Award winning French-Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau knows that he sounds like an odd choice to helm an American period piece about a rough around the edges, hard living boxer from the 1970s, but for the Liev Schreiber starring Chuck (opening in Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, and Sherbrooke this Friday) he turned out to be the perfect fit.
An admitted sports buff, the director of Monsieur Lazhar, The Good Lie, and My Internship in Canada sets out in Chuck (which debuted at TIFF last year under the title The Bleeder) to tell the story of real life heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner, played by Schreiber, a role that the actor had passionately pursued for the better part of a decade before the film finally went to camera.
Wepner, a.k.a. The Bayonne Bleeder (so called because he would bleed profusely during almost all of his bouts), was a working class boxer and liquor salesman from New Jersey who clawed his way up the boxing rankings in 1975 to an unlikely fight for the World Heavyweight Championship against Muhammad Ali (played here by Pooch Hall). The unlikely contender nearly went the fifteen round distance with the greatest boxer to ever live, and ended up becoming the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s critically and financially acclaimed Rocky franchise. Falardeau’s Chuck chronicles the rise and fall of Wepner from a failed marriage (to a long suffering postal worker wife, played by Elisabeth Moss), to local legend status, to a burnt out pop culture punchline, to a convicted drug dealer, and finally to a man who found true happiness the hard way.
Falardeau called us from Montreal last week to talk about Chuck, his collaboration with Schreiber (who took real licks in the ring), how he ended up taking the job, making an authentic period piece for a fraction of a Hollywood budget, and meeting the real life inspiration for the film.
When you were first approached with this script, you said that you enjoyed it, but that you didn’t know if you were the right person for the job. What was it that convinced you that you could do this?
Philippe Falardeau: The way it worked was that my agent was the first person who thought it could be interesting for me. He knew I was a big sports fan, so he sent the script my way, and by that point the script had been circulating in Hollywood for a while. When I read it, I thought it was a page turner, and I couldn’t believe that these things really happened. Then, as I was reading it, I knew that I wanted to see this film, but I didn’t know if I was the right person; being a French-Canadian and this story happened in New Jersey in the 1970s amid the boxing world and in a blue-collar society that I didn’t know much about.
What happened and started to convince me was that the next morning when I woke up after reading the script, it had stayed with me. That’s a sure sign as a filmmaker that something in there is of interested to you, and that you have some kind of personal insight on the material. So I started doing some research and prepared a pitch. I called my agent and asked if we could set up a conversation with the producers. We got it, and during our first conversation, I pitched them why I wanted to make this film, how we would do it, and they told me that they had a very limited budget to work with. I always joke that this is what made me such an ideal candidate. (laughs) They kind of know that we here in Canada can deal with that better than a lot of directors in Hollywood can.
They then set up a conversation between me and Liev Schreiber, who had been on board this project for many years and really saw this as something he was passionate about. He was also a big part of the decision making process that led to me getting the job, and he was probably the ultimate voice in choosing the director. We spoke twice on the phone at length about the film, and then he called back to propose. I say it was a proposal because it really sounded like a marriage proposal. He even said, “Hey, on paper you don’t seem like the right person (laughs) because you’re not from this culture, but I like how you speak about the movie and how you look at it.” He also said that he had seen Monsieur Lazhar, and he knew that I would add a lot of humanism to the character of Chuck.
It’s interesting that you would get this job because now you have done two American based productions – this and The Good Lie – that have international components to them. Obviously, for the former a good deal of the story takes place in Africa, but for this one you have to travel to Bulgaria to shoot a portion of a film that’s an American period piece. Did you ever realize once you started making American films that they would take you to places that weren’t really in America?
Philippe Falardeau: (laughs) Well, it definitely makes more sense story-wise for The Good Lie because we have to go to Africa for that, but you definitely raise an interesting point. I mean, 80% of the films that are made anywhere these days, especially period pieces, aren’t filmed where they’re supposed to be taking place. We’re driven to go where the money is and where tax credits are. That’s why so many Hollywood films these days are shot in Atlanta or Louisiana, which is unfortunate, as far as I’m concerned. People also come to Canada because there are those tax credits, and that’s why you have something like Arrival able to convince the studio to film mostly in the province of Quebec.
