Ben Younger interview: Bleed For This, Boiler Room, cookery

Ahead of his boxing drama Bleed For This, director Ben Younger explains how he went from Boiler Room to chef and back to filmmaking...

Bleed For This is a tale of two comebacks. The movie itself tells the true story of Vinny Paz, a boxer who suffered terrible injuries in a car accident, but through sheer grit and determination, defied his doctors’ advice and made a spectacular return to form. Behind the scenes, Bleed For This also marks the return of Ben Younger after more than a decade away from the film industry.

Younger’s career took off at the start of the millennium with Boiler Room, a hit drama about white-collar crime starring Ben Affleck and Vin Diesel. A long and lucrative Hollywood career appeared to beckon, yet his next film, the romantic comedy Prime, was less glowingly received. It’s taken 11 years for Younger to return to directing with Bleed For This – a movie which looks far, far more expensive than its tiny $6.1m budget might suggest. Thanks to the efforts of lead actors Miles Teller (as Paz) and Aaron Eckhart (as trainer Kevin Rooney), Younger and his team managed to shoot the film at a ferocious rate, with the entire movie shot in a mere 26 days.

We met Mr Younger in a zanily-decorated hotel room towards the end of the summer, and found the director hunched over a plate of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. Exactly how Younger went from toast of Hollywood to pilot, to motorcycle rider, to a chef in Costa Rica and back to filmmaking again, is quite a story. Here’s the director, explaining how it all happened in his own words…

It’s very elaborate in here, isn’t it?

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I know! [Laughs] You won’t get sleepy in here. I hope you don’t mind, I’m stuffing my face.

You weren’t tempted by the full English, then?

[Laughs]

Congratulations on the film. I liked the casting. I don’t know how long that took, and what the process was, but the chemistry was fantastic.

A bit unusual, right? Katey Sagal, Ciaran Hinds. You’d never imagine those two as a married couple. It’s funny how casting works. You have an idea of how it will be, and then you end up with something else. And then when it’s done, you think, “How could it have been anyone else?” It’s weird how it happens. Every time. You never get exactly the people you thought; sometimes you get better, sometimes you get what you think is worse, but when it’s done, for me so far, it’s felt right.

Aaron Eckhart’s a fascinating choice.

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He was somebody I did want. He was someone who, recently, has been underutilised as an actor. Thank You For Smoking was amazing, but after that there were some choices I didn’t quite understand, and I thought, “This is a guy who’s right for a reinvention or a reimagining”.

I showed the movie to [Steven] Soderbergh, and didn’t tell him it was Aaron. He’s worked with the guy, yet it took him ten minutes – ten minutes! And he goes, “Is that fucking Aaron Eckhart?” [Laughs] 

It took me a while, I must say. When he first steps out of his Porsche…

Yeah, you’ve no idea.

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It’s interesting, because I didn’t have him filed in my head as a character actor, if you know what I mean.

It’s funny, because I think he is. I know he looks like a leading man, and acts like a leading man, but I don’t say this in a negative way; I say it in the sense that I always imagine character actors as being more about craft than anything else. And the guy’s a slave to craft. He’s so specific, and so well prepared. He’s a serious, serious actor. I don’t know if you’ve heard. This isn’t a joke to him, this is his job. I enjoy that kind of professionalism, so I would label him very much as a character actor, in the best sense of the term.

But a lot of people might think of him from more mainstream roles like, um…

Like I, Frankenstein?

Yeah, or The Dark Knight or Olympus Has Fallen.

Yeah. I think we’re going to see more of this sort of thing from him. I don’t know how much of that real commercial fare we’re going to see after this. I mean, The Dark Knight is fantastic. I could be wrong, but I don’t see him doing a tonne more Olympus Has Fallen. I think he’s going to move back into this world. The Neil LaBute, that kind of a world.

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At what point did you figure out that Eckhart and Miles Teller would make the right pairing? Because really, the film hinges on the triangular relationship between them and Ciaran Hinds’ character.

You’re right. I knew they’d worked together. You know, Miles’s first film was an Aaron Eckhart movie. Did you know that?

