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Two For The Show: Producing Veterans and First-Time Collaborators, Todd Black and Jennifer Fox Join Forces for Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Posted By Spike Friedman, Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Roman j. Israel esq., at Its heart is a cinematic collaboration between its writer/director Dan Gilroy and its star/producer Denzel Washington. Gilroy wrote the film with only Washington in mind, saying publicly that if Washington had not accepted the role he would not have proceeded with making the movie. Washington, who plays the title role, is in nearly every shot of Gilroy’s film, realizing the intricately layered character of roman with a meticulously crafted performance. The film is an undeniably unusual, deeply affecting, character piece. It’s that rare studio film that surprises in both form and content, filled to the brim with the sort of moments that can only arise when two artists are working with each other at the top of their respective games.

Behind the scenes, the film was just as much a collaboration between two producers, PGA members Jennifer Fox and Todd Black. Fox effectively came with Gilroy, with whom she produced his debut directorial effort Nightcrawler in 2014. She has a long history working with both Dan and his brother Tony, and a deep trust forged through years of collaboration to bring truly sophisticated mainstream cinema to the screen. Black meanwhile has a personal relationship with Washington that goes back 27 years and has been working with him since producing Washington’s directorial debut Antwone Fisher in 2002. It was Black who first gave Washington the opportunity to work behind the camera and with whom he has forged a de facto partnership that has extended deep into each others’ careers.

Having two producers with that much power, experience and history with the artists involved could have led to any number of issues. Instead what arose was a true partnership, without which one of the year’s most idiosyncratic and affecting films never would have been made. Like Gilroy and Washington, their styles meshed effortlessly in bringing Roman J. Israel, Esq. to life.

The partnership between Fox and Black on the film started inadvertently at Gilroy and Washington’s first meeting. As Fox tells it, “There was a scheduling mix-up, and Dan was in a lobby in a hotel waiting for [Washington], calling me every 15 minutes, saying, ‘He’s still not here, what should I do?’ And I said, ‘Keep waiting. Just keep waiting.’ I couldn’t reach Denzel’s agent because it was a Saturday, and I didn’t have his cell phone, so I called Dan’s agent and his answer was that we have to call Todd Black. And so we got Todd on the phone.”

Black jumps in, confirming that he remembers the moment vividly: “I was in my backyard. I had just cleaned up some dogshit.”

 And in that moment, the producorial partnership was forged. “Within a minute, the problem was solved,” says Fox. “The meeting happened. All was well. But it was at that point I knew, ‘We really need Todd on this.’”

Jennifer Fox on location in Los Angeles with writer/director Dan Gilroy

Neither Gilroy nor Washington started of directing their own work. For Gilroy the process was a matter of gaining the confidence to do that work, something Fox brought out of him. “Dan gave me an unproduced script that was great, called Free,” Fox recalls. “It was about a runaway slave. It had this very commercial bent to it, but it dealt with very serious, tragic, historical situations, and he did it with such grace and elegance. As we started interviewing directors, I listened to Dan talk and at the end of one of these meetings, I said, ‘Dan, you need to direct this.’”

For Gilroy, this was a breakthrough. And while Free did not end up going into production, Fox and Gilroy teamed up to develop the script that became his directorial debut, Nightcrawler. It was a project that was able to get a star attached in Jake Gyllenhaal, and with Dan’s brother Tony onboard  as a producer, financing came into place. The film was an immense success critically and financially, more than tripling its budget at the domestic box office alone, while earning Gilroy a Best Original Screenplay nomination.

On the heels of his frst feature, Gilroy had the opportunity to direct a number of different projects. But he was set on telling the story of Roman J. Israel. Fox explains, “Coming of of Nightcrawler, he had a moment, people were looking forward to what he’d do next. He turned down a lot of things that were offered to him where he could have been paid more money, and he stuck with this. We talked about it at length, and I’d say ‘It’s a risk,’ and he’d say ‘I’m a gambler, and I believe in this.’”

For Washington, the opportunity to work behind the camera was brought to him by Black. “I bought the rights to my friend Antwone Fisher’s life,” Black recounts, “and I paid him out of my honeymoon money, $10,000, which was a lot of money to me then, to write a screenplay. I was dealing with Washington’s then agent, to get him to read it. It took years, because at that point Denzel was doing movie after movie after movie. Finally he read it. His agent said he wanted to meet but that he wasn’t interested in starring in it—he was interested in directing it. And I considered and decided I was open to that, and in fact, it was interesting to me.”

