Producers move from family fare to gritty drama

From the producers of “The Shaggy Dog” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” comes. . .”The Fighter”?

While you won’t be seeing such ad copy on the posters for the biopic of boxing half-brothers Micky Ward and Dickie Eklund, it’s true. Producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman have an extensive track record of Disney comedies and family fare — miles away from the gritty, crack-riddled, lower-class milieu of “The Fighter,” which they developed for a number of years at their shingle Mandeville Films.

“I know it seems weird,” says Hoberman, a former president at Walt Disney Studios in the ’90s. “But if we had found and had been given more dramatic material that had the right story, we would have gone for it.”

“We both have wide-ranging tastes, from independent to big action,” adds Lieberman, who previously served as senior veep at Hyde Park and cut his teeth in the industry at Summit Entertainment, where he was involved in launching non-laffers “Memento” and “Abre los ojos.” “It just so happens that comedy is something we’ve done successfully for a while, and when you’ve been successful (with a genre), that’s what people want to continue doing with you.”

Certainly, their resumes aren’t all about talking animals. Recently, they’ve also worked in romantic comedy (“The Proposal”), sci-fi (“Surrogates”) and political thriller (“Traitor”). Hoberman says their approach mirrors his tenure at Disney, where he cultivated a diverse slate for the studio. “If you take ‘Beverly Hills Chihuahua,’ ‘Traitor,’ ‘Bringing Down the House’ and ‘Fighter,’ they’re all very different,” he says. “We try to mix it up, and we like the idea of trying to get away from doing the same thing over and over again. At 58 years old,” he adds, “I want to expand my wings a bit and do some other kinds of films.”

Long on the lookout for a dramatic project, Lieberman says “The Fighter” came to them as a pitch from scribes Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson in 2005. “Their manager, Lindsay Williams, called and said, ‘I know you’re a boxing fan. I’ve got something that’s going to be difficult to sell, but it’s a compelling story,'” he recalls.

After seeing footage from an HBO documentary and from the real-life boxing bouts, they were hooked. “This was a town full of interesting characters, love and hate, and passion and fighting and family,” Lieberman explains. Hoberman also saw in the true story an uplifting narrative not that dissimilar to Mandeville’s other projects.

But it was uncommon for the production company to make a movie under such financial constraints, working more like a stripped-down indie outfit than their usual studio-based operations. “We had limited resources,” says Lieberman. “We made the movie for around $20 million over the course of 33 shooting days. And we had aspirations for a big-studio-feel commercial movie, so it was challenging to figure out how to do that.”

The other main challenge was finding the right tonal balance for the film, according to Hoberman. They credit director David O. Russell — who they acknowledge was not “the flavor of the month” at the time — for nailing the film’s delicate shifts between drama and levity. “It was really difficult,” says Lieberman, “because you have a story that’s so inherently dramatic and troublesome and redemptive, and intertwined is this legitimate humor.”

“See,” he adds, “we actually did another comedy.”

More from Eye on the Oscars: Best Picture:
Being the change | Mandeville throws hat in ring | In their own words

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