With Chuck, we had to go to Bulgaria to shoot the boxing matches because it would be cheaper for them to hire all the extras and build the sets, but there was a bit of a nightmare with that, too. The people who went to see the Ali fight in Cleveland in 1975 look nothing like present day Bulgarians. (laughs) There were a lot of black people in the audience in Cleveland in 1975, and if I had to guess, I would say that about 30% of that audience was black. In Bulgaria, good luck finding that many black people who are available to fill out that large of a crowd. You’d be lucky to find more than thirty, and I think we had everyone that we could get.
For me, it makes sense to travel. That’s just how cinema is produced. I come from a Political Sciences and International Relations background. Those were my fields of study in school. I don’t see so much the distinction in the countries we shoot in because I’m a big traveller. I started making a film about travelling around the world for Radio-Canada in this program called Race Around the World when I was 22. The purpose of that was to shoot twenty short films in twenty countries in only 26 weeks, so that was my cinema studies education, and that gave birth to who I am as a filmmaker. For me, it has always made sense to keep travelling if you want to shoot films.
There’s such an attention to period detail in Chuck that harkens back to the 1970s and 80s in America, so what was it like recreating places like New Jersey and Cleveland from that era? Those kinds of sets, settings, and decoration seem like they would be hard to come by anywhere in the world.
Philippe Falardeau: (laughs) That was the hard part, for sure, but it was also the most fun part. It was what kept driving us. I had an amazing production designer, Inbal Weinberg, who lives in Brooklyn and craves this kind of stuff. In her basement, she keeps all of these tapestries and wallpapers so she can do stuff like this. She really embraces films with these kinds of settings, and she’s so great at it.
We went to scout in Bayonne, New Jersey, which is where Chuck Wepner was from, and although we didn’t shoot there, but I made sure that any kind of exteriors that we found there we could emulate. We wanted to make sure we really looked like we were on the streets of Bayonne.
But there was also another tool at my disposal that was invaluable. The real archival footage that I wanted and insisted to use of Chuck and Muhammad Ali and outside shots of the New Jersey Turnpike made it easier for us to match things that we could never fully recreate. Nowadays, it’s impossible for a low budget film to just go out onto the freeway and shoot two hundred cars in traffic. Touches like that are impossible, but the archival footage that we had made it possible for us to create realistic recreations that can line up with each other. In crafting the image with [cinematographer] Nicolas Bolduc, we used this grainy look to emulate the 70s, and I was able to render everything in a cohesive way that was playful, true to the period, and that made sense for our project.
It can be a difficult process, but it also makes you strive for the kinds of things that directors crave. Where I am right now in my career, covering a scene is the easy part. Making it singular, playful, and meaningful is the interesting part, and often that’s the hard part. I know that the audience is sophisticated, and they know the difference between our footage and archival footage, and I’m not asking them to think that we shot all of that. I’m just asking them to accept this playful convention, but I have to make sure that it’s digestible and looks good.
Liev has lived with this character and wanted to making this film for such a long time, but it’s also interesting to see how you have to cast for roles as complex and notable as Muhammad Ali and Sylvester Stallone, two of the most widely recognizable public figures and entertainers in history. Was there any trepidation in casting those parts?
Philippe Falardeau: Ali is tough and nearly impossible to perfectly cast for. He’s probably the most charismatic figure of the 20th century. He was really good looking, and a consummate professional. You just know you’re never going to perfectly get there because there was no one else like him. You have to make sure that you stage an idea of Ali and not a point-for-point recreation of Ali. You just can’t do that. You have to find someone with the correct balance of graceful athleticism and good acting, and I think we found that in Pooch Hall, who also acts with Liev on Ray Donovan as his half-brother, and in real life, they’re sparring partners. To stage real fights, these guys would have to dance together, and Liev would have to take real punches.
For Sly, I think I was even more scared about casting it when we entered pre-production. How do you cast a guy to play Sylvester Stallone, and how do you get around that suspension of disbelief? People have played and interpreted Ali before, but not too many have attempted a serious portrayal of Stallone. Sly is an image in and of himself, and Morgan Spector did a phenomenal thing by coming into the audition and proposing something with a great deal of restraint. The master word here is “restraint.” He never tried to do too much. He was never going for an imitation or a caricature, but he had this grainy voice like Sly and eyes that looked like his, and Morgan was great at capturing the essence and idea of who Stallone is.
