated for an Emmy for his work on Roots.
Zarvos related that in every music meeting, both Burton and Washington were always there, which was unusual. Burton noted that “Denzel has an inclusive way of working,” which is ideal and unlike some of the sound mixer’s other experiences on a crew.
Theatre and film costume designer Sharen Davis had previously worked with Burton on The Help and Dream Girls, and has also been nominated for two Oscars. Beloved by directors, the designer is known for the highly marketable The Magnificent Seven, Godzilla (2014), and Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Having worked with both Burton and Washington as a veteran crew member from previous projects, Davis had a shorthand with the team and especially the director, from her work on Antwone Fisher and Devil in A Blue Dress. Her 1950s costuming is impeccably detailed and defines the characters’ arcs with their lived in, yet well cared for clothes.
Rose’s often shown ironing is an important detail that underlines her pride in family.
Award winning production designer, David Gropman, also comes with a foundation in theatre and was nominated for the Joseph Jefferson Award for the play, Hysteria at Steppenwolf. Known in cinema for his meticulous work on such disparate films as The Cider House Rules, Hairspray, Life of Pi, The Human Stain, and Doubt, Gropman was tasked to generate an authentically grey, dismal, yet unremittingly proud 1957s Pittsburgh. Actually shot in the Hill District, in Pennsylvania, neighbors made work easy for the crew and provided dozens of local residents as extras. One neighbor fondly related that Denzel had a party for the neighborhood when they wrapped. Inspired by photos from Teenie Harris, Gropman included vintage 1950s cars and Hill District retro signage form the Granville Hotel and the Pittsburgh Courier. The production designer can be viewed as lucky, in that Pittsburgh has stubbornly managed to hold on to its old school essence.
Editor, Hughes Winborne, ACE, who has the versatility to jump from The Help, Guardians of The Galaxy and TV’s beloved Alias with Jennifer Garner, may have had the toughest job in weaving together the fragility of a family saga while staying true to the dialogue heavy original play. It was always Washington’s vision to serve the spirit of August Wilson, and cutting together such an inherently stagy production was like stitching the Queen’s bridal gown. Winning the Oscar for 2005’s Crash, Winborne was already also one of Denzel Washington’s film family, as they worked on the director’s film, The Great Debaters.
By cultivating trust and inclusiveness on the set of Fences, Washington surrounded himself with the best at their individual crafts. By showing patriarchal tenderness and acceptance to his crew, despite his own character’s brutal cruelty as a father, the director has culled together an epic saga that has earned every flinching, heartbreaking moment that will soak into your skin, whether you’re ready or not.