French-Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau has actually been making movies for almost twenty years, but it wasn’t until about 2011 when he first started getting attention for his drama Monsieur Lazhar, which was nominated for a foreign language Oscar. Falardeau’s 2014 movie The Good Lie, didn’t get much notice despite starring Reese Witherspoon and being released by Warner Bros. Therefore, he hasn’t quite made the waves into Hollywood as his country-mates Denis Villeneuve or Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild).
Undaunted, Falardeau decided to take on the story of Bayonne, New Jersey boxer Chuck Wepner, who famously went up against Ali at the height of his success in the ‘70s and managed to go 15 rounds before the fight was called due to Wepner’s famed “bleeding” during fights. Wepner was alternately known as “The Bayonne Brawler” and “The Bayonne Bleeder.”
The movie Chuck stars Liev Schreiber as the famed boxer who would go onto become Sylvester Stallone’s inspiration in creating Rocky Balboa for the Oscar-winning Rocky, and that fame led Chuck down a dangerous path of drugs, alcohol and infidelity that ruined his marriage--Elisabeth Moss plays Chuck’s second wife Phyllis. He eventually ends up in jail for dealing cocaine. Schreiber’s former girlfriend Naomi Watts also has a role in the movie as a pretty bartender Chuck connects with once he’s out of jail.
LRM sat down with the French-Canadian filmmaker for the following interview, which started with some talk about his last film, The Good Lie, starring Reese Witherspoon:
LRM: I really liked “The Good Lie” when I saw it at Toronto, and I was little bummed that it didn’t get the kind of push I thought it might get.
Philippe Falardeau: So did I, but you know what? Of the movies that didn’t work at the box office, it’s had an amazing after-life, and I keep having university professors asking me if I want to go down and do this special screening. A lot of people saw it on VOD, which was good, because we’re talking about important social issues in the film and the refugee thing, so I’m glad it had a second life.
LRM: When filmmakers have done this for a long time, they realize that twenty years later, people are still watching the movies. You make a movie, it’s done, but it’s still out there. It doesn’t go away.
Philippe Falardeau: Exactly, and sometimes it can haunt you. (chuckles)
LRM: As far as “Chuck” I’ve been to two premieres now, the one in Toronto and the one on Friday, so the first and last premiere of the movie.
Philippe Falardeau: Cool, cool, cool.
LRM: From what I remember, you didn’t know anything about Chuck Wepner, boxing or New Jersey, so what made you read the script and say, “Okay, I’m going to do this.”
Philippe Falardeau: I heard Liev say that on paper I was the wrong choice for this film. I’m French-Canadian, I grew up in small town Quebec, so I read the script and first of all, I didn’t know Chuck Wepner. I knew a little bit about boxing--I knew Muhammad Ali--knew nothing about Chuck Wepner, and I kept turning the page and said, “Wow, really?” It was spectacular, and it was fun, it was playful, but I didn’t think I was the right person. The next day I woke up, and it was still with me. This is a sure sign that something is going on, and why is it still with me? I think it was still with me, because I thought beyond the boxing mythology and beyond the Rocky mythology, there is something in this character that’s fascinating, because despite all the mistakes he makes, he’s extremely lovable and remains lovable throughout the story. Why? I thought about it, and I came up with a plan, and I asked my agent, can you get me a phone interview with the producers, and I pitched them the idea I had, which was a very humanist and generous way to look at Chuck despite all of his flaws, and also a playful way to look at a drama, because this is dramatic in a way but someone in Toronto called it a “Kitchen sink drama” and I like that.
LRM: It has a very comedic tone. After reading the script, did you go online looking for any footage of Chuck?
Philippe Falardeau: Yeah, first of all I watched The Real Rocky, and then yeah, I watched the Ali fight, and I started to do research. I called the producer and asked him, “Can I see all the footage you shot for The Real Rocky, the documentary?” Instead of just having thirty minutes with Chuck, I listened to 10 hours of interview with Chuck, and I had access to details, for instance, I learned that he used to write poems to his wife and leave them around the house, so I thought those were the elements that made him even more interesting.
LRM: This was after you had already signed, and they made you director?
