“What’s that hat,” Antwone Fisher asks prior to starting our conversation about 2002’s Antwone Fisher—an acclaimed film that details Fisher’s story, which marked Denzel Washington’s feature film directorial debut—which is a part of the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival, which is running through May 9 on Turner Classic Movies and via Classics Curated by TCM Hub on HBO Max. I told him it was a Curry Brand piece dedicated to the legacy of Lee Elder. After telling me about the time Chris Tucker introduced him to Elder, we got into the interview, but at the end of our conversation, Fisher brought up the hat again, mentioning briefly that 1975 the year holds a special place in his heart, sharing that he likes to reference the year in his work. It wasn’t surprising that the man who opened up the wounds of his life story, poured that pain into a script, and let the world see his soul continues to inject his life into his work, but it was heartwarming nonetheless. It’s almost like Fisher, after compartmentalizing that trauma and pain into Antwone Fisher, was now free to pull from some of the more joyous times of his life and build a better tomorrow.
Fisher’s life was hard. He overcame foster homes, multiple types of abuse, and homelessness before joining the Navy as a young adult, and it was only then that he was able to start working through his issues as a man. That life lead to discovering a knack for the written word, which turned into a book, Finding Fish, a memoir he wrote which was the basis for Antwone Fisher, which found Denzel Washington pulling double-duty as director and actor, alongside a relative newcomer at the time in Derek Luke, who wowed audiences with his gut-wrenching portrayal of an adult Fisher. It’s a powerful film that has impacted those who’ve seen it, and in a world where we’re just now trying to figure out our mental health and terms like “self care” have been buzzing, it may be more important now than it was almost two decades ago. Either way, it was the true start to Fisher’s career, which has found him working within the industry as a screenwriter and filmmaker.
During our conversation, Fisher speaks about his relationship with Denzel Washington, meeting Derek Luke, the story behind the film ATL, the “script doctor” work he’s done in Hollywood, getting the story right, and more. Be sure to check out Antwone Fisher, which is available to stream right now on HBO Max as a part of the Discoveries section of the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival. Stick around after the feature and check out a new interview Fisher conducted, “Antwone Fisher on Antwone Fisher.”
What’s life been like for you post putting your story out?
I’ve been a working screenwriter the whole time. I think a lot of people didn’t know that I was a screenwriter when the film came out. I had been a screenwriter for 10 years, but Antwone Fisher was the first screenplay that I wrote. It took 10 years before it got made.
I worked on a lot of films and wrote films for the studios. The studios will hire screenwriters to write screenplays and the screenplays don’t always get made. But as a writer, my job is to write them. As long as they hire me, whether they make them or not, I’ll continue to write them and spend like 27 years of writing movies and working on other people’s movies, pretty good dialogue. In some cases, there are people [who] are good at writing action scenes, [but] maybe their dialogue is not deep enough for the scene that they want, so they might ask me to work on it. I worked on Rush Hour and a lot of movies that people would know.
Going through your IMDb, I forgot that you have got a “story by” credit on ATL. I spoke with Lauren London for Without Remorse and the film recently turning 15. After Antwone Fisher comes out, what was your thought? Were you just going to keep grinding? Was ATL a big moment for you?
I wrote the original story of what turned in to ATL. It was a story of Dallas Austin, the music producer, and how he created the group TLC. It was called Jelly Beans; Jelly Beans was a skating rink in Atlanta. That’s where they all met and Dallas’ music was what played at the skating rink. He put the group together and that was the base. The story was about TLC and Dallas, and Dallas’ relationship with his father. Overbrook [Entertainment], [which is owed by] Will Smith and James Lassiter, they were producing it, and over the years, it evolved from that story to the one you see now.
In a situation like that, where you create the story and it kind of morphs into something else over time, do you still feel a personal attachment to a film like ATL specifically? That’s a film that a lot of people have a real appreciation for.
I do feel like I was part of the process. Even though it wasn’t really the movie that I wrote, I was involved in it and writing the original one may have inspired what it ultimately became. As a writer, you realize that you could get rewritten at any time and it’s just what the studio wants. They hire people to work for them. I’m like a writer for hire. So the story that I was more personal about was my own. Even then I realized that if you want to get a movie made, you really have to be able to have thick skin. You have to be able to work with people and not be emotional about your story even though I was. I was lucky because everybody was sensitive to my feelings. I was aware of that. Sometimes all you need is to understand that people do understand how to make movies. If you want movie made, you do have to decide what you can live with and what you can’t. For me, I wasn’t really concerned about who was going to play me or different things like that at the time, [I] only really thought about the story, just wanting to make sure that it was true. Everybody was very respectful. Denzel was always saying, “We’re doing this for Antwone.” Not me; I think he was referring to the young Antwone, the kid that I was, who went through that part of my life, you know?
