For ‘Southpaw’ director Antoine Fuqua, a different kind of bout

25 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Southpaw’ Pits Boxer Against Himself.

The new drama “Southpaw” would seem to come in a long tradition of boxing movies and underdog sports films generally. Since the 1930s, Hollywood has produced more than 150 boxing films in which the main character is the underdog, who triumphs over a fierce opponent or where the champ loses everything because of his reckless lifestyle.LOS ANGELES – Jake Gyllenhaal has had a penchant for the dark side in recent years, playing tormented and sometimes sociopath characters on the fringe, but the actor found himself playing the “most adult and most evolved” role to date as a professional boxer.

When the trailer for Southpaw was released, action movie fans and fight aficionados were pumped to see Jake Gyllenhaal step into the ring as they hoped the Oscar-nominated actor would add a level of prestige to the boxing drama genre. But when I walk into a private boxing gym in Pittsburgh, which doubles as director Antoine Fuqua’s production office, it’s deserted except for a man wearing a sleeveless hoodie and baseball cap, sprinting on a treadmill. Southpaw, by filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, the latest installment in the boxing genre, deviates from the traditional narrative by pitting the heavyweight champion in an existential fight against himself.

In “Southpaw,” out in US theaters on Friday, Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, a New York orphan who becomes a rags-to-riches boxing success, then spirals back into poverty and is unable to care for his young daughter after the sudden death of his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). After more than 30 years of marriage, director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner finalized their divorce in 2009, and Gyllenhaal says the sudden shift in his personal life caused him to hit pause on the direction in which his career was going. While Gyllenhaal’s performance packs an emotional punch, overall, Southpaw relies too heavily on played-out boxing cliches trotted out countless times before on the silver screen.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, “Southpaw” follows Billy as he mentally falls apart and struggles to pull himself out of a severe slump as his pre-teen daughter (played by Oona Laurence) disconnects with him. The actor respected his parents’ courage in making their decision: “There was a sense of two people who said ‘What is our truth?’ It was painful for a lot of people in our family, but that honesty was inspiring.” Taking on a mature role as a grieving father in Southpaw, the actor “went to places emotionally that I don’t think he’d ever explored before,” director Antoine Fuqua tells PEOPLE of Gyllenhaal’s performance.

Lackluster rivalries and generic training montages aside, Gyllenhaal shines as fictional light-heavyweight champion Billy Hope—despite all of the film’s flaws. He has to train for a bout that could earn him back what he lost, but to do that he must learn a new, more disciplined method of fighting that stands in contrast to his more all-out approach. “Southpaw” features numerous sequences set in the ring. Billy’s trusted circle quickly dissipates as his world crumbles, his manager Jordan (50 Cent) jumping ship early when Billy refuses to fight in a match. Fuqua wanted them to play as they would in real life, so he and cinematographer Maurio Fiore attempted to stage them to look like real fights, even employing HBO camera operators to shoot those scenes, “I wanted it to feel real, not over the shoulder,” said Fuqua, an avid boxer himself, as he spoke from the set of his “Magnificent Seven” remake in Louisiana. ““I grew up with ‘Rocky’ and loved it; when I hear that song I want to go running,” he continued. “And then Scorsese and ‘Mean Streets’ and all these other movies.

It’s pouring outside, and Gyllenhaal makes an imploding gesture with his fist. “Thunder is amazing,” he says, as he climbs off the treadmill, only huffing a little. “Do you want to work out with us?” I look down at my jeans and collared shirt. To play Billy, Gyllenhaal honed his physicality into that of a boxer’s, which he called “hard physical work,” and attributed the challenge to mental training as well. The beloved brawler must battle back from the brink of total self-destruction in order to rebuild his life, career, and more importantly, his relationship with his child.

But I don’t know of any movies that tried to do [the authentic shooting] we tried to do here.” (Grittiness has its limits, though, particularly when it came to the ending, a narrative choice that involved some substantive discussions between the director and Weinstein executives — more on that after the weekend.) “Southpaw” arrived at Weinstein after a long development process with multiple studios. Last year, Gyllenhaal won praise for playing a ruthlessly ambitious crime-scene reporter in “Nightcrawler,” a role that he starved himself for to capture a character on edge.

Gyllenhaal earned a ton of praise for his physical transformation into the punch-drunk pugilist, but his best moments actually happen outside of the ring. Originally packaged with Eminem, the film morphed (and was delayed) when the rapper left to focus on his music. (He still contributed some songs.) The Eminem version might have resonated differently — a semi-autobiographical “8 Miles”-ish story of a man who has had similar struggles instead of the story of actorly transformation that the Gyllenhaal version has become. My mind goes to two places: (a) If a movie star lends you his clothes, it’s bad manners to turn him down, right?; and (b) The last time I boxed was — never. As Hollywood faces a leading man crisis (with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Tom cruise all in their 50s), Gyllenhaal, 34, has quietly emerged as the actor of his generation. While movies like The Fighter and Raging Bull were better at showing the ups and downs of being a boxer, Southpaw hits hardest when it focuses on the psychological toll of being in the fight game.

Five summers ago, he removed himself from the studio tentpole track (after “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”) and started to build a career reinvention in the indie world. You can feel the loneliness and despair eminate from Gyllenhaal’s character, a true-to-life representation of the utter isolation fighters sometimes feel.

There was his big-hearted cop in “End of Watch,” a trippy pair of twins in “Enemy” and a twitchy detective in “Prisoners.” After that, he played a crime paparazzo in last year’s “Nightcrawler,” a role for which he lost 30 pounds (and came this close to getting a best actor Oscar nod). Not only was he set to be the lead, but screenwriter Kurt Sutter also based much of the script on the hip-hop legend’s life and issues with his family. What Gyllenhaal brings to the table, though, is an emotional awareness that makes you care about Hope in a way that Eminem could’ve never accomplished.

He cranks out a set of dips without breaking a sweat, between sit-ups and pull-ups, and finally assumes a squatting position to flip a 200-pound tire across the width of the gym floor. They require coolheadedness and discipline, two newly found attributes for Billy, who has to use the fight to end all fights against his bitter opponent who caused his wife’s death. “Underneath anger is vulnerability, some kind of hurt” says Gyllenhaal. “I think that’s what Billy shows somewhere: Is what he’s able to face through a series of life circumstances that are unfortunate, but that he learns from and I think he comes out a real man and has the ability to be a father as a result of that.” “I didn’t want to ask him to do something that hard that I couldn’t do myself, still right now in my age that I could still do,” he said. “So, I told Jake, I’ll do it with you. We’ll crank up the music and we’ll go onto the journey together from the beginning to the end.” Southpaw is filmed in gritty documentary style, with boxing closeups and fast-paced boxing sequences. According to his trainer Terry Claybon, of the boxing gym Lb4Lb, Gyllenhaal would do 2,000 sit ups a day, 500 push ups, 100 dips, 100 pulls up and run eight miles to up his stamina, since the fighting scenes in the film were shot in real time, with Gyllenhaal actually punching out his opponents for 12 rounds. “He is shooting 14-hour days,” Claybon says. “His stunt double is here, but Jake will not let this guy work.

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