When Channing Tatum walks into a room, he extends his hand, looks you directly in the eye, and introduces himself as "Chan." Then this good Southern boy proceeds to sit down with his director, brash New Yorker Dito Montiel, and cuss up a storm. It's a dichotomy that plays itself out in the duo's new film, Fighting, as well, casting Tatum as-- wait for it-- a good Southern boy who holds doors open for women, but can also bash a guy's head into a water fountain if that's what it takes to win a fight.
Our conversation with Montiel and Tatum was far more open than most of the junket talks can be, with both of them admitting that the original concept handed to them by the studio was nothing they wanted to make, and Montiel getting into the nitty gritty of what it took to snag a PG-13 rating. Tatum even admits at the end of the interview that, had Fighting actually been the movie Montiel wanted to make, it would look completely different. Don't ask me why either of them, who previously worked together on Montiel's debut feature A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, were being so honest, or so fun to talk to. Just enjoy the result below.
How did this project come to fruition? I heard that it was initially conceived as a basketball film, and went through several script changes.
Dito Montiel: It was a basketball movie that they had over at Paramount I think, right?
Channing Tatum:This is how I always tell it: [Kevin Misher, producer] came to me right after I had wrapped a film up, and he said, “I have this basketball movie called Rucker Park, and they just re-wrote it and called it Running, and I just didn’t want to do a basketball movie. I suck at basketball. I’m terrible. Even in Coach Carter I’m a good athlete, but basketball’s not my game so you never see me shooting in the movie. I’m doing all the defensive stuff. And [Misher] said, “Well if you had to do it, who would be your director?” And I tried to think of the one person that would never do a basketball movie, and I was like, “Of course! Dito. Dito will never do a basketball film.” Lo and behold, two months later, this fucking guy calls me up, “Eh, I know it’s a basketball movie, just gi-gi-give me a call! I got a take.” And he calls me and says, “It’s Midnight Cowboy. It’s Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo.” And I mean there’s nothing more that I would wanna do then play Joe Buck in a Dito film, but I’m like, “It’s still a basketball movie,” and he’s like “We’ll figure it out.” So, the basketball games kept getting more violent, and more violent, and so we took the basketball out and made it fighting.
Does this underground fight world really exist?
Dito Montiel: You know it was funny, because me, Channing and Terrence all said the same thing to each other: “Could we take sports out of this and make a really great movie?” And [the producers] were like, “Not with us!” And Channing said, “Why don’t we just make a movie about these two guys that meet?” So I think our secret plan was to make a movie that pretended that fighting didn’t exist. It wasn’t so much like Terrence is going to be the Mr. Miyagi guy who goes, “You move like this, and you take him down”— I mean 10-year-olds know moves now that can take you down; it’s not a secret anymore. And Channing’s a pretty strong, physical guy who knows how to handle himself, and I was like, “Most fights I’ve seen always end up on the ground with people getting really dirty,” so we tried to keep it as real as possible, and brought in some guys that were willing to get their heads seriously bashed in, and didn’t get into the stunt-double stuff. As far as the underground world goes, I’m sure. I think there was an article the other day in The Daily News about it.
Channing Tatum: It was less about a fighting movie than trying to get these relationships right.
You must’ve sustained some pretty heavy injuries during these intense fight sequences.
Channing Tatum: The first fight my nose was like over here [on the other side of my face] and Dito was like, “That’s awesome! Roll the cameras!” I was like, “Alright…”
The fight sequences are pretty visceral and brutal. How did you get them that way?
Dito Montiel: [The studio] kept hitting me up with weird things. They were like, “It’s Fighting, but PG-13.” And I go, “What does that mean?” And they said, “You can only say ‘Fuck’ once,” and I said, “You just said ‘Fuck’ two times!” And they’re like, “You can’t fucking use it!” And I’m like, “Okay, you’re already at a fucking ‘R’! So we’re like – what else can’t we do? We can’t have spurting blood, so right away we had to rethink it. So we started talking, and we’re gonna have Harvey be a nice guy who doesn’t curse. And it’s funny, the first thing the studio tells you is, “Well you get one ‘Fuck,’ so use it big! Open the movie with one ‘FUUUCK’!” And I’m like, “No. If they don’t curse, they don’t curse. They don’t say ‘shit,’ ‘asshole,’ ‘cocksucker,’ and it became decent people, which was nice to have.
Channing Tatum: Yeah, you don’t miss it. I didn’t miss even saying it as a character, and I like cuss words. I punctuate every sentence of my life with one. But I didn’t miss it in the character, I didn’t miss it in the movie, and it still seems like New York, and I loved that.
Dito Montiel: And it worked with the fights as well, because once they said, “You can’t squirt blood and crunch bones,” I said, “Well good, those things would be kind of corny anyway. If we can’t curse and can squirt blood, how’s that gonna work?” So we kept it real. The one thing that did bother me is the other rule, which is like… opinion. It was like, “These fights are a little too realistic.” And I’m like, “Realistic? So what does that mean – make it worse?” So we had to pull a few things back that killed me, but it still feels real.
