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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Mark Wahlberg, stars in the new film "The Fighter" and as one of its producers. A little later, we'll be joined by the director, David O. Russell, who also worked with Wahlberg in the films "Three Kings" and "I Heart Huckabees."

"The Fighter" is based on the story of two boxers, Mickey Ward and his older half-brother, Dicky Eklund. Eklund, played by Christian Bale, became a hometown hero when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring, but Dicky's career in the ring was ended by his crack habit.

At the beginning of the film, younger brother Micky, played by Wahlberg, is getting coached by his whacked-out brother, who sometimes shows up hours late. And he's being managed by his mother, whos made some bad choices. The mother is played by Melissa Leo. Let's hear a scene from the film.

At the urging of Micky's girlfriend, played by Amy Adams, and his coach, Micky O'Keefe, played by the real Micky O'Keefe, Micky Ward has agreed to stop working with his brother and his mother. Angry about being cut out, Micky's mother and brother show up at the gym, much to the dismay of his trainer and girlfriend. The trainer speaks first.

(Soundbite of film, "The Fighter")

Mr. MICKY O'KEEFE (Boxing Trainer): (As Himself) We're going to train, they gotta go.

Ms. AMY ADAMS (Actor): (As Charlene Fleming) They gotta go, Mick, come on.

Ms. MELISSA LEO (Actor): (As Alice Ward) Ask him, George. Ask him if he would've won Sanchez without his brother.

Mr. MARK WAHLBERG (Actor): (As Micky Ward) No, I wouldn't have won Sanchez if it wasn't for Dicky.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) How can you say that to O'Keefe?

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Micky) Because it's true. All right, I went in with our game plan. It wasn't working. So I went back to what I learned with Dicky. And I wouldn't have won without you, either, O'Keefe, okay? I mean, you know that. We worked hard. You got me ready.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) You got your confidence and your focus from O'Keefe and from Sal and your father and from me. Dicky's a junk bag.

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Micky) Hey.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) He's a junk bag.

Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE (Actor): (As Dicky Eklund) Why am I the problem? I'm his blood. I'm his family.

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Micky) I'm the one fighting, okay? Not you, not you and not you. I know what I need.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) And you need Dicky?

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Micky) I want Dicky back, and I want you, Charlene, and I want O'Keefe. I want my family. What's wrong with that?

GROSS: Mark Wahlberg had wanted to make a movie about Micky Ward for years. They first met when Wahlberg was 18. Wahlberg grew up close to Lowell, Massachusetts, where Micky and Dicky were from. I asked Wahlberg what significance Micky had had for him.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Micky was such a huge sports icon because of the fact that - you know, and Boston obviously is a big sports town. But Larry Bird is from Indiana, all these athletes weren't from one of our neighborhoods and weren't really considered one of our own. And Micky Ward was the local guy who did the impossible. And he always inspired all of us to be able to, you know, set really big goals for ourselves and to accomplish them.

GROSS: The original - I think Darren Aronofsky, who made "The Wrestler," and "Black Swan," was, I think, originally supposed to direct "The Fighter." But he backed out. I understand it was your idea to get David O. Russell to direct the film. How did the movie he made compare to the one you had in mind when you first started the process?

Mr. WAHLBERG: Well, the movie is much - has much more heart and a lot more humor. I think we were probably going to make a darker version of the movie. And ultimately, I, as well as everybody else involved, we wanted to make a movie that a lot of people would see.

And we thought that, despite the fact that these guys went through a lot of difficulties that, ultimately, their story and all the things that they had to overcome would be very inspiring.

GROSS: Now, you trained for four years to play a boxer, and during those four years, you made other movies. So how is a boxer's body different from the kind of body you've needed for other roles because, you know, you've been muscular for other roles, but maybe the muscles of a boxer are different.

Mr. WAHLBERG: You know what, it's not so much the way you look as far as your physique. It's the way you move, the way you punch, footwork, all of those things. You know, if you look at a lot of boxers, a lot of boxers don't look like bodybuilders, don't necessarily have a beach type of physique.

But, you know, it's just - I didn't want to look like an actor who could skip a little rope, and if you shoot him the right way and edit the right way that he could look pretty decent in the ring. I wanted to look like a real boxer who could actually go and win the title.

And that meant just - you know, the only way to do it is to put the work in. And, you know, being left-handed, and Micky was right-handed, and wanting to really look like Micky did in those fights, and the only thing that would separate this film from other boxing movies was in the realism within the fights themselves.

GROSS: So one of the things that Micky Ward did was take a lot of pain. I mean, he - because his strategy was just, like, taking punches until he could deliver a body punch and knock somebody out by, like, punching them in the kidneys, he really took a lot of pain, which meant that you had to either take a lot of pain or look a whole lot like you were taking a lot of pain. So how much did you actually suffer in the ring?

Mr. WAHLBERG: You know, we hired real boxers. We wanted to duplicate the most exciting parts of the fights that we were going to use in the film. And, you know, we just went in there, and we really hit each other.

