Ask director Ben Younger about his new film, Bleed For This, and he glows with enthusiasm: eyes flashing behind his large glasses, he’ll talk eagerly about the energy among the cast and the stress of shooting a period boxing drama on such a tight budget. Ask him about his first movie, the crime 2000 drama Boiler Room, and the words flow less easily. There’s a hint of regret in his voice, a pause or two as he thinks about exactly the right response: not because the movie wasn’t any good – far from it, in fact – but because, he suggests, its success came a little too early and easily.
Younger was just 26 when he wrote and directed the story of Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi), a young guy who lands a job at a boiler room – a trading firm which specialises in selling worthless stock to credulous amateur investors, mostly over the phone. Co-starring Vin Diesel and Ben Affleck and released by New Line, it was a sleeper hit, launching the Brooklyn-born Younger into the Hollywood stratosphere.
That Younger had managed to make a hit indie movie while still in his mid-20s might have been less remarkable had he ploughed the usual path through the industry: a stint at film school, a few months as a script reader at a movie studio. But Younger had a full and varied career before he got into movie-making: while still in his teens, he did stand-up comedy gigs around New York, and enjoyed racing motorbikes. After finishing a degree in political science, he worked as a policy analyst, and eventually became New York’s youngest ever campaign manager – he was just 21 years old at the time.
Within a couple of years, however, Younger had begun to tire of his career in politics, and began looking around for a job that would give him the creative freedom he’d found while dabbling in comedy: writing, perhaps; maybe even filmmaking.
It was in 1995 that Younger found the inspiration for Boiler Room. A friend’s conspicuously wealthy brother had told Younger about a brokerage firm that could, potentially, net him a million dollars in a single year – the kind of freedom that could let him go off and write whatever he wanted. Younger showed up at the firm’s headquarters and sat down with one of its co-founders, who began talking in evangelical terms about the money-making opportunities the job could provide: there was, Younger later recalls, “some guy screaming at me, telling me I was going to become a millionaire.”
Younger sat through the meeting, looked around the building – full of 20-somethings cold-calling would-be ‘investors’ over the phone – and thought: “This is a movie.”
He spent the next few years gradually working his way into the film industry, doing behind-the-scenes stuff on such films as Walking And Talking (starring Anne Heche and Catherine Keener) and The Delhi before making his first short film. At the same time, the script for Boiler Room was gradually coalescing: between other jobs, Younger spent around two years interviewing traders, figuring out the minutiae of his story. It was while working as a waiter in a steak restaurant that Younger got the first of several lucky breaks: he struck up a conversation with a customer, who happened to be TV writer-producer Steve Kerper. Impressed, Kerper helped Younger get an agent, who in turn got the Boiler Roomscript sent to Ben Affleck.
And so it was that, in 1999, Younger found himself directing his first feature film, with the kind of talent that most debut filmmakers would kill for.
“Having not gone to film school, having those experiences with the different jobs, and some of the successes, gave me the confidence,” Younger says now. “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.”
It’s when the topic of conversation turns to Younger’s relative youth during the making of Boiler Room that he becomes hesitant. When asked what it was like to direct an indie hit at such a young age, there’s a moment of silence. “Uh, I don’t know,” he says. “Not good I guess.”
“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…”
After Boiler Room, Younger made Prime in 2005: a romantic comedy starring Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep. About a 30-something woman and her relationship with a 20-something Jewish artist, it actually made more theatrically thanBoiler Room, but reviews were more mixed and, given its starry cast and distributor (Universal Pictures) regarded as something of an under-achiever. Prime was also an unexpected movie from a writer-director whose last film was a hip, testosterone-filled crime drama about guys making lots of money; in an interview with Movieweb at the time, Younger even joked that he might have inadvertently alienated the audience he’d found with his debut.
“It’s amazing to hear people come to me and go, ‘Wait you did Boiler Room?'” Younger said. “‘I don’t understand. This is a fuckin’ chick flick!'”
Younger intended to switch genres again with his next film: a western called 17 Bullets, so called because only 17 shots are fired in the whole movie. In 2006, just as Prime began its run on DVD, Younger said that the financing was all in place, and that he was in the process of casting. Somewhere along the line, however, that project fell apart. Younger wouldn’t direct another movie for over a decade.
After Prime, Younger directed a 2007 episode of the TV series Army Wives, and continued working on his own projects. But otherwise, he largely spent the next ten years or so working outside the film industry.
“I had a very rich, interesting decade,” Younger says. “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.”
That restaurant was in Malpais, a remote fishing village in Costa Rica. A spot of Googling reveals that such Hollywood celebrities as Mel Gibson and Brad Pitt have either holidayed or bought homes in the area. For Younger, working as a chef in a fish restaurant, life was rather less glamorous; though talking about his work there now, he makes it sound like a happy time in his life.
“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,” Younger recalls. “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.”
In 2012, everything changed when Martin Scorsese called up.
At the time, Scorsese was preparing to start shooting on The Wolf Of Wall Street, his blackly comic biopic about Wall Street trader and convicted fraudster Jordan Belfort. Belfort was part of Younger’s inspiration when making Boiler Room: like the characters played by Ben Affleck and Tom Everett Scott in Younger’s movie, Belfort set up a dodgy brokerage firm which specialised in selling worthless stock. By the early ’90s, Belfort was a multi-millionaire – before the FBI moved in and busted him for fraud.