Philippe Falardeau: Yes. Well, part of it before, so I could come in equipped for a pitch, especially when you reach out to a producer like that, they want you to pitch them visually what the film is look like, and I had a pretty good idea of what it would look like, using real archival footage for instance. That was something I saw as I was reading the script.
LRM: I was wondering if you were able to get a sense of Chuck just from the script or the sense of the New Jersey environment, which is a very specific place.
Philippe Falardeau: Well, the New Jersey thing was like...what I knew of New Jersey was what I knew from the different films I saw, and I know that culture from cinema, from Martin Scorsese, but when I came to visit Bayonne, I said, “Oh, I have to shoot here.” Unfortunately, we couldn’t because New Jersey doesn’t have any tax credit thing for cinema. That was a bummer for me, personally. I think it would have brought much more to the film, but the fact I used archive footage kind of compensated for that.
LRM: Had Liev already signed on, and was he involved when you came on board?
Philippe Falardeau: He was so much involved. He had been involved for four or five years before I came on board, and between you and me and Liev and everybody, I think he’s the one that actually said “Yes” to me. Because he’s a producer on the film, he had to give the go-ahead, and I remember talking twice to him on the phone. We had these long conversations and then he called me a third time, and it was funny. It was almost cute how he proposed, and he started by saying this: “It’s funny because you’re not the right person to do this film on paper, but I feel like we can continue the discussion on how to do this,” and we did. (laughs)
LRM: Eventually you had to go and start making the movie.
Philippe Falardeau: Eventually, what happens is reality. You have no money, you have no time, and then all of a sudden, you start shooting tomorrow. I remember, true story, we were on the corner, here in Manhattan, and I looked at Liev and said, “We’re f*cked, we’re doing this,” and he says, “Yes, but I was hoping for you to quit, and you didn’t,” and I said, “I was hoping for you to quit,” and he said, “No, I didn’t want to quit because I didn’t want to let you down.” True story. We were so afraid that we were heading into a wall, because it looks too ambitious. For me, as a filmmaker, in terms of the seventies, no resources and a boxing match. For him, he was carrying every scene on his shoulder, and he was stuck in the make-up chair four hours a day, so that meant I was sitting on an apple box on the set waiting for my actor for four hours a day frustrated that I couldn’t shoot anything else, because he’s in every shot.
LRM: You’re also making a movie about a guy who is a hero to everyone in Bayonne...
Philippe Falardeau: There’s the moral responsibility of making sure that there’s a line you can’t cross there, even if it is fictionalized.
LRM: You also were doing a period piece, so you had to create ‘70s Bayonne. How do you even go about doing that at this point?
Philippe Falardeau: A lot of research, good production design--??? Weinberg did a terrific job with the limited resources she had--and like I said, we used archive footage that I intertwined with our footage. We shot in digital, but I used a lot of real 35mm grain, black and white and color, on every shot, balanced specifically so that it would blend and look like the seventies, and of course, the music. I used songs I used to listen to when I was seven, eight, nine years old, on the radio. I’m French-Canadian, but we listened to a lot of English music, so it’s hits from the seventies, but not huge hits like “Rock Your Baby” or “You Sexy Thing” or “You’re the Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” Those were not major hits, but cool kind of songs.
LRM: “That’s The Way I Like It”--that was a pretty big hit.
Philippe Falardeau: That’s a big hit from KC and the Sunshine Band, but it’s probably the super big hit song, because we couldn’t afford super big hits. I cut one scene with the Bee Gees song, and they said, “That’s $800,000 just for one minute, so we can’t afford that.” I think the music goes a long way in making this film coherent.
LRM: I was thinking that with many low budget movies, it’s the music that ends up costing the most money. When it went to “That’s the Way” I was pretty impressed.
Philippe Falardeau: It’s a cover, though. What we hear is the actual band in the club singing it.
LRM: What about casting Elisabeth Moss as Chuck’s wife? She’s really amazing in this.
Philippe Falardeau: That’s the best idea we had. Elisabeth is a sweetheart to work with, and she has such a range. It is also true about Naomi, but Elisabeth I knew a bit less. I knew her from Mad Men, and that’s about it, so for me, it was a bit surprise. I would love to work with her again, and she was able to work on the dialect as with Naomi, too. Naomi is British, so those two girls did an amazing job because they had to do Brooklynite and New Jersey girl.