You know, we had HBO come and shoot the fights for us, use the same cameras that they shot the great Micky Ward-Arturo Gatti fights with. And, you know, we only had three days to shoot the fights.

So we didn't want to, like, spend time with, like, moving the camera around. So we had their eight Betacams and two film cameras, and we just went in there from beginning to end and just did it.

I always thought, you know, HBO does such a great job of capturing all the action and suspense and drama in a fight. As long as it's there in the ring, they never miss anything. And they don't know what's going to happen. And they get one take at it. We had the luxury of showing them what we were going to do in the morning and doing it multiple times, but that meant going in there and really hitting. So you weren't, like, hiding the camera in a position to sell a punch.

And, you know, we'd start out with, you know, hitting each other 60 percent, but when you're working with real boxers, you know, and you hit somebody and you catch them with a good shot, they're going to want to hit you back. And then it just started to escalate. But luckily, nobody got seriously injured.

GROSS: See, I'd be really worried if I were in your position because you're an actor. You need your face. And, you know, boxers' faces, their noses sometimes get broken. You can knock out teeth. I mean, there's maybe not so much knocking out teeth because you're wearing that mouthpiece but, I mean...

Mr. WAHLBERG: The mouthpiece. It builds character, you know.

GROSS: Tell that to the casting director.

Mr. WAHLBERG: I'm not the most beautiful guy in the world anyway. I've always kind of, you know, seen myself as a kind of regular guy. And, you know, so I wasn't concerned with my looks. My looks aren't really that special to begin with, so...

GROSS: So you play Micky Ward, the boxer, and he was actually on the set during the making of the movie. Was that useful? Like, did you confer with him in between takes and say, how am I doing? Am I like you? How helpful was it?

Mr. WAHLBERG: You know, hopefully - you know, he - actually he and his brother Dicky both lived at my house for quite some time, as well, in California.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. WAHLBERG: Well, we wanted them to be involved with the training. We wanted to be able to, you know, work with them. Christian and I trained with them. We did their methods of training. You know, we would talk about stuff, watch fights with them.

We just, we basically, we wanted to become them and we wanted to include them in every way and wanted them to feel comfortable about our depiction of them and their life and their family. And so, you know, and like I said, I've been friends with Micky for a long time. So, you know, my goal was to make him proud and to do him the justice that he deserves.

GROSS: Now, I could see how Micky would definitely like your portrayal of him. I could also see how Dicky might be a little, maybe uncomfortable with parts of his representation by Christian Bale, particularly, like, when he's the crack addict.

And Christian - it's a great performance, but, you know, it doesn't put that part of Dicky's life in a very good light. I mean, not that anybody would really be praising the crack addict part of somebody's life. But how did Dicky like the movie?

Mr. WAHLBERG: The first time he saw the movie he was very uncomfortable with it, as I expected. But then when we showed him the movie with an audience and he realized how inspiring he was to so many people and how, you know, his overcoming those things would continue to inspire and help other people that he became very, very proud of it.

It was just, you know, obviously very difficult to sit there and watch your life story being condensed into a two-hour movie, and a lot of the bad things that you did were, you know, were a big part of the movie. But like I said...

GROSS: How did he tell you that he didn't like it the first time around?

Mr. WAHLBERG: Well, I was sitting right beside him and his brother, and he goes goes, what did you think? And he goes, well, Micky looks like a million bucks, and I look like a two-dollar bill. And Dicky obviously has a very interesting sense of humor.

And then I - you know, we had a long discussion. And I said, you know, you really should see it with an audience because I think you'll feel a lot differently. And then I remember seeing his face at the premiere in L.A. and how proud he was.

And he said it. We brought them out at the end of the film, and he said, the first time I saw the movie, I was disgusted, but now I realize, you know what, I don't care what anybody thinks because, you know, I know what I overcame and I know that it will inspire people.

And he was very proud. And that was a special moment for me, seeing him realize that, you know what, all the mistakes he made weren't for nothing.

GROSS: My guest is Mark Wahlberg. He stars in the new film "The Fighter." The film's director, David O. Russell, will join the conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Mark Wahlberg, and he's now starring in "The Fighter." Let me bring director David O. Russell into the conversation. David, when you were asked by Mark Wahlberg to direct "The Fighter," after Darren Aronofsky dropped out, what did you relate to about the story?

Unlike Mark Wahlberg, you didn't grow up near Micky Ward. He was probably not one of your heroes. I'm not sure you were even interested in boxing. So what spoke to you about the story?

Mr. DAVID O. RUSSELL (Director, "The Fighter"): Well, I immediately recognized that the characters and their world were very - they had a quality of realness that was kind of fascinating to me and that they were just characters that I was fascinated by, which some of my favorite movies have.

So right off the bat, you know, I recognized some of the flavors from my own family, you know, whether it's my family in the Bronx or Brooklyn, my own mother, you know, and the fact that there was the women. The women made the story very special to me in combination with these brothers and the brothers' dynamic.

