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HomeAwardsContender PortfoliosGritty Realism in David O. Russell’s The Fighter

Gritty Realism in David O. Russell’s The Fighter

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Mark Wahlberg (left) with director David O. Russell on the set of The Fighter. (Photo by JoJo Whilden).

Hollywood has long had a soft spot for boxing movies, especially during awards season. Multiple Oscar winners Rocky (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and Million Dollar Baby (2005) readily come to mind. The contender this year is The Fighter, nominated for seven Academy Awards. It stars Mark Wahlberg as “Irish” Mickey Ward and Christian Bale as Dickie Englund. The half-brothers are professional boxers with careers respectively on the rise and on the ropes.

Hailed by critics for its verisimilitude and superb acting ensemble, the true-life saga of a tight-knit but fractious family with a Rocky-like feel-good ending, has garnered Oscar nominations for best picture; best director, David O. Russell; best supporting actor, Christian Bale; best supporting actress, both Melissa Leo and Amy Adams; best film-editing, Pamela Martin, and best original screenplay.

“I don’t consider this to be just a fight movie,” says Russell. “I consider it to be a family story that has fighting in it — like the Corleone story in The Godfather is a family story that has organized crime in it. The Fighter is all about a family grinding and brawling and then coalescing. In the final fight, we get the family all together in Mickey’s corner. Are we going to get the satisfaction of watching them win? That’s what that last fight is all about.”

Editor Pamela Martin has been nominated for an Oscar for her work on The Fighter.
Russell was going for a gritty realistic look in cinematography, production design and costumes. Tones were muted with the exception, in most frames, of a single color popping out, often a magenta or red, which played off the blood in the fights. As for the editing, “the fight sequences were little movies on their own,” notes the director.

“In the other sections of the movie there are so many characters and so much world, and so much drama unfolding, that not only did each piece have to be edited right, but how it flowed into all the other pieces had to be done right,” he adds. “You have to be very agile in leading into different stories and coming back to the main trajectory.”  Editor Martin and her team – assistant editor Crispin Struthers and outside editor Terel Gibson – “got the rhythm of how we wanted to cut the picture exactly,” he declares.

Martin last worked with Russell 16 years ago on Spanking the Monkey, a tale of consensual family incest, that earned kudos at Sundance and the Independent Spirit Awards. “Pam and I made our first movie together, editing in the dining room of my apartment on Manhattan’s upper west side,” recalls Russell. “16 years later we have both matured in our skills, and it was fantastic to work together again.”

The cinematography for The Fighter was unique in several respects, notably in the selection of cameras, which was  influenced by Dutch director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, NSC, FSF, (Dutch and Swedish cinematographer societies), who is known for his cinematography on Let the Right One In – a vampire cult flick now being remade .

Russell leaned toward shooting digitally in order to keep the camera rolling for the extended takes he preferred while keeping costs down. Hoytema, based on his European experience, suggested an alternative – the Aaton Penelope, a French 35mm camera, which has a 2-perforation setting (as well as a 3-perf option). This unorthodox choice for a major studio picture reduced the cost of film stock and processing by half compared with 4-perf 35mm film used on most movie shoots, while still allowing for longer takes.  The Aaton at 2-perf also produced a grainier and more textured look that contributed to the film’s realism, and worked well in the many cramped, low-light locations. The film was shot in only 33 days, with an average of over 30 setups per day.

Mark Wahlberg (left) and Christian Bale in The Fighter. (Photo by JoJo Whilden).
The agility of the light-weight, ergonomically-designed Penelope meshed with Russell’s decision to shoot most of the film handheld with Steadicam for a more spontaneous, improvisational look. “I like little cameras that you can whip around and are very kinetic. Big cameras tend to become altars,” says the director. “I wanted to have a very loose feel, so that everything was real, intimate and alive.” Geoff Haley was the A-camera operator who did most of the Steadicam work.

The three main boxing matches in the film were originally televised on HBO’s popular fight specials. Hoytema suggested replicating the multi-camera look, shot from outside the ropes, using the same kind of Sony Betacam-SP cameras that were used on Ward’s fights.  Wahlberg, producer of HBO hit Entourage, got the pay cable network’s cooperation and a team of cameramen and technicians who worked on HBO’s boxing matches in the late 1980s and early 1990s was recruited to capture the staged bouts.

A total of eight cameras were employed – six Betacams and two that were handheld. “We knew we wanted it to look like an HBO fight, and the Betacams gave it a rough raw look,” says the director. “But there were certain angles and certain shots we were able to enhance by going handheld.”

The Fighter was shot on location in Lowell, Mass. – a blue collar town 30 miles west of Boston where the Ward family still resides. Production designer Judy Becker, who did Brokeback Mountain, relied on many authentic locations, including Ramalho’s West End Boxing Gym in Lowell, owned by Art Ramalho, who taught both brothers when they began their boxing careers. And a house three blocks from the brothers’ real family home was decorated to precisely resemble the original.

Meanwhile, costume designer Mark Bridges, whose credits include There Will Be Blood, used the ’80s and early ’90s as a period reference point in The Fighter. Garish, colorful clothing and big hair are highlights..

Russell devoted a lot of attention to the sound editing and the sound design of the film. That paid off in the fight sequences, where every punch was crisp amidst the sound of the crowd. “I am very specific in what I ask for and like to make bold choices with the sound edit,” says the director. “I like many layers to the soundtrack, but I don’t want a deeply burnished soup. You have to commit and pick what that foreground sound is going to be to make that moment memorable.”

Russell is especially proud of the film’s finale “when Mickey goes into his own private, weird sound bubble in the last fight – that’s what makes it special. You get into his head by having the sound reflect that everything else is drowning out. He’s breathing; he’s scared; he is disoriented.” Then after he hears his brother Dickie in the corner urging him on, the sound design ramps back up and the whole arena comes crashing back in around him.  “We sought to perfect that subjective point of view,” the director explains.

He praises the entire sound team led by supervising sound editor and sound designer Odin Benitez,  sound mixer Anton Gold, and sound re-recording mixers Myron Nettinga and John Ross. “Never before in a film have I had other directors come up to me and say, in addition to all the other things they liked about the film, that the sound design was fantastic. Alexander Payne (Sideways) singled out the sound design to me and so did Gavin O’Connor (Tumbleweed).

Composer Michael Brooks, whose soundtrack credits include Into the Wild and Al Gore’s environment documentary An Inconvient Truth, “creates these gritty sounds which carry an emotional undertone that works together with the emotions already in the scene, but doesn’t step on the authenticity of what is happening,” says Russell.  He also cites the contribution of music supervisor Phil Taubman.

“We had an amazing team who worked like a well-oiled family on our side of the lens capturing the incredible actors on the other side,” the director declares. “If I could keep rolling into one movie after another with the same crew I would do that.”

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