Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Laurence Fishburne

Dropping in for a Spell

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Laurence Fishburne Movies on DVD

A Bay Area legend about Laurence Fishburne says that, at age 14, he landed a part in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) by lying and saying he was 18.

According to Fishburne, he went in to meet with Coppola and producer Fred Roos. They asked him how old he was. Fishburne stammered and said 16. Coppola asked what year in high school he was in. Fishburne stammered 'freshman,' then corrected himself with 'sophomore.'"

Just then, "a secretary came in and put something on the desk, and as she was walking out, Francis said, 'hey -- do you think this kid could be 18?' And whoever this young woman was turned around, looked at me and said, 'yeah -- I guess so.' And walked out," Fishburne says, laughing.

He reiterates he doesn't know who the woman was, but probably owes his entire career to her. Coppola, on the other hand, knew all along just how old Fishburne really was, and not only gave him the part in Apocalypse Now, but subsequent parts in Rumble Fish (1983) and The Cotton Club (1984).

The actor notes that a certain generation knows him from Apocalypse, while another generation knows him from The Matrix. He hopes an even younger generation will get to know him from his latest film, Akeelah and the Bee, which opens Friday.

A hugely enjoyable, winning family film, Akeelah and the Bee tells the story of 11 year-old Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer), who -- thanks to her late father -- has a gift for spelling but goes to a run-down school in the Los Angeles area and lives with her overworked mom (Angela Bassett) and her brothers and sisters.

When it becomes clear that she has an opportunity to win the National Bee, she reluctantly accepts and begins studying with Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne). But even with study, she'll be representing a school no one cares about, going up against upper-class kids who have been working toward the Bee for years.

Atchison and Fishburne, as well as other cast members, recently visited the Bay Area to talk about their film, and to attend a special Sacramento screening hosted by Governor Schwarzenegger.

Although we are in the middle of a spelling bee trend, with the documentary Spellbound (2003) and last year's film Bee Season, as well as a hit Broadway play ("Spelling Bee"), director Doug Atchison began working on his script over a decade ago.

In 2000, Atchison won the Academy's Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship, which gave the film its proper start. On the committee was film editor Glenn Farr, who had won an Oscar for his work on The Right Stuff. Farr told Atchison that, when the film was finished, he would like to edit it.

"I didn't know who he was," says Atchison. So he faxes me his resume, and a little picture of an Oscar comes out over my fax machine. Five years later, we're making the movie and he's there."

The second-time director (his previous feature film was The Pornographer, from 1999) gave his veteran editor plenty to do.

"I shot an enormous amount of footage," he says. "When I was with the kids and with the crowds, I saved time by letting the camera run. Because with the kids, you'd yell 'cut' and they'd disappear. And they'd come back and their hair would be messed up. So I had a camera on a crane and a camera on tracks and a video camera, and I would direct the audience: stand up, cheer! Now I'm Akeelah! We had all this footage, and just putting the national bee together, just getting it in an order that makes sense, took him about a month."

Atchison describes Akeelah and the Bee as a sports movie, which needed as much careful crafting as Hoosiers or Raging Bull. And so by showing the studio, Lionsgate Films, his footage, he secured more time to finish the film the way he wanted, which included cutting the final, championship sequence down from 45 to 19 minutes.

Another part of Atchison's job was finding Fishburne to play the part of Larabee. The two men talked on and off about the part a great deal, exchanging ideas, when finally Fishburne called him.

"I said, 'I think you have something for me.' And he said, 'what.' And I said, 'Larabee. Can I have him now?'" Fishburne says. "Because he wrote it, and because he'd been living with this man running around in his head and in his spirit since 1994, and it's very difficult sometimes for writers to let go of their characters."

Atchison replies, "I had the same conversation with Keke. I said, these characters are like my children, and I'm going to give them to you, and they won't belong to me anymore. And then you're going to give them to the audience and they won't belong to you anymore."

Of course, giving the character to Fishburne resulted in new facets that even the director couldn't have imagined. He reveals that Fishburne embodied about 80% of how he had imagined Larabee on paper, but now the character -- a fairly buttoned-up, stoic type -- was subtly more animated.

Fishburne impressed his director in more ways that one. At one point during the complicated Championship sequence, he asked Atchison to turn on the camera and keep it running.

"I'm going to give you some stuff, but you won't get it yet," Fishburne says. "You'll get it later. And sure enough, that happened."

Atchison continues. "Glenn saw that, and it was three or four minutes of Laurence just doing reactions. And he goes, 'this shot you sent me of Laurence is like a master acting workshop!' For four minutes he just gives you all this stuff!"

The filmmakers were able to select various shots from this reel and use them at different points for different reaction shots. Fishburne says he knew what he was doing from the start.

"You can't get it until you can really watch it. You can't see it with the naked eye, what the camera can pick up."

Now that the movie is finished, Fishburne and Atchison look forward to hearing more feedback, especially at this week's Tribeca Film Festival showing.

"My daughter's going to come to Tribeca in New York," Fishburne says. "She's 14, and the peer pressure thing is happening and the boy thing is happening. And she doesn't know that I've dedicated the performance to her. It's good to hear that 14 year-old girls respond to this, but she's special 'cause she's mine. There's an innate part of her that needs to be like, 'fuck you dad.' She's that age. So even if she doesn't get it until later... she'll get it when she gets it."

April 13, 2006

Movies Unlimtied