By Iain Blair
On the surface, French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau — whose drama Monsieur Lazhar was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards — might appear to be an unusual choice to helm a boxing film. But in his inspired hands, Chuck, the true story of Chuck Wepner, the first man to knock Muhammad Ali to the canvas while he was defending the title, lands a lot of impressive punches. Wepner was the inspiration behind Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar-winning Rocky franchise.
Set in the early ‘70s, Chuck tells the unlikely story of Wepner, who was the heavyweight champion of New Jersey and also sold liquor on the mean streets when he got his big shot to fight Ali. Ultimately, he didn’t win the fight, but he found instant fame as the underdog who lasted 15 rounds in the ring with Ali. That was nothing compared to when Rocky came out. Wepner quickly attained hero status as the real-life inspiration for Stallone’s script and was quickly anointed King of the Jersey shore.
However, just when Wepner thought he was invincible, life set him up for the ultimate K.O. The aftermath of that fight triggered a series of events and numerous legal struggles that led to Wepner grasping to stay in the limelight. These obstacles led to sobriety and redemption after serving five years in prison for cocaine possession.
Liev Schreiber stars as the flawed but charismatic boxer opposite Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman and Jim Gaffigan. The IFC Films release is also on Blu-ray presented in 1080p HD with English 5.1 DTS HD master audio, and on DVD and digital HD from Paramount Home Media Distribution.
I recently talked to Falardeau — whose films include The Left-Hand Side of the Fridge, which won Best Canadian First Feature at the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival; the Warner Bros. release The Good Lie, starring Reese Witherspoon; and My Internship in Canada — about making the film.
Were you always a big boxing fan?
I was neither a fan or not, but I remember watching boxing at the 1984 LA Olympics and thinking there was something noble to it, and in sports I like duels between two people, like tennis. I don’t know a lot about boxing, and the script first caught my eye because I felt it’s not a typical boxing film at all. The big fight is in the middle of the film, and then there’s no big redemption fight at the end as usual.
Is it true you initially turned this down?
Well, I questioned if I was the right person for it. But as I read it the first time, I realized there was all this stuff I didn’t know about it, and it was a real page turner. It was more about the mythology of boxing and a cautionary tale about fame, which seemed very relevant in our era of social media when everyone wants to be famous.
There have been so many films about boxers, so what sort of film did you set out to make?
I was fascinated watching the actual fight on YouTube, and then I looked at a lot of archival footage since the script allowed for us to use some of that alongside what we had shot. All that really excited me, but the actual fighting sort of scared me. The thing is, the boxing you see in movies isn’t like reality, where it’s slow and messy, and nothing happens and then boom! Something happens.
So I wanted to make a film that showed the reality of boxing, not the movie version. After the whole fun ride of the first act, I think the story gets even more interesting when Chuck gets caught up in his whole new image and all the attention. Chuck really enjoys life. He’s a fun, playful, optimistic guy, sure of himself — really the opposite of Rocky Balboa. So the film had to be very playful — a drama that also didn’t take itself too seriously. So I tried to craft a movie where the rhythms, the editing, the archival footage and the tone all contributed to that feeling.
You got an amazing cast, with Liev Schreiber as Chuck, and Naomi Watts and Elisabeth Moss as his wives. What did Liev bring to the role, considering he looks nothing like the real man?
He brought so much, and he really agreed with my approach — let’s make it messy, not spectacular and just real. He spars a lot and really likes the sport, and he trained hard, so he was a great collaborator on this and he was very into it. And, of course, he’s a great actor, so we were able to explore a lot of levels.
Do you feel more of a responsibility when a film is about real people?
I do. I come from a documentary background, and I left documentary filmmaking because of the difficulty with that moral contract you have with the people you film. You want to make the best film possible, and that might mean making it more dramatic in the edit. That’s why I migrated to fiction.
With this, I met Chuck and his second wife, who are still together, and we all became friends. Chuck still calls me at home and keeps in touch. So it’s tough sitting next to him in a theater watching this, because at the same time you need to tell the truth of his story and shoot him in his underwear, snorting cocaine. But he knows he was no angel and we had to show that side.
Did you talk to Stallone at all about Chuck being the real-life inspiration for Rocky?
No, but the production needed his approval, and we got a few notes from him. We did get his direct help with the statue of Rocky at the end. It’s in his personal memorabilia collection, which he keeps at his LA office.
You shot this on location in New York City and Sofia, Bulgaria. Why Sofia?
That’s exactly what I asked when the producers told me, but in hindsight it was the right decision considering our budget. I ended up having double the time to shoot the Ali fight, three cameras, four times the extras for the crowd scene at the fight and a very competent technical team over there. So in all fairness, when producer Avi Lerner said we’d shoot in Bulgaria, he made the right call. I had to find solutions for the particular constraints, but half our job is always to find a way around new constraints. And, as it’s a period piece, that was a major challenge. For instance, finding old typewriters for some scenes.
Where did you post and do you like the post process?
We did all the post in Montreal at Technicolor, including the color correction. The sound was done partly in Sofia and partly in Montreal. The VFX was done in LA. I love post and always have. I also think people don’t have a clue just how much the success of a film depends on good post production, how much of a story you can build during the editing, and how much you can enhance your film in mixing and color timing.
The color and sound is vital in conveying a sense of intimacy, humanity and emotions. To get it right you need to work with artists in post. That’s why I love it so much. For me, the worst part of post is that first assembly. I always hate it! You can really measure the gap between your vision and your talent. I get really depressed and start looking for a new job outside film.
Can you talk about working with editor Richard Comeau, who’s cut over 60 films. Was he on the set?
No, he doesn’t care about your best takes, and he’s right because that’s completely irrelevant. So he’d start cutting as I shot, and we’d start the assembly. But an editor is not in your head, and to get the right POV and tone on a film you have to get in the room yourself. An editor can really help with restructuring and moving scenes around, but to get that specific tone you have in mind, you have to work on it with the editor.
Can you talk about using all the archival footage and making it seamless.
It wasn’t too tricky because I knew I’d be using archival stuff, and we also used a real 35mm grain in both the color and B&W bits, which also helped. The colorist, Nico Illies at Technicolor, did a great job on the DI. He used Filmlight’s Baselight.
Although it’s obviously not an effects-driven film, it’s a period piece, so you must have needed some VFX?
Quite a few, like the bear he fights, and then we had crowd enhancement at the fight. But all the hits we see on Liev’s face are real. They’re not enhanced.
I’ve got a couple of projects. One is a gold rush film, and the other is My Salinger Year, which I hope to start shooting early next year.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.