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Wahlberg, Russell Pack 'Fighter' Full Of Punches.

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.

51:25

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Wahlberg, Russell Pack 'Fighter' Full Of Punches

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, who’s 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 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).

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. I’m 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 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 (bleep) do you think you
are? You’re not a (bleep) movie star. You’re 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, you’ve worked together on
three films: "Three Kings," "I Heart Huckabees" and now...

Mr. WAHLBERG: Oh God, you’re 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, 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,
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
they’d 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.

It’s a blessing, though. I mean, now that I'm writing scripts, you know,
where you’re 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 don’t 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.
..COST:
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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