Todd Black relaxes on set with cast member and
fellow producer Denzel Washington

“Everyone wanted him as an actor in that moment,” says Black. “He had never directed anything. But I was interested because oftentimes you find certain actors make brilliant directors. And that’s how it started for us. It was his predilection to go down that road, and it was my openness and interest to hear what he wanted to do.”

From there a partnership emerged based in a mutual sensibility. “As a producer, it’s about the specifics,” says Black. “It’s about the details. That’s what Denzel expects. As an actor that’s the world he lives in: the details. He applies the same principles to producing. And he expects you as a producer to be that exact same way.” Black has produced all three features that Washington has directed, along with a host of others in which he has starred, because Washington recognizes that the producer’s approach is sufficiently detail-oriented to match the rigor that Washington brings to the entire creative process.

In fact, the similarities between the ways that Fox and Black work made their efforts on the film thoroughly complementary. As Fox says of her colleague, “He could not have been more respectful. I’ve told him, ‘I could not be more lucky to have you!’ It’s so great to have someone who does what you do, who understands the struggle of it.”

“We’re both super hands-on producers,” testifies Black. “We don’t phone it in. We’re there. There are a lot of producers that are great producers, but they only go to the set to do a photo op or two. That’s fne. That’s a way of producing. That’s not a condemnation of it.”

Roman J. Israel, Esq., is, like Gilroy’s previous scripts, a challenging and complex story. As Fox remarks, “With Dan’s work, there are layers and layers of depth. It’s material you can interpret and reinterpret.” That depth requires immense specificity in all aspects of production. But it’s also the sort of work that attracts the talent needed to realize that vision. “It’s such rich material,” Fox adds, “it attracts great actors and artists and great crew.”

The setting of the film is crucial, as the story it tells is as much about a gentrifying Los Angeles as it is the intricate legal plotting that exists in the foreground of the story. “From the beginning,” Fox explains, “Dan had this concept that Roman’s apartment was a place being overtaken by this brand new shiny building coming up next-door. As we started scouting and picking locations, we found that there was this constant motif of construction cranes all over our city. It feels like there’s a crane in practically every scene. And we didn’t need to create that.”

The film’s real-life locations are crucial to its success. On top of which, getting to work in Los Angeles was something that both Fox and Black relished. “I hadn’t shot in Los Angeles in more than 10 years,” says Black, “so it was fantastic!” Despite Los Angeles being the locus for so much of the entertainment industry, it does not play itself on film very often. “It hasn’t been overshot,” says Fox, “so you can find incredible locations that are not overly familiar. I find it fascinating, and you get to look at places that you would never have an opportunity to walk into.”

One particular incident stood out for Fox as exemplary of the process of shooting in LA. “We’re shooting a scene where Roman puts money in a dumpster in the rain,” recalls Fox. “There are supposed to be rats running by. And it was actually raining that day. And we were actually standing in the rain, watching actual rats run by our feet. And my thought was just, ‘We’re so lucky to get to do what we do.’ And then the next morning I realized, ‘Wow, last night I was totally psyched to be in a freezing cold alley in the pouring rain, with rats.’”

When it came to working in tandem, Gilroy and Washington meshed beautifully. “It worked very organically,” says Black of the process of collaborating on set. “We didn’t really have any hiccups, because Dan was so clear with his script going in.”

That clarity allowed Washington to do what he does best, which is think like the producer he is. “He also thinks like an audience,” adds Black. “He has taught me to always see the big picture. Always. You gotta make sure you’re seeing how something is going to feel for the audience.”

Fox notes how unusual that approach is for an actor to take with their work. “There’s a tendency for a lot of actors to think about the work for their role, their part.” With Washington, the process is different. She adds, “Sometimes there’s such nuance to [Denzel’s] work that in the moment, you don’t quite understand why something is happening. Then when it comes together later you realize, ‘Oh, he knew exactly why he was doing that,’ that it was part of a whole. It almost feels instinctive, like it’s this sort of innate, incredible cinematic IQ.”

This led to an organic working environment where the planning involved allowed both Gilroy and Washington to flourish as creators. They were able to bandy about choices as small and specific as Roman’s taste in music, because everything was set up for them to be able to dig further and further into the specificity of the character. And so the unusual and idiosyncratic path the character takes through the film is matched with the true depth of humanity that is necessary to tell that story. 

 As Black puts it, “You don’t get to tell human stories as producers anymore. You have to have special effects and visual effects. As a producer, you rarely get to tell stories about human frailty. Human drama. The stuff we’re all around, every day. Pure humanity. To get to put that on the screen in 2017, released by a big studio? That’s pretty rare. “

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