I didn’t know that, actually.

Rabbit Hole with Nicole Kidman. Miles is the kid who kills her son. 

It’s so long since I’ve seen it, I’d forgotten that was him.

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That’s Miles’s first ever movie, which was with Aaron. So there was already a relationship, and it was somewhat paternal in nature because of the age gap, and because of the roles they played in that film, so I thought it would… the movie really is about, outside Miles’s main story, it’s about a father who has to become a father again and not a trainer. The trainer, Kevin, is very doting and paternal, he needs to become a trainer. Miles is sort of a character without an arc; he’s all down the middle, he’s all in at the beginning, he’s all in at the car crash, he’s all in at the end. It’s about these two men who change roles. So you’re right to say that it all hinged on that triangle.

Also, a general theme for people who aren’t boxers, is how we can be defined by what we do. When that’s suddenly taken away, how vulnerable that can feel. That’s an interesting sentiment.

You’re lucky to do what you love, right. I think that’s why boxing movies are so…why are boxing movies so enduring? Why do they keep getting made? They must be a parable for something we all relate to. Because not everyone loves boxing.

I think it’s because they can express so many things, can’t they? What this film expresses isn’t what Raging Bull expresses, or what the Rocky films express. What I took from the movie is that it’s about a guy who defines himself by his boxing, and having that taken away from him was akin to being dead. So at all costs he had to get that back.

Oh, I see. I was so interested in that decision he made. For me, the movie hinges on that concept: the idea that you love something so much that you would risk paralysis for it. I don’t have anything in my life like that; if you said, “You can be a filmmaker or you can walk,” I would walk. I would paint houses or do something else for a living, because I like walking more than anything. And he took a very real risk; the doctor told him in no uncertain terms, “This could be the end of you.” 

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Do you think there’s a masculine aspect to that?

A what?

That it’s a masculine thing. Filmmaking is a little like me as a writer I guess; it’s not a physical, macho pursuit like boxing. If my job came to an end, I’d stack shelves if I had to, it doesn’t define my masculinity.

Huh! That’s a really interesting question. [Pauses for thought] I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I think it’s a reflection of who Vinnie was as a human being, regardless of gender, and regardless of profession. I think if he’d found something else he loved as passionately, he would’ve made the same choice.

I think he’s a big dummy in some senses, because why would you risk everything? But I say that as a term of endearment, because without it there would be no movie, and I love that someone cares that much about what they do. But I don’t quite understand it, which is probably why I made a movie about it.

There’s a slight parallel with Miles Teller’s other film, Whiplash, in the sense that it’s about a person pushing themselves to the limit of what they can do.

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I guess so. I mean, in Whiplash the stakes aren’t nearly as high. I mean the recurring theme in Miles’s career is car crashes. There seems to be one in every one of his movies.

Which is awful when you consider his personal history.

Right, yeah.

Did he ever talk to you about that?

Mm-hmm. Yeah. He’s not precious or sensitive about that. He’s happy to talk about it. The car rolled eight times, he was ejected… he should’ve died, by all accounts. But he got lucky.

That scene in the movie is, as it should be, shocking and jarring. How did he feel about doing that? I’m assuming he was comfortable with it.

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Yeah. Miles isn’t a particularly sentimental guy, or at least if he [wasn’t comfortable] he didn’t tell me. I don’t think it brought up any ghosts from his past. Like Aaron, he’s also a very serious actor. I don’t think that accident defined him, so I don’t think it has a traumatic stain on his psyche – I think he moved past it. He’s a tough kid. 

Yes, you can tell from his performances. What I liked about the film, too, was that Vinnie’s treatment was presented like a boxing match. The caption comes up, like the fights, and the tension in the scene is him versus the pain, in a way.

I’m glad you noticed that.

Was that something you conceived early on in the scripting stage?

Uhh, no. I think that was more of a post thing, as we started to cut it I realised, “This is like a boxing match.” That’s when the idea for the super came up. But I’m glad you noticed that. It does make it like a match, doesn’t it?

