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‘Hey, are you awake? Yeah, I’m right here. Well can I ask you… about today?’ Ten years on, Warrior is the 21st century’s most rousing work.
There’s no right age to find Warrior; it always feels like it’s landed on your lap at the perfect time. For me, I was just 14. My parents discovered the film via a free screening, and it eventually rolled into Blockbuster. Rental copy in hand, I leaned back on my gaming chair and put it on.
I was not ready. In its strife, excitement and tears, I’ve never felt more alive with a movie. Every single moment is emotionally charged, every punch hits as hard as the last. Nothing else has – or will – top it, and every year since, I’ve introduced it to someone new. My friends and I used to rewatch it not just weekly, but sometimes several viewings. Like your typical unbearable man, it was an absolutely vital barometer for my girlfriend to enjoy, and I even showed it to her parents.
It’s safe to assume I have a substantial connection to Warrior. To mark its 10th anniversary, the stars aligned for a singularly momentous interview: for an hour, I sat down with the film’s director, Gavin O’Connor.
It’s an unassuming, even foregone premise: two brothers on a collision course to Sparta, a grand prix tournament and the world’s biggest, fiercest MMA stage. Tommy (Tom Hardy) is a veteran with hate and grief in his blood, chasing redemption in a promise and running from a dark, yet heroic past. In the octagon, he employs brutal, merciless strikes; no-frills brawling at its most clinical.
With zero compassion, he trains with his father Paddy (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic with a legacy of unspecified, still-aching abuse. He wants to do right by his sons, but his sobered efforts are met with a cold shoulder. ‘Spare me the compassionate father routine, Pop. The suit don’t fit,’ Tommy tells him.
‘Paddy is my dad in a lot of ways. My dad was an alcoholic, my parents split up, me and my twin brother both went with different parents,’ O’Connor explained.
Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is former UFC fighter-turned-teacher, having left the world behind to raise his family. However, with bankruptcy on the horizon, he secretly turns to strip club car park fights to make some extra dough. Despite his estranged sibling having the wrestling background, Brendan is a grinder; careful strikes, enduring anything and everything, and nailing that technical finish.
Even without the initial marketing – more on that, shortly – the movie’s underdog trajectory to a point is somewhat clear from the off. Emotionally, it’s never as clear-cut.
‘One of the ideas I had from the beginning… usually in these types of movies you know who you’re rooting for. So I was like, okay, I did that with Miracle – but what if I introduced two characters, and I let you identify with both of them? That was always the idea in my head, to challenge the audience so they don’t know who to root for,’ O’Connor said, describing it as an ‘intervention in a cage’.
‘Once we get to the end, and the tap-out, then it’ll be like… yeah, that’s the right ending, for Tommy to be rewarded in the hands of his brother. Also, in the end, all the violence and masculinity… I really wanted it to be about love. It’s a love story, a love of family. That was really important to me to, driving towards the idea of love.’
The ending, scored to a uplifting mix of The National’s About Today, is like a switch on the tear ducts. Jennifer Morrison’s ecstatic cry, the schoolkids and principal hugging and cheering, and two brothers leaving the arena shoulder-to-shoulder. Its glory is breathless.
It’s one moment to shamelessly go for your emotive jugular; Tommy’s casino outburst at Paddy is another, and the ringside ‘you don’t have a home’ speech pulses with hope. His desperation becomes our own, his mission becomes our only need. If you weren’t there already, you’ll be shaken into submission.
In a brief aside, I asked what odds Howard would get if this was Uncut Gems and he put a bet on Brendan to win Sparta. Laughing, he answered, ‘Oh my god. Whatever the most astronomical odds can be for this sort of guy entering this tournament. Astronomic odds.’
As he noted, the filmmaker is no stranger to the sports genre, having earlier made Miracle. Most recently, he dipped back in for the pensive Finding the Way Back. But even after all this time and before interviews, he’s yet to revisit Warrior.
‘I just try to move forward. It was the most gratifying experience, without a doubt, I’ve ever had artistically. It’s the most personal film I’ve ever made. I just feel like… I really valued it and I kind of moved on. My wife said to me the other day, ‘Don’t you think you should rewatch it before you do these interviews, you may not remember everything.’ We’ll find out.’
