Coverage by Nobuhiro Hosoki
Story : Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) is an ex-Marine from Pittsburgh who's never quite shaken his troubled past. Upon learning that the purse in an upcoming MMA tournament is the largest in the league's history, Tommy recruits his father (Nick Nolte), a former coach and recovering alcoholic, to whip him into shape in time for the competition. Meanwhile, as Tommy steadily ascends the ranks by defeating one powerful opponent after another, his brother Brendan struggles to provide for his family with his job as a public school teacher. A former MMA fighter with a devastating punch, Brendan begins to wonder if he, too, could have a shot at winning the coveted purse.
Opened September 9, 2011 Runtime:2 hr. 19 min.
Q&A with Director Gavin O'Connor, Actor Joel Edgerton, Actor Frank Grillo
(Q) : Gavin, can you take us a little bit about how the idea came about, and also maybe something about the idea of family.
(Gavin O'connor) : This is a very difficult question to answer because it’s a mystery. Leonard Cohen has a great line, he says “If I knew where it came from I’d go there every time. These things just emerge and I think there was something going on in my life trying to get an understanding of forgiveness. And when I say forgiveness I don’t mean the words “I forgive you,” but true forgiveness in your heart. So that was something I think I was trying to in a deep way really understand.
There were things I guess in my own life that I was trying to work out in regard to family and brothers and things like that, and then my love of mixed martial arts and I’d never seen the sport dramatized in a way in cinema and I thought it was something that could be done. That was also part of the DNA of the story that I was working on because I like the idea of what I call an intervention in a cage, where one brother saves another brother’s life by kicking the shit out of him.
(Q) : Talk a little bit about Herman Melville, who makes a significant contribution to this movie. I think you know in a way that you’re in for something different when in the opening scene of this movie Nick Nolte gets in his car and audio book that he’s listening to is “Moby Dick.” It’s not something on the current best seller list.
(Gavin O'connor) : Well, in doing a biography on this character, my co-writer and I, Anthony Tambakis, we liked this idea that he replaced his addictions with books and that he was an armchair traveler, so he travelled the globe without ever leaving his chair, and read all the classics. Things that he didn’t do when he was younger. And then thinking about in choosing one great piece of literature how do I tie that in to the fabric, the DNA of the film.
I love the book. And I just liked this idea that in the novel there’s only one white wale in the ocean. And for Tommy growing up with his dad he was that white wale. There was no one like him; he was unique. And in the book Moby Dick bites off Ahab’s leg, and Ahab has vengeance in his heart. And Tommy has vengeance in his heart for his father. Ahab was godless as Tommy is godless, so I liked this idea that Tommy in essence was hunting his father down because of how he views what his father did to him.
And in a way he spends the whole movie trying to get his dad to drink, and he gets what he wanted. And the old man says to him, he says “Ahab, you godless son of a bitch,” and he gets in Tommy’s face like this. And its Jungian thing with that mirror that reflects back and Tommy sees himself becoming his dad, and that’s the first moment of compassion that he offers his father. And that’s the beginning of Tommy’s breakdown, because Tommy needs to, and this is what I mean by an intervention in a cage, Tommy needs to die at the hands of his brother to be reborn. Tommy needs to surrender, Tommy needs to submit. So these were the lofty ideas of the film.
(Gavin O'connor) : Joel, can you talk a little bit about how you got involved with the project, and also of preparing for the role both emotionally and psychologically but also physically, since it’s such a physically demanding role.
(Joel Edgerton) : I got involved in the film kind of by the usual pathways. I was asked to audition. I think I sent you a tape from Australia. And then I was in LA and I was rehearsing for a film called “The Waiting City,” and I snuck away one lunch hour to go and meet Gavin, not realizing that he actually lived so far away that I was absent from rehearsals for four hours, which they weren’t very happy about. But I’m happy that I went there because I got a chance to actually meet Gavin and talk to him. So it was the usual audition process. Thankfully Gavin saw whatever he needed for Brendan in me.
And part of the reason that I’m happy about that is because at the time neither Tommy or I were fighters or resembled fighters or had much experience fighting, and I think Gavin was determined to get the right people for the roles, the right actors, and invite them to the cage I guess, to learn to fight. Gavin was determined also to make sure that whoever he got to do the movie was free enough – for free read out of work – to get to Pittsburgh early. I mean I say that as a joke but you hire a movie star these days I guess they turn up on Friday and they start shooting on Monday, and you don’t get the preparation time.
