Interview: David O. Russell And The Cast Of The Fighter

Over the pat few years, Mark Wahlberg has done everything in his power to get the story of boxer Micky Ward on screen. Despite being a terrific underdog story with some incredible characters and truly deep relationships, he had to truly fight (not literally) to get it made. Now, not only is The Fighter set to be released in theaters nationwide, but it’s garnering some major Oscar buzz.

Late last month I attended the press conference for the film where stars Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, and Amy Adams, as well as director David O. Russell, talked about crafting the film Over the course of the conference the group talked about spending time with the Ward family in Lowell, Massachusetts, Bale’s impressive transformation and mastering the Boston dialect. Read on below.

Mr. Dickie Eklund seems like someone who would take a very active interest in the filming of this movie. Was it at any point necessary to do Eklund Management?

Christian Bale: Can I answer that a little bit? There were a couple of times I had to physically restrain Dickie from going and landing one right on David [O. Russell]. We had some initial interesting times when we were rehearsing in Mark’s house, where Mark very nicely put up Micky and Dickie, and actually they lived at his house for some time. And there were some script changes going on, and Dickie wasn’t initially totally understanding that sometimes in putting a whole life into two hours, a little bit of license has to be taken and mixing things up. He wanted everything initially to be absolutely how it was portrayed. And if it wasn’t, there was a couple of times he would say, “I’m going to go and I’m going to get him,” and you know, and that’s a serious thing coming from a pro boxer. So there’s a couple of times I’d be going, “No, no, no.” And then we’d talk and David would talk with him and I’m not sure if you ever had to stop him from coming and laying one on me, you know? That could well have happened as well. But it was interesting. It was an interesting time. But he actually came around, and you know, seemed to really understand it. And after we showed him the movie he didn’t punch any of us. And I talk to him almost daily. You know, so I think that’s a great achievement, to make the story of someone’s life and do that with. Anyway, sorry, David, that was more your question.

David O. Russell: What he said.

This question is for Christian.

CB: David will answer that one [laughs]

How you lose weight. It seems like you’ve done this many times, this rapid extreme weight loss. What is your regimen for it, and when you do it, does it help put you in that sort of edgy, jittery place that you needed to be to play Dickie?

CB: No, I felt so good and calm, and with playing Dickie, and I was just running like crazy. I could just run for hours on end and I felt really healthy, you know. I don’t know. Usually I always say, “Oh, I do a lot of coke whenever I lose weight.” I’m not sure if it’s so funny for this movie, to say that [laughs]. But there’s not a whole lot of secrets to it. But one really good thing is to have this particular water, Aqua Hydrate [laughs] – Mark?

Mark Wahlberg: Finally, some honesty.

CB: I found that helps to lose weight, immensely. And run a lot. I’ll be getting cash from you later, Mark, right?

Christian, what is your take on Dickie and do you think he is ultimately a good influence for his brother?

CB: I think that he was an absolute source of inspiration initially. And then I think he probably became an absolute confusion for his younger brother, because they’re – it’s an immensely loyal family and they’re immensely loyal brothers. But you know, as you see in the movie, it took Charlene to convince Micky that it wasn’t him abandoning his family to be able to remove himself for a little while, in order to change the dynamics. And then once that had been recognized and once Dickie, who also I think had had immense pressure from the family in the expectations they had of him at such a young age, and that through his success, the whole family would have success. And really, I think very much that’s a part as well of what was drawing him to self-destruction. Once Dickie was able to initiate and say, it’s no longer his time, it’s Micky’s time now, and then convince the rest of the family of that, which took some doing, then after that, Dickie was no end of help for Micky. I don’t think that it could have happened without the one or the other. You know, this movie wouldn’t exist without that beautiful relationship between the two brothers.

I want to talk about the Boston accent, which ruins so many films. Everybody up there nailed it. Specifically for Christian and Mark - Christian, it seems you went the furthest to get it, with your regular accent. How difficult was that? What kind of coaching? Did Mark help? And for Mark, I imagine you’ve had that accent drummed out of you over the years. What’s it like trying to get it back?

