With all the training, mental preparation and frustrating lack of cake and beer, starring in any boxing movie must surely be a tough undertaking. But spare a thought for the stars of Bleed For This, the sports drama based on the true story of Vinny ‘Paz’ Pazienza and his remarkable comeback: shot on a budget of just over $6m, it was shot at lightning speed, with its fight scenes shot in gruelling 15-hour days in order to remain on schedule.
That compressed timescale, I’d argue, gives the film a real energy, whether it’s in its aggressive fight scenes or its day-to-day story of a fighter working his way back to the ring after a car accident leaves him horribly injured. Miles Teller is canny casting as Vinny, the relentlessly upbeat, cocky young boxer who refuses to quit – even when his doctors tell him that he’ll never walk again, let alone throw another punch. Bleed For This‘s true revelation is arguably Aaron Eckhart, who’s almost unrecognisable as the paunchy, hard-drinking trainer Kevin. Eckhart gives a superb, delicate performance, and it’s the chemistry between he and Teller – not to mention Ciaran Hinds, who rounds out the film as Vinny’s pushy father, Angelo – that gives the film its human core.
It was this chemistry that was in the front of our minds as we sat down with Teller and Eckhart to talk about Bleed For This – as well as the conjuring trick of pulling such an accomplished-looking film from such meagre resources. Here’s what the two Hollywood stars had to say.
You guys worked together before on Rabbit Hole, right?
Aaron Eckhart: Yeah, we did Rabbit Hole together.
So did that prior experience account for the easy chemistry you two bring to the screen?
Miles Teller: We filmed that movie, like, seven years ago. For me, personally, I was very excited to work with Aaron on this film because, being on set, it was the first time I was with any actors that weren’t my peers, that weren’t in college with me. Being able to work with world-class actors like Nicole and Aaron and Diane… it was exciting when Aaron showed up on set for this movie, having not seen him for seven months after our initial meeting. I was really excited about that journey… transforming this guy.
AE: It’s always nice when you go to a movie and people already have… obviously, Miles has gone off and done his thing. So we’re not best friends, right? But we do know each other, so coming back, we have shared experiences together, so you don’t have to break that ice, and I know he’s a great actor. Great actors attract great actors, like Ciaran [Hinds] and Katie Sagal, so there was a comfort level there when you walk on.
It was nice, it was secure, there was a lot of trust amongst us. I enjoy Miles’s company, so it makes filming a lot easier, definitely. And when you look at a lot of people’s careers, usually they’re paired up, you know? Fincher usually works with the same people, David O Russell, whoever it is, because they get along, they know each other. It’s a great relationship.
I understand that the budget for this was relatively low, and that the fight scenes – Ben [Younger, director] was saying that each one was shot in a day. So what was that like? Did it feed into the energy of them? Did it make them more difficult?
MT: Well, with independent filmmaking there’s a ticking clock and there is in any film – you kind of have to make the day. But in the days we were having, they were very full; there wasn’t going to be a tonne of takes, you’re kind of locked in. In terms of the boxing matches, I remember we did the first boxing match and it was, like, 15 or 16 hours and they were figuring out set-ups. 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. Then by the end of the movie we got it pretty succinct.
AE: What it did do was, because we had such a time limitation, Ben Younger was out of his mind in terms of, like, trying to logistically get this fight [filmed] in time. The stakes were so high in those days. Do you remember that?
MT: Oh yeah, yeah.
AE: You were doing so much fighting. Getting the other fighters in there… we had an awesome crowd. I mean the crowd was electric for us. And so, in that sense it did help us. There was no time but to act on instinct and to get this thing done. And so at the end of the day, when Vinnie wins the fight, there was a euphoric feeling. So that, I think, really worked in the film’s favour.
I was thinking there’s a triangular aspect to the relationships in this. It’s about you two and also Ciaran Hinds as the dad; it’s as though you’re changing roles; Ciaran becomes more like a father as Aaron becomes the trainer. I wondered if that’s something you considered as you were performing this.
MT: I didn’t think about it that much, actually. That was kind of brought to my attention when Ben talked about it. Vinnie doesn’t really have an arc in this movie, honestly: he’s all in at the beginning, he’s all in at the middle, he’s all in at the end. Then you have the trainer who’s pushing him, and then that guy becomes so intimate that he becomes the father figure, then the father figure at the beginning is the trainer, but he needs to step back… I do remember at the end of the movie there’s that shot in the ring, with me, Aaron and Ciaran, and we have our heads together. I think that’s a nice visual – that sums up so much about these guys’ individual journeys to this place.