The bartender - you know, the women helped make the men what they were or were so pivotal to the story, and I had not seen that before. And I had been an organizer up in those parts. So I did know these people to some degree, of course, not to the degree that Mark did. But I also knew it was a piece of Mark's heart, and I knew that there was going to be something very good and real there.

GROSS: So you were interested, in part, by the dysfunctional family aspects of the film?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, yeah. I think that they're just - they're like a three-ring circus and that makes them kind of fascinating. And those are things that have - that I love as much as any cinema that I love is watching characters like Jake Lamoda(ph) or his brother. I could listen to them all day, you know, or the characters in "Goodfellas." I just love listening to them because there's just something unbelievably immediate and fascinating about them and very alive, and that's how these people are.

They're extremely alive and their spirits are unbroken, and they live very intense lives every day, and they have this family dynamic, yeah, that is, you know, intense.

GROSS: Let's play a scene from the film and we'll hear how everybody talks. And this is a scene where Micky, the Mark Wahlberg character, has decided, at the urging of his girlfriend and his boxing trainer, to fire his family, basically to tell his mother she's not managing him anymore.

And so the mother is really angry, and she gathers all of her seven daughters in the car and drives over to Micky's girlfriend's house, where Micky and his girlfriend, played by Amy Adams, are.

And so they all get out of the car. The mother's furious. The sisters are furious, and they're all ready to give Micky hell. So the first person to speak is Charlene, Micky's girlfriend, played by Amy Adams.

(Soundbite of film, "The Fighter")

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene Fleming) Hi.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice Ward) Well, well, well, look at this.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) Look at what?

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) Are you hiding from us, Micky?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) He's not hiding.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to my son. What are you doing, Mickster, huh?

Mr. MARK WAHLBERG: (As Micky Ward) I'm right here. I ain't hiding from nobody, Alice.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) What are you gonna do, turn your back on Dicky next, huh? All we ever wanted for you was to be world champion.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) Mickey's a grown man. He can think for himself.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) Shut your mouth, skank.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) Don't call me skank. I'll rip that nasty hair right out of your head.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) I'm his mother and his manager.

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Micky) You're not my manager anymore, and I'm not waiting for Dicky, okay? I'm not getting any younger.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) Who's gonna look after you, sweetheart? I mean, come on. I know you don't understand it, but I had nine kids and I love every one of you the same.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Charlene) You've got a funny way of showing it, letting him get beat up, letting him get his hand broken.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) You're crazy.

Unidentified People: (As characters) (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of screaming)

GROSS: Such a great scene.

Mr. RUSSELL: I think you could just watch - you could just hear the audio the whole movie, it's...

GROSS: No, yeah, it's great. And so David O. Russell, I have to ask you. You said you were interested in the realness of the characters. But one thing I like about the movie is that the characters are all slightly more real than real.

They're, like, slightly notched-up, which makes you feel like you're really watching a movie. And I was wondering if you told everybody when you were directing them, like, give me just, like, a little bit more than real life.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Well, if you make the real people, you'll realize that it's actually a tone down. It really is because that's why - you know, it was great for me seeing, you know, allowing the audience to see the real Dicky and Micky together. And - well, not only the dynamic between the two of them but also how big a personality Dicky is, as was Alice and Charlene and George and the rest of the sisters.

I mean, there really is - it's a toned-down version of them. I know that's hard to believe because these people seem larger than life, but...

Mr. RUSSELL: They're not a far throw from a lot of my relatives. And I love them, and I still am friends with them and go up there and see them, and I want to have some of them come and hang out with us in L.A., which has already happened, as Mark, I'm sure, told you.

GROSS: Yes, he did.

Mr. RUSSELL: But I think what you're referring to, maybe, is that, you know, there's some kinds of cinema where they just kind of do what's real. And I was actually reading in a read of the Jonathan Franzen book "Freedom" in I think it was the Atlantic Monthly, and I thought it was a very contrary review, which I thought was interesting. And he was saying, the reviewer, was saying, you know, when did it become true that if you just do something that seems like daily life that that is art or is great? And I happen to agree with that.

I don't think that that's enough. And I think cinema - or to me what makes compelling fiction or cinema is when you feel - you're basically taking the most intense moments of experience and you're creating a song or a narrative out of it that is very compelling.

You know, and it's true. You don't want to be false. It's true. But it is - the cinema of it is that it grabs you, and it carries you, and it flips you around, and it throws you from scene to scene, and it just keeps riding you like a roller coaster. That, to me, is what makes a movie that doesn't get boring or doesn't flag. I don't know if that makes sense.

GROSS: There are seven daughters in the movie.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah, seven beautiful sisters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: And I do think they're beautiful. People always say, oh, those sisters, those ugly - I don't think they're ugly.

GROSS: Well, as portrayed in the movie, from my point of view...

Mr. RUSSELL: You thought they were ugly?