MW: It’s a lot harder to get rid of it than it was to get it back. Every time I would leave Boston, it would appear that it’d be like nails on a chalkboard for people hearing that accent. And I’ve been in other movies that took place in and around that area, and the accents were god-awful. And it’s almost to the point where it made it seemed like we were doing bad accents, the people who were actually from that area. But no – everybody did a fantastic job and didn’t push it too far, even though you – you think these characters are so extreme and so broad. But they’re actually a toned down version of these larger than life characters, so –

CB: Mark was a great deal of help, in just – he would never say anything but he’d just get a certain look on his face when you said something, that you just knew that wasn’t it. You know. But also, I approached Dickie’s accent as – I mean, Dickie’s got his own thing goin’ on, you know. He’s got – he calls it Dickinese, himself. And I think everyone will agree that I really had to tone down his natural rhythm and voice because I understand him completely now because my ears are in with it. But if I’d done it exactly like Dickie, we would have needed subtitles, probably.

Mark, the boxing scenes in this film – it’s very realistic, very convincing. And as boxers, as I guess they need confidence to compete and win. At what point did you gain that confidence to pull off these fight scenes in the film. And Amy, you did a great job in one of the fight scene in the film, veryconvincing fighting with the sisters, so tell us about that.

MW: Well, I mean, you know, the movie was a go and then it fell apart and we just – I just continued to train. So 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. And you know, 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 and I would be giving up on the movie, and I never wanted to do that. So for me it was well worth putting in the work. It just – you know, there were times obviously when it was harder and more difficult to get out of bed, and especially while making another film and training for a film that may or may not happen. But you know, it was certainly worth it in the end. Amy?

Amy Adams: Well, 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. So I actually took just a couple boxing lessons, and that was fun, with Mark’s trainer, who was fantastic. 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 wasn’t afraid of getting hurt myself. When I was younger, my sister thought it was funny to pretend to fight, my mom was concerned about my teeth falling out because they were loose for a long time. And she knocked out my teeth. So I’ve always been a little afraid of fake punches. But it was fun. I had a good time.

Continuing with that. Amy, you aren’t the kind of girl who looks like she can punch. David, can you talk about why you chose to cast her? And also, Melissa, both of you went through such incredible transformations…

CB: Do you want to punch right now? [laughs]

AA: Come on. Let’s do it. Let’s go.

But you both did amazing jobs, and it was a transformative performance on both of your parts. So David, can you talk about casting both of your female leads, and also if you can comment on your preparation for the roles?

DOR: I had been speaking to Amy. We would have lunch every couple of years and talked about wanting to work together. And I knew that she was eager to break type for herself, you know, and it – in the sense that she had played mostly very sunny women. And she was very eager to play someone against type, and I knew she was gonna kill it. You know, and just from talking to her, I knew that she was really ready to step up. And there’s nothing better a director can have than somebody who’s very eager, like all these people were. Mark recommended Melissa to me off of Frozen River and I hadn’t seen it and I watched it and I thought she was phenomenal. And I was very excited to transform her into Alice.

Melissa and Amy, could you comment on your preparation to do the film?

Melissa Leo: I have to say that I love acting, I really do. I think that’s maybe the one thing that is known about me. And although it sounded like an extremely exciting and interesting project, and the notion that it was about real people who are still living, and they’d be involved in it – I still had a lot of doubts going and meeting with David. 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. And that then went on with another couple of meetings by my recollect, and that was the first stepping off place, was David’s belief that I could be his Alice. I thought, “Well, golly, I’m only a couple years older than these chaps, and… “I’m not such a pushy gal, by my reckoning. I guess - you really think so, David?” I don’t know how to describe it, except having a palpable belief that I could be his Alice.

He then gave me the opportunity to meet Alice Ward, and I travelled – I’ll never forget, because it’s the only time I really met Christian before we worked – we flew to Lowell, from L.A. together – and I watched him meet Dick and begin to take that on. It was an extraordinary thing to watch. And I got to meet Alice Ward. And upon meeting her, saw immediately my mother’s mother, my maternal grandmother in Alice, and knew then that, “Oh, I have her in here somewhere.” So then with Mark Bridges’ help, and Johnny [Villanueva], who did the hair with David saying, “Shorter, shorter, shorter,” with every haircut – and Tricia Heine, who did my makeup, finally found Alice and walked in her shoes. It was a thrill to walk out of the trailer and have half of Lowell go, “Oh, Alice! Oh, you look my mother!” So that was great.

AA: I’ll just echo what Melissa said, David’s belief that I could be Charlene, that was like half of the preparation. But just knowing that he knew I could do it, made me feel like I could do it. And then the other half of it was research and also David telling me to lower my voice. He kept going, “She’s down here. She’s low. She’s low.”

