Many storied director-actor pairings make sense. You can understand why Martin Scorsese works often with Leonardo DiCaprio, who lends vulnerability to the director's tough-guy roles. Or how Johnny Depp channels Tim Burton's whimsy.
The director and the actor are, to put it mildly, a case of the artiste and the bad boy. The fussy auteur and the former teenybopper sensation. The taskmaster director and the one-time inmate. And yet the pair are not only frequent collaborators but friends, inhabiting a kind of personal and professional marriage of odd-couple proportions.
Sitting in the back of a midtown Manhattan restaurant on a chilly late November night, the pair are reminiscing about an informal arrangement they had long before they decided to collaborate on "The Fighter," their third film together, which opens Friday. Wahlberg would call the director and recommend boxing documentaries, and Russell would suggest French New Wave films he thought that the underwear-model-turned-actor, not a man who might otherwise be partial to cinephile classics, needed to see.
"The Catherine Deneuve movie? What was that one?" asks Wahlberg, dressed in a working-class casual uniform of a flannel shirt, stonewashed jeans and work boots.
"'Belle du Jour,'" answers Russell, elegant in a dark sweater.
"'Belle du Jour.' Oh, and '400 Blows,'" Wahlberg replies.
Russell laughs. "That's like the Mark Wahlberg movie from France."
"I can't tell you how much that connected with me," Wahlberg says, leaning back in disbelief as though he had just finished watching it. "I was bawling at the end. The kid had nowhere to go."
Wahlberg and Russell previously joined forces on the Gulf War dramedy "Three Kings" and the metaphysical black comedy "I Heart Huckabees." Russell famously clashed on set with other actors during both productions. But somehow he and Wahlberg have found harmony. "I feel like our collaboration is an instrument," said Russell. "And we're really starting to learn how to use it."
Getting in the ring
"The Fighter" is the true story of the welterweight boxer "Irish" Micky Ward (Wahlberg), his half-brother Dicky Eklund, a boxing-prospect-turned-crack-addict ( Christian Bale) and a colorful group of friends and family in
a working-class Lowell, Mass., neighborhood not far from where Wahlberg himself grew up.
Ward is on the wrong side of 30 and going nowhere fast, managed by a domineering mother ( Melissa Leo) and held back by family loyalty — particularly to Eklund — until a new girlfriend ( Amy Adams) prompts a change. Ward goes on to win the welterweight title and fight several historic bouts against Arturo Gatti.
Unlike a formulaic underdog boxing movie, "The Fighter" has a lot going on behind its eye of the tiger, tackling the conflict between family obligations and personal ambition, and with comedic flair. Punctuating the film are boxing-movie staples — training montages and fight scenes — but for long stretches in between there are the complicated dynamics of a half-dozen family relationships. It's Wahlberg and Russell's richest effort — a product of the actor's longtime desire to play Ward (he also produced the movie and was its driving force) and what Russell says is his willingness to finally free himself of the yoke of indecision.
"I don't know how to say this except that I feel that I see things much more clearly. I don't turn over an idea as I once would," said the 52-year-old director, who said he believes that "The Fighter" is his best movie. "Maybe it's just that I've gotten older, but when I have a conflict I'm, like, 'We're going this way or we're going to go that way …' as opposed to, 'Gee, I'm not sure how to make is work. Maybe let's try this?'"
It also may have helped that this is Russell's first movie that he didn't write (Scott Silver, best known for "8 Mile," was the latest in a series of writers to work on the script). Or is the fact that Russell is willing to direct a movie he didn't write itself a sign of letting go?
Indecision and control issues certainly ruled the day on "Huckabees." Wahlberg recalls that before they started shooting "Huckabees," Russell would "have four or five different ideas. And he'd call me and say, 'We're going to do this. No, wait, we're going to do that.' And I'd say to him, 'Let's go, dude. At this pace you're going to make six movies in your entire career.'"
Russell began his feature career in 1994 with the indie darling "Spanking the Monkey" and followed it in 1996 with the screwball comedy "Flirting With Disaster," then "Three Kings" in 1999. But he hasn't completed a movie since "Huckabees" flopped six years ago. (This year he took his name off, and walked away from, the political comedy "Nailed" after several financing-related shutdowns.)
