A fighting start
Some of the best films take a while to get made. Inception. I Am Love. Avatar . For Hollywood hunk Mark Wahlberg, though, attempting to get The Fighter into the ring was like trying to knit a scarf using a couple of fish as needles.
The pseudo-fairytale of professional boxer ‘Irish’ Micky Ward and his half-brother trainer Dicky, who overcome all the odds stacked against them, The Fighter first headed into production when Scout Productions bought the rights to Micky’s life in 2003. Two years later, Wahlberg signed on as producer and star.
It would be the actor’s second big screen producer credit after We Own The Night , and happened only “out of sheer desperation for getting the movie made” according to Wahlberg.
“We just had to grab ahold of it and force it to happen with sheer will and determination – very much like Micky’s journey to winning the title. He just had to go and make it happen.” He just needed a director...
Russell up something good
First on Wahlberg’s list of dream directors was Martin Scorsese. Luckily, the actor had just finished working with the auteur on The Departed. With an aim to start filming in Massachusetts in June 2007, Wahlberg asked Scorsese to read the script, citing his classic Raging Bull as inspiration. But Scorsese wasn’t interesting in directing another boxing movie.
In March 2007, Wahlberg found the ideal director in Darren Aronofsky, who had just finished up work on divisive sci-fi The Fountain . As another re-write was passed, this one from the desk of scribe Scott Silver, production looked good to go.
But then Aronofsky departed, favouring his own The Wrestler over Wahlberg’s boxing yarn. All was not lost, though, as Christian Bale had signed on to play Dicky (a role initially intended for Brad Pitt), and filming was pencilled in for October 2008.
Finally, Wahlberg called on his buddy David O. Russell to take the helm, the duo having worked together previously on Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. “Russell really had a great view of the script,” says Wahlberg, “of this world and the people in it. David got that scrappy spirit of the movie, and we did exactly that.”
It seemed like the perfect match…
I Heart Marky
“When I first met him he was a 26-year-old kid mumbling off of Boogie Nights , mumbling in a hotel meeting,” Russell recalls of his initial encounter with Wahlberg.
“By the time we made this movie he was like Boardwalk Empire builder. There’s nothing better than having a collaborator that you have a great short hand with and a great comfort with – shepherding the project along. That’s the best thing that you can have when there’s many cooks in the kitchen – it makes life much easier.”
Teaming up for their third movie together, Wahlberg and Russell got financing in April 2009 from Relativity Media, and The Fighter finally looked on track.
“The last six movies I did I was also secretly preparing for The Fighter ,” says Wahlberg. “So I would leave three hours early for work and go to the gym and spend three hours there.” That preparation also included meeting the Ward family itself…
Its a family affair
As they began prep work on The Fighter , Wahlberg, Russell and Bale spent time with the Ward family, feeling it was pivotal to doing their story justice. Not only that, but they spent time in the Massachusetts neighbourhood of Lowell, where the Wards live.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I first saw the family,” admits Russell. “I thought they might be some very harsh people that I’d want to spend 10 minutes with. The fact is, the people are so unbelievably lovable. That’s what goes into the movie.”
Which isn’t really how Christian Bale remembers it. “There were a couple of times where we had to physically restrain Dicky from going in and landing one right on David,” he laughs.
“We had some initial interesting times when we were rehearsing in Mark’s house, where Mark very nicely put up Micky and Dicky and they actually lived at his house for some time.”
In the end, though, the family understood that certain artistic license had to be used in order to tell their story in a two-hour movie.
“David said right from the get-go that he wanted to make this as real as possible and that’s what he did,” says Micky. “He really listened to me and to Dicky and he was never afraid to try absolutely anything.” For Wahlberg, it was still just the beginning…
It’s no exaggeration to say that The Fighter became the biggest challenge in Wahlberg’s career thus far. While working on other films, he was always aware that Fighter could one day get the greenlight. Which would mean training every day until that time arrived.
“That often meant getting up at four o’clock in the morning,” the actor says, “going to the gym for two hours, taking a shower, then going to do another job, all while hitting the mitts in the trailer in between takes.”