GROSS: Well, here's the thing - they're so consumed by anger and resentment most of the time that it turns them - and bitterness, that it turns them kind of ugly or in some cases even grotesque because they just always seem to be on the verge of growling.

Mr. RUSSELL: That's the pity, I think, of cinema sometimes. You only have two hours to do the story. Because we shot - I have a lot of love for those characters, and that's one of the, as I said, one of the things that made me want to make the movie.

And I get what you're saying, which I think is true because for the economy of telling the story, they come in like a hammer a bunch of times, and they're this intense pack, you know, or like some people call them to the - compare them to the witches in "Macbeth."

GROSS: Or they're like their mother's entourage.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah, well, they are. They're like her gang. And they're forceful. My mother's family, Italian-American family, same deal. She had four aunts who were like a gang, you know, with her mother and very powerful women.

But we shot other stuff, even though we didn't have a lot of time to do it. We shot interviews with them that I think we'll put on the DVD, which I had hoped - and the editor, Pam Martin(ph), and I had a hard time letting go of these because we were using that movie-within-a-movie structure of the HBO movie that became the notorious thing of Lowell. A and we were just - it gave us license to interview all the characters, including the (unintelligible) that become the bookends of the film, with Micky and Dicky, which was not scripted.

But they - we would interview the sisters, and they were talking about how much they loved Micky and how they wanted to help him and how unfair a fight was. And, you know, you just see a more mellow - them in a more mellow vein. But, I mean, I get what you're saying.

GROSS: One of the sisters in the movie is played by Conan O'Brien's sister, and I'm wondering how you cast her.

Mr. RUSSELL: She just showed up at a casting call in Boston. And I didn't know she was his sister, although when you step back, she looks like him in drag, you know, I mean, if you really think about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: Kate O'Brien, and she's a teacher, and she's - you know, and I don't think she acts a lot. She was a real - we had a lot of real people we cast in the film like Jill Quigg, who's also in prison right now.

GROSS: Is she the one who was in "Gone Baby Gone"?

Mr. RUSSELL: Yes. (Unintelligible), every time she speaks, she gets a laugh.

GROSS: She has an incredible face.

Mr. RUSSELL: It's that (BEEP) girl, Charlene.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Ma, it's a girl from the bar, Charlene. We've got to get rid of her.

Mr. RUSSELL: And the way we didn't have 10 different accents, as some movies have, is that I said just follow Mark. Don't do no more or no less than Mark. And interestingly, it had been pointed out by another director that an accent can be a veil, not a performance. So you've got to keep reminding the actors that theyre actors that their accents...

Mr. WAHLBERG: The great Mike Leigh.

Mr. RUSSELL: It was Mike Nichols.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Mike Nichols, sorry. Wrong (Unintelligible).

GROSS: But she's from the neighborhood. So she probably was just talking like herself.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Oh, yeah, she's the real deal. We probably duked it out a couple times when we were growing up.

GROSS: So she was in "Gone Baby Gone," playing Amy Ryan's character's good friend. And so you cast her in this, and now she's in prison? Why is she in prison?

Mr. RUSSELL: Oh, breaking and entering, from - probably a little substance abuse situation.

Mr. WAHLBERG: It's a little boo-boo, but you know what, listen, if I can turn it around, so can she. Let's give people the benefit of the doubt. Our legal system is supposed to rehabilitate, and so that's what we're hoping for.

GROSS: Mark Wahlberg and David O. Russell will be back in the second half of the show. Wahlberg stars in the new film "The Fighter." Russell directed it. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. My guests are Mark Wahlberg, the star of the new film "The Fighter," and director David O. Russell, the film's director. "The Fighter" is nominated for six Golden Globes, including ones for Russell's direction, Wahlberg's performance and best picture.

The movie is based on the story of boxer Mickey Ward, played by Wahlberg, and his older half-brother boxer Dicky Ward, played by Christian Bale. Dicky's career in the ring was ended by his crack addiction. Both Dicky and Mickey were managed by their mother.

You know, the Melissa Leo character - she plays the mother - one of the things I love about the performance is that, you know, she's just like really tough lady and she can be really mean and really manipulative but - and she's really hardened. But obviously she sees herself in some ways as like very like feminine and she's wearing like high heels and taking these little mincing steps in her high heels, clutching her handbag.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But she's like - she is so mean. And I'm wondering how much input, David, you had into the creation of that character, like what you told Melissa Leo.

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, Melissa was very fierce advocate for how love - that this mother was doing the best she could and that she had a lot of love and she was a good person.

GROSS: I know and, let me tell you, we had her on the show.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah.

GROSS: And I was saying if I was like the Mark Wahlberg character, if I was Mickey and my family was as crazy as they were, I'd want to get away. I would definitely want to get away and stay away because I think they are such trouble. And she was saying, oh the mother, she has such a good heart underneath. She's so great. And I kept thinking, that's not the way it's coming off, really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: Mm. Mm. Well, I think that her - she does have a couple of scenes where you can see her heart as far as I'm concerned. Like there's - especially at the end when, you know, I mean as any mother who is doing the best they can, when she - after that scene you just played, she walks down the steps and she's saying what's happening? I don't understand what's happening.

