Winning combination: Mark Wahlberg and David O. Russell champion 'The Fighter'
In the real-world Rocky story The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Amy Adams, light welterweight "Irish Micky" Ward goes from being a once-promising palooka to contender for the title. And "real-world Rocky" just as well applies to how Wahlberg, as this tough but poignant film's producer, struggled for five years to get a personal dream project made. Now the $11 million picture—which looks like it cost many millions more—is being released by Paramount on Dec. 10 with an eye toward Oscar consideration.
A near-period piece that begins in 1993—three years after the 19-2 Ward suffered four devastating losses in a row and hung up his gloves—and proceeds through his comeback and his climactic 2000 championship bout against Shea Neary, The Fighter is as much about Ward's grasping family as it is about the sweet science. Melissa Leo plays a maternal monster as Ward's mother and manager, Alice, and Bale again transforms himself to create Ward's half-brother and trainer Dicky Eklund—a former promising boxer himself, who indulged in drug addiction and notoriously "starred" in the HBO documentary High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell (1995).
The shooting of that documentary forms the framework of The Fighter, as a self-delusional Eklund keeps insisting the filmmakers are following his "comeback" as a trainer for his brother. This almost makes a movie-within-a-movie, as we see Eklund sometimes speaking directly to the camera, starring in his own show in his head. And he butts that head when Ward's future wife, Charlene (Amy Adams), gets into the domestic fireworks that involve Alice, crackhead Dicky and the boys' seven highly proprietary sisters. The unassuming Ward has to balance any hope of reviving his career with the possibility of fracturing his family.
The long-gestating project was nearly fractured itself, as original successive co-stars Matt Damon and Brad Pitt came and went, as did original director Darren Aronofsky, who left the project in 2008 to help develop MGM's aborted RoboCop remake and eventually helm the new film Black Swan. In separate, one-on-one telephone interviews, man-of-few-words Wahlberg and more garrulous director David O. Russell—who'd previously worked with the star on Three Kings (1999) and I Heart Huckabees (2004)—discussed getting the movie made, filming on location in Ward's hometown of Lowell, Mass., and how fighting is a subset of family.
FJI: How did you first hear of Micky Ward's story?
Mark Wahlberg: We met when I was 18, and obviously I was a huge fan of his. I'd seen all of his fights.
David O. Russell: Mark had wanted to play this for many years. He knew about the family, which has nine children like his own family, and that kind of passion set the tone for the entire movie.
FJI: So the project was in progress before Bob Halloran's Irish Thunder: The Hard Life and Times of Micky Ward was published in 2007?
MW: Yeah… We never really focused on the book. I mean, I knew Mickey's entire story, so the book was never really a topic of discussion. [Mickey and Dicky] were around the entire time. They lived at my house for a while before we started shooting, and then we went to Lowell and they were around all the time.
FJI: Matt Damon was originally going to play Dicky.
MW: Well, Matt was really interested in playing the role, as was Brad Pitt at one point or another, but for whatever reason it just didn't work out. You'd have to ask them [why].
FJI: How did the role eventually go to Christian Bale?
DOR: Right around the time I was coming on, Mark had spoken to Christian because Mark saw him at his kid's preschool. And he thought [offering Christian the role] was a great idea. When I told Christian that I wanted to feel the love for Dicky, that was when he and I got on the same page, because he didn't want Dicky to be simply a dark character—that's not interesting and that's not who Dicky is. I still hang out with the real Dicky. I still train with him… Nobody will give you a better workout than him.
FJI: And Darren Aronofsky was originally to direct.
DOR: I think Darren had another version that he wanted to do. He appreciates that we're different filmmakers with different visions and this is a different film than he would have made.
MW: You're down the road with other people and everybody has their idea of how it should be. So it was just a process, like everything else… I committed to getting this movie made and it just kept falling apart, so I really had to take the reins and put the thing together.
FJI: Amy Adams gave a very feisty performance.
DOR: There are very few things that a director can have at his disposal better than an actress who's dying to break type and is extremely motivated to break type. Amy was extremely motivated to play a sexy bitch and that's who the character of Charlene is. Amy had a total chemistry with Mark that was palpable. They were very comfortable with each other, whether it was fighting on the porch or doing a love scene. She said, "As long as it happens between action and cut, I'll do anything." And I said, "That's my kind of actress." I loved that she had that attitude.