Not only that, but Wahlberg had to reacquaint himself with his native Boston accent, which he’d worked hard to get rid of for movie roles.
“It’s a lot harder to get rid of it than it was to get it back,” he admits. “Every time I would leave Boston, people would, you know, it would appear that it’d be like nails on a chalkboard for people hearing that accent.
“But everybody [ on the film ] did a fantastic job and didn’t push it too far, even though you think these characters are so extreme and so broad. But they’re actually a toned-down version of these larger than life characters.” Wahlberg wasn’t the only one who had to get to grips with the accent…
Talk the talk
Having spent the last decade perfecting his middle America accent with films like Batman Begins and American Psycho , Christian Bale now found that he would need to learn how to speak with a Bostonian twang for The Fighter.
Lucky for him, he had a co-star who was happy to show him the ropes.
“Mark was a great deal of help in that he would never say anything,” says Bale, “but he would just get a certain look on his face when you said something and you just knew that wasn’t it.
“But also I approached Dicky’s accent as though Dicky’s got his own thing going on, you know – he calls it Dickynese himself. And I think everyone will agree.” All they needed now was a little support...
With the central trio of director and brothers in place, it was time to expand The Fighter ’s world and draft in actors to play the other characters who were important in the Ward siblings’ lives.
First up was Charlene, a feisty bartender who ends up romantically involved with Micky. For Russell, there was only one lady for the role: Amy Adams.
“I’d been speaking with Amy every couple of years and talked about working together,” he recalls, “and I knew she was eager to break type for herself. In the sense that she’d played mostly very sunny women. And she was very eager to play someone against type – and I knew she was gonna kill it.
“Just from talking to her I knew she was going to step up. There’s nothing better a director can have than someone who is very eager.” But Adams was going to need to toughen up…
“When I got the role, David informed me that I looked like a girl who couldn’t punch, which made me want to punch him,” jokes Adams.
“So I actually took just a couple boxing lessons. And then we just did some fight choreography. I think it was about not being afraid of hurting anybody. That was my biggest concern. I didn’t want to hurt the girl that I was fighting with. I had a good time.”
Wahlberg couldn't have been any happier about who he was going to be sharing intimate scenes with. “It was instant for me,” he admits. “It was like, ‘Whoa.’ She’s a sweetheart.
“David always says that she doesn’t seem like the girl who could throw a punch, but she reminds me of so many girls in my neighbourhood. A tough, no nonsense kind of girl. And I saw that immediately.” Meanwhile, it was time for Bale to lose some weight…
Lets get physical
From his role in American Psycho (for which he worked out and got his teeth fixed) to his role in Rescue Dawn (for which he lost, well, a lot of weight), Christian Bale has always been a willing chameleon when it comes to changing his physical appearance.
For The Fighter , Bale decided to drop the Batman muscle in order to more resemble the real-life Dicky. He ended up losing 30 pounds for the part, and underwent boxing training.
Confirms Russell: “Christian was perfect because he is one of those chameleon actors who transforms himself. He spent a lot of time with the real Dicky Eklund and he became him.”
So did Bale find the weight loss helped him? “Not with the performance,” he says. “I felt so good and calm with playing Dicky.
"I don’t know… usually I always say I do a lot of coke whenever I lose weight, I’m not sure if that’s so funny for this movie! There’s not a lot of secrets to it, I just run a lot.” There was still one pivotal person missing…
Enter the lioness
“There were a lot of different people that they were talking about for Alice initially, but I’d seen Melissa in Frozen River and I said, ‘This is the person you have to cast,'” recalls Wahlberg.
The hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners mother of Micky and Dicky, Alice Ward is a boxing manager who packs real heat - and she’ll protect her boys no matter what.
Initially, Melissa Leo was unsure about the part. “I had a lot of doubts going and meeting with David,” she confides. “But it sounded interesting enough.
"I took the meeting, met him at the Maritime Hotel, and sat down and we kind of dived right into starting to work about it. It wasn’t really an interview, but there we were, working on Alice together over breakfast.