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How boxing scenes are shot isn’t necessarily something people dwell on, but they must be difficult to make; you have the confined space of the ring, the choreography, it’s got to look realistic…

…and you’ve got no money, in this case.

Is that a fact?

We had just $6m.

Was the budget really that low? Oh wow.

They made Creed for what, $35-40m? I don’t know what.

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Which these days still isn’t massively high.

Right. We had $6.1m. All in. Including salaries. All in. So yeah. How did we do it? I don’t fuckin’ know! [Laughs]

I’ll tell you what I do know: David O Russell told me before we started shooting, “If you think you can shoot a boxing scene in one day” – which is what we had scheduled, each fight had one day – he said, “You’re wrong. You have to go back and re-cut the scenes so that you have more days in the ring.” And I couldn’t, because we didn’t have the time.

We shot it in 24 days. So we shot each boxing match that you saw in one day. It was brutal. We had a great boxing coordinator, Daryl Foster. It’s interesting, given how little money we had, how everyone talks about the accuracy and the technical proficiency of the boxing in the movie, that it feels more real than almost all other boxing films. That’s largely due to Daryl Foster’s involvement. He has this idea that there should always be contact. There’s never a punch in the movie where the fist goes by and the actor has to sort of turn his head.

The gloves are always here, maybe even stacked up at times, so the punch looks like it’s connecting with the face, but it’s always hitting Miles’s gloves, or it’s Miles hitting the opponent. So there’s always contact, and that’s something you can’t fake – it’s physics, you know what I mean? The timing doesn’t look weird or off.

I’ve seen boxing movies where they’ll dub in the stock ‘punch’ sound effect but you don’t see the strike connect.

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Yeah. Even The Fighter, a movie I love to pieces, the fight scenes – some of the choreography’s a little bit… wanky.

That’s a good term! So $6.1m. What was the process of pulling that level of financing together?

It was a difficult movie to make for that money, but getting that money – we got it all from one financier. One guy wrote a cheque, so it was great – he wrote the cheque, he stepped back, he said, “Go ahead and make your movie.” There was no studio, I owned the project outright. It’s about as free and open and unrestricted of a movie as I’ve ever made. It’ll never be that good again I’m sure. I know that. 

The scenes where Miles has to wear the halo. How did you go about capturing those, because you have to get that sense of pain but you can’t put your actor under too much duress. They really do feel intense.

Are you going to interview Miles? You should ask him about that. The halo itself was a bit ill-fitting. Again, time, money – we picked it up from a medical supply place. [Miles] was in quite a bit of pain. He wanted us to screw… there were silicone bumpers at the end of the screws, so obviously we weren’t putting screws into his head, and he wanted them screwed in tight, because he knew that if the halo moved at all, the shot’s blown. It would be all over. And it was moving around, so he was very, very uncomfortable in that thing. It was very tough for him.

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Going back to Boiler Room at the start of your career. What was it like to have that kind of success at such a young age?

[Laughs ruefully] Uh… I don’t know. Not good, I guess? [Silence]

In what respect?

Because I was 26. At 26 you don’t think… you think it happened because you willed it to happen. So there’s a lack of gratitude at that age, at least in my experience. I’m sure there are other 26 year-olds that would’ve handled it better than I did, but yeah, I wish it had been a bit harder to get that first movie made. I probably would’ve had a bit more respect for my own work, and movie-making in general. I took a more circuitous path. I’ve arrived, finally, at a place of understanding gratitude. But it took a little extra time. 

You packed in a lot before that. You did an awful lot of jobs, and found success as a political campaign manager, I was reading.

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Yeah.

Was it worthwhile doing all that before you went into filmmaking?

I think so. Having not gone to film school, having those experiences with the different jobs, and some of the successes, gave me the confidence. Because at 26, working with Ben Affleck and Vin Diesel and all those guys, I should’ve been more anxious. You’re young, you’re arrogant, you were just the youngest campaign manager in New York City history, so in some ways it’s good.

I mean, there’s a reason they send kids off to war at 18,19 20 years old.

They feel indestructible.