[Antwone Fisher producer] Todd Black was like a coach. He was the person who really taught me how to write a screenplay. I remember one time I wrote something and I went in his office, cordial as always. We sat down and he looked at me and said, “This is the most uninspired writing I ever read in my life.” He said, “You can do better than this.” The meeting was really short. I went home and started writing again. Then when I returned the next day, he said, “This is Antwone Fisher right here. This is the writer.” He was like a coach; I was on a team and we were all in it together. I realized that as I grew into be a screenwriter, working with other people, you realize it’s not your screenplay, it belongs to everybody—ultimately the studio—but we’re all hired professionals. We were artists and we want to do this so people will enjoy it and maybe feel something about it.
There was an interesting quote that I read that you mentioned when you first saw the film, that you were “overwhelmed by a mixture of feelings, fear, joy, pride, and satisfaction. All of which still linger,” you said, and you said they’d linger for the rest of your life. You lived this story, and you being able to come out of that on the other side and progress? It’s a beautiful, but I wonder, do you watch Antwone Fisher, the film? Have you watched it recently in preparation for the TCM Classic Film Festival?
No, I haven’t watched it. I watched it at the end of the For Your Consideration campaign all those years ago. I might watch it again, Of course I was a part of making that, I wrote it, but I was there on the set all the time. I think I may only have missed a half a day out of all the days it took the make it, and so I feel like it was a cork on the bottle of that part of my life. The bottle is there on a shelf. The bottle of me being in the Navy, it’s there.
That reminds me, and this may sound odd, but your comment made me think of the mental and emotional act of working on compartmentalizing it. It was in the film Doctor Sleep, which was the sequel to The Shining. It showed how little Danny learned to cope with his abilities, taking that fear and those issues and locking them in the boxes, keeping them locked up mentally also he would d be able to push on. Being able to do that and move on, especially from what you’ve had to overcome in your life up until that point, are important strengths to have going forward.
It’s how I learned to survive. I think your life is like a building. You’re building this building over the years that you live. Every memory, every experience is a brick in the building. When you get to a certain place in life, you stand back and look at that building, the building’s not finished, but there’re some cracks in the bricks. There are some bricks that are not as strong as others, but you can’t take them out because the whole building will fall down. You have to pay attention to it and make sure they don’t come apart. You have to do maintenance on those bricks and continue to build the building of your life. That’s the way I see it, and so all those memories and times and things are still there.
They still affect me. If I go there to do maintenance on them. Sometimes they get weak from time to time, you have to go fix them, but they’re locked in and you can’t avoid your life. Any part of it, you have to keep it together. You have to think about it. You have to think about your life. Sometimes you might need help to sort things out, things that you’ve already sorted out. That’s through therapy. I always thought that people have a family doctor, a general doctor, or they have a pediatrician that they use when they have babies, they have dentists, and things like that. But a lot of families don’t have a family psychiatrist or psychologist.
Especially Black families.
Then when you don’t get along with your sister, you never have, it might just be a conversation that you guys need to have, but somebody has to moderate. Somebody has to not be emotional. Can’t be mom, ‘cause she might be emotional. People think they can go to the pastor or the priest, and sometimes they’re not equipped to handle that. This is all very important if you want to construct a normal life with me.
In this normal life, I have to ask, are there mornings when you wake up and you just realize like, “Denzel Washington chose my life story for his first film to direct”? Does that still hit you to this day? ‘Cause if he asked me to direct my life story, I’d probably drop dead right there.
I’m very proud and very happy that he chose to and he wanted to do my story. We had lunch. I had met him in passing a lot cause I was the guard at the gate when he would come in. I would say, “Hi.” He would say, “Hi.” I’m sure he didn’t remember me, but when I came into the restaurant and I approached the table, he’s kind of like, “You?” He [asked], “Do you want me to direct?” at the end of our conversation. He was a very comforting person. When people see Denzel, they know him from the movies, but when you get to know him, he’s a really a nice person and a real human being. I know people say a lot of nice things about Denzel and a lot of nice things about his wife and his family and all that. Denzel and his wife really are just regular people. If you went to their house, you’d be very welcome. They’re really great hosts.