One of Scorsese’s rituals, when embarking on a new film, is to get his cast and crew together and screen a few movies that he finds inspiring. Before shooting on The Wolf Of Wall Streetbegan, Scorsese screened Boiler Room. It was then that Scorsese got in touch with Younger, and invited him up to New York for a meeting.
“We sat down and he told me he liked the movie,” Younger says, “and that he wanted to let me know that.”
Scorsese then asked Younger what he’d been working on. As it happened, Younger had, among other things, been working on a screenplay called Bleed For This, based on the life of boxer Vinny Pazienza. A lightweight and junior middleweight champion by the time he’d reached his late 20s, Pazienza’s career was brutally cut short when his neck was broken in a car crash. Doctors insisted that he’d never walk again, much less throw a punch, yet Pazienza refused to quit: just over one year and hours of gruelling, ill-advised training later, he was back in the ring.
Younger gave Scorsese a copy of Bleed For This, got on a plane back to Costa Rica, and went back to his job as a cook. Two weeks later, Younger got another phone call from Scorsese.
“I’m want to help you make this movie,” he said.
“It was one of the best moments of my professional life,” Younger says, evidently still stunned at this change of fortune. “I think I was physically jumping up and down, but I was trying to make my voice sound like I wasn’t.”
With the help of Scorsese, and later producer Bruce Cohen (American Beauty, Milk, Silver Linings Playbook), Younger got the financing he needed to make Bleed For This: approximately $6.1 million. According to Younger, that money all came from one financier – which meant that he effectively had free-reign to make the boxing drama however he saw fit.
“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.”
That lean financing did come with a few major down sides: first, the $6.1 million included the salaries for all the stars; second, the shoot would have to be incredibly compressed in order to get everything filmed within that meager budget. When filming began in the autumn of 2014, with Miles Teller in the lead as Paz and Aaron Eckhart co-starring as his trainer Kevin Rooney, Younger had just 24 days to get everything he needed. In an interview with Collider, the writer-director recalls that he did 87 setups on the first day of shooting – that is, all the camera angles that are required to cover a single scene.
The strength of Younger’s cast – which also includes Ciaran Hinds as Paz’s father, and Ted Levine as manager Lou Duva – meant that he could tear through scenes with relatively few takes. The boxing sequences, meanwhile, presented a more urgent technical issue. On most boxing movies, directors can spend days or even weeks preparing and shooting a fight scene; Younger’s schedule allowed for just one day per boxing match. David O Russell, who knew a thing or two about staging boxing sequences, having made The Fighter, told Younger in no uncertain terms that it couldn’t be done.
“If you think you can shoot a boxing scene in one day,” he said, “You’re wrong. You have to go back and re-cut scenes so that you have more days in the ring.”
Nevertheless, Younger stuck to his schedule: one day, one fight.
“It was brutal,” Younger says, shaking his head. “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.”
“I remember we did the first boxing match and it was, like, 15 or 16 hours and they were figuring out set-ups,” Miles Teller later told us. “It didn’t flow as well as maybe I felt like it needed to. Because it’s exhausting; you’re fighting, you’re boxing, and it’s intense, even after all those hours.”
Aaron Eckhart, who was outside the ring as Paz’s boozy trainer and surrogate father figure, concurs.
“Because we had such a time limitation, Ben Younger was out of his mind in terms of trying to logistically get this fight [filmed] in time,” says Eckhart. “The stakes were so high in those days.”
Indeed, time and budget was so tight that one of the movie’s key props, a medical halo worn by Pazienza after his car accident, was an off-the-shelf product picked up from a nearby store. “Again: time, money,” Younger says. “We picked it up from a medical supply place. The halo itself was a bit ill-fitting. [Miles] was in quite a bit of pain…”
Given just how tight the schedule was, it’s striking how confidently-made and effective Bleed For This turned out to be. It’s certainly possible that the relentless pace of filming fed into the energy in the performances and even those hurriedly-shot boxing sequences; there’s a warmth between Teller, Eckhart and Hinds that is unmistakeable. Eckhart recalls that, when they were filming the end of one fight scene, they were so close to running out of time on the day’s shoot that, when the final bell rang, the euphoria we see in the ring is real.
“There was no time but to act on instinct and to get this thing done,” the actor says. “So that, I think, really worked in the film’s favor.”
Bleed For This is the story of a boxer fighting against the odds – and his own pain barrier – to get back into the job he loves. It’s certainly easy to see parallels between the writer-director’s subject and his subject: like Pazienza, Younger has managed to make a surprise comeback.
With Bleed For This receiving positive reviews, Younger’s once again talking about making projects that he was least discussing a decade ago: a motorcycle racing drama called Isle Of Man (“We’re fully financed”), and, to a lesser extent, his western, 17 Bullets (“If Bleed For This has a modicum of success,” Younger says, “Then it’s possible I can go and make it. I can do it for a price”).
Above all, Younger’s back making films again: a little older, a little wiser and, it seems, grateful for this new phase in his directing career.
“I wish it had been a bit harder to get that first movie made,” Younger says. “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.”
Bleed For This is out now.