We tried to portray Stallone as an up and coming artist who’s very sensible to details and to human beings. I tried to show Sly helping Chuck, which really happened when Chuck went to audition for Rocky II. It’s interesting to look back on now because we know that many years later, they would go against each other in court because Chuck filed a lawsuit against Sly for all the money he made on the franchise that was partly inspired by Wepner’s life. That was another time that wasn’t a part of the eight or nine year span we were covering in the film. The part of Chuck’s life that we see in the film really only covers the beginning of Sly’s career.
Is it helpful for you as a filmmaker to have a leading man like Liev Schreiber who has been thinking about this character and Chuck’s story for years?
Philippe Falardeau: I think it’s helpful if you share the same views on how to achieve our goals. It’s helpful if we see the same film, and that’s why it’s important to spend so much time and talk a lot before the hiring process. Yes, I think he thought about this for a longer time that I did, but when I came in, I was thinking about a lot of other stuff that he as an actor was not as concerned with directly. I began engaging with everyone and asking people if they had thought about certain things about the production and if we had the resources to do it all. All of a sudden, they realized that they had a director on board who was concerned with practical things, and not only the artistic aspect of it. We had so little time that when we started shooting, instinct kicked in for the both of us: Liev on an emotional and dramatic level and me on an artistic and practical level. We’re both really cerebral people who love to think things over and over and over again, but in this case we had to let our instincts talk for us.
As you mentioned before, Liev trains as a boxer and is a huge boxing fan, but I also know there was some discussion about how the fights would be staged. There were some people who adamantly didn’t want Schrieber to take real punches, but he insisted on it as a performer. What was it like being caught in the middle of that debate as a director?
Philippe Falardeau: (laughs) I was NEVER part of that, but I initiated that whole discussion, I think. I went to a party at Liev’s place in Los Angeles, and there was a fight on TV that night. We sat down and started looking at the fight, and I said, “You know, Liev, in all of the films I’ve seen, I’ve never quite believe the punches were actually landing because the camera was too conveniently placed.” I said there was something off about the editing, the sound, and the look that’s different from a real fight, and he said he agreed. The other thing I told him was that boxing wasn’t as spectacular as what usually gets shown on film. It’s slow, and it’s messy, sometimes boring, and sometimes there’s a BOOM and it’s over. We wanted to emulate a real boxing match and take real punches, and that’s also why Pooch Hall was so important. They were already sparring partners, and they could work out their fights as much as they wanted to.
Now, the discussion of taking real punches happened a lot later on the set when the financier walked in. I had him come sit down behind the monitors, and after the take he looked at me and said, “ARE YOU CRAZY? HE’S TAKING REAL PUNCHES?” And I just was taken aback and said, “Uh… ummmm… yeah.” “WELL HE HAS TO STOP!” (laughs) And I just said, “Good luck with that! You go talk to him!” (laughs) I think it was probably a problem insurance-wise, but nothing went wrong because we all prepared for it. Pooch and Liev knew what they were doing and how to land the punches to make real contact, but never enough to necessarily endanger a broken nose or a broken rib. It could have happened, but it didn’t because they prepared for everything so well and so extensively.
After meeting the real Chuck Wepner, did your vision for the film change at all?
Philippe Falardeau: The meeting had more to do with figuring out this guy’s spirit, and not so much about the details. Yeah, we could always talk to him about those sorts of things, especially with the clothes and the rings he used to wear, and that’s all interesting. But to me, meeting him was about finding out who this man is and never forgetting that he’s still alive and that Chuck has to be on board until the end and after he sees the film.
I knew it would be hard for him, and I sat in a theatre right behind him when he watched the film, and I knew that he was cringing in some places, and probably would have liked that we eased up on certain aspects and added some of the other more fun and incredible things that he did, but we had the constraint of compressing his life and building a cohesive arc so it would all fit in one movie, and he understood that. He was really gracious about everything. When the film played at Tribeca a few weeks ago, he came up with us on stage to do the Q&A, and he ended up doing a lot of press. But to have the real person around is a blessing and also not a blessing. (laughs) You don’t want to hurt anyone, but when you make a film, you have to produce drama for anything to be interesting. You can’t make a good film just by showing only the good sides of someone.