I spent a lot of time with him over the years of developing the movie. I remember when everybody was leaving to go to Cleveland, because after that weekend they were going to start shooting. I was in the mall with my wife and Denzel called me. I picked up the cell and he said, “Antwone, where are you?” “I’m in LA.” He said, “Why aren’t you in Cleveland?” I said, “I don’t know.” I didn’t know to get a ticket and go. He said, “Well, I’m leaving tomorrow and you can ride with me.” He sent a car to get me at my house. I went to his house, Pauletta [Washington, Denzel’s wife] was getting the kids ready. She was going to drive them to school that morning. Denzel came out. We got in the car and went to the airport, on his plane. It was just him and me. He wanted to read the script, and he read the script to me aloud. He acted it out as he went. When I was listening to it, I was thinking, “This guy really cares. It’s not just a movie for him. I was already relaxed and satisfied and happy that he chose to do my film, but on the ride to Cleveland, I already felt safe, but I really felt safe. Then we landed, we were flying over Cleveland. I hadn’t seen my hometown in so long and there was downtown. He said, “Is this Cleveland?” We were looking down there. I said, “Yeah.” If I lived for a thousand years, I could never thank Denzel enough for what he did for me.
I’d read that you’d also known Derek Luke as well, and him portraying you in this film, was a big moment for him as well.
Derek worked in the candy store. There’s a story that goes around that Derek and I were working at the lot at the same time. When I worked at the Sony Pictures lot as a security guard, he was probably in junior high school, high school.
I just happened to be on a lot [the] day we were casting. Denzel had been casting for a while and I went into the emporium, and it was a Black guy in there. I had never seen a Black guy working in there. I just walked up to him and said, “Hey man, what are you doing here? Shoplifting?” He said, “No, man. I work in here.” I said, “Oh, okay.” He said, “Well, what do you do?” I said, “I’m a screenwriter.” He said, “Get out of here.” I said, “I’m telling you.” So we both were tripping about each other, being Black, working in a candy store or being a screenwriter. Both of them didn’t seem real. He said, “Well, what have you written, man?” I was telling him so many things. I said, “In fact, they’re casting for a movie about me and I wrote about myself.” He could really not believed that. I said, “Yeah and Denzel is the one casting it.” And he said, “Get out of here.”
He probably thought you were the biggest liar in the world.
Yeah. I started feeling like a liar. He said, “Well, can I read the screenplay?” I said, “Yeah, you can read it.” I got him a copy and gave it to him. The next time I was in the store was a few days later. He said, “Man, I’ve got to audition.” I said, “I don’t know, man.” He said, “Can I audition?” I said, “Well, I have to ask the producer.” I went in and asked Todd Black. I told him about my meeting Derek. He said, “Well, I know who you’re talking about. I seen him over there, but we have to ask Denzel.” Todd asked Denzel, and Denzel hadn’t met him, but he said, “Well, I had auditioned everybody else who could possibly play the role, bring him over.” When he went over there, Denzel told me that Derek was able to cry in a way that the other guys weren’t able to be emotional, cry or be vulnerable, I guess. Denzel he told me, he said,”Well, he’s emotionally available. I can help him with the rest.” So he chose him.
Well, it’s important. I know Denzel was saying “we’re doing this for” the young Antwone, but there are a lot of Antwones in the world. Little Black boys and girls go through this, and it’s important to see stories where they can overcome that. Now for the TCM Classics FIim Festival, I saw that you filmed a new conversation, talking about the film. What was that conversation about?
Well, ome of the questions you asked me are questions that I answered. We talked about HBO Max. How exciting it is to be able to be a part of a film festival, to have a film in the film festival and then be interviewed and have it be shown on HBO Max, man. After almost 20 years, come on, dude. I was just really excited and I feel proud that the movie has lasted. I was surprised that it affects as many people in the way that it does. When I was a kid, I would always wonder why my life had to be this way. Then you get old enough to write your story and blessed enough for it to be able to come out and people see it. Then you learn people write me from all around the world, Japan, United Arab Emirates. I get emails from everywhere. People who’ve had the same similar life as I did. Where I was a kid and thought I was alone and that I was the only one that was experiencing this because I knew another foster kid in the neighborhood who wasn’t having the experience that I was having. I just really feel that it’s more than a movie in a way.
Definitely. It’s just good to show people that you can make it. What’s next for Antwone Fisher, the creative?
