“The Bleeder” is the true story of Chuck Wepner, the liquor salesman/boxer from New Jersey who in 1975 went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali, and inspired the 1976 hit “Rocky.” It is a passion project for Liev Schreiber, who plays Wepner and is also one of the producers of the film that world premiered out-of-competition in Venice Sept. 2. Schreiber talked to Variety about the challenges of getting it on the screen and why he wanted the punches to be real.
You clearly have a deep personal involvement in this film. Can you tell me how it came about?
More than 10 years ago Naomi told me that an editor friend of hers had a script that they were trying to get to me. I guess they knew that I liked boxing. I read the script and I knew who Chuck was peripherally. In my limited knowledge of the history of boxing I was aware that he was the guy that Ali fought after Foreman and that they tried to make a race thing out of it, and that he should not have been in the ring. I didn’t even know the “Rocky” connection at that point. I read it and my first thought was: “Holy shit! That’s the guy who started the “Rocky” franchise. What an interesting take on a really famous and celebrated franchise. But we didn’t make it right away. I was busy; it was hard to get off the ground at the time. But it was something that was always in the back of my head. The more I lived with Chuck — the idea of who he was — the closer I got to the character.
So who was Chuck Wepner?
When I ultimately met him, something was confirmed to me that convinced me I had to do the movie. It was the innocence of the guy, and the incredible profound desire to love and be loved. And that was the thing that hooked me into the story: it has nothing to do with boxing. It was this idea about how a passion to be loved, and appreciated, and adored, and worshipped complicates our ability to love. As people in the public eye we really do believe the notion that we are the center of the universe, or the only person in the world. And that’s a very dangerous rabbit hole. And I feel like Chuck’s story really embodied that cautionary tale about narcissism.
Why did you chose to take real punches in this movie?
When I got out of school I studied to be a fight choreographer, and had some big ideas about fight choreography that turned out to be wrong. But anyway one of my problems with boxing movies is that, for better or worse, boxing is about people getting hit. So if someone is not getting hit, it’s deceitful and wrong. And because cinema is typically such a naturalistic medium, if there is anything like that happening it kind of destroys the credibility of the film. I was really interested in finding a way to make the fighting feel real. I think Scorsese [in “Raging Bull”] did something brilliant by abstracting it, by making it into a ballet, or operatic. But I kind of feel like most fight films have been either trying to reproduce that, or doing the typical old choreography. I was in the gym boxing and I watched two guys sparring: they were hitting each other, but they weren’t really hurting each other. They were working without head gear, and they had so much control, making and controlling the contact. And I thought: ‘That’s how I want to do it.’
Pooch Hall, who plays Muhammed Ali, is an actor but also your sparring partner in real life. Is that why you chose him?
Yes. I’ve been training with Pooch for about five years now. We spar and we hit each other all the time. Neither of us is interested in hurting each other. And we’ve kind of developed a rapport. And I thought: this will be great! Pooch and I can choreograph these fights together, and he can really hit me. And you will see the sweat fly off and the hair go up, which is so iconic for Chuck: that hair, and the blood! It was great, for the first two days. On the third day I started forgetting where I was.
This film was done outside the studio system. Was it tough shooting it on a shoestring budget?
We shot the movie so quickly. We had so little money, and so little time. I spent about two-and-a-half hours [each day] in the chair [for prosthetics]. [Director] Philippe [Falardeau] had done the calculations on this. He said subtracting the time we spent in the chair, we actually shot the film in 19 days.
How difficult was it to finance? I believe the budget was $4 million. Does it have U.S. distribution?
It doesn’t have U.S. distribution yet. Obviously this would have been impossible without [executive producer] Avi Lerner. This is not a typical catalog film for him, so I really appreciate the chance he took. One of the things I love about Avi is he’s a very straight shooter. A very honest guy. He tells you what your limitations are. And he tells you what you can achieve. Once he makes a decision to make a film, he gets out of the way and supports it financially. And that’s all we wanted, all we wanted was just what we needed to make the film.