The director admits he's suffered from commitment issues but says he's learned from them. "I wrote three different versions of ['Huckabees']. All of them are interesting." He pauses. "Ideas are not a problem for me. But I realize now you have to pick up one to throw down with. The process of commitment is the best thing you can learn."
The one he had to make
Wahlberg's commitment to "The Fighter" was never in doubt. More than four years ago, the actor, intent on, as he says, "wearing the championship belt" and having made a promise to Ward that he would get the boxer's story told on the screen, built a boxing ring in his backyard. He then moved Eklund and Ward into his home and began training to play a boxer. Wahlberg stayed with that training even when financiers got cold feet, and when actors — including Matt Damon and Brad Pitt — dropped out of his passion project.
The movie was eventually recast with Bale, at a much smaller budget of about $20 million. (It was financed by Relativity Media and is being distributed by Paramount.) "I didn't get paid, but I didn't … care," Wahlberg said. "There are so many movies that I got paid for that I wish I never did. And now we have something we can be really proud of." (The actor has been ramping up the activity at his production company, Closer to the Hole, in part, he says, so he can take more control of the kinds of movies he gets to work on. The outfit has already produced several shows at HBO.)
Darren Aronofsky was going to direct the film before he opted to make "The Wrestler" in 2008. By that point Wahlberg had found himself seeking Russell's counsel so often on "The Fighter" that he figured he might as well just ask him to direct.
It's hard to pinpoint what makes Russell clash with other actors yet click with Wahlberg. Professionally, Russell says, he admires the actor's ability to "speak softly and carry a big stick, like Spencer Tracy." And personally, the quirkily intellectual Russell seems to like the everyman cred Wahlberg gives him. The actor, for instance, convinced Russell to enter a state prison to research "The Fighter" even though Russell says he was "heebie-jeebied out" (as a teenager, Wahlberg spent time behind bars after pleading guilty to assault). Wahlberg also has been pushing Russell to see animated movies and has lately even begun taking Russell's son to Catholic Mass, which Wahlberg regularly attends.
For his part, Wahlberg clearly derives a sense of validation from Russell's haute-cinema credentials. And while other actors have chafed at Russell's relentless style, which can have him prodding and provoking his cast, the 39-year-old Wahlberg says he appreciates the hands-on approach, even using it as a kind of safety net. When the actor was nervous before an emotional scene in "Three Kings," for instance, Russell literally showed him how to pull it off.
"I thought, 'God, how am I going to do this? I gotta cry in front of everyone?' So I said to David, 'What do you want me to do?' And he literally just acted it out for me. And then in every scene afterward, I'm like, 'Dude, you gotta show me.'"
Behind the camera, Russell is notorious for demanding numerous takes and flying off the handle — a reputation cemented with a YouTube screaming session at Lily Tomlin from the set of "Huckabees" and a well-documented fistfight with Clooney on "Three Kings."
This time around, all of the punches flew inside the ring (though the coincidence of a director known for on-set blow-ups working with Bale, a man famous for an on-set blow-up of his own, was not lost on the blogosphere). That didn't mean the temperature didn't rise. "David would yell while we were shooting," Adams acknowledged in an interview. "But I liked that he challenged me and brought out something in me I could never do on my own. It was never uncomfortable, and it kept me lubricated, kept me from being stiff."
Wahlberg says Russell's reputation as a hothead is "overplayed. Big time. I've worked for people that are pretty intense. With David, his passion is mistaken for intensity. That's somebody misunderstanding who he is and where he comes from."
But Russell concedes this isn't just a matter of perception. In fact, he says, he feels regret about incidents like the Tomlin episode. "I've got to tell you, those are embarrassing things," he said. "I don't look at that and go, 'I'm intense, that's how it works out best [for the film].' Some very successful and high-profile directors do that. For me, I feel those are embarrassing things. Looking at them makes me not want to do that."
Russell's next movie will be a directional shift — a big action movie based on a video game called "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune." His lead, of course, will be Wahlberg. "We're going to get even better together," Russell said.
And then the conversation drifts to the new releases that Wahlberg believes Russell should watch. "You've got to see 'Tangled,'" Wahlberg tells him. "You've just got to."