AE: Vinnie’s got his inspiration from these guys. Obviously, he has a motor inside him like nobody else – the guy’s a ball of energy. He’s got a distinct point of view of life that you see in the film. These are the most important people in his life; there’s nobody more important in your life than, hopefully, your father. And then the father’s ingrained in Vinnie’s career, while the trainer becomes the father. He becomes that figure, that ultimate figure of trust.
All these fighters, if they have a good trainer, they’re basically in their lives 24 hours a day. And when that relationship goes bad, boom – they’re gone, they’re out, they’re not gonna stick around. So it’s a very important relationship. But the interesting thing also about this film is the relationship between Kevin and Ciaran, the father – how they didn’t necessarily get along or trust each other, and Vinnie had to put out fires all over the place. How he managed that is also interesting. I love the scene where you [to Miles] go in with your Dad and talk to Duva [??? the manager] and you’re the one telling him to calm down.
MT: Oh yeah, yeah.
AE: So Vinnie is a father figure to us in a lot of ways, which is interesting.
Did Ben Younger talk to you about the background of the film, about how important Scorsese was in getting this made? He was telling me the other day that he was working as a chef in Costa Rica when he got the call.
MT: Yeah. I think Ben was having trouble getting movies… a movie made, and you hear directors talk about that. I remember hearing Bennett Miller talk about how, after he’d done Capote, he was kind of assuming he’d be able to get his next passion project made, but that didn’t happen. Foxcatcher was a film he wanted to make before Capote, too. It took 15 years to finally be able get people to say, “Alright…” you know, “here’s the money for this film.”
I’ve found a lot of these stories through interviews and different things. But yeah, you know Martin Scorsese’s gonna watch these dailies and be in the editing room, and that’s exciting. Who doesn’t want to be a part of a Martin Scorsese film.
AE: I think Scorsese lending his signature gave a lot of gas to everybody – he really propelled the thing forward. His name, obviously, holds a lot of weight, and it’s good now to tell people that Marty’s involved in the movie – it helps the movie out a lot. And Bruce Cohen. Bruce Cohen’s an Academy Award-winning producer – he’s an excellent producer, and he was with us every single day on this, and really guided the film. So we were in very good hands.
Is it important to both of you to support films like this as actors?
MT: Well, hopefully, you’re making films that an audience wants to see, or as an actor, that financiers are putting up the money for. Hopefully there won’t continue to be this huge gap between movies that are made independently and the stories that studios are investing in. I was very proud to be a part of the film – not just an actor doing real acting, because it’s a film I want to see. It’s a film I want to see, and that’s not always the case.
You’re probably asked a lot about the physical side of acting in a film like this – the transformations, and so on. But I wonder what the mental transformation’s like; giving the illusion of lived experience. Being a boxer; being a trainer.
MT: Do you wanna take the trainer part? Because you used to box.
AE: Yeah. For me, getting to know the fight game from outside the ropes was very, very interesting.The influence the trainer has on his fighter, how he gets into his head, how he plays the game, how he keeps him focused. How he plays games with promoters. I went through Manny Pacquiao‘s camp; Freddie Roach invited me to be a fly on the wall when he was fighting [Timothy] Bradley. So I was there when he was wrapping Manny’s hand before the fight and after the fight. He told me all the mind games that he played with everybody, and they were extensive.
They’re very, very effective – he’s playing mind games with the refs before the fight, the promoters – everybody. In fact, Freddie told me an interesting story where he would stand outside of the elevators in the hotel at night and he would watch a fighter come in late at night, right? So he had that inside information – he’d go back and process that. So he knew his opposing fighter came in late that night, and he’d use that as part of his game plan. I mean, it was intense, okay? That helped me, then, to help Miles – or Vinnie – in any way that I could. Even touching another actor, sometimes, is difficult.
You have to break that barrier, you know? But I have to be able to touch Vinny anywhere I want – I have to be able to give him water or towel him off or whatever. So all that psychological training helps us make that bond for the audience stronger.
MT: …You know, it’s not literally war – there’s no machine gun bullets, it’s not like death is happening in large numbers. But guys do die in the ring, so there are real stakes involved. The fighter’s listening to the trainer, everything this guy’s telling him to do – he has so much faith and trust in him, so it does have to be extremely personal and intimate.
Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart, thank you very much.
Bleed For This is out in UK cinemas on the 2nd December.