Mark Wahlberg Fought Hard to Get 'Fighter' Off the Canvas

JoJo Whilden

When Mark Wahlberg signed on in 2005 to play “Irish” Micky Ward in The Fighter, the future of the project was unclear. But his determination to inhabit the character was not.

The actor built a ring and gym in his Beverly Hills backyard  and began training with Ward, now 45, and Dicky Eklund, 53, the boxer’s half-brother and former coach, to get in shape. After 41/2 years of sparring and sweat, Wahlberg was ready to go toe-to-toe with the role when production began in 2009.

Having a lead in serious fighting condition is as example of the realism that is one of the film’s best selling points, helping it score six Golden Globe noms, including best drama. Wahlberg and director David O. Russell also wanted the setting to have a major presence, so rather than filming in cheaper Toronto, they decided to shoot in gritty Lowell, Mass., where the real story took place. Russell, who had been an organizer for housing projects on the equally rough South End of Boston, cast locals including Lowell cop Mickey O’Keefe, Ward’s former trainer, who plays himself.

But a boxing film can’t be realistic if the action in the ring is subpar.

Professional fighters were cast as Wahlberg’s opponents. “We wanted to make it real from the beginning,” he says. “So the guy who plays Alfonso Sanchez [Miguel Espino], he was the
No. 2 middleweight in the world when we shot the movie.” And Russell used handhelds, steadicams and decades-old video cameras — the same ones HBO deployed to film Ward’s fights during the ’90s. Wahlberg insisted on shooting those fights continuously, with three-minute rounds and extended takes. He and Russell had studied Ward’s fights on ESPN Classic and knew just how the rounds should go. Russell and Wahlberg worked out choreography for the fights a month in advance, but four years of training with the real-life Ward meant Wahlberg already knew the sequences.

“He had memorized every move of every fight,” says Ryan Kavanaugh of Relativity Media, which financed Fighter. “Mark had spent so much time with Micky — spent time being him, training with him, fighting him. Nobody else would have been able to film those scenes so fast.”

Says Russell: “They were uninterrupted sequences, not shot-by-shot. We were doing actual pieces of Micky’s fights. You can easily get hurt doing as much boxing as he was doing.”

And the punches? They’re real. “You figure out a way to hit each other at 60 percent, but next thing you know, you’re slugging away,” Wahlberg says. “We survived it without any real injury. Actually, the professional guys had it tougher: They’d never fought for 12 straight hours. They’d go home and have a hard time getting out of bed.”   

But the film that became a major awards contender was nearly KO’d in the early rounds.

It all started with a half-hour video treatment assembled by writers Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson in 2005. “They had put together a collage of Ward’s fight footage mixed with documentary video about Eklund from HBO,” producer David Hoberman says. Adds his producing partner, Todd Lieberman: “It’s not an uncommon way to pitch an idea, and this really lent itself to it. It was a very emotionally charged piece and also exhilarating.”

Hoberman and Lieberman decided to develop Fighter and took it to studios. “We had multiple buyers, and we ended up selling to Paramount,” Hoberman says. “The first guy we went to after that was Wahlberg; he had an interest in Micky Ward and wanted to be in a boxing film. He was raring to go.” Wahlberg and Fighter were a natural match: Not only is he one of nine kids, like Ward, but he also had a father, Donald Wahlberg, who had been imprisoned years ago alongside Micky’s dad, George Ward.

By 2007 — two years after Tamasy and Johnson had put together their initial treatment and since Hoberman and Lieberman’s Mandeville Films had begun developing it — Matt Damon was set to co-star as the crack-addled Eklund, Darren Aronofsky was to direct, and Paramount had approved a budget in the $70 million range. The movie they had dreamed of for so long seemed like it was about to become reality.

Then everything went wrong. Scheduling forced Damon to drop out, Brad Pitt circled the project but never committed, and Aronofsky, fresh off The Wrestler, decided he didn’t want to make back-to-back fight pictures. With Damon and Pitt out, Paramount had second thoughts about financing Fighter. The project had taken a hard combo to the chin — and was wobbling.

