Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen was in the weeds with The Girl on the Train when she got a call from her agent. There was a script for this film called Fences and she was under consideration to be its director of photography. Christensen’s first pass at the script was a bit like information overload, and understandably so. August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play introduced audiences to one of theatre’s most complex antiheroes Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old trash collector living in 1950s Pittsburgh whose unfilled dreams suffocate not only him, but his wife and two sons. Denzel Washington most recently played Troy on Broadway and is now transferring the role to film as the star and director.
Adapting the tightly coiled emotions of a work like Fences is certainly a tall order. More difficult still is how to go about unpacking such an intimate stage play for the big screen.
"The second time I read [the script], I actually really connected with the material," Christensen says. "I’m from Scandinavia and we're used to those movies where it's family drama from Ingmar Bergman—his subjects are very similar to this and I felt the material very universal."
Christensen flew to New York City to meet with Washington, and what she thought would be a 20-minute chat turned into a four-hour heady conversation on filmmaking, culture, and storytelling. Not long after Christensen was offered the position as cinematographer another challenge presented itself: How was she going to assert herself in a project that Washington and Viola Davis had a 13-week head start with on Broadway?
"I did ask for a second meeting after they offered me the film, being very aware of who he is and his resume, and who I am and my resume that's about a tenth the length of his: Can we be colleagues in a way that we need to be colleagues to convey the story?" Christensen wondered. "I was like, I’ve got to open those doors and say to him, 'listen I'm a collaborator. If I do this movie, which I would love to, you have to open up and have time to share with me.' He answered me, ‘Well, I hear about you that you're a very opinionated girl.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I hear the same thing about you.’ And in that moment he laughed, and we knew that we were two passionate people that had opinions, and those opinions were important."
Christensen and Washington’s working relationship quickly evolved into one based entirely on give and take.
"He is someone who can take in and you give something. To work with a director who doesn't want you to give, that's the most frustrating thing," Christensen says. "But to work with somebody who can take, who's got wide enough shoulders and his vision is so clear in his mind that he can take other people bringing something, that's great directing."
The one thing Christensen and Washington never disagreed on was to stay as true to the format of the play as possible. When you have the tools cinema offers that a stage production can’t, it’s tempting to whip out every bell and whistle to make the adaptation as cinematic as possible. What Christensen and Washington were after, however, was a more subtle approach that turned into a film that still feels somewhat like a play, only using close-ups as a means to underscore the dramatic tension.
"It was all about staying with the story and not running away in some search or need to prove that we could take it to the cinema," Christensen says. "In moments it feels like a play, and Denzel told me, ‘Yeah, it does, and I'm proud of that.’ It's such a cool thing to dare to stay with the play somehow."
As daunting as it was for a relative novice like Christensen to push her opinions on a vet like Washington, she took the job on because she felt as if she could push the material in a direction that was unique to her, no matter if it was something as seemingly small as whether or not to use a hand-held camera for a scene.
"I agreed to do this project because I felt I could bring something—that I could challenge this. I can give him something of me," Christensen says. "The relationship worked because we're equally passionate people and it was always about the story. That's why you shouldn’t fight back, but give back."