DOR: Well, both these women talked like that, you know. And my mother did, too. They come from a very deep power place. And the beautiful thing, I’ll just say, that they each brought to the parts that really make them succeed so beautifully is that Melissa consistently fought for the compassion for Alice, as Christian and I initially agreed that Dickie should be someone you love. You know. Mark and I knew that Micky was someone you loved, because he’s taking all the heat for the whole movie; but – it’s swirling around him. And it was a question of how you could plug into Mark’s emotions, feeling that and understanding why he would put up with it and why he needed it. That’s the heart of the story. Why Micky wanted these powers that forced him into the championship.

That’s the crucible that put him there – Charlene and the family and his brother. He got the discipline from the cop in his corner; and he got the inspiration from an older brother who could give him the mantle. You can’t get better inspiration than that – an older brother who didn’t want to give it to him, for a long time. But Melissa always said, “We gotta love Alice.” You know. And I love it because Alice – Alice made mistakes but Alice loves all of her children. And I thought that was beautiful. Likewise for Amy. You know, Charlene is a tough bitch, you know, and Amy’s very fierce. And Amy has that fierceness in her, but Amy also brings a great deal of emotion in her eyes, so you have that great cocktail that I find so interesting, of the two.

My question is for David and Mark. You guys have obviously worked together a couple of times now. And you obviously personally get along quite well. What you each value most about the other.

MW: That’s my brother, man. I love this guy.

DOR: Oh, thanks, man.

MW: You know, we – we’ve been through a lot together and you know, we’re so comfortable with one another, we’re like family. And to be able to work with somebody that you admire so much and that you trust and that you care for, it – I’m speaking for myself, of course. I don’t really know how David feels.[laughs] But no, I just loved it. I mean, you know, when it dawned on me that there is a way to get this movie made, with David as the director, we had already started a relationship with Christian and got him to commit, I thought, “We have a chance to make something really special, and David will bring something to the table,” that I don’t think anybody else was really trying to tap into. They thought, “Well, the story between the brothers is really fascinating. And it’s more of a boxing movie.” And he brought a level of humor and emotion that I don’t think anybody else was capable of bringing to it.

CB: I think also a lot of the other people, they would overemphasize the druggie nature, the addiction, as though that was something fascinating to see. And we felt like we’ve seen that in so many movies, and you don’t meet Dickie and Micky - and it’s not what you think about. Of course it’s part of his past, but you didn’t want to obsess on that, you know. And David’s got this great sort of tandem earnestness and complete silliness going on at the same time. Which is great. And which was perfect for it.

MW: And if you went down that dark path, it would be a very limited audience that would go and see this movie. And we thought it has so much more to offer. And we thought, you know, young, old, men, women, would all enjoy the story and everybody would find something very compelling, as well as entertaining and inspiring about it. So – so that was what David brought to the table.

DOR: It’s a real blessing. I’m very happy to be here, you know. I just feel really lucky to be here with this much talent and this much amazing raw material, and these characters. I mean, as soon as I saw the raw material that Mark was talking to me about, I just said, “Oh, my god, this is amazing. These characters are amazing in their world – they’re dynamic.” You know. It was amazing. And it’s – there’s nothing better than having a collaborator that you have a great shorthand with and a great comfort with, who’s shepherding the project along. I mean, that – that’s the best thing you have in cinema, where there’s many cooks in the kitchen, you know. So it makes life much easier.

And didn’t know what to expect when I first saw the family. I thought they might be some very harsh people that I wouldn’t want to spend ten minutes with. You know? I thought, “God, this could…” because I remember hearing about Micky Ward. And then when I saw him and I heard him talk, I was like, “Oh, my god. He sounds much rougher than I expected.” You know. I expected some sweet talking Oscar De La Hoya type. And the fact is, the people are so unbelievably lovable. You know, and as Christian said, I still hang out with them; and that’s what goes into the movie. That’s the only thing that goes in the movie.

MW: And I did promise David that after making this movie, our next collaboration would be right back to me just saying, “Yes, sir; no, sir,” and strictly being there to service his vision, because it was definitely a different dynamic you know, me saying, “Hey, wait, no, no – what about this – David, I don’t know, this is not…” Because I was so close to them, into that world, and I think that was the only thing that took a little getting used to, and I promised my leader here, that I will not do that again, the next time, if we get to work together again –

DOR: He can’t help it if when I first met him, he was a 26-year-old kid mumbling off of Boogie Nights, mumbling everything in a hotel meeting. And then the time we made this movie, it was like, you know, “Boardwalk Empire builder” – you know. [laughs] “Godfather, Godfather.”

