NEW YORK— In his role as 1990s welterweight “Irish Micky” Ward in “The Fighter,” Mark Wahlberg faces jabs, low blows and dirty fighting — and that’s just from his mother, crackhead brother and seven shrewish sisters.
“It was as much about the family as it was about the fighting,” says David O. Russell, who directed this near-period piece about the working-class boxer from Lowell, Mass. “The fighting,” Russell says, “is like a subset of the family and of the romance.”
That romance, which the once-promising young fighter, now a stumblebum, has with his girlfriend (Amy Adams), helps pull him from his family’s tentacles and put him on the road to a championship. She’s essentially the Adrian in this real-life “Rocky.” Yet so, too, in a way, is Wahlberg, who, as the film’s producer, stuck with the project as actors, directors and five years came and went.
“There were so many similarities between myself and Micky it wasn’t even funny,” says Wahlberg, who, for starters, comes from a family of exactly nine kids himself. “We connected instantly — I’ve known him since I was 18,” back when Wahlberg, like every other mug in Boston’s blighted Dorchester neighborhood, had a local hero in the scrappy bulldog from the mill-town suburb of Lowell.
“He’s just an amazing guy,” Wahlberg says. “Just his whole philosophy: ‘Never give up.’ What he had to do to accomplish his goals and to win the title was everything that we had to do to get the movie made.”
That half-decade struggle included losing first Matt Damon and then Brad Pitt for the role of Ward’s half-brother and trainer, Dickie Eklund — a once well-regarded boxer whose descent into cocaine addiction was chronicled in the 1995 HBO documentary “High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell.”
The project took another long count when the film’s original director, Darren Aronofsky, left it to pursue MGM’s aborted “RoboCop” remake and to eventually direct the just-released “Black Swan.”
“We were fairly close,” Wahlberg says of the film’s progress at the time. “We thought we had a cast and start dates. But it just wasn’t meant to be.” At some point, he recalls, Aronofsky “just said it wasn’t going to happen. And so it was like, ‘OK, well, I’m going to figure this out. I’ll find another way to do it.’”
That turned out to involve finding a new Dickie Eklund in the famously intense Christian Bale, who had made himself almost skeletal for the role of the guilt-ridden, sleep-deprived protagonist of “The Machinist” (2004) and could tackle the fast-talking, self-deluded and physically crack-ravaged Eklund.
“His and my daughter went to the same school,” Wahlberg says. “I saw him there and I thought, ‘Hmmm.’ He’s done some pretty amazing work and certainly has physically transformed himself in a way that would be required for him to play Dickie Eklund. And I just said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to read this thing.’ I got him the script and he read it and he responded to it immediately.”
This happened at about the same time that Wahlberg brought in Russell, who had directed him in “Three Kings” (1999) and “I (Heart) Huckabees” (2004).
“We were pretty far down the road (looking at) other filmmakers and David took it upon himself to get the script,” Wahlberg says. “And then he would call me after I had my kids in bed and I was watching old fight footage, and he would start talking to me about how he saw the movie. And I just kept saying. ‘OK, I like that idea, we’ll use that idea, thank you for that advice.’ And then it dawned on me that I’ve got to convince everybody that David should be the director of the movie, not the other people we were discussing.”
“Mark and I talked on the phone for a long time,” Russell says. “I was doing other projects, he was doing other projects. Then I started to look at the material, at who the people were, and that’s what made me interested — the seven bleached-blond sisters, the bleached-blond mother, this crazy family dynamic.”
Crazy it does seem, with enough misguided love, sublimated sibling rivalry, guilt-induced exploitation and nervous jealousy to go 15 rounds with a heavyweight psychiatrist. And Wahlberg, who’d previously produced the movie “We Own the Night” (2007) and whose company produces such HBO series as “Entourage” and “Boardwalk Empire,” was the right guy to be working this story’s corner.
“Mark, like Micky, shares (the trait that) they’ll take a lot of punches and they won’t complain,” Russell says. “Many actors, their egos wouldn’t have allowed them to make this picture on these terms — 33 days, $11 million,” or a pittance, by Hollywood standards. “There was so much passion, and the passion led the way.”
In boxing terms, they call that heart.
TRAINED EYE SPOTS LOWELL, MASS., CIRCA 1993
It’s relatively easy to make a movie look like medieval times, or the 1800s or even the 1970s. But how do you make a movie look like 1993, when “The Fighter” begins? How much different can it be from 2010?
Plenty, to the trained eye. “Whenever I’m doing a recent period movie, the first thing I think about are the electronics and the cars,” says Judy Becker, the film’s production designer, whose credits include “Garden State” (2004) and “Brokeback Mountain” (2005). “Those things are very distinctive from era to era. We see Micky’s mother on a landline with a long cord, which you wouldn’t see that often in 2010.”
For “The Fighter,” which was both set and shot in Lowell, Mass., Becker needed the look of a home where a family had lived for 40 years. “The color palette had to reflect certain popular colors of the time. And you couldn’t have the Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel (style of) minimalist good design that became prevalent in the late 1990s and didn’t become available from more down-market merchants like Target until the early aughts.”
But some things are timeless. While all the fight scenes were shot in variously redressed settings at Lowell’s Tsongas Center, where Ward had not boxed in real life, the gym we see “is one of the original gyms that he trained in.” That would be local legend Arthur Ramalho’s West End Gym — which has been in its present location since 1995 and, she says, “still looks pretty much the same.”