And that I think is how any of us are when we're in the middle of something and we don't see what we're doing wrong until later, you know. And then when she gets confronted by Mickey in one of the last scenes in the picture, she - it's like stinging to her and it rings her bell and it wakes her up and she's just, it's heartbreaking to her. She still doesn't understand what she did.

Alice was a very - and is a very sexy woman. You know, she had nine kids and she still looked like she could've been Dicky's girlfriend half the time more than his mother. And you look at the photo albums, Mark Bridges - the designer, the costume designer - and I went through these photo albums and the clothes are just fantastic. We were so excited about the hair and the clothes of these characters.

And, you know, I did - there is a lot of mom in there and, you know, since my mom has, you know, passed away 10 years ago, my love has only deepened for her and my understanding of her has only deepened actually - fortunately, oddly through my son, who has a lot of the way she is.

So for me, I get that intensity of a woman who can take your legs out. There were things from my own mother I put right in there. My mother was from an Italian...

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. RUSSELL: ...Italian-American family, you know, from Brooklyn. You know, she was very intense and passionate and she could, you know, take your legs out in two seconds in an argument with some, you know, some Aikido move like Alice does in that one scene where she suddenly, you know, says you owe me money, you know, which has nothing to do with the argument that they're having about how they're going to handle Mickey. And it's a turn that you can always feel startles and I think cracks audiences up because it's true to - I think it's true to a lot of smart relatives who know how to argue.

GROSS: Mark, after you made "The Departed," you told me in an interview that your mother was really tough. I think you described her as one of the toughest women you'll ever see. Did you find characteristics from your mother in Mickey Ward's mother or at least in the Melissa Leo portrayal of her?

Mr. WAHLBERG: Well, there's so many similarities between my life and Mickey's life, Alice and my mom, you know, not just the fact that they both had nine children. Both had - Mickey and I both had the older brother who was very much the apple of Mom's eye and could do no wrong. But, this is a true...

GROSS: Was that Donnie?

Mr. WAHLBERG: Yeah. But this is a true story. I was talking to my mother on the way over here on the phone, and she was like, you know, next time, when you do an interview about me, can you just say how I was the best, not that I was a machine or that I was tough or that I kicked your ass or that I threw your friends out of the house? Because she - I guess she had watched - I was on "Ellen DeGeneres," and she had watched the show and I always liked telling the stories of my mom when she like, you know, slaps me down or, you know, brings me back down to reality. But she literally, on the way over here, and I didnt tell her that I was doing an interview, but I am now going to say, she's the best.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah, God bless.

Mr. WAHLBERG: So now I can talk about how tough she was again.

GROSS: Yeah. Exactly. And tell me a tough story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAHLBERG: Oh, God. I remember her coming to LA with Father Flavin, who is my parish priest, who has baptized all of my children, buried all my relatives that have passed, married my wife and I and, you know, he's been such a huge part of my life for a long time. We went to an event together. I think it was a premiere, actually. And my mom was like, you know, don't worry about me. I'm fine. So I sent her in the car home with Father Flavin and I think they got a little bit lost trying to get up to my house. They weren't driving. They had a driver. And then when I got home she just gave me the, who the (bleep) do you think you are? Youre not a (bleep) movie star. Youre nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAHLBERG: I was like whoa, you said you were going to be okay. I mean, I sent you in the car in a limousine home. But we laugh about that.

Mr. RUSSELL: Oh, so can I tell the story about George and your dad?

Mr. WAHLBERG: Yeah. Sure. Tell the story.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah. There was a - there, when we met George, Mickey and Dicky's father, the roofer, who is a good man, one of the first things he said was to Mark - was he said I knew your father in jail and he's a really good man. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: I love the fact that Mark's father and Mickey and Dicky's father were in prison together and both good guys.

GROSS: Wow, that's amazing.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Small world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. Or a large prison or...

Mr. RUSSELL: There's one situation where people...

GROSS: So Mark Wahlberg, David O. Russell, youve worked together on three films: "Three Kings," "I Heart Huckabees" and now...

Mr. WAHLBERG: Oh God, youre right.

GROSS: ..."The Fighter." I'd like you to each say what you like about working with the other.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Well, I like everything about working with David. But my favorite thing, going back to "Three Kings," you know, he's the writer-director, so obviously he's looking for something very specific. And my whole job and all I want to accomplish is making the director happy at the end of the day.

So some tough emotional scenes were coming up and I just went to him and said, dude, I really would rather you just kind of try to explain to me or show me what it is you're looking for. And he immediately would act out the scene. So it just became like a daily occurrence where I'd come to him and I was like dude, you've got to show me, and certainly for my own entertainment, watch him acting these scenes out. And it was just wonderful to watch.

