Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 14 December 2019

Sylvester Stallone needs to see Chuck, says biopic director Philippe Falardeau

The Canadian director talks about the diplomatic difficulties in casting his biopic of heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner – the alleged real-life inspiration for Rocky.
Liev Schreiber as Chuck Wepner and Elisabeth Moss as Phyllis Wepner in Philippe Falardeau’s Chuck aka The Bleeder. Sarah Shatz / IFC Films
Liev Schreiber as Chuck Wepner and Elisabeth Moss as Phyllis Wepner in Philippe Falardeau’s Chuck aka The Bleeder. Sarah Shatz / IFC Films

“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.

rgarratt@thenational.ae

Updated: June 8, 2017 04:00 AM

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