Why did you pick Philippe Falardeau?
I was a big fan of “Monsieur Lazhar” and the complexities in the characterisations there. I didn’t want to make a film about the fight game. I wanted to make a film about the humanist story underneath the characters. “Monsieur Lazhar” had a kind of humor to it and a tightness to it, and at the same time real profundity. He’s also the first director whom I met who immediately began to talk to me in a very anxious, neurotic way. He talked to me physically about how to make this film in the time, with the money. He talked to me pragmatically about how to accomplish it. And I knew that he knew how to do it.
Sylvester Stallone is a character in your film, played by Morgan Spector. Was there any interaction with the real Stallone?
He’s been so insanely generous to me. I am really grateful. I don’t think we could have done this without him for a number of reasons. I had some fantastic conversations with him about that point in his life when he was writing “Rocky.” For me it really illuminated the success of that franchise. The risks he took, and his identifying artistically with that quality of a fighter; the underdog, and the person who isn’t afraid to be punched in the face, who isn’t afraid to suffer for what he thinks he’s capable of. I think it completely accounts for the phenomenal success of that franchise.
Did Stallone give you the rights to his persona for free?
Yes, but that wasn’t the real value to me. The real value was his personal perspective. His take on Chuck and on himself, because I think that’s really at the core of one aspect of this movie. The part of this story that was more interesting to me was the passion and the drive that we all occasionally feel to be loved by many complicates and obscures our ability to love one, including ourselves. I thought that story was beautifully articulated in Chuck’s story. The fact that he may or may or may not have been the inspiration for “Rocky” is gravy.
How did you pick Elisabeth Moss?
I don’t watch a lot of TV, but John Slattery is a really good friend of mine, and he told me that he loved her. I just liked the way she looked. I watched her do an interview in Toronto. And I thought: “She’s smart!” I also liked the way she reminded me of an Italian Brooklyn girl; I liked her vibe. Then I talked to Avi, and I watched an episode of “Mad Men.” And I got it in my head that she was it. It was luck.
You’ve worked with Naomi Watts once before in “The Painted Veil.” She is so luminous in the scenes you both have in this film. Because you were on such a tight budget, I imagine they were all first takes. How did things go?
When I saw her walk out of the trailer with a red wig and big boobs and leopard skin print tights I just cracked up, and knew it was going to be good. This is not a character close to her personality in any way. She went out on a limb, you know. She really did, knowing her. It’s really much more my world, growing up in New York, Lower East Side. That’s why I had been nervous about Linda, who is a big character. But she went for it in a totally exciting way.
There is a real ’70s feel to this film. A big part of that is the lighting, a certain type of graininess. Was it shot on film?
No, it’s shot digitally by Nicolas Bolduc. One of the problems of being on such a low budget is that we were missing exteriors, we couldn’t afford them, we didn’t have time for them. Philippe just used some stock footage and built us a world. We knew that Bayonne [New Jersey] was an essential character to the film. We had to see some streets. Philippe really masterfully blended stock footage and filters to create that look and that feel. And found the perfect music to complement it. To me it was testament to Philippe’s eye. He knew that he wanted it to look like a film from the ’70s.
There is another upcoming film on the same subject titled “American Brawler.” How do you feel about that?
I don’t know anything about it, other than Chuck was really pissed off about it. While we were shooting someone told me about it and went: “Oh, Jesus!” But ours is the only one that’s authorized by the characters. I don’t want to say anything bad about their movie, I don’t know anything about it. It might be great. I had enough problems making the film for $4 million in 19 days. I couldn’t afford to worry about things like that. Of course I care about sales, of course I care about being competitive. But a certain part of me, as an artist and as a person, is satisfied with the accomplishment we’ve made. And even if it doesn’t go any further I’m really grateful that something that was so difficult at times ended up so nicely.