“There are too many boxing films, if you ask me,” director Philippe Falardeau says, concluding our interview about the boxing biopic he had just made, Chuck.
“I keep telling people – this isn’t a boxing movie,” he claimed at the beginning of our talk, adding proudly that one critic had called the film a “kitchen sink drama” following its opening at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
At that time, the film was still known as The Bleeder – the title it also played with at December’s Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) – and one detects the marketing man’s intrusion in the sudden rebranding. After all, who wants to take a date to a movie called The Bleeder?
Chuck, however, is arguably a far more appropriate title for this lighthearted biopic of heavyweight fighter Chuck Wepner, who in 1975 famously held Muhammed Ali for just shy of 15 rounds. That epic showdown was attended by a certain Sylvester Stallone, who a year later starred in the self-penned Rocky.
To real-life Wepner it was no coincidence, and the movie offers “The Untold Story of Inspiration for Rocky Balboa”, the new film poster now declares, gamely playing up the Hollywood connection. In truth, Chuck is neither a boxing movie, nor a “kitchen sink drama”, but a frequently funny tale of a figure on the fringes of history.
In development for several years, the project was a labour of love for 49-year-old actor Liev Schreiber, who is also credited as co-writer, and time was running out when all the cogs finally locked together. The actor was instrumental in hiring Falardeau, a self-confessed boxing agnostic who had never even heard of Wepner, but was sucked into the story’s dramatic potential outside of the ring.
“I read the script, and from the top I thought, ‘I’m not the right person for this’,” recalls the Canadian director, whose credits include 2014 Reese Witherspoon drama The Good Lie.
“I keep turning the pages, saying to myself ‘did this really happen?’ There were so many plot points, I’m thinking ‘wow, this is candy stuff’.
“But what really drew me to the character on paper was that the guy was making so many mistakes – he was cheating on his wife, he was caught up in the partying years of the seventies – yet, I kept liking him and liking him, he had this quality, you could forgive this guy for whatever he did. And I was asking myself why? Why is this, what is his quality making it so we forgive him? Let’s explore this.”
Launching a determined war against cliché, in preparing for the movie, Falardeau pledged to not watch a single boxing movie, which might “contaminate” his dramatic approach – up to and including Rocky.
Also on board since the beginning was Schreiber’s wife, Academy Award nominee Naomi Watts, however it wasn’t until Falardeau joined the picture that the English actress was settled into her role. Initially cast as Wepner’s second hard-boiled wife Phyllis, the director encouraged Watts towards third wife, Linda.
“Honestly, I think it’s irrelevant when you’re dealing with a couple,” says Falardeau diplomatically. “Because you’re dealing with two good actors and they will be able to play anything regardless of their personal story, and what’s happening in their personal lives.”
The role of the second wife – Wepner’s partner at the time of clash with Ali – instead went to Elisabeth Moss, best known for her long stint on drama Mad Men. Chuck, however, suggests an actress strong enough to shake the shadow of Peggy Olson.
“I hope so, and she deserves it,” says the director. “She is one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with, and she’s so sweet, she works hard, and I think she deserves a lot of credit in this film.”
The hardest role to cast however was that of Sylvester Stallone, which eventually went to Morgan Spector. Despite reportedly settling a 1976 lawsuit out of court, the action hero never formally acknowledged an artistic debt to Wepner but, as the film shows, there was considerable contact between the two men.
When we spoke at DIFF in December, Falardeau said Stallone was yet to see the movie – a position likely to have changed following last month’s US release – but the director expressed deep reservations.
“I’m afraid of that – not in the way he’s being portrayed, because I think he’s going to like that actually,” he says. “But the fact that Chuck Wepner keeps saying ‘I’m in the real Rocky’, I’m sure he’s not going to like that.
“But I think he needs to see it, and he needs to see that he’s being portrayed in the film in a very generous fashion.
“We have a souvenir, a memory of Rocky in our minds... you look at the fight [scene] today and it’s unbelievable – you don’t even think they’re fighting – it’s fake punches. Today in any boxing film we’ve achieved a level of sophistication which is closer to reality.”
Chuck is in UAE cinemas now.
Chuck Wepner, the "Bayonne Bleeder," the boxer who fought Muhammad Ali in 1975 and—famously—knocked Ali down in the 9th round (equally famously, he lost the fight when Ali knocked him down in the 15th), was also known as "the real Rocky" (apparently it was something he touted often), the guy who was the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's scrappy underdog Rocky Balboa. Wepner said of the fight with Ali, “I showed the world that I belonged in there. That’s what I really wanted to do," a comment revealing Wepner's trademark confidence mixed with huge insecurity about his status. If there's one aspect that Liev Schreiber captures perfectly in his portrayal of Wepner in Philippe Falardeau's feature film "Chuck," it is that energy, the energy of the loudest, most expansive braggart in any room, terrified that he is seen as some kind of a joke.
