Director/screenwriter/producer Gavin O’Connor first became aware of mix-martial arts when he produced the HBO documentary, The Smashing Machine: The Life and Times of Mark Kerr, who participated in this dangerous sport. This sparked O’Connor’s desire to make a fictional film set in that world.
In Warrior Tom Hardy portrays Marine Tommy Conlon, who returns home after fourteen years to implore his father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), to train him for Sparta, the biggest winner-take-all event in mixed martial arts history. A former wrestler, Tommy easily makes his way towards the championship.
Tommy’s estranged brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton), an ex-fighter-turned teacher, picks up his boxing gloves again in order to prevent his family from financial ruin.
Their destiny is unstoppable, and the two brothers must finally confront each other … in the ring.
Can you talk about the world of mix-martial arts and why you decided to set a film around it?
I had executive produced a HBO documentary years ago called The Smashing Machine, which was my introduction to the sport, and I’ve been following it since.
Knowing what I wanted to do with the movie I thought mix-martial arts hadn’t really been dramatized or portrayed in the cinema yet, so I thought it was something that we could do.
Your two leads are relatively unknown actors, what was the process of casting them?
I met with a lot of actors going in. I didn’t want to meet movie stars so the challenge was finding not only people who were right for the roles, but who could potentially pop off the [screen].
After seeing hundreds of actors, I eventually came up with [Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton]. They just felt right for the parts.
What about casting Nick Nolte?
Well Anthony (Tambakis) and I wrote the part for Nick, so that happened in the writing process. He already had the part then.
He’s a national treasure and I wanted to use him how he’s best and hoped the role would remind everyone what he’s capable of.
There were a number of real life MMA fighters in the film. Can you talk about working with them, since they weren’t actors?
There’s not a lot of acting going on with these guys, in essence they’re playing themselves and they’re doing what they’re comfortable doing, which is fighting. So it wasn’t required of them to go to any deep emotional places or anything like that.
The challenge for those guys, because they’re fighters, was not to hurt anybody. They almost had to become stuntmen in a way. I think that was their biggest challenge.
The fight scenes are amazingly choreographed, what were some of the challenges there?
We wanted it all grounded in reality, so I would say to my fight guys who got [Tom and Joel] ready, ‘Just ignore everything we wrote in regard to the action of the fights.
We have to drive towards the same emotional beats and the same guy’s got to get his arm raised, but how we get there I’m totally open to. I want to make this as dynamic as possible.’
I didn’t want the Hong Kong style of fighting, I wanted just abject reality so what I always said is, ‘I need to see it.’ So we would go through hundreds of fights and we’d start seeing things and we’d say, ‘Let’s take a page out of that one.’
[Even] if you don’t know it technically, you’re going to get it emotionally, because every fight has a story. And the dynamic of the story within each fight is very clear. It’s as simple as, ‘I’m rooting for him.
I know that if his hand goes up, he won. If the other guy taps, that guy lost.’
Why did you choose to have the big tournament in Atlantic City instead of Las Vegas?
I love the way it looks. It was the hub of boxing many years ago, and now it’s kind of downtrodden. I loved the look of the beach, the old boardwalk, casinos falling apart.
The movie has a love story at its core, with Brendan and his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison). Why do you think that will resonate with a male audience who is expecting a film about fighting?
I think that there’s an emotionality to the film that may surprise people that haven’t seen it yet, because it’s called Warrior and you have these buff guys on the poster.
Even in the trailer you get 30 seconds or a minute of what is a 2 hour and 20 minute movie, so you’re just getting a little fragment.
We [wanted] to get the marriage part of the story right. We really wanted to capture a healthy marriage in crisis and a lot of care went into that. I think that’s a very relatable thing.
I think that the theme of forgiveness is a very relatable thing, and we discovered that when women see this movie they all respond to it. The challenge is getting them to come and see it.
Do you feel this is your best work?
I would never have been able to make Warrior without having made my other films. They freed me to up the artistic and emotional ante, and though there’s a continuity, I think I found in myself a voice that is stronger and more concentrated.
I have no idea how the film is going to be received commercially, but I do know artistically it’s been the most satisfying and fulfilling experience of my career.