And really, he allowed me to become more confident as an actor and to let go of my fear and my insecurities and that was what made me commit my undying commitment and passion and love and dedication to David.

GROSS: Was that on the first film you did together that he did that?

Mr. WAHLBERG: Yeah, that was on "Three Kings."

GROSS: So give me an example of what he did that you wouldn't have realized yourself.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Well, you know, like crying for instance. There was a scene where I was supposed to be crying over my friend's body and, you know, there's many ways to cry: do you want the slow build, do you want the big bawling, what do you want to do? And, you know, he was just - he just jumped right in there and did it and I just - I loved him for that. Because, you know, there's a crew of people, you know, everybody standing around and just kind of looking and watching and, you know, it could be awkward. And for him to kind of make me feel comfortable in that way and to show that he was willing to do anything to help me, that meant a lot to me.

Mr. RUSSELL: I think the key to it I think is if I'm willing to let go of my sense of embarrassment and that's - I want to create an environment where everybody feels loose on the set and I think that's what you're saying.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Yeah. And I also, I come from a background of, you know, you're worried about how you're being perceived, how, you know, being a musician, being a rapper, being from the street, got to be cool, got to be tough, that whole thing, that was an issue for me for quite a while, you know. And that was obviously something - that's a problem when you're an actor because, you know, you want to be able to be as versatile as possible and play a lot of different roles and...

GROSS: Including vulnerable.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Exactly. And I had that with "Boogie Nights," but this was different and David was, you know, he was just, you know, helped me overcome that.

GROSS: David, did you pick up on that, that Mark was having trouble or was like self-conscious about playing vulnerable because he was so used to needing to be like strong and hip and all that stuff?

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah. I remember one of the first scenes is when he danced at the beginning of the movie with Spike Jones.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Oh, I hated that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: And he had danced for a living on stages all over the world and he said you do it. And, you know, youre in front of like a hundred extras a hundred casts and so, you feel you got - I like it, I appreciate it as a director because you get what it feels like. Oh, okay, now I've got to dance. What am I going to do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: So, but so then I created the way I wanted it to look and then it cracked him up. And whenever you can crack people up while you're doing some work, that's a good energy.

GROSS: So David O. Russell, tell me what you like about working with Mark Wahlberg?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, what I liked, I mean Mark is, you know - that's what I loved in "Huckabees" as well, he's a very passionate person, but he's got so many different dimensions to him. He's very quiet the way Mickey is. He can be very quiet for when you, as he has said to me in the past, don't get me going, you know, he used to say. I don't know if he says it now that he's the father of four, but he used to say don't get me going. And if you get him going then you were sorry you got him going.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: Because he'd come out and he would say - and so there's a lot in there. There's a lot of, you know, he's like the classic ninth child of nine children, you know, he kind of can be quiet and inconspicuous and then but there's a lot - those kids try harder because they're under eight siblings so there's a lot of thought and passion that would come out.

And I find that mix very exciting, you know, for anybody who plays any characters because he can be pretty authentic, you know, I always say in the school kind of John Garfield or James Cagney or Spencer Tracy. It's a different school of acting where you take your kind of authentic, raw self and you shape it to any part that you happen to be doing.

Which is different than, you know, what Melissa and Christian are doing, which is also very interesting, where they kind of are more into sort of transforming themselves into something else. But they're both - one benefits by the other in a movie. Without everything playing on Mickey's face, on Amy Adams's face as sort of this emotional pillar at the center of the film, you just - you can't just have the big characters that Christian and Melissa are playing. And so they both work well together, both types of acting.

GROSS: Okay. Well, I'm talking to Mark Wahlberg, who is starring in the new film "The Fighter" and David O. Russell, who directed it.

And Mark, I know, you have to go, so I'm going to let you go now. And thank you in advance, David O. Russell, for sticking around with us.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Thank you.

GROSS: So, Mark Wahlberg, thank you so much and congratulations on the movie.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Thank you.

GROSS: So we're going to let Mark Wahlberg slip out the door and we're going to take and short here and we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: So my guest is David O. Russell and he directed the new movie "The Fighter."

So Mark Wahlberg trained for four years to do this movie and then you had to direct him in the ring. And as I talked about with him a little earlier, he had to take a lot of punches in this film because the boxing strategy of his character is to take a lot of punches and just kind of stand there until he could deliver a real body punch to his opponent in the hopes of knocking him out, which he sometimes succeeds in doing.

So when you were directing Wahlberg and his boxing opponents in the ring, were you concerned about real injuries that might happen or real pain that they'd be inflicting on each other unintentionally, but as Mark Wahlberg pointed out, even if you're planning on giving 60 percent in a punch it might end up being more?

Mr. RUSSELL: Absolutely. You don't want your star to get hurt in the ring, and yet at the same time it was a blessing that Mark is someone who had been in a lot of fights on the streets and had been to prison. And so he wasn't going to pamper himself either. So we knew that we could get great - something that's all very raw and very real and push it to the edge. You save some of the hardest hits till your last takes though, just to be careful, just to be - because then, you know, if you get - you get it in the last take but it hasn't ruined the day.

