Requiem for a heavyweight

ANATOMY OF A CONTENDER: How a low-budget wrestling film became the talk of Venice, Toronto -- and Oscar.

Darren Aronofsky keeps a list tucked away on his computer -- a list of movie themes that inspire him. Just after graduating from the American Film Institute, he added two words: the wrestler.

"It came out of the idea that there had been so many boxing movies," Aronofsky says. "I thought, why hadn't anyone done a serious story about a wrestler?"

For years, the idea collected cyberdust as the young filmmaker built his career with "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream." But over that period, he and a colleague, Scott Franklin, started researching, discovering wrestling's subculture -- school auditoriums, nightclubs, civic centers -- where rabid fans cheered for B-list professionals. Some were up-and-comers, but many were bygone stars, and that's who they decided to focus on. "The Wrestler" would be about Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an '80s headliner now barely holding on.

"A lot of the '70s and '80s superstars we met were in this situation," Franklin says. "They were in wheelchairs, couldn't walk. They were broke. They had no health insurance."

While Aronofsky embarked on "The Fountain," Franklin developed the story. Having read "Paul Aufiero," a screenplay about an obsessive New York Giants fan assaulted by his favorite player, the duo felt that its writer, Robert Siegel, could capture the tone he wanted for "The Wrestler." Siegel, former editor in chief of the Onion, was urged to watch "Beyond the Mat," a 1999 documentary by Barry Blaustein that follows a trio of wrestling journeymen. For more than a year, in the midst of other projects, Siegel generated multiple drafts -- 20 by Franklin's estimate.

Aronofsky and Rourke met for Italian in Manhattan's meat-packing district. "He's his own man, very uncompromising," Rourke says. "He hangs his balls over the fence in a very honorable way."

But Aronofsky was keenly aware of the actor's reputation.

"He told me how I had blown my career for the last 15 years," the actor adds. "Then he said, 'But if I hire you' -- and he pointed his finger in my face -- 'You'll listen to everything I say, do everything I tell you, and never disrespect me on the set. And I can't pay you.' "

Rourke signed on. But getting Rourke proved to be the easy part. Although modestly budgeted at about $10 million, financiers turned the film down. Rourke was too big a question mark. Eventually, Aronofsky was forced to agree to Nicolas Cage.

But Aronofsky couldn't let go of Rourke, and one day he called Cage to tell him he had to go back to his original choice.

"It was always Mickey," Franklin says. "It was always Mickey."

With Rourke, "The Wrestler" finally got a yes from Paris-based Wild Bunch -- only for $7 million, but it was enough to shoot the film.

The 35-day shoot took place in some of New Jersey's homeliest locales. "It was definitely rough," Franklin says. "We wanted that documentary feel." Adds Aronofsky: "It's how I made films as a student. It was exciting to get back to that."

To cut costs, Franklin persuaded promoters to let the crew film during actual events. The production created "Ram" T-shirts -- named after Rourke's character -- to sell alongside other memorabilia. Proceeds went to the film.

"I went into this with the fewest preconceptions I've had on any film," says Aronofsky, who also gave Rourke free rein to rewrite all his dialogue. "My aim was to set up a sandbox with as few rules as possible so he could really, really play."

Shooting like that put Rourke in the heart of this world. Before production started, he trained with a former Israeli commando-turned-cage fighter. Although the actor had boxed professionally, wrestling was different. Whereas he'd drop weight for a bout, here he added 30-plus pounds, bulking up to 230, helped by what Rourke calls "vitamin supplements."

"I couldn't get into any suits or jackets," he jokes.

The stress level before the first match was unbearable. But Rourke even pulled off the "gig" -- a gimmick involving a concealed razor blade. With attention on his opponent, the wrestler cuts himself, adding blood to the mayhem. Rather than go with an effect, Rourke gashed open his forehead, and when he entered the locker room, the wrestlers started applauding.

"They were applauding Mickey's performance -- not as an actor but as a wrestler," Franklin says. "He wasn't expecting that. He was touched and felt truly welcomed into their family."

These scenes took a tremendous toll. Rourke had three MRIs. He blew out an L5 in his back. His high school football knee started acting up. "I was a walking wreck," says Rourke, who has yet to brave seeing the entire finished film. "I couldn't even go to the wrap party. I was on the couch, crying hysterically, hyperventilating, physically banged up."

The scenes with his character's daughter (Evan Rachel Wood ) were equally demanding. "Darren kept coming over to me and going: 'She's blowing you away. You suck. Give me something more,' " Rourke says. "I had to go back to some painful places where I have tremendous regret and issues of abandonment."

In the film's strip club scenes, the stress fell on Marisa Tomei. The actress had attended Brooklyn's Edward R. Murrow High School with Aronofsky but had concerns about the character. "If you want to make me look like I'm 112, I'm not interested," she told him. "I'm going to go into it raw and real, but if we're going to make me look extra bad, I don't know."

Aronofsky did what he could. "He supercleaned the strip club for me," Tomei says. "It was foul, foul."

Still, shooting there was a challenge, especially the first day. "No matter what, I always feel vulnerable, nervous and excited," Tomei says. "But, then, to not only be naked but to have to look like a professional ... and we're all just getting to know each other."

"The Wrestler" wrapped in April. Eight weeks later, Aronofsky and Franklin submitted a rough cut to both Venice and Toronto. To their surprise, both festivals accepted. "We finished two days before Venice needed it for subtitling," Franklin says. "We didn't even have time to ship and clear customs. Someone from our team flew there with a print."

Days later, it won the Golden Lion. And just a few days after that, it was the subject of a bidding war at Toronto, where Searchlight secured the U.S. rights for slightly less than $4 million.

"It was a whirlwind," Aronofsky says. "We went from an unfinished film on Thursday to selling it at 5 a.m. on Monday. What 'The Wrestler' was had completely changed in four or five days."
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