And when you look at any of Gavin’s movies there’s a real authenticity to the world that he creates that is the backdrop for these very human stories, and if you don’t have the preparation time then I think what ends up on the screen is a lot more flimsy than what ends up on the screen in Gavin’s movies. So we really had to get to Pittsburgh early, two months early, and it literally became a full-time job to go to the gym from seven in the morning until late in the afternoon and learn all the different skills that we needed and the choreography to lift weights, and eat a lot of chickens. A lot of chickens.
(Q) : And Frank, maybe you can talk a little bit about your own research and preparation for the role. You’re not playing the fighter in the film, but you’re playing the guy who has to know a lot about it and project that sense of authority, which I think you do extremely well.
(Frank Grillo) : Thank you very much. I had a little bit of background in boxing and jujitsu and I wrestled in school, but I never know how to train anyone, so I was fortunate enough Gavin met Greg Jackson, who is if anybody knows MMA, is probably the best if not one of the best trainers in the world. The top two or three. He opened his gym and his home up to us. I went down with Gavin for a day and then went with Greg for a couple of weeks and trained with these fighters and learned how this guy used what you see in the film, the Beethoven.
This is a guy who has nothing more than a high school education I think talking about string theory and chaos theory to his fighters, many of whom are college graduates and family men. The music pumping through the gym was classical music many times, and it was just a fascinating experience to learn from the inside out what this world of MMA really was. And you just get such a respect for these men because they’re such incredible athletes and they’re as tough mentally and emotionally as they are physically. And I think Gavin just beautifully depicted what these guys are what they go through.
(Q) : Joe Drake when he was introducing the film earlier said that this project originated about three years ago. When you were working on it were you thinking about the new economic realities of the post-Wall Street crash America? Because the film seems to capture that in a way that very few recent movies have, which continue to show us beautiful people living extravagantly beyond their means disproportionate to the jobs they have. This almost feels like a Warner Brothers movie from a ‘30s in the way it addresses the economic realities of the setting.
(Gavin O'connor) : I mean it says a lot about the state of our country that we’re still in it, right? We wrote the movie three years ago when we were in the vortex of the housing crisis, unemployment I think then was nine point something percent, which is still is today. So you know for me there were two things I really wanted to do with each character, which was I wanted to speak to the working man, which was Joel’s character, Brendan, and salute working class families, people that are fighting their way out of debt, people that are just hanging on my a fingernail to keep their homes.
And in way there is a wish fulfillment quality to the movie because there are so many people in this country that are husbands and fathers that are fighting their way out of debt with two, three, four jobs, both mother and father, and he literally fights his way out of debt, and I thought that was interesting. And then on the side for Tommy, because we were coming out of a, I didn’t want to get political and make political statements, but coming out of a war that I was disgusted by and yet I wanted to salute the men and women that went over there and died for a cause that maybe we shouldn’t have been dying for, and these soldiers that were there because they had to, and I wanted to salute them. And that’s why I made Tommy a Marine and I wanted to somehow not get political in any way, because this movie isn’t about that. It was just a little tip of the hat.
(Q) : I want to as you or Joel, or maybe both of you, because it’s been written by a number of people in recent years that it seems like so many leading roles in American movies with American characters are going to British and Australian actors. I think there is an extent to which it seems like, especially with this kind of role, a gritty, working class role, that it seems like these are the go-to guys. Is it just coincidence?
(Gavin O'connor) : I promise you I went through all the Americans. I did. They were very particular qualities that I was looking for for these guys, and I couldn’t find them here. When I met Tommy I knew it, and as Joel said, I got a tape, it was online, you click on it and you go to the audition thing and there was Joel from Australia. And whatever it was that was coming off of my computer screen, because I try to trust my first reaction, had me interested enough to know that I wanted to meet this guy. And when Joel says he auditioned, the audition was in my house, it wasn’t in the casting office.
He drove up to my house, we ate some fruit and bullshitted for a while, and then of course he was like “I’ve got to go, I have an audition and I’m already late for it. I’m still here.” And then we played with the scene and I talked to him a little bit and I got to know him. And he had the qualities that were right for the role. And then beyond that he’s a brilliant actor. He’s a brilliant actor. He’s Richard Burton, this guy, without all the booze.
So I don’t know what it says about it. I don’t know; if there are American actors here I don’t mean to denigrate anybody but there’s something going on in our culture today. There are a lot of American doily actors, and it works in some ways, but maybe for the movies I’m making I’ve had a hard time. Even in “Pride and Glory” I went to Ireland, I got Colin from there. So I don’t know. I was very fortunate to get this guy to be in the movie. He’s brilliant.