FJI: Lowell—where you actually shot the film in what production designer Judy Becker told me were real-life Micky Ward locales like Arthur Ramalho's West End Gym—is one of those characters-in-and-of-itself sort of places. Those faded old mill towns have a very distinctive look. There's a terrific pull-back shot near the opening, where Micky is walking along with well-wishers in the street, and the camera suddenly pulls back and back and back, making the characters seem smaller and this town look like it's just swallowing them up.
DOR: That was a shot that the architecture of Lowell suggested to me on the day. When I saw that street of narrow buildings that are identical, I said, "Oh my god, if we got a golf cart that could zip down the street [with a camera], that would be a kinetic kickoff to that opening march down Merrimack Street in Lowell. I wanted to exactly describe their world, and that does describe their world.
There's a very particular architecture in that town of tiny streets with pointed buildings and these big, open intersections. And we wanted to just smash people into that as fast as possible, the architecture as well as the people. And you take from the greatest filmmakers that you learn from, whether it's Scorsese or the guy who directed the first Rocky, John Avildsen—he's pretty amazing.
FJI: I understand that the real Micky Ward worked for the Newport Construction Company doing paving, and that you were filming an actual paving job by Newport.
DOR: Yep. We got all the equipment from Uncle Jerry. That's Micky and Dicky's uncle. [Newport Construction] was a different guy who gave us a better break, but Uncle Jerry helped us on other days. Because Uncle Jerry still had a paving company. How do you know Newport Construction? Christ, I guess I have to give a shout-out to those guys! Yeah, they worked for both those companies, but Uncle Jerry has the roller and all that other stuff too, and Dicky still works for Uncle Jerry.
FJI: During your 33-day shoot, you filmed all the fight scenes at the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, which opened in 1998. [Ward's Lowell bouts had been held at the still-extant Lowell Memorial Auditorium.] I understand you used the same cameras that HBO used to film Ward's fights
DOR: The actual cameras from that era. [They were] a sort of Beta [video-format] camera that gave a very certain look, and we actually hired the director from HBO and his crew who had done those fights. He came in and did his thing, we had eight cameras, you have to make sure the choreography's right. Mark wanted everything to be very real, so we shot the fights in big, choreographed sections that were taken directly from [video of] Micky's actual fights. And we used the actual commentary from [HBO's] Larry Merchant, Roy Jones Jr. and Jim Lampley. [In addition, High on Crack Street co-director-producer Richard Farrell plays himself.]
FJI: The one thing that didn't ring true to me was how, except for Christian Bale, the guys and especially the women in the crack house looked way healthier than crackheads I remember seeing in the streets of New York in the ’80s and ’90s—even into the 2000s, now that I think about it.
MW: Believe me, I grew up with a lot of crackheads, and I grew up with a lot of fat crackheads. Like Boo-Boo [Gary "Boo-Boo" Giuffrida, one of Eklund's fellow addicts in High on Crack Street]. You see him at the end of the movie [during the end credits] when they show the real guys. That's the real Boo-Boo. When you see him in the documentary High on Crack Street, he was never skinny. And some of these guys were functioning—they had jobs, they're doing their thing and hustling and [yet] smoking crack.
FJI: Mark, you did a bit of physical transformation yourself. You're in fighting shape for most of the movie, but in one shot where Micky has left boxing and is at loose ends, you're noticeably flabbier. Was that done with effects or…?
MW: We shot the movie and then I went off to do The Other Guys and put on 30 pounds and ate whatever I wanted and drank whatever I wanted, and then we went and shot those couple of scenes with me being out of shape. And then I had to lose all the weight again to do a couple of pickup shots for the fight scenes—lose 30 pounds again in five weeks.
FJI: How is that humanly possible?
MW: Well, you know what, we were so close to the finish line that I just went in there and basically put a sauna suit on, and you get in the gym and you work and you eat right.
FJI: Has the guys' mother, Alice, seen the film yet? Because she comes off as, let's say, a very complicated person.
MW: She hasn't seen the film yet. We're showing the entire town of Lowell the movie on the seventh of December. Micky and Dicky have seen it and they are thrilled with the movie, and now we hope the rest of the town and the family will like the movie as well.