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The Fighter – Director David O Russell gets to grip with the force-of-nature

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The Fighter - Mark Wahlberg and Director David O Russell
Mark Wahlberg and Director David O Russell on the set © 2010 Fighter

The Fighter is the third movie director David O Russell has made with Mark Wahlberg, the other two being Three Kings with George Clooney and I Heart Huckabees with Dustin Hoffman.

In The Fighter, which is inspired by a true story, Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, a boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts, whose career is run by his family, headed by his overbearing mother, Alice (Melissa Leo). With his drug addicted brother Dicky (Christian Bale) as his trainer, Micky is being pummeled in the ring at every event. When Micky’s new iron-willed girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) strongly suggests that he pulls away from his family’s influence and takes charge of his career, all hell breaks loose.

What was it about this story that interested you in telling it?

The Fighter - Director David O Russell and Mark Wahlberg
Director David O Russell and Mark Wahlberg on the set © 2010 Fighter

I wanted to tell the story of these people and their world. They are in some ways heartbreaking, in some ways hilarious, yet always very, very real.

The Fighter is about people who are really human, all too human, like every one of us. These are the best types of film characters and they are also authentic Lowell characters. Lowell is a very particular working class town outside Boston and this family is a large presence there.

They have a very particular way to living and being.

The mother is this bleached blonde force-of-nature with the cigarettes and the glass in her hand, managing her sons’ careers over two decades. Then you have Dicky, who is the biggest hero out of Lowell since Jack Kerouac, who is this warm, charismatic, loose kind of guy who’s also a little outrageous.

Then here comes his younger brother, Micky who is quiet and disciplined and can’t quite figure out how to separate himself from his family.

How did you decide how to play the two brothers?

The Fighter - Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg
Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) and Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) © 2010 Fighter

Christian and I initially agreed that Dicky should be someone you love. Mark and I knew that Micky was someone you loved, and it was a question of how you could plug into Mark’s emotions, understanding why he would put up with and why he needed (his family). That’s the heart of the story.

Why Micky wanted these powers that forced him into the championship. That’s the crucible that put him there – Charlene, his family and his brother.

Were Mark and Christian like their roles?

In life I think in a funny way, Christian is more like Micky and Mark is more like Dicky – not in a bad way, but in the operator way and in the talky-talk way. Christian is more of a quiet guy.

It was very interesting to watch him hang out with Dicky and inhale Dicky. Dicky never shuts up, and people saw Christian walking around talking to everybody. Good luck, try making that happen when he’s not Dicky!

Mark inhabited Micky. He moved like him, dressed like him and got his style of fighting down perfectly. More than that, I think he also really understood him.

Like Micky, Mark’s family has been through everything, all kinds of heartbreak. Like Micky, he doesn’t give up, ever. Mark has been a fighter; he has also been in and out of jail in the past, so he brought all that realness, all that heart and all that experience to the character of Micky.

You and Mark have made two other movies together – do you have shorthand now with him?

The Fighter - Mark Wahlberg with Director David O Russell
Mark Wahlberg (as Micky Ward) with Director David O Russell on the set © 2010 Fighter

There’s nothing better than having a collaborator that you have a great shorthand with and a great comfort with, who’s shepherding the project along.

As soon as I saw the raw material that Mark was talking to me about, I just said, ‘Oh my god, these characters are amazing in their world – they’re dynamic.’

I didn’t know what to expect when I first saw the family. I thought they might be some very harsh people that I wouldn’t want to spend ten minutes with, because I remember hearing about Micky Ward. But when I saw him and I heard him talk, I was like, ‘Oh my god, he sounds much rougher than I expected.’

I expected some sweet talking Oscar Del La Jolla type. But the fact is they are so unbelievably lovable. I still hang out with them.

Can you talk about casting the two female roles?

I had been speaking to Amy. We would have lunch every couple of years and talk about wanting to work together. And I knew that she was eager to break type for herself, in the sense that she had played mostly very sunny women.

She was very eager to play someone against type, and I knew she was going to kill it. And from talking to her I knew that she was really ready to step up. There’s nothing better a director can have than somebody who’s very eager.

Mark actually recommended Melissa to me off of Frozen River. I hadn’t seen it and I watched it and I thought she was phenomenal. And I was very excited to transform her into this role.  Both women come from a very deep power place.

The film has a rousing, crowd pleasing conclusion, but were you tempted to go a little further and include Micky’s later fights?

The story was always one that I thought led him to the doorway of his future. I think the story is legendary in itself, how he got there.