TORONTO - Denzel Washington was fretting about his directorial debut, Antwone Fisher, when cinematographer Philippe Rousselot told him to relax. The Academy Award-winning Rousselot assured Washington that he had no idea what to do, either.
Then Rousselot offered advice he once heard from a famous French director: The camera goes in front. Forget the fancy angles and other cinematic bells and whistles. Tell a simple story simply.
That sounded good. Having just wrapped Training Day, which would earn Washington a second Academy Award for acting, Washington didn't want to call attention to himself anyway. He even put his credits at the end of the film.
The unassuming approach proved wise, at least judging by the warm response Antwone Fisher received at the Toronto International Film Festival, which concludes today. Washington's basic, heartfelt treatment of the abandoned and abused Fisher (Derek Luke), who confronts his anguish with the help of a Navy psychiatrist (Washington), let the new director focus on his strength.
"I know a little something about acting," Washington said yesterday. "It was a matter of letting the actors bring out the talent they had."
Just in from Miami, where he finished Carl Franklin's crime thriller Out of Town, Washington was wearing a faded black T-shirt and his trademark smile. Acting as though he knew he had connected on his first time to the plate, he credited working with accomplished directors such as Norman Jewison, Jonathan Demme and Edward Zwick.
"I didn't realize how much I knew," Washington said. "I just didn't have to apply it until now."
At the suggestion that an Oscar for directing could be in his future, Washington said he already had his victory: Fisher's thumbs-up.
Ten years ago, Fisher left the Navy and began work as a security guard at Sony Pictures. He showed producer Todd Black a screenplay treatment about his life; Black was so moved he hired Fisher to write the script. Dozens of rewrites followed before it was ready.
Black then sent a draft to Washington, asking him to play the role of the psychiatrist. Washington, however, had another idea. He would star and direct. Deal done.
That put rookies in as writer, director, lead actress (Joy Bryant) and lead actor (Luke). The most Luke had ever uttered on-screen was, "You want some coffee?"
"I had a lobotomy before this," Black explained of his faith that all those first-timers would come through.
Antwone Fisher opens in December and will certainly be helped by the publicity generated by Washington's recent best-actor Oscar for Training Day.
But Washington said he is hesitant to look back on the ceremony. Congratulated in the gym the next morning by a fellow black actor, Washington peered forward and said, "That's over. I'm going that way."