It’s probably due, in part, to the pain. Warrior may be stirring for the audience, but O’Connor put immense personal stock into it from the first ink on the page. He rarely wavered, even amid hectic prep and production, laborious post and his own war with Lionsgate over its release, specifically regarding concerns over giving too much away. Its toll was heavy.
‘It was a lot of furs flying some days with the studio and myself. I’m not proud of it, but I was begging them to release it on 100 screens, platform it, don’t in any way indicate who’s fighting like they did in the trailer, giving it away. For them, it was a $30 million movie without any movie stars. Nick [Nolte], at that point… nobody’s going for the movies for Nolte. He was a supporting actor. So they had to do this to sell the film.’
Resistance over Nolte’s casting has been well documented; O’Connor wrote it for him, as he was a neighbour and friend, but the studio wasn’t convinced. ‘I had sold them on the Rocky idea: when nobody knew Stallone, the anonymity of an actor. I go them on board with that, they wanted an actor to play the dad with big overseas value. The Harrison Ford of the world, one of these guys,’ he said.
‘I was casting him before I got permission from the studio. I think he was the first person to read the script. I kept saying to the studio… we gotta prep. I’d been prepping with Nick the whole time. By the time I got to Pittsburgh and we were prepping the movie, they just tapped out. They were like, ‘F*ck it, cast him.’ Then of course, he got Oscar-nominated. I remember in one interview, someone from Lionsgate was taking the credit once he got nominated. Like whatever, take the credit, but we know that’s not true.’
If you look at the posters and trailers, they’re not exactly subtle about the plot. At the time, Hardy wasn’t the bankable star he is now, and Lionsgate waited a full year for the final cut. ‘I shot well over a million feet of film. I said to the studio, ‘I’m gonna go through every frame of footage.’ They said okay, but I don’t think they realise how long it takes to go through more than a million feet of film. It takes months and months. So they got upset with that, which they had every right to do,’ O’Connor said.
‘I wasn’t thinking about selling it, I was thinking about protecting it; preserving the integrity of the movie, the artfulness of the film. That’s why I kept saying it should be released on just 100 screens. We had done a couple of screenings early where the response was really good, so we said to trust them, let it get good reviews and platform it for a couple weeks and let it grow.’
The studio didn’t listen – Warrior opened on more than 2,000 screens. ‘If we don’t do well on opening weekend, we’re done,’ the director recalled telling co-writer Anthony Tambakis, ‘which is exactly what happened.’
‘I remember we opened on a Friday. I was in New York, I’d got there Saturday morning. I flew back to LA – The National was playing at the Hollywood Bowl that Saturday – and Anthony who I wrote the movie with was waiting for me in front of the avenue, and he was all excited. I said, ‘Dude. It’s over. We didn’t perform at the box office. They’re not gonna throw movie at this. It’s over.’
‘It was heart-breaking, because I really knew in my gut if we did a slow release and really let this thing build with word of mouth, it’d be very different. We made every top 10 list. I had more calls from people in my industry that were screening it during Academy time. People really responded to the film, some really great phone calls from actors and filmmakers I really admire – and it just died on the f*cking vine on a Friday night, man. It was horrible. Heart-breaking.’
Mention it in passing to someone, gauge their response. Generally, people will either react with that knowing, recollective ‘aww’ of a great movie, or they’re yet to experience it. Given its whirlwind production, unwise marketing and borderline-disastrous release at the box office – note, it was a critical hit – it shows O’Connor was right all along.
I asked what that mental turnaround was like; to not have that catharsis but then see it find its audience regardless. ‘In our business, you can write something and it can take years before you get to make it. Every movie has its own journey. I finished the script, and I was greenlit within a month. There was no time for it to be dormant, so it was just so in my bloodstream, so alive inside of me, there was never a dormant moment,’ he said.