GROSS: Now you actually asked an HBO film crew from the early '90s, from the period that the movie is set in, to shoot the boxing scenes so that it would look just like HBO was televising it. What are some of the things that they did and some of the places they put their cameras that you might not have thought of yourself?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, they have sort of this way that covers the whole ring. It was from one direction. It mostly covers it from one direction where they have six cameras. You know, they have two there parked in the middle stands looking at the ring from one side, different distances, and they have two on the other side.

So that's three sides of the ring. And then they have two floaters, who - if you, I never noticed this until I saw it. There were these guys dressed all in black and they stand on what's called the apron of the ring, which is just outside the ropes, and they walk everywhere handheld and those kind of became my favorite guys because the handheld style or the steady cam style is what I like the best.

GROSS: So it seems like Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale really liked having the real characters that they played, Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, on the set. But as the director and co-writer, did you like having them on the set or were there times when they would say, you know, and that's not really the way it happened, and you'd be thinking, I don't really care how it really happened, this is going to make a better movie?

Mr. RUSSELL: Absolutely. You know, and the sisters would show up and theyd point to the actresses and say, I'm prettier than her. Why did you cast somebody who's not as pretty as me? Or I didn't do that or I didn't say that and that's when you need them to go away.

Its a blessing, though. I mean, now that I'm writing scripts, you know, where youre creating characters from scratch again, I have to admit that I really miss being able to base them on real characters because they're so much dimension. So the actors, we all benefitted from being in this world with the real people, and Christian being able to really hang out with Dicky and absorb Dicky's the way he moves, the way he talks and Mark with Micky.

And just to be in this town. Everywhere you go you cross paths with this family because they have so many sisters and so many nieces and nephews everywhere you go, you know. So that is fantastic. But at the same time, no, there are times when you have to - you keep your, you know, as a filmmaker though, I feel pretty confident about knowing what is essential for the movie and knowing when I have to say, well, that's just not, you don't get how we have to take poetic license here and I just got to do that. And trust me. What I would say, how could this film possibly turn out worse than "High on Crack Street?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: You know, I understand it's a nerve-racking thing to have -it's a nerve-racking thing that anybody make a movie about you, you know, I understand that. You know, they're never going to get it right, the way you lived it. But I said...

GROSS: Let me...

Mr. RUSSELL: What? Go ahead.

GROSS: Well, let me interject and explain here. "High on Crack Street" was the HBO documentary that included Dicky Eklund. And Dicky, in your telling of the story, in "The Fighter," Dicky really believes that this is an HBO crew that's shooting a movie about his comeback as a boxer. But what they really are shooting is about his addiction to crack.

And when he sees the movie he's actually in prison and he and his prison mates have it on the TV in this large room, and when he sees that it's really about his addiction he's horrified. He makes everybody turn it off. And I'm wondering if, to your knowledge, if the HBO crew misled him or whether he was just delusional about what the movie was about.

Mr. RUSSELL: I think it's a little bit of both because I think if Dicky decided to make different choices at any moment, then the documentary would have become about that. And it could have become about his comeback. I don't think they would - they wouldn't have gone away. If Dicky stopped doing drugs and started putting his life back together, I don't think the crew would've said, oh, show's over, see you later. I think they would have said, oh, this is interesting.

GROSS: Do you think they showed up thinking, we'll make a movie about crack?

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah. I think that when they showed up they thought that, yeah, because he was in the - the epidemic of crack was just happening and, you know, yeah. I think they - it hadn't been documented. So I think they thought, well, we'll at least document this. But as I say, Dicky could have change the course of it.

You know, and I know that Alice and some other members of the family say, you know, the crew gave Dicky money to - so he would buy drugs and it would help the movie. And that's debated, as many things are in Lowell, how true that is or not true. I mean, and I know Micky would say, well, you know, hey, you make the choices you make and you can't blame anybody for those but yourself.

GROSS: Now, it's been about five years since you made a movie?

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah.

GROSS: What was behind that stretch...

Mr. RUSSELL: My own little wilderness period. My own Dick Eklund period. I dont know. I think that I just had a chapter whereas, as a filmmaker and in my life, you know, I had a lot of changes happen. I got divorced and I wanted to make sure I was still taking care of my son properly. And I also creatively I think kind of went into the wilderness a little bit.

And I would say that in Hollywood and in any creative medium, especially if you're successful to a certain degree, you can be given enough rope to hang yourself. And by that I mean get indulgent or get too creatively complicated or just think that you can do no wrong creatively. And I think that those, as you can quickly find out, that none of that's true. And I think coming back at it from a humbled experience, which is how I relate to the story and the picture, as well, is - it makes you stronger and better.

