Interview: Warrior Director Gavin O'Connor On How He Made An MMA Chick Flick

When I got on the phone with Warrior director Gavin O'Connor a few weeks ago, I admitted that I wasn't exactly the typical audience for his movie-- I've never been able to bring myself to watch the mixed-martial arts fighting that makes up the story of Warrior, about two brothers who find themselves facing off in an MMA championship. As it turned out, O'Connor thinks I'm the target audience after all-- he told me that after the first test screenings of his emotional and even tearjerking new film, studio executives told him "You've made a chick flick."

Starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte in a role that was written for him, Warrior is really more of a family drama set amid the world of MMA-- O'Connor, who is full of good phrases about the movie he's spent years making, says he calls it "an intervention in a ring." I talked to O'Connor about the balance of emotion and action in the movie, how he managed a PG-13 rating even with such violent fights, and how he picked Hardy and Edgerton for the lead roles. I also started by asking him about his cameo in the movie as the hedge fund billionaire who funds the big MMA competition-- as it turns out, that was a role that only a real-life tragedy convinced him to play. Check out the interview below, and catch Warrior in theaters starting this Friday.

You give yourself a pretty good role in this. Did you just realize you were the only man for the role?

No, I wasn't at all. That was not intentional. Did you notice at the end of the film I dedicate it to Charles "Mask" Lewis? He was supposed to be playing that part. THe promoter was supposed to be masked, the guy who started his own tournament and that's who the part was for. And just before we started the film, I was doing pre-production in Pittsburgh, Charles got killed [Lewis died in a car accident in March 2009]. After a while i knew I had to recast it, and it was not an easy thing to do. I started down that road and several people who were in my life and knew how close i was to Charles said, "You should just play the part in honor of Charles." We just reimagined the character. That's the only reason I did it. I'm not Alfred Hitchcock or anything.

A lot of MMA fans come in wanting to see the violence, and you're making this film PG-13. How do you work with the violence, and where do you have to cut it off to get the rating and the audience you want?

I did my research in regard to how to make this PG-13 yet still give the film the intensity that I wanted to give it. Sometimes if you watch UFC fights they're bathed in blood. There's no blood in the movie. It's just so easy to do, to have blood. I love Martin Scorsese, I love Raging Bull, but the idea of, you know, splatters of blood landing on people in the stands, I just have no desire to do that. I don't think it's necessary to capture the beauty of the sport. There's such grace and athleticism and spirituality in MMA, I thought maybe blood would displace that.

Do you find that people are more hesitant to embrace MMA, or see the art in it, because it's such a new sport?

The movie is not about MMA-- that's just the backdrop of the film-- but that being said it's definitely a hurdle. We learned this at the first test screenings. A lot of people who came to the test screening either knew nothing about MMA, had no interest in MMA, or had a preconception of what MMA is. So that's a big obstacle. But after our first test screening, our highest scores were with women. The next day I went to the studio, and I literally walked into the conference room and they said, "You made a chick flick."

How hard was it to talk Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton not just into the training this movie required, but to risk getting themselves seriously beaten up?

You cast it first and foremost for the characters outside the cage. All the qualities I was looking for for Tommy the character, Tom Hardy fit. And then the same for Brendan, Joel fit. I had to get a performance outside the cage. Then after that, these guys trained and worked out obsessively and got themselves in great shape, worked really hard at MMA. Then we took great care to make sure everything inside the cage was authentic.

Had you seen other roles of theirs that made you want them, or was it all in the audition process?

I hadn't seen either of them in anything. It was just the audition process and meeting them and hanging out with them.

And how did casting Nick Nolte compare to that? It seems his back story did play into why you cast him.

Anthony [Tambakis, the co-writer] and I wrote the part for Nick. He was always going to play Paddy. The previous movie I made, Pride and Glory, Nick was the father in that movie but he had to have reconstructive knee surgery and had to drop out right before filming. We were friends for almost two years leading up to that, and he and I remained friends. We wrote the part for Nick, obviously tapping into a lot of personal things. It was really just about Nick being emotionally prepared and courageous enough to go to the places he needed to go to capture a lot of regret and a lot of pain in this man's life.

Katey Rich

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend