Wahlberg, Russell Enter Ring With 'The Fighter' Mark Wahlberg and David O. Russell talk about creating a movie based on the real-life boxer Micky Ward, who won a welterweight championship in 2000 after several years away from the boxing ring.
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Wahlberg, Russell Enter Ring With 'The Fighter'

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Wahlberg, Russell Enter Ring With 'The Fighter'

Wahlberg, Russell Enter Ring With 'The Fighter'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.

The movie "The Fighter," starring Mark Wahlberg as boxer Micky Ward, continues to generate momentum long after it hit theaters. Last month, the movie won Academy Awards for supporting actor Christian Bale, who plays Micky's boxing half-brother, Dicky Eklund, and for supporting actress Melissa Leo, who plays Alice, their firebrand mother and manager.

"The Fighter" is now out on DVD, and this week, reports are swirling that the filmmakers are close to committing to a sequel.

Our guests today are Mark Wahlberg, the star of "The Fighter" and one of its producers, and the movie's director, David O. Russell, who also directed Wahlberg in the films "Three Kings" and "I Heart Huckabees." Terry Gross spoke with them in January.

But before we get to their conversation, let's hear a clip from "The Fighter." Old brother Dicky's boxing career has been cut short by his crack habit, but he and his mother continue to work with little brother Micky. Micky's new girlfriend Charlene, played by Amy Adams, think they're holding him back, and she and his boxing coach, Mickey O'Keefe, who plays himself, convinced Micky to stop working with his mother and brother.

When they hear that news, they show up at the gym to confront the coach, the girlfriend and Micky himself. In this clip, the trainer speaks first.

(Soundbite of film, "The Fighter")

Mr. MICKEY 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, OK? 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, OK? 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?

BIANCULLI: 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. Terry asked Mark Wahlberg how he prepared for this very physical role.


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 David O. Russell, Mark Wahlberg trained for four years to do this movie, and then you had to direct him in the ring. And 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, even if you plan on giving 60 percent in a punch, it might end up being more?

Mr. DAVID O. RUSSELL: (Director, "The Fighter"): 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 that are 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: David, when you were asked by Mark Wahlberg to direct "The Fighter," 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. RUSSELL: 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 with - 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: 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) Hi.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) 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 going to 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, OK? I'm not getting any younger.

Ms. LEO: (As Alice) Who's going to 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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.

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...

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 they're actors that their accents...

Mr. WAHLBERG: The great Mike Leigh.

Mr. RUSSELL: It was Mike Nichols.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

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.

BIANCULLI: Actor Mark Wahlberg and director David O. Russell of the movie "The Fighter," which is now out on DVD. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview from January with actor Mark Wahlberg and director David O. Russell of "The Fighter." It's been released on DVD, and there may be a sequel in the works.

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 Micky's life, Alice and my mom, you know, not just the fact that they both had nine children. Both had - Micky 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 didn't 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 (BEEP) do you think you are? You're not a (BEEP) movie star. You're nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAHLBERG: I was like whoa, you said you were going to be OK. 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, Micky 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 Micky 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, you've worked together on three films: "Three Kings," "I Heart Huckabees" and now...

Mr. WAHLBERG: Oh God, you're right.

GROSS: ..."The Fighter."

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, you're 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, OK, now I've got to dance. What am I going to do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: So, but 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.

BIANCULLI: Actor Mark Wahlberg and director David O. Russell, speaking to Terry Gross in January. "The Fighter" is now out on DVD, and if the rumors are accurate, there may eventually be a "Fighter" part two. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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