And so coming back from this as a writer this period, I can see a vast difference in that sense that when I'm given an idea for a story, whereas five, six years ago I might have looked at it from 10 different angles and said, gee, I don't know which the right angle is. I could tell this movie so many different ways and let's spend a lot of time writing it and rewriting it, that's not how I am now at all. Now I feel like, let's just cut to the raw emotion and the raw grab you by the throat story and figure, and just go and do that.

And that's what I liked about our 33-day schedule was that it was like, as Mark likes to say, it was very much a Lowell schedule. You know, people in Lowell are roofers and road pavers, a lot of them, and there's not a lot of nonsense. You know, you just got to get up and get to it.

GROSS: My guest is David O. Russell. He's nominated for a Golden Globe for directing the new film "The Fighter." He also directed "Three Kings" and "I Heart Huckabees."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is David O. Russell. He's nominated for a Golden Globe for directing the new film "The Fighter." He also directed "Three Kings," "I Heart Huckabees" and "Spanking the Monkey."

The film that you made before "The Fighter" was "I Heart Huckabees" and Mark Wahlberg was one of the stars of that. And it's a really - it was a kind of overlooked film but it's a really entertaining, funny and kind of deep film. So I don't want to go into detail but I just have one question about it. A lot of people have seen on YouTube a big fight that you had with Lily Tomlin on the set of "I Heart Huckabees."

And my question about it is, from when I read, it's somebody on the crew actually shot that and then gave it out and it ended up on YouTube. So after something like that happens, and I think it was a very embarrassing thing for both you and Lily Tomlin, can you trust anybody on a crew - on your crew after that?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, yeah, something like that is embarrassing and it was very rare on a set where we all had a really good time. So the distortion of it is the thing that's a drag, that it becomes representational of something that's inaccurate because Lily and I love each other and, you know, that was just a bad day, you know. And I would never, it just made me never ever want to do anything like that ever again.

But in terms of trusting a crew, yeah. You just want to, you know, you want to, you know, well, the first thing to do is to make sure that you have a set that just is calm. You know, that made me redoubled my wish for that, you know, to stay disciplined about that. But the other thing is, yeah, you have to, you know, everybody has got a camera phone. So, you know, it's like the privacy of that creative environment, you have to set a tone on the set.

That's what was nice about this with Mark because that's what I meant when I said he set a tone on the set, where I don't think people on "The Fighter" would've done something disrespectful because we were with the real people and the real people of Lowell and people got how personal it was to Mark. Although, again, you can never underestimate how low people will go.

GROSS: You know, a lot of people say when you send an email, send it as if it was going to go viral because you never know how it's going to be spread. So do you feel that way now on a set, that everything you do on a set you have to do as if somebody might put it on YouTube?

Mr. RUSSELL: I think there's a little bit more of that than there ever was before. I mean, you know, yeah, I mean, you know, I love Polanski. Stories about him and Nicholson are legendary or him and Faye Dunaway are legendary. You know, that...

GROSS: Well, you mean like with them fighting or something?

Mr. RUSSELL: Oh, those things would end up on YouTube in two seconds now. But I mean that, yeah, I think everybody just gets a little more mindful that they don't, you know, maybe it makes us, makes for better sets, which they should be better anyway, you know.

But I mean, yeah, I mean, Jack Nicholson was watching on "Chinatown" the NBA finals, you know, with the Lakers in his trailer and was never showing up on set. And Polanski, like, stormed his trailer with a mop and attacked his trailer and threw the TV out the window of the trailer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. RUSSELL: Which would, you know, there are stories like that that are just absolutely hilarious. And those guys remain very dear friends, you know, but that could have easily been misinterpreted.

GROSS: Were there movies that you watched when you were making "The Fighter" to get inspiration or to see how did they do the boxing scenes, how did they do the neighborhood scenes?

Mr. RUSSELL: I can actually honestly say that this was a case where we were not - I was not watching movies the whole time. That has happened to me before. You know, there was one shot in particular, you know, there's so much inspiration, how can you not take certain inspiration from the great Scorsese masterpiece?

And there was one shot in particular that, you know, that we took from that picture, that was inspired by that picture, which is when he's, you know, doing the comeback in the ring, which was a very economical way to make a small space seem like a bigger space by using a whip pan around a darkened room that had lights that were very far away that made the room seem much bigger than it was in a small ring for one of small comeback fights.

But, no, that was it pretty much. We weren't - we were making up our own thing. That was the one thing that I felt blessed to have and this was an - we had a real thing that hadn't been done before, which was this world of this town with these seven sisters and this mother, that was what made me want to do the picture.

GROSS: Well, David O. Russell, thank you so much. Good luck in this award season.

Mr. RUSSELL: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: David O. Russell is nominated for a Golden Gold for directing "The Fighter." The film is nominated for five other awards, including best motion picture drama.

You can hear more of my interview with Russell and the star of "The Fighter," Mark Wahlberg - things we didn't have time for on the show -by going to our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of FRESH AIR.

I'm Terry Gross.

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