MW: Shit happens, Dude. I’m a hustler [laughs]. I’m from the fucking street, baby; I gotta make it happen. Nothing comes easy for me.

DOR: And these guys met at Mark’s preschool – the preschool of your daughters, is that right? If you’d looked across the parking lot and saw Christian Bale and he was like, ‘Bing’ – Right? [laughs]

MW: Well, what I said was I was like, “There is the guy who’s not scared to play this part. Everybody loves the idea of it, but nobody really wants to commit and go there.” And I had seen The Machinist; I had seen, Rescue Dawn and I was like, “If he responds to the material, this is again, you know, a chance for us to make the best possible version of the movie.” I could see why people were so attracted to the part, but at the same time, it can be intimidating. But you know, he’s a fearless actor and he just responded to it immediately. And that was, you know, really kind of what got the momentum going, and everything else started to fall into place after that.

CB: And also, like David’s got – he’s got a very big heart. It would be very funny. There’d be times when he was often crying with laughter, and also just flat out crying. Remember, they’d often be that, at Mark’s place. And you’d be listening to stories or telling a story, or listening to Dickie or whatever, listening to Micky. And it was, it was either they had his sides splitting with laughter and he was balling his eyes out with that; and then it would segue into tragedy, and he’d be balling his eyes out. Like you could really see how much he felt it and really enjoyed the company of these guys and was going through a whole rollercoaster of emotions, which is usually what actors are going to be doing. But David was right in there feeling every little bit of it, as much as any of us.

DOR: There are scenes in the movie I can’t talk about without still getting choked up, which is, you know, after you’ve been with the movie a long time, that’s unusual, I think.

This is for Mark and David. The film has a rousing, real crowd pleasing conclusion, but I was wondering if maybe you were tempted to go a little further and include the legendary Arturo Gatti bouts that followed.

DOR: The story was always one that I thought led him to the doorway of his future. This film delivers him to the ability to dig himself into a real income. And that to me is the – it’s a hard choice. I think the story is legendary in itself, how he got there. Because you know, without this story, he doesn’t get those Gatti fights. In fact, the guy, the last guy he fight, [Shane] Neary, was saying, “I’m ready to fight Arturo Gatti.” He thought he was going to move right through Micky. And he – this guy was supposed to be the next champion and Shane Neary, he was like, “Me and Gatti would make a great match-up.” Well, guess what? You know. It turned out to be the underdog who made the great match-up with Gatti.

MW: And we’re doing those fights in the sequel [laughs]. We’ll do four more Fighters. We’ll do the first Gatti fight in the sequel; then we’ll do the second one in the third installment; and then the fourth and final one will be Micky fighting –

DOR: In Russia. Russia.

MW: Yes [laughs].

DOR: So one of the things that made this film so beautiful, when he was saying he’d do anything for the picture – every single person brought that to the film. And that’s just a rocket ship. Amy came and said, you know, she’s ready to fight. We were choreographing fight scenes in Whole Foods at like, you know, eleven o’clock at night. Because I’d run into her, I’d go, “Oh, how are we going to do that scene tomorrow?” And then, and you know, and Amy said, “As long as it happens between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ I’ll do – I can do anything.” And that’s pretty great, with the father of her child standing on the set, you know. But she – and it meant for great chemistry between these guys. He’s willing to fight and do anything it takes in the ring and do anything it takes emotionally with him and Amy or him and his mother and him and his brother. Melissa transformed herself completely, and would go there with the fierceness of throwing those pots and pans. And then break your heart on the porch when she’s looking at her son when he’s closing the door. There was an unstoppable, “I’ll go there.” Christian already had the weight off and was shaving the bald spot before we set foot into pre-production. So that’s like crazy willingness, you know, and there’s no – there’s no debating it.

Amy, in this movie your character gets labeled as an MTV girl. What’s your opinion on that label, and do you think it’s fair? And also, did it guide your research in any way?

AA: Well, that was their opinion of her. She was no MTV girl. They…

ML: Oh, yes she was [laughs].

AA: Here we go. No, I think that MTV then was very different.

MW: She’s more of a VH1 girl [laughs]. With a little sprinkle of BET [laughs]. She like hip-hop.