‘There were a lot of fireworks, but in defence of them, they were just trying to make their money back. They dealt with the consequences of saying yes. I genuinely thought the way to get the money back was to do the slow roll – they thought differently. Do I think I was right? Yeah, I do. I think that’s proven in the end. All I can tell you is it was a bit of a war, and I lost it.’
In time, it became a treasure to share. At the box office, it made close to $24 million. Home entertainment sales racked up a further $19 million, and its status as a must-see has only grown through second-hand DVDs and streaming on Netflix et al.
It never got sequalised – thank goodness, it’s immaculate on its own – but a spin-off series is in the works with brand-new characters, a change of setting and a real-life fighter already cast in Daniel Cormier. ‘Every season we’ll do four other characters. The only DNA from the movie would be the title and Sparta, and social issues,’ he said.
Also, there’s the matter of Hardy’s stratospheric fame. ‘My casting director kept talking about a guy called Tom Hardy. He was overseas in Great Britain, living in London. I spoke to him over the phone… I said, ‘You’ve gotta audition.’ He said, ‘Well I’m a terrible auditioner.’ I said, ‘Well we’re gonna bring you here, and you’re gonna come up to my house. It’s just gonna be you and me, I’m gonna read with you. You can do it 100 times, I just need one good audition.’
‘He ended up living with me for eight or nine days, he just never left. It was awesome, we really got to know each other and really understood Tommy as a person. Tommy was really scared to do the role, he was very resistant… Tommy comes from some wealth, he grew up in a different stratosphere than a lot of us did you know. ‘He would say, ‘Look, I’m not blue collar, I’m not American, I’m not an athlete, I’ve never fought in a cage or wrestled. Go through the checklist of the things I’m not, why do you think I can do this?’
‘I kept telling him that the thing about the character, that I knew Tom Hardy had that I’d be able to capture if he let me, the character was acting out from a place of pain. He may be doing dastardly, mean things and vengeful behaviour towards his father, but it’s all come from a place of deep, deep pain. I knew Tommy had that. I also knew if I put a camera on this guy, I didn’t have to do a lot. He just had that thing. I just really believed in him. It got to a point where I had to really talk him in to it.’
While Edgerton already had a karate background, was ‘very athletic’ and quickly understood Brendan, Hardy discovered the character with the director. ‘To be totally honest, both characters were me. I’m half Brendan and half Tommy. So I just kept guiding Tommy to where I needed the character to be emotionally at that moment, he was great,’ O’Connor said.
Their closeness stretched into shooting, with the director, Hardy, Edgerton and Frank Grillo, who plays Brendan’s friend and coach Frank Campana, living together in a converted loft. As a matter of necessity, the latter two became extremely close, establishing an ‘electric, familial line. There was an intimacy between them that I really wanted to capture’.
It’s one of Hardy’s most effective performances; lower-key than Bronson, obviously, but intense – and, there’s no getting past the size of those traps, the result of workouts even the director couldn’t comprehend.
With six weeks to prep, O’Connor said he expected seven days a week from the crew – making it eight weeks, essentially – but allowed anyone who wasn’t up for it to go home. ‘Tommy worked for eight weeks every day, training. Once I knew Brendan was a grinder, someone you had to kill in the cage – he wasn’t the most talented but you can’t measure the guy’s heart – I have that in one corner then I have another who’s like Mike Tyson,’ O’Connor explained.
Look no further than his first set-piece: his put-down of Mad Dog Grimes. For one minute, you sit jaw agape, eyes wide with sharp intakes of breath, from that first suitably Sparta kick to the corner combination that leaves him half-dead on the ropes.
‘I used to tell Tommy, ‘Just go in and smoke the crack pipe. When you’re done, you’re hot. That guy over there is the crack pipe.’ He just had to work on the mechanics and the ballet of fighting, but for him it was a very simple one-two-three-BOOM. The choreography for Tommy was a lot easier in the time… but the guy was f*cking committed man, he obviously got really big.’
The fights are blistering and kinetic, crafted with the tactical eye of not just an adept director, but an MMA fan. ‘The fighting was… tough, because we saved it all until the end. Tom got really tired, it’s taxing on the body. There was some hitting, some real injuries, it got a little tense at times… it was good. It felt real,’ he said.