They just don’t know better. If I were making my first film now, put in that position, I’d be paralysed with fear. You just don’t know better, and there’s something nice about that.

Boiler Room was about corruption in the financial industry before what we know now after 2008. Do you think the film was a little prescient, in a way?

Yeah, makes me seem prescient, huh? I wasn’t! If you’d sat in the room I sat in, on the actual day I went into the interview for that job, you’d have said, “This is a movie.” You didn’t have to be some visionary. I sat through that Ben Affleck scene, you know, the real-life version of that: some guy screaming at me, telling me I was going to become a millionaire. I know it makes me look prescient, but it was the “right place, right time” kind of situation. I got lucky.

Martin Scorsese’s an executive producer on Bleed For This, so did you two speak about Boiler Room and Wolf Of Wall Street?

That’s actually how it came together.

I did wonder if there was a connection.

Yeah, Marty has this exercise where he amasses a number of movies and makes his crew watch them. They’re reference material for the movie he’s making, to set the tone and sort of explain what his vision is. Boiler Room was one of the films he showed his crew for Wolf.

We sat down and he told me he liked the movie, and that he wanted to let me know that, and asked me what I was working on – the rest is history. He read it two weeks later, he said it was in a car ride from New York City to [Washington] DC – in one sitting, which I’m guessing is a big deal for him. He’s a busy man.

He called me on the phone. I was back in Costa Rica, cooking in a restaurant down in Malpais. And he called me and said, “I’m gonna help you make this movie.”

[A moment’s stunned silence]

Hang on a minute, so you were cooking…

I was a cook at a restaurant in Costa Rica. 

Right before you made Bleed For This?

Mmm-hmm.

[Thrown] Right. Okay.

Well, I hadn’t made a movie in twelve years. I was doing all sorts of things.

Well, I wanted to approach this subject delicately, because I did know that…

Oh yeah, yeah, you don’t have to.

I’d assumed you were writing, getting things developed, or…

No. Well, I mean I was, but I wasn’t sitting at home doing that, or I wasn’t in LA. Thankfully. I had a very rich, interesting decade. I became a pilot. I raced motorcycles semi-professionally. I had a lot of success in that. And then I cooked in a restaurant – my friend’s restaurant. 

Right! Okay. What sort of thing did you cook?

Uh, it was, like, local, traditional fare that you’d expect to see in a Central American restaurant. But the fun stuff was, we were the closest restaurant to the fish market, and so every day we’d get first crack at the fish, because they’d come by us first. So whatever the fisherman caught that day, I’d go online and Google sauces or recipes, and then just write it up on the blackboard. I mean, it was pretty… uh, just, you know, a shoot from the hip type situation.

So you were in Costa Rica, and you were cooking fish, and you got a call from Scorsese saying he wanted you to make this film.

Yeah, I’d gone to New York, met with him in New York, and came back down. Yeah, I remember where I was: I was on my friend Alex’s back porch when he called, and said, “I want to help you make this movie.”

So what went through your mind when that happened?

It was one of the best moments of my professional life. I think I was physically jumping up and down, but I was trying to make my voice sound like I wasn’t. So I was trying to speak very plainly but I remember I was literally jumping up and down. [Claps]

And you have another film lined up now, Isle Of Man.

Yeah, that’s supposed to shoot in March. We’re fully financed, Bold Films is making it; Michael De Luca is producing with me. We just need to cast and get going.

Ah, so you don’t know who’s going to be in it yet.

Not yet, no.

I remember there was a film you were talking about making a while back – a western. 21 Bullets, was it?

17 Bullets! It’s funny you remember that. I still want to make that movie. It’s so hard to get a western made; Isle Of Man was impossible, and 17 Bullets seems even harder. But no, I want to make that movie. No one’s mentioned that in years. But I talked to the writers again the other month, and they said, “Yeah, we still want you to direct it.”

If Bleed For This has a modicum of success, then it’s possible I can go and make it. I can do it for a price. I love that script.

Ben Younger, thank you very much.

Bleed For This is out in UK cinemas on the 2nd December.