AA: A dash of Lifetime, just a dash.

MW: Some Fuse.

AA: I think, you know, MTV was very different then – they actually showed music videos, which I liked. But I think it meant that she was wild, that she was like –

MW: Spring break - titties out [laughs]. Threesomes.

AA: She’s a party girl.

MW: That’s what Micky liked [laughs].

AA: That’s what those sisters said, right? They were like, “She – yeah, she’s trash.” “She was trash.” I think she still gets accused of it. I don’t know – every here and there. Do I think it’s fair? From Charlene’s perspective, no. She was just a girl trying to make good, you know. Trying to deal with what she had. She is a sweetheart. What struck me about Charlene, is that you had all these huge personalities, and she never once was like, “Let me tell you my side of the story.” She never did. She always – she was content to sit in the background. As a matter of fact, I think you guys had to really convince her to put herself on tape so I could watch her. Like, they really had to talk – she was not about drawing attention to herself. She was really happy that Micky’s story was being told, and she was really supportive of that. So I don’t think it was fair.

For Mark and Amy – the chemistry with your characters is so there. But how much work goes into that, before you guys start shooting?

MW: It was instant for me. It was like, “Whoa.” She’s a sweetheart. You know what? 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 neighborhood. She looks like an Irish Catholic, tough, no nonsense, kind of girl. And you know, I saw that immediately. You know, they’re not quite as pretty as Amy, the girls in my neighborhood. But – but you know, I just – I was such a huge fan of hers. We’d actually had the luxury of having lunch before to talk about another movie, and it was a bad movie that I did. She dodged the bullet. And then I was still able to, you know – I don’t want to tell you what movie – all right, The Happening with M. Nighy Shyamalan [laughs]. Fuck it, it is what it is. The fucking trees, man, the plants. Fuck it. You know, you can’t blame me for not wanting to try to play a science teacher and do something like that, you know. It was like – I wasn’t playing a cop or a crook. But she didn’t do the movie, and we got the chance to work together again. And I was very happy about that because I thought she would bring something very special to the table, and again, showing a side of her that I certainly knew she was capable of doing but she hadn’t gotten to show yet.

AA: And with Mark, I do – it was pretty instant. It was so easy to work with you and you guys saw him, I mean, for the women in here, you saw him. I mean, like how hard is it to pretend that you’re attracted to that. Like, “Whoa, gosh I’m such a good actress”[laughs]. So with that being said, with all respect to your wife and my significant other, Mark has a great quality as an actor and that was able to show, he was able to show that with Micky, this vulnerability. And a man who’s powerful and strong yet is able to show tenderness and vulnerability – that’s really sexy.

CB: And he’s got a full set of teeth in his head, as well.

MW: Which his always – it’s always a plus.

AA: I love teeth. Girls don’t notice that [laughs]. David didn’t really give us much option. Because I remember it was the first day, and like there wasn’t a kiss planned. And he’s like, “Okay. And now you kiss.” And we’re like, “We do?” “Yeah, you kiss.” And it was, “Well, hi, sorry.” You know…

MW: Romance.

AA: David’s like, “Deeper, deeper.” Oh. So –

MW: Romance, romance, romance, romance.

DOR: And you’d be surprised how many women Dickie has at his beck and call, without the teeth. You know, the funny thing is, in life that I think in a funny way, I think Christian is more like Micky and Mark is more like Dickie – not in a bad way – but in the operator way and in the talky-talk way, Christian is more of a quiet guy. And it was very interesting to watch him hang out with Dickie, inhale Dickie, have them hang out together. And people would come up on the set and it would be like, “Oh, I thought that was Dickie.” And – because he talked – he would – and then it – it kind of let him talk to everybody all the time. Because Dickie never shuts up. And you know, so they saw Christian walking around talking to everybody, which you know, good luck, try making that happen when he’s not Dickie. And and then Micky, you know, Micky, as a said, you know, Micky never says two words. Micky will just take it. He’ll take five punches to give one, and he’ll let everybody say everything and he won’t say nothing. You know. And he’ll let Dickie do all the talking. So that was – that was a very interesting role for each of these guys, I thought.

MW: I’m quiet, yeah [laughs].

DOR: Sometimes, huh? Yes, you are also – you have a lot in common with Micky. It’s a little bit of a paradox, but it doesn’t fit my comparison, that doesn’t work.

MW: I can hardly ever shut up. My wife tells me to shut up all the time.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.