By Iain Blair
Writer/director Ben Younger had been MIA for quite a while. Back in 2000 he made a splash with his acclaimed feature debut, Boiler Room. This tense crime drama, which starred Ben Affleck and Vin Diesel, was set in the high stakes, testosterone-fueled — and sometimes illegal — world of brokerage firms and investment banking.
Five years later, he directed his second film, the Meryl Streep/Uma Thurman romantic dramedy Prime, which grossed $67 million worldwide and cemented his reputation as someone to watch. Then Younger disappeared from sight.
Over a decade later, he’s back with his third film, Bleed for This, a super-intense boxing drama and the true comeback story of Vinny Pazienza, the “Pazmanian Devil” (Miles Teller), whose boxing career should have ended when a terrible head-on car smash left him with a badly broken neck and few chances of ever walking again, let alone fighting in the ring. Yet he refused to throw in the towel and staged the sport’s most unlikely comeback so he could defend his middleweight world championship.
I spoke with Younger about his disappearance from the industry, making this film and his love-hate relationship with post.
It’s been 11 years since your last film. What the hell happened?
It’s been even longer — 12 years (laughs). I wanted to make this motorcycle racing film, Isle of Man, back in ’07, but no one would make it. I got a little disenchanted, a little upset. I tried to get another movie made, couldn’t get that off the ground either. I stepped back and decided to take five, six years off and go the experiential route instead.
I learned to fly, I became a cook in Costa Rica, went surfing and raced motorbikes for a year professionally. I did all the things my dad never got a chance to do because he died so young. He hated his job, was miserable, and I didn’t want to do that.
I heard you’re not even a boxing fan, so why make this film?
It’s not a boxing film like the usual ones. It’s this incredible comeback story about this guy who had a passion for boxing. I don’t feel that passionate about anything in my life where I would risk paralysis to do it, like he did. So by that measure, it didn’t matter what Vinny did. I would have told the same story whatever his profession. That’s what drew me in.
What did you hope for the film?
Because it’s set in the world of boxing, you can’t avoid comparisons with other films in the genre, so it was important not to fall into cliché and the tired old tropes of every boxing movie. I just wanted to differentiate myself. There’s a lot of humor, which is always a big part of my movies, and I like humor in very dramatic settings.
Martin Scorsese executive produced. Did you ask him for any advice, considering he made Raging Bull?
No, and he didn’t really offer any. He got involved after he showed Boiler Room to his Wolf of Wall Street crew, and then he called me to meet up after reading this script. I was in Costa Rica, cooking, and he said, ‘You’ve got to get back here. I’m going to help you make this movie.’ And he did.
What did Miles Teller bring to the role?
Preparation. He’s a monster. Eight months of training and he knew his boxing. We shot for just 24 days, on a $6 million budget — not enough time or money — so I knew I couldn’t be on set worrying about the boxing itself, or we’d have been in big trouble. So he took all that off the table for me.
Do you like the post process?
I have a love-hate relationship with it. Every movie, inarguably, gets made in post. There’s no question. Same with my other two films. This was written in post, re-imagined in post, reconfigured in post. But there’s something I hate about sitting in a dark room for 12 hours a day. It fucking kills me. It’s a very depressing work environment. You have to do it, but it doesn’t mean you have to like it.
You edited the film with Zac Stuart-Pontier who cut Martha Marcy May Marlene and won two Emmys for HBO’s The Jinx. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked.
He was a PA on Prime, his first job in the industry. He was at NYU and took a semester off to work on the movie, and then his career took off. He wasn’t on set at all as he was still on The Jinx, so we had an assistant editor log it all and he started after the shoot.
We did it all at Harbor Post — everything. It took a good six months. The big problem was I made a mistake in the script, putting the car crash in the middle, and it didn’t work. So we had to ruthlessly cut the first half down so it happened more like a first act, and we lost a lot of stuff. It was a shock to me, but now I’m like, ‘What were you thinking?’
We did some test screenings, and people loved watching all the gambling, the women and so on, but then after the crash scene, retroactively they hated it. They were like, ‘Why take us on the hour-long detour?’ Because of The Jinx, Zac was very used to working in a docu-drama environment, and we had all this great archival footage of Vinny, and I thought maybe we would use some of it at the end credits. But we ended up putting it in the middle of the movie. We break the fourth wall so many times in the editing, and no one seems to mind. We cut from Vinny to Miles to Vinny, and it just works.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
It’s over half the film, and when you don’t have the budget it’s the cheapest thing you can do to radically improve your film. A good score and mix can improve it by 25 percent, easily.
Where did you mix the sound?
All at Harbor on their huge new Atmos stage, but my supervising sound editor Coll Anderson has his own studio in Woodstock where we did the pre-mixes.
This is obviously not a VFX-driven film, but I’m assuming there was some in the crash scene?
And crowd replacement stuff at the fights, some compositing. It was all done by Eyeball in LA. They did a great job on the crash, and they’d never done that sort of thing before.
How important was the DI on this, and where did you do it?
Hugely important. I worked closely with DP Larkin Seiple and colorist Andrew Francis at Sixteen19 in New York, who has an amazing eye. I think I was able to give them a fresh set of eyes after they had been at it for 10 hours. I would take a look and ask, ‘Why is this so blue? Why is this so warm?’ And they would go, ‘You’re right,’ and adjust it a little.
Did it turn out how you originally envisioned it?
From a macro perspective, definitely. It was more the little things — the crash, the archival footage — that changed.
No more long breaks. I’m making Isle of Man next year. It’s funded and happening.
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.