(Joel Edgerton) : I will say on the flip side right now the highest grossing movie in Australia is a movie called “Red Dog.” The main character is Australian and it’s played by Josh Lucas. There’s a cultural exchange going on, don’t worry.
(Q) : Joel, besides all the physical things that you do you does amazing emotional things. I want you to talk a little about how you go through so many changes. This is really a role that demands you to make a lot of moves. Can you talk about how you worked that through in your head and how you worked that through with the other actors?
(Joel Edgerton) : There are a lot of things going on for me. Most of what I ever try to find from projects hopefully the majority of it should already exist in the script, and if you’re lucky you’re working with a good template. And beyond that there are so many relatable things. I joked with a friend recently and said in the last three or four years I think I’ve been married to eight different women and I’ve had about 15 children.
Now, I don’t have that in my own life, no one will marry me, I have not had any children that I know of, but that doesn’t mean any of that is not relatable to me, and certainly having a fractured family on screen is relatable on screen because the flip side of that is true in my own life, and I can imagine if that was to be taken away from me, if all those relationships were to be shattered.
So anything to do with family I find very relatable and my instinct is always the thing that I try and listen to first when it comes to doing that stuff. But beyond that there’s something really rich that happened in this film that doesn’t often get to happen. And I joked about movie stars turning up late and wondering where to stand; that didn’t happen on this movie and that actually finds its way onto the screen.
I think relationships forged early in the rehearsal process ahead of time from shooting I think they seep into a movie, and I think that a lot of heady discussion and interest and experience, whatever that is surrounding the film, is really important because otherwise it really is a bunch of people arriving late and wondering how to assemble themselves emotionally and physically, and that didn’t happen with this film.
And it taught me a lot of lessons about how I’d like to approach things for the future. For example, I spent 10 weeks in a gym learning to fight so that when I was eventually just wearing a pair of gloves and a pair of shorts I felt like I belong there. I had absolutely no understanding or comparison when it came to teaching a class of kids and I felt very naked, even though I was wearing more clothes. And that was a really important lesson for me.
(Q) : There’s a great line in the film when Tommy gets asked “Did you bring Mickey and Pauley with you?” Gavin, I just wondered if movies like “Raging Bull” and “Rocky” films and even “The Wrestler,” the genre behind you when you were making this film, how you thought of that.
(Gavin O'connor) : To be honest, I think I was running away from them more than embracing them. That being said, “Rocky,” the first one, because there’s nothing after the first; the others can just go away. But the first “Rocky” was a seminal film experience for me as a little boy. For whatever reason, that film spoke to me in a profound way and has never left me. The line that you’re referring to, my co-writer, Anthony Tamakis wrote, and I was very resistant to it. I was resistant to it when I shot it and I did because I know I can always cut it out later and Anthony was like “You’ve got to keep the line.” And I was resistant in the editing room and Anthony was with me a lot and he would say “You’ve got to keep the line.” Is it okay in there? Alright, good. I’ll tell Anthony you said it.
(Q) : Did it always end this way or was there ever going to be additional material explaining the fates of the characters?
(Gavin O'connor) : The original draft I will tell you had Tommy getting taken to prison. Well at the end we’re in the locker room with Tommy and Brendan and the old man comes in and there’s a moment there, a moment of reconciliation. And then there was sort of this coda that we wrote, it was a year or two years later, where Brendan and Paddy go and pick Tommy up from prison in a Ferrari.
It was in the original draft and once you put it together and you go “Wait a minute here; do we really need to do this?” Writing eventually becomes the elimination of what’s unnecessary. It just felt very unnecessary. I think the questions you’re asking are great but I think it’s good to leave and theater and ask those questions.
I will tell you that the song at the end of the film, the piece by The National that is born out of the sport, that I always knew I was using when we were writing the script. I always knew we were driving towards this intervention in a cage and I always knew that song in the fourth round is what was going to emerge.
Which is a really sort of liberating things because what that did is it started to inform the instrumentation of the score because then I got my guy Mark Isham, who has composed my last two films and I said “Listen to this song. This is going to inform my score and it’s got to be born out of the score and the instrumentation we have to reverse engineer to the beginning of the film.” So all these little things started getting put together.
(Q) : A question about the impossible situation that Tommy faces in the film that you don’t pit him against his father, his brother, it’s more about the difficulty coming to terms with that.
(Gavin O'connor) : Tommy’s at war with himself. There’s an expression “hurt people hurt people”; that’s what Tommy’s doing. I’m not quite sure how to say any more than that.
(Q) : Two questions. One about whether there were intentional echoes in the film of the Pat Tillman story, and also if you could talk a little bit about Nick Nolte.