"He then gave me the opportunity to meet Alice Ward. Upon meeting her, I saw immediately my mother’s mother, my maternal grandmother in Alice, and knew then that, ‘Oh, I have her in here somewhere.’” Time to start rolling…
Fights on film
Filming took place over just 33 days on the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts, the Ward brothers’ home town. The location was pivotal in understanding the Ward family.
“We all felt that we had to film the movie in Lowell,” says Russell. “When you ask people in Massachusetts about Lowell, their eyebrows raise. It’s a very intense place, a very particular place.
“It was the heart of the Industrial Revolution with mills going back to the 18th century. The people there are very proud of their identity. They’re tough people, but they’re also kind people when you reach down inside into who they are.”
The director also has nothing but praise for his star. “Mark inhabited Micky,” he says. “He moved like him, dressed like him and got his style of fighting down perfectly.
“More than that, I think he also he really understood him. It’s a quiet, frightening intensity that when he breaks it out, is extremely powerful.” Finally, it was time for Wahlberg to put his training to the test…
Russell knew that getting the boxing scenes in the film right would be pivotal to its success. He was aware that over-glamourising or over-choreographing the fights would make them too unbelievable.
Opting to shoot in a pared-back minimal documentary style, Russell and co manned the fighting scenes at the beginning of the shoot, and shot them all over just a couple of days.
Adding to the pathos of the experience, the fights were filmed at Arthur Ramalho's West End Gym, where the real Micky had once trained.
Did Wahlberg feel prepared after all that training? “I wanted the film to have some of the most realistic boxing ever seen on screen. That was my goal.
“After four and a half, well, three and a half years, I felt confident enough to go in there and be believable as a boxer who could possibly win the welterweight title,” he says.
“Had somebody said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to train four and a half years to make this movie,’ I would have said, ‘Absolutely not.’
"But the fact that I was just continuing to do it and never wanted to stop - because I figured if I stopped I would be giving up on the movie, and I never wanted to do that. It was certainly worth it in the end.” At last, The Fighter was in the can…
Take a break
After shooting was completed in August 2009, Wahlberg shot a cover for Sports Illustrated in order to promote The Fighter.
“I do still have the ring,” he admits. Though he goes on to add that he’s taking life a little easier now that he’s not training for the movie anymore.
“As far as the regimen, my new regimen consists of a bottle of red wine and a lot of food,” he says.
“And I’m enjoying myself, but my wife is like, ‘You’re starting to look really bad. I’m like a former supermodel, Victoria’s Secret Model. I mean, if you want to hold on to me, you’ve gotta do something.’ So I’m back in the gym.” Still, now the film could be released…
Opening across America in December, The Fighter had its advance charity premiere in Lowell. It received much praise for its gritty tale of family and perseverence, with Christian Bale and Melissa Leo both winning Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards.
Russell also took a moment to reflect on the fact that Bale and Wahlberg are actually more like each others’ characters than the parts they ended up playing.
“In a funny way, I think Christian is more like Micky and Mark is more like Dicky,” he muses. “In the talky-talk way. Christian’s more of a quiet guy, and it was interesting to watch him hang out with Dicky, inhale Dicky.
“People would come up on set and be, like, ‘Oh, I thought that was Dicky.’ Micky never says two words, he’ll take five punches to give one, and he’ll let everybody say everything and he won’t say nothing. He’ll let Dicky do all the talking – it was an interesting role for each of these guys.” And more awards were on the way…
“My dog woke me up,” says Russell. “My dog like had some sixth sense. And I knew that it would be good if my phone was ringing and not as good if my phone wasn't ringing. So my phone started to ring shortly after my dog woke me up.”
What’s he talking about? Only the announcement of the 2011 Academy Awards nominees, with The Fighter earning itself seven nods.
With nominations in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Bale) and Actress (Adams) categories, the battle to make The Fighter seems to have paid off.
“It has been such an incredible journey with The Fighter and one that I am grateful to share with David O. Russell, Christian, Melissa, Amy, my fellow producers and the Ward and Eklund families, who are the heart and soul of the film,” says Wahlberg.
“Thank you to the Academy for this tremendous honour.” A new journey has only just begun…