The staging is also authentic, no thanks to the UFC. ‘I got a call that [UFC President] Dana White wanted to speak to me, while I was in prep. I had the call, and he was a little gangster, threatening me with… if I do anything that’s reflective of what he does in the UFC from an octagon to the way they light the shows to the girls… it went on and on,’ O’Connor said.
He explained how he was a massive fan of him, the sport and the company, and had no intentions of stealing his world. The closest likeness is Bryan Callen’s commentator, clearly sketched on Joe Rogan. ‘[Casting] Joe Rogan would have been problematic for me, because he’s part of the brand. I love Rogan, but I knew I needed humour, and I’ve been friends with Bryan for years,’ the director said.
Not that he’d relish any comparisons to Rocky – O’Connor is a big fan, but he wanted Warrior to be something different – the montage is probably the perfect scene to show anybody needing to be convinced, strung together with simple, snazzy quadrants and Mark Isham’s dynamite mix of Beethoven; seriously, if you’re in need of a track for your next run, it’ll get you through.
‘Here’s the truth about the montage: when I was writing the movie, I was doing everything humanly possible to not have a montage. Truly. I kept saying to Anthony, ‘I’m not f*cking writing it or shooting it.’ But it got to… I don’t know how to dramatise a passage of time in an artful way. ‘God damn, I’ll have to do a montage.’ It was killing me.
‘Once I tapped out and conceded defeat on that… the montage was the last thing my editor built, he was terrified of it. He literally had the movie built and there was just a hole, right here, for this montage. I was explaining what I wanted it to do, to go into all these quadrants… he was just like, oh my god. It is what it is.’
It’s just one of several triggering memories for the filmmaker. As we reminisced, I enquired about O’Connor’s role in the film as J.J. Riley, the billionaire mastermind behind the whole tournament. He actually had no intention on playing the part, but tragedy struck and duty called.
‘I wrote that part for Charles Mask Lewis Jr., who owned Tapout at the time. I was introduced to Charles when I was writing the movie, and he became my doorway to the world of mixed martial arts. He took my hand and introduced to me to everyone I needed to know… but in the first week of prep, I got a call that he’d been killed in a car accident.
‘Beyond going to the funeral and memorial, I wore his ashes every day, I was given it as a gift,’ he said, before moving off-camera briefly and coming back holding a licence plate. ‘That’s Charles’ licence plate in the car he died. He’s with me every day, Charles, in my office at home.’
With a character left to fill, O’Connor didn’t know what to do. His brother suggested he should play him, in honour of Charles. ‘I had no desire to do that, but they really talked me into it, into honouring Charles. I really feel like Charles was protecting me,’ he said.
‘There was a screening the night the movie it opened, and I was with my wife, and there was a double rainbow. You don’t get them here very much. That’s Charles, that’s a message to tell me… I had to let it go, it’s all good, cross the bridge, let it go. As you’ll notice, I dedicate the movie to Charles. He’s responsible for allowing me to be able to meet all these people and open all the doors.’
Even in grief and sprawling anguish, O’Connor emerged on the other side of Warrior with a beloved picture, time or stereotypes be damned. ‘You know, one of the biggest surprises is how many women liked the film. That’s what surprised me the most. So many people would take their girlfriends, and once they watch it… you don’t have to love MMA to appreciate or respond to the film,’ he said.
‘If I have one movie at the end of my career they point to, this is going to be it. I’m so proud of it, and grateful people responded to it. I think people responded because I put so much of myself into it. I worked really hard, and I just tried it make it as personal as I can.
‘There’s a lot of truth, symbolism and metaphors of my own life, and I think you can maybe feel that. It feels good to have people 10 years later still wanting to talk about the movie, because it informed something or it affected them… I just feel gratitude, deep gratitude.’
Warrior is a total air-punch of a movie; total, unabashed, macho euphoria that’s intimate in scope but epic in feeling. Muscular in every sense of the word; O’Connor stepped into the ring and left with the GOAT.
Warrior is available to stream on Netflix now.
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