(Gavin O'connor) : The Tillman, when that went down and the cover up that surrounded it it’s a tiny, little sort of thing in the movie but it’s a nod to that no question. American dropping bombs on Americans and stuff like that. As I said, I didn’t make any political statement in the film and maybe I tried to smuggle something in there, but very perceptive of you. And Nick, as I said Anthony and I wrote with Frank Campana for Frank and we wrote Paddy for Nick.
He was always intended to play that role. The thing about Nick is if you challenge him and you push him he’s brilliant. If you don’t, he’s not. And I would say that with him sitting here. He knows that, we all know that. But he’s brilliant, and the conversations I had with Nick, we spent a lot of time together working on the character before we even got to Pittsburgh because we live literally five minutes from each other.
So there was the benefit of that. There was also the benefit of me knowing him so well that the public demons that everyone knows and the private demons and as long as he was prepared to take his heart out and put it down on the table and reveal everything and be very brave we were going to be good, and he knew that. We talked about it. No acting required. The guy’s amazing. And he’s hard to watch sometimes because I know it was painful for him at times. He really had to dig very deep and expose himself in a way that was, talk about nakedness. A real vulnerability there and a truth. There was no acting. The thing we were going for in the movie was just to not act. No acting.
(Q) : Does Tom Hardy being tough as on the screen in the film set?
(Gavin O'connor) : He’s not, man. Franco was talking about it. What’s going on between action and cut, at cut he’s a goof ball.
(Frank Grillo) : Yeah he’s not an intense guy in his real life. There’s something inside of him that he can draw from. In fact, even when it came to training he was the most delicate of everyone. He was the guy we had to deal with kid gloves the most. He’s not a fighter; the guy is not a fighter. He got himself to look like one. Now I don’t think either one of them is very tough, but I think Joel is much tougher.
This is the brilliance of Gavin is that he creates this theater than enables all of his actors to come and to do the work and come and be real. Because I’ve worked with him on “Pride and Glory,” and he did it with Farrell, and he did it with Norton, and Jon Voight and a lot of other people in the movie, but he’s got the ability to get people to want to work as hard as they possibly can. And I’ve worked with a lot of directors and not many people get you to do that.
(Joel Edgerton) : We had a bunch of weeks blocked away in that stadium to shoot the fight scenes. I think we were do to be there for five or six weeks doing that, and it was about literally the end of the first week or the beginning of the second week, Tom’s stunt double, Jace Jeanes, and no offense to Jace at all, but he threw me while we were shooting one of the scenes and I tore my ACL. So I went from fighting in a cage with fighters one day and then waiting around in a kind of a swimming pool with old ladies in a rehabilitation center the next day. It was the biggest shift of environments I’ve ever had in my life. I had six weeks to recover and then I could get back to work. It was tough but it was fun.
(Q) : Where did Tom and Joel train at? And I notice that even though Tom was a wrestler as a youth he was primarily a striker in the cage. Was that done purposefully? Was Joel supposed to be the grappler and Tom the striker? How did that thought process take place?
(Joel Edgerton) : I’ll answer the first part of that. We trained at the Pittsburgh Fight Club. That’s where basically our camp was. We were there every day at seven o’clock in the morning. Eric runs that gym and was very kind to us and allowed the whole stunt team to move in there for the duration.
(Gavin O'connor) : The fighting styles, Tommy grew up as a wrestler but in the Marines, it happens all the time now especially, but in the Marines he was disciplined in the other art forms. The whole thing about Tommy’s character was if you’re a wrestler and that’s a bigger part of your game, or jujitsu, it’s just a very different kind of intensity. I don’t want to say it’s boring, but there’s something about guys who stay standing up rather than five minutes of every round where they’re on the ground that it becomes a sort of chess match. What I always said about Tommy was, and I would say this to him, I said “You’re a crack addict who needs to hit the crack pipe. Because a crack head wants to get that immediate high, and I analogize smoking crack to probably the most godless thing you can do.
So Tommy’s thing is just to hit the crack pipe, and however you need to end it and quickly, because that’s his high. It’s the only time he actually feels good for about a second. And then for Brendan’s character, which is his style of fighting, that served his character vis-à-vis someone who, you know when you watch a fight, whether it’s boxing or MMA and you see their height and their weight and their reach, and MMA they do the size of the fist, all this stuff. But what you can never do is measure the size of a guy’s heart, and that was the thing about Brendan. It’s like he says in the garage, he says “They’re going to have to kill me to get me out of the cage,” and what do you say? “That’s what I’m afraid of.” You can’t measure the size of a man’s heart.