Insiders agree that the film went the distance because of one man: Wahlberg, the first actor to sign after Mandeville’s deal with Paramount and for whom Fighter became a passion project.

“I didn’t want to give up — just sheer will and determination,” Wahlberg says. “The studio just saw the movie being made in a certain way and at a certain budget. When those things didn’t pan out, they were more comfortable with shelving it for a while. But I couldn’t let it go.”

After a search for financing, Relativity offered to step in, but only after everyone had agreed to changes in the script and a far smaller budget — about $24 million. “It was a good script but incredibly dark,” Kavanaugh says. “We wanted to keep the integrity and heart of it, but the movie had to be more about the underdog, the fight we all have in us. We wanted more of a Rocky.”

But who would direct? There are differing opinions as to who came up with the idea of Russell. After his 2004 box-office flop I Heart Huckabees — and having earned a difficult reputation from his much-publicized conflict with George Clooney on Three Kings — Russell was hardly “the flavor of the month,” Hoberman says. Now with a Globe nom for directing, everyone seems to want to take credit for hiring him.  

In March 2009, after Paramount had negotiated a first-look distribution deal with Relativity (with no firm commitment on the studio’s end but with notes from Kavanaugh and his team) Russell and screenwriter Scott Silver sat down and began revising the script. “I did a lot of work,” Russell says. “I had to put my voice into it.”

The slashed budget meant the first act of the screenplay, which follows Eklund’s rise as a boxer during the ’70s, had to be lopped off. Kavanaugh kept supplying Russell and Silver with script notes, and the director had ideas of his own. He bulked up the roles of Ward’s seven tough-as-nails sisters and of his strong-minded love interest, Charlene, played by Amy Adams.

“It was a role I really wanted to play,” Adams says. “But David told me I didn’t look like I could throw a punch, and I was really tempted to punch him.”

On Russell’s advice, she studied Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. “He wanted me to have that quality of someone who could turn on you at any moment,” Adams says.

The actors’ real-life counterparts were involved with Fighter from the get-go, lending further realism. And the old rivalry between Ward’s sisters and his now-wife Charlene resurfaced.

“I felt a little bit of, ‘Oh, the f---ing Disney princess is playing her!’ ” Adams says.

Russell did have difficulty talking Melissa Leo into playing Micky’s mother, Alice. “I didn’t know I had Alice in me,” Leo says. Having her hair teased and bleached blond and being costumed in tight jeans and push-up tops helped. “Oh my, if I was half-interested, the dates I could have gotten!” she says with a laugh.

Principal shooting was set for July. But by spring, the producers still hadn’t landed the right actor to play Eklund.

As it happens, Wahlberg’s and Christian Bale’s daughters attend the same school. “I see Christian there, and I’m like: ‘Holy shit! The Machinist, Rescue Dawn — this could be the guy,’ ” Wahlberg says.

Relativity agreed on Bale, and he signed. His casting is “when the movie finally came together,” Hoberman says.

It also cemented the commitment to realism as another notoriously hardworking actor dove into character. Bale dropped a dramatic amount of weight and perfected  blue-collar Massachusetts patter by spending time with Eklund, now sober.

“Dicky doesn’t speak Boston; he speaks Dickynese,” says Bale, who scored a Globe nom for acting, as did Wahlberg, Adams and Leo. “He taught me everything: how to run, how to fight, how to work a corner. He took me all around Lowell and showed me his crack houses, but they were all cleaned up. He would knock on the door and say: ‘Hi, I’m Dicky. This used to be my crack dealer’s place. Do you mind if I show it to Christian Bale?’ ”

Cameron Rose contributed to this report.

BOX OFFICE CHAMPS: Boxing films that have won the biggest purses

1. Rocky IV (1985): $127.9M
2. Rocky III (1982): $125M
3. Rocky (1976): $117.2M
4. Million Dollar Baby (2004): $100.5M
5. Rocky II (1979): $85.2M
6. Rocky Balboa (2006): $70.3M
7. Cinderella Man (2005): $61.6M
8. Ali (2001): $58.2M
9. The Hurricane (1999): $50.7M
10. The Main Event (1979): $42.8M