LRM: What’s interesting about this movie is that it’s a boxing movie, but there isn’t a lot of boxing in it. There’s the big match with Ali that you recreated, but did you end up watching a lot of other boxing movies?
Philippe Falardeau: No, I made it a point to not watch the other boxing films, because you tend to get contaminated not by what boxing looks like, but what boxing looks like in films, which is different. The punches are always more dramatic and quicker, but real boxing matches, especially heavyweight (boxing) in the seventies, it’s messy. There’s a lot of grabbing and nothing going, and a lot of misses, so I watched the Ali fight a lot. I did watch old films like Requiem for a Heavyweight, and then I called Liev and the producer and said, “You guys should watch that film. That is very interesting for our film. There’s some comparisons to be made between Mountain Riveira, played by Anthony Quinn,” so we eventually used it in the film, but I made it a point not to watch Raging Bull or other great boxing films. You know why? Because I would have been depressed. I would say, “I’m not going to do better than they did,” and like I said I don’t think boxing in films resembles what boxing is in real life. It’s its own brand of boxing.
LRM: I’m not a big fan of boxing, but I love boxing movies. I think the worst boxing movie I’ve ever seen would still be a good movie., but I have absolutely no interest in boxing as a sport.
Philippe Falardeau: I don’t watch it either unless there’s a big hype around one boxing match, but I remember watching the boxing during the Olympics in 1980 when I was a kid and found it interesting, but I’m not a connoisseur at all. Liev is though.
LRM: What about Chuck’s involvement in the movie? At what point do you meet Chuck and say, “Okay, now it’s time to show him the movie”?
Philippe Falardeau: I met him before we shot the film in New York with his wife. We had steak in Manhattan, and I felt like I was being auditioned by Chuck, but he was such a great guy, and we had fun. He took me under his wing and called me his son, and every time he sees me, he gives me a big kiss, so it became very affectionate. He did help us, because we spent time with him to ask him stuff, and he gave me some pointers. The thing is that when you shoot, you have to do your own thing. He came on set a lot of time, and he was very respectful of the creative process. As for the film, you’ll have to ask him. I think he probably finds some stuff difficult to watch. I completely understand, but I think he’s also aware that you can’t make a film about a character without flaws. It’s not interesting. I have to give it to him that he’s very graceful about it all.
LRM: What’s to be learned from Chuck’s story? A good lesson besides not cheating on your wife, don’t gamble and don’t deal drugs? Those are the obvious ones.
Philippe Falardeau: I think we underestimated him to this day, because he had this reputation of not being such a good boxer. I think we underestimated what he accomplished against Ali in the ring. I think we underestimate how hard it can be to be thrown into two brands of celebrity. First of all, after the Ali fight, he became a huge celebrity not because he won, but because he lost with 18 seconds left, and after that, a second brand of celebrity when the Rocky movie comes out, which is more twisted in a way, because now it’s a fake representation of part of you on the big screen, branded in Hollywood. I don’t think we can imagine what that can do to a man, and for that, he has my respect.
LRM: Do you have any idea what you want to do next? I’m not sure if you’ve worked on this movie a lot since Toronto...
Philippe Falardeau: I worked on the biggest project of my life. I had my first baby girl, so that’s big, but I’m chasing all kinds of projects: a Western that I’d like to do, and I’m writing my stuff also, back in Montreal. I have my own personal projects back in Montreal.
LRM: I was going to ask if you still connected with doing films back in Canada or not.
Philippe Falardeau: I’m not Denis Villeneuve. I’m not going to move to Hollywood. I think I want to alternate between a personal project and a project in the United States. I’m a slow writer. It takes me three years to develop a film, screenwriting wise, so I think what I want to do is alternate if I can.
LRM: I think Denis will come back and do a smaller Canadian movie someday.
Philippe Falardeau: Probably, but if I was him, I would not come back now, because he just did Blade Runner and then he’s going to do Dune. Why would he come back? We don’t have the resources for him. He can do small, intimate films and he did it with Incendies, but right now, would he come back? He could have hundreds of millions of dollars to make films, and he has that kind of ambition. You cannot make Blade Runner for 10 million dollars. I remember when he said, “I’m going to do a remake of Blade Runner” and I thought, “Are you kidding? This is such a trap” but he’s going to pull it off.