"Chuck" struggles initially to find its footing, with an over-reliance on voiceover (much of it inspired by the style of Ray Liotta's deadpan in "GoodFellas") and an extremely on-the-nose soundtrack ("I Believe in Miracles"—already over-used in film soundtracks—playing over a scene of Wepner traveling to an important fight, etc.) These choices dominate early on, and don't leave you any room to make up your own mind. But "Chuck" ultimately works, mainly because Schreiber is so watchable. There's something compelling about seeing a man who is so strong and so weak, simultaneously. You like him in spite of him.
When the film opens, Wepner is a Bayonne celebrity, the BMOC, the guy who walks into a bar greeted by cheers. Phyliss, his wife (Elisabeth Moss, who has one of the most interesting and busy careers in show business right now), loves him, supports him, but also has her limits, as shown in a wonderful scene early on when she breaks up a "date" he's on with some blonde bimbo. Phyllis doesn't throw a fit. She's as tough as her husband. She just makes her points, devastatingly, as the two culprits squirm. Ron Perlman plays Wepner's manager, working out of a run-down gym, trying to drum up gigs. Naomi Watts plays Linda, a local bartender whom Wepner falls for instantly, not just because she's beautiful, but because she has seen "Requiem for a Heavyweight," his #1 all-time favorite movie. (Fragments from that 1962 film are interspersed throughout.) He asks Linda out and she turns him down. "Aren't you married?" she asks.
Into this small-town small-time world (the film really understands Bayonne and its rhythms) comes the random chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali. Ali and George Foreman had just had their "rumble in the jungle" in Zaire in 1974, arguably the most famous boxing match of all time. Wepner, out of seemingly nowhere, is thrust into the upper echelons of the sport, facing reporters, staying in hotels, participating in good-natured press conferences with Ali (a wonderful Pooch Hall). Wepner flip-flops between elation and loneliness, chest-thumping and insecurity. This is not a complex man. He's all impulse, and he has no impulse control. What's fascinating about this story is that he loses the fight, but he loses in such a way that he becomes a celebrity. "Rocky" the franchise has gone in many different directions (Balboa basically helped end the Cold War at one point), but that first film ends with Balboa losing (a bold choice), but actually winning in the hearts of minds of the crowd, of Apollo, of his girlfriend. It's a killer hook, and it's not surprising that Stallone would be drawn to that aspect of it.
One of the most fascinating sequences in "Chuck" is when Sylvester Stallone steps into the story. Stallone is played by Morgan Spector, who nails Stallone's distinctive voice, as well as his disarming openness and enthusiasm. Wepner becomes so caught up in the "Rocky" thing that when he watches the film sweep the Oscars, it is as though he's part of the team that made it. In many ways, he is an unbearable man, fragile and selfish and immature. Schreiber plays him as a man who lacks the ability to reflect, who is unable to correct himself. He's all appetite. He cannot say no to a challenge, a line of coke, a girl behind the bar. "Chuck" is smart in that it does not plead too much for us to sympathize with the main character. The approach is unfussy enough that it that makes you feel like you are just following Wepner around, observing him. There are scenes (one, in particular) that are almost too embarrassing to watch. But there's a tenacity in Wepner, a dogged self-belief, that is weirdly charming. You can understand why Phyllis is fed up, but you can also understand why Linda is drawn to him.
Actors have a tendency to get grandiose when they play boxers. It's a pitfall with that kind of role. Schreiber doesn't. He, a self-aware actor, plays a man completely lacking in self-awareness, and he does so in a way that is invisible. You don't "see" his work as an actor. Schreiber has great range; he can be menacing, sexy, thoughtful, funny. There's no sense of strain or reach in his characterization of Wepner. It's extremely truthful work.
Boxing movies have been as much a part of the movie industry's storytelling arsenal as the Western. There's the visual fascination of the sport itself, the fighters' wordless commitment to physical movement, the ballet of it. There's also the thematic aspect that's a draw as a metaphor: a guy gutting through pain, standing up after being knocked down, the sheer endurance it takes to even get up the guts to walk into the ring. There's the cinematically rich sleaziness that surrounds the boxing world, bookies and gangsters, the temptations of easy money, drugs, floozies. We've seen it all before. "Chuck" does nothing new, and it moves through boxing tropes like it's ticking off checkmarks, but there's an honesty to it, a fresh and messy one.