What were some of the things you had to pull back?
Dito Montiel: It was so funny, like one time Channing has Cung down on the ground and he punches him three times, and [the censors] was like, “Take those three out,” so then I made it two, and then they’re like, “Take ‘em out,” so I made it one. First I tried to dip the sound and was like, “I’ll raise it again later.” I tried every trick possible, but it’s one punch instead of three.
So with this level of studio and censor intervention, how did you keep the film so grounded? It still seems like a very realistic portrait of New York City.
Dito Montiel: Well I used to do a lot of things in the street – sell junk all over – and in the same exact locations that Channing’s character does. That was my job. I think everybody did their job as actors, and production designers, and everyone made it feel honest. I know Harvey, you know? I want to feel like Shawn, and I wanna meet a guy like Harvey and take a walk with him.
Since you were filming in Midtown Manhattan, how did you avoid being mobbed?
Channing Tatum: You know, in New York, they really don’t mob you. They’re just pissed off that they have to walk around shit. They’re like, “What the hell am I supposed to do? I gotta get to work!” It’s more that, and people yelling stuff. That gets really interesting. Terrence Howard’s cool, he gets mobbed. I was like, “Have you seen Terrence?” And then I’d just run out of the way!
What have you done since A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints that made you develop as an actor?
Channing Tatum: You know, I learned an immense amount on Saints, and it’s one of those things where you learn, and it settles in later. After that, I went to go and do a film [Stop-Loss], and that put me through a different kind of actor’s boot camp that’s so different from the way Dito directs. [Kimberly Peirce] has a very specific way of directing, and you literally hit all these different points like a boot camp. [Dito] writes in the way I speak, and the way that he directs, he’ll tell me a story about somebody he met, and I just get him. I just get it. I’m like, “Oh, of course. I got it.” So he doesn’t have to tell me the stories anymore since I have a bunch of stories that he’s told me locked away, and I know within which scene to pull from. It’s nice when you find someone who you can totally vibe with.
And you two are working together again soon, right? It was recently announced that you’ll be collaborating on the spy thriller Brotherhood of the Rose.
Dito Montiel: We’ve been talking about it, trying to make figure it out and make sense of it.
Channing Tatum: That’s a task! I don’t even know where it’s at. It’s in the ‘Dito hole’ right now, and he goes in the hole and comes out with something brilliant, or it just stays in there until it is brilliant.
Could you talk about creating Terrence Howard’s mentor character?
Dito Montiel: The funny thing was Terrence has Robert Downey eyes – he looks like he’s gonna cry all the time – so he’s got this natural god-given beauty; something that just warms the soul. So when I first started thinking about [the character], I just thought how we could make him a decent guy. This PG-13 thing is, like I said, a really strange blessing. It was like taking a PG-13 Ratso Rizzo and putting him in The Warriors. We gotta maintain the goofiness of this movie.
Channing, did you relate to this character being this ‘fish-out-of-water’ in this big city, since he’s from Alabama and you are too? Did you experience this same disorientation when you first visited a big city?
Channing Tatum: Yeah, for sure. Everyone always talks about the speed of New York, and I still walk slow around New York, and everyone is walking faster than me all the time, and I notice it every time we go out. But I remember the first time we came up here, we slept in some $70 hotel, and I had never felt more out-of-water. I pulled the dresser in front of the door, and it was a communal bathroom, and it was one of those moments right out of the movie where you feel like, “Wow, I feel like a total country bumpkin right now!”
Do you two have any good fight stories?
Dito Montiel: We went to a hardcore show together remember? They had the whole A7, this old hardcore club in New York, where you just didn’t care.
Channing Tatum: We got pretty much in a fight then. He threw me in fuckin’ a mosh pit! Like turns around, grabs me by the shirt, and starts running backwards through this group, and everyone’s throwing elbows and stuff, and I’m about to yoke some kid, and this poor kid would’ve gotten destroyed, I’m sure. But I haven’t gotten in a fight for so long, man. My last fight I got in I had a purse in my hand. I was carrying my girl’s purse, and it was the most nonviolent fight ever because the guys were so drunk that you just had to push them over.
How did you pick all the different ethnic neighborhoods to shoot this movie in?
Dito Montiel: Damon was our locations guy, and he was fucking great. So I was like, “You can’t weird me out enough, so go for it!” And it was where he fights Cung Le out in Queens, and when we first went there it’s like a Dim-Sum place downstairs, and upstairs is all these private doors with video cameras. And I spoke to the owner, and I was like, “What goes on here?” And he goes, “A lot of private cop parties.” So, I basically rented this thing that was a Dim-Sum, and a whorehouse upstairs. We’re sticking with The Warriors theme, going to all these crazy places.
Channing Tatum: Dito shot a lot of other weird, beautiful stuff and it didn’t get put in the movie because maybe it didn’t fit, or the studio didn’t want it or whatever, and I pray that they him do a Director’s Cut one day, because the movie will change so considerably. I don’t even know what the movie would look like.