February 18, 2011
Underdog ‘Fighter’ overcame odds for Oscar noms
On a recent afternoon, producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman were finishing up a meeting with “The Muppets” filmmakers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller in the maze of production trailers between stages 27 and 28 at Universal, where the highly anticipated children’s movie had been filming several weeks ago.
Hoberman and Lieberman head Mandeville Films, which, since its founding in 1995, has raked in more than $1 billion domestically for films including “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” and “The Proposal,” the highest grossing romantic comedy of 2009.
So how did these producers of Disney comedies and family films come to make “The Fighter” — one of the grittiest dramas of 2010 — about the rise of junior welterweight boxer Micky “Irish” Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his relationship with his crack-addicted brother (Christian Bale)? The movie has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture and supporting actor nods for Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo. Should “The Fighter” win best picture, Hoberman and Liebeman will join Wahlberg on stage to receive an Oscar statuette.
Hoberman, a former president of Walt Disney Studios in the 1990s, explained that he and Lieberman have eclectic tastes; their recent work has included the science-fiction thriller “Surrogates” and the spy film “Traitor.” “We do like comedy and family movies, but we also very much like dramas,” he said, sitting in their trailer at Universal. “We had actually been looking for a good drama for a while, but good stories are hard to come by.”
Six years ago, the producers came across the story of Ward, who despite fierce odds won the World Boxing Union’s light welterweight title in 2000. The character struggles both inside and outside the ring, sparring not only with more established fighters but with his tough-talking mother, his seven sisters and his half-brother, Dicky Eklund, an ex-fighter battling his own inner demons.
On the one hand, the story offers “an amazing character drama,” Hoberman said, with themes of universal appeal — an underdog who becomes a champion, for example, and a drug addict who ultimately experiences redemption.
Yet the producers were well aware that “The Fighter” might have its own share of challenges en route to the screen. “Dramas are notoriously hard to make, because historically the rate of return is tougher on a studio,” Lieberman explained. “So to get someone to back a drama, especially one that is R-rated, with drug use and ‘language,’ is challenging because you’re not putting out a movie [that might appeal] to the widest possible audience.”
In fact, even with A-list actor Wahlberg signing on and proving so dedicated to the project that he built a boxing ring in his home in order to train for the role, the “Fighter” at times appeared down for the count. Paramount finally embraced the movie, although Rob Moore, the studio’s vice chairman, told The New York Times that the studio had been wary of the film, stating that such dramas “are tougher movies. ... They’re all about execution.”
A revolving door of actors slowed the film’s progress to the screen. At one point Matt Damon signed on to play Dicky, “[but] he wanted a new draft of the script,” Hoberman recalled. “Then he said ‘no,’ and we had to figure out who to go to next. Then we went to Brad Pitt and we had to do a draft for him.” Darren Aronofsky was attached to direct, but dropped out after making “The Wrestler.” Finally, the producers hired David O. Russell, now up for the best director Oscar.
During a question-and-answer session after a screening of the film in Los Angeles, Russell credited Wahlberg, with whom he had collaborated on “Three Kings” (1999) and his existential comedy, “I Heart Huckabees” (2004) for making his case with the producers. “Huckabees,” his previous film, had received mixed reviews, and practically everyone in Hollywood knew his reputation for tantrums on the set. Russell’s rantings at Lily Tomlin on “Huckabees” is immortalized on YouTube. “Of course we knew those stories,” Hoberman said; the combination of Russell and Bale — also known for reportedly difficult behavior — “was a little daunting,” he added, “but [working together] couldn’t have been better.”
“We were clear about how we work,” Hoberman said of his early conversations with Russell. The director, moreover, impressed them with his ideas about how to temper the drama with levity and by amping up the romance between Micky and his wife-to-be (Adams). “While the idea of tonally balancing a movie about drug addiction with humor was scary to us,” Lieberman said, “David really convinced us that it was possible, and he was right.”
The specific working-class milieu of the film, which was shot on location in Lowell, Mass., where Micky Ward is from and still lives, proved a fascinating immersion into a very different culture for Lieberman, who grew up a Conservative Jew in Cleveland and counts Judaism as “a substantial part of my upbringing.” He tutored bar mitzvah students after his own bar mitzvah, and after he moved to Los Angeles, the University of Pennsylvania graduate taught religious school at Temple Israel of Hollywood for four years. The Jewish community, he said, “was a significant part of how I made my way in Los Angeles.”
When Hoberman hired Lieberman from the independent film world to work at Mandeville 12 years ago, their shared Jewish background proved one point of connection.
Hoberman was bar mitzvahed and confirmed at University Synagogue in Los Angeles, and then joined Leo Baeck because that temple’s founding Rabbi Leonard Beerman “is a consigliere and a good friend.” Hoberman and his family still attend Friday night services at the synagogue.
Hoberman and Lieberman said they were stunned when “The Fighter” received not just a one or two, but seven Oscar nominations on Jan. 25.
“The way Micky operated in the boxing ring was, he took as many punches as he could and then eventually he’d throw a couple,” Lieberman said, drawing parallels to the film’s chances on Oscar night. “This movie from the beginning has been the underdog, and we still kind of feel that way.”