I’ve just completed an action comedy called, ATF Special Agents in Charge. It’s a buddy comedy, big action movie. I can write almost anything I think, but every time I write something, it’s almost like I’m writing for the first time. I get a little nervous. I procrastinate. I start feeling like, “Can I do this again?” I’m always able to do it, but I tell you, writing movies is something that you never learned completely. I always used the reference books, even after all this time. I ask questions still. I’m writing another movie now, it’s a smaller film, kind of like Antwone Fisher, a human interest story. This is a true story that involves two aging people who find love again. We’re getting really sappy. Do action comedy, do a police drama.
The spectrum is wide. You mentioned earlier Rush Hour, and the Rush Hour films are some of my favorites. How much of it that you worked on made it into that movie there? Anything in particular that you remember?
A lot of what I did was Chris’ dialogue, mostly. There were some scenes; I remember there was a scene where it was a bomb going to explode inside of a club. Chris went to the telephone booth and called the club and told them there was bomb getting ready to explode and all the people came out. It was around there. It’s been so long, I think that was one of them. A lot of dialogue and tweaks and things like that, I think they would call it as being a script doctor.
It takes a lot of people to make a movie. Sometimes I get stuck and I asked my wife to read it aloud to me. I’m dyslexic, so it’s hard for me to read, which is the miracle of the whole thing that I’m a screenwriter and write books and things like that. It takes me a minute sometimes to read, but it’s like writing is a challenge. Writing is not as much as a challenge as reading because I create what I want to say in my head. I can type it as long as I don’t pay that much attention to reading it as I’m writing. I come back and read it later, after I finished the paragraph. I don’t even know if I answered your question.
No, you definitely did it, but you made me think, because as someone who writes a lot for his profession, I felt like you were talking about me! (Laughs) I get the transcription and I’m like, “Am I going to be able to capture this?” But I think that’s the beauty of writing, making sure that the story’s there. I care about everything else, but upfront I want to make sure that the Antwone Fisher who spoke to me across Zoom is coming across perfectly in the written word on the website. I appreciate that being something that isn’t lost still with your career having gone on for over two decades.
After I finished the first screenplay, I didn’t know that I was supposed to be a writer after that. I didn’t know that I had to work at getting a job or at writing. I don’t know what I thought, you know? I thought the money that I had made would last forever, I thought at the end of the year, we’d be at the Oscars or something, you know? I didn’t know anything. I remember Todd kept telling me what a tough business it is. He says, “It’s a really tough business.” He told me, he said, “Antwone, you have to go out and get a job.” I was thinking, “Get a job? Wow. I thought I was going to be working in Hollywood.”
So I went and got a job at Barnes and Noble. I was single at the time and I was working at Barnes and Noble, and then I had fell in love with words, you know? I had started using words that I wasn’t normally using in my day-to-day conversation, that there were other words you could use to express and you could do that. Then I was working at a bookstore. So I said, “Wow, maybe I should write another screenplay.” I tried writing another screenplay. Didn’t go well, because I was writing for the wrong reasons. It wasn’t a real idea. I thought that I could not continue as a writer, but then I got hired to write a movie by Universal. It was called Scout’s Honor, and it was the story of how African American boys were able to join the Boy Scouts. There was a time when we could not be Boy Scouts. This guy in Alabama, he got out of the Army. He wanted to put together a group of kids to go camping. It wasn’t enough for the boys. They wanted a uniform, they wanted to be Scouts. Boy Scouts of America didn’t allow that. So he mortgaged his house and the town had collected some money. They took the boys on a train to Washington DC, and they found the only Black congressman, his name was Oscar De Priest, he was from Chicago. He knew that Herbert Hoover was going to be at Arlington Cemetery. They took the boys there and the boys blew Taps while the funeral was going on. They got the president’s attention. He asked him, “What was it about?” Oscar De Priest told them that the kids wanted to be Scouts. He invited them to the White House and Herbert Hoover said that all kids should be able to be Scouts if they want to be Scouts. I guess he made sure that they will be accepted. I wrote that story for Universal. They never made it, but it was another learning process for me: Writing a true story that wasn’t my own. It’s different if you write a story that you just made up in your head, but when you write stories, you have the responsibility to the people who you’re writing about whether they’re alive or not. Some of the boys grew up to be Tuskegee Airmen. I felt like “Wow, this is what I’m doing.”
Antwone Fisher is currently available on-demand on HBO Max as a part of the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival, which runs through May 9. Head to their website for more details.