“Yes, there’s a girl that comes between Channing and Terrence – I don’t want to give anything away. This movie is interesting because, unlike a traditional fight film where you know that your hero is going to win, the added component is that they are betting money on these fights and that influences the outcome. Are people throwing fights at various times? Which way the characters are betting is relevant to the outcome. Sometimes, losing might actually be the better outcome for our characters. Everything is a hustle in this movie – you never know who’s telling the truth.” Kevin Misher, producer of Fighting.
New York City, October 19th, 2007. 10:13pm
When Dito Montiel was 11 years old, he used to sell fresh-squeezed orange juice and peanuts on the corner of 43rd and 7th Ave. Twenty-seven years later he’s still on a corner of the teeming asphalt jungle that is New York trying to make a living. From an outsider’s perspective it would seem he has only progressed a few blocks, to 54th and 7th, but tonight he is directing a crew of dozens of actors and technicians who have taken over this block to film a major motion picture for Universal.
Fighting will be Montiel’s second time at bat, after the autobiographical indie pic A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, which was in itself based on an autobiographical novel of the same name. In that movie the main character was named Dito. Earlier this year he also came out with his first solo album. The album was called Dito Montiel. In other words, Mr. Montiel himself is typically at the center of his work. So where can we find this modern day renaissance man in a film about underground street fighting?
“It was something they were talking about making over at Universal,” says the director. “At first it sounded kinda horrible, you know, ‘Everybody’s broke but they have Hummers,’ and it’s like ‘Oh no, I don’t know if that sounds good to me.’ But then something sounded exciting about the idea of two people meeting who should find each other. New York City seemed a really good place for it.”
The “two people who find each other” in Fighting are Sean and Harvey, played by Channing Tatum and Terrence Howard. According to producer Kevin Misher, Channing plays “a tough kid who learned wrestling in high school. His character has a lot of rage inside him and he gets in fights on the street. He gets absorbed into this underground fight world. Terrence Howard is looking to make a buck off of Channing’s character. He’s a tortured soul, but he’s likeable. In the end, they have a mentor/protégé relationship, which actually goes both ways. Until the end of the film, Terrence’s character will do anything to make a dollar including selling out this kid.”
After a giant cube-shaped light is hung from a three-story crane above the 7th Ave location and an Angel Aerial truck sprays down the street where tonight’s scene will be shot, Channing and Terrence begin. They’re shooting a scene early in the picture after Harvey has already seen Sean get in a scuffle while trying to sell fake iPods and “Harry Potter” books. They are walking down the street, the young Tatum carrying a box while Howard tells him that he shouldn’t be fighting and not getting paid for it. After crossing the street, they spot a truck carrying a large mirror on its side and they stop and look at themselves in it.
“You’re a gladiator. When I look at you that’s exactly what I see: a gladiator,” says Howard, carrying himself like a would-be Svengali, albeit a mellow one.
Just then something odd happens. An elderly gentleman wearing a homemade Spider-Man outfit and a sailor’s cap runs through the shot. This isn’t some wayward New Yorker who’s managed to cut through the dozen or so Production Assistants stationed on every corner for several blocks. He has been woven into the scene by Montiel. The extra showed up on the set wearing the costume without any prompting from the production, and rather than being sent home (or to a nearby mental health clinic), he is being used as texture. It seems Fighting is merely a canvas for Montiel the filmmaker to utilize the quirky after hours denizens of New York on his palette.
“Someone shows up in a Spider-Man outfit they’re in my movie,” explains a gleeful Dito, “I’m not sayin’ no. When we were looking for locations we were at Gray’s Papaya one night and some guy walked up dressed as Superman, for real. Just came in and sat down. Someone goes ‘can’t put that in, no one will believe it.’ I said,”no, you can, you just have to hire HIM.’ You just can’t put that outfit on somebody, this guy actually wears Superman outfits. Some guy showed up yesterday in a scuba diving mask, I said ‘did you guys put that on him?’ They said, ‘No,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, okay then.’
“No one’s gonna tell me not to play. They can try and they’ll learn really quick that they can’t. Makin’ movies is fun, watching them is fun and exciting and every bit of it should always be like that. I hate nothing more than Hollywood jokes, when someone says ‘Hey, didn’t we all get into this to be mediocre?’ I wanna take a f**kin’ gun and blow their f**kin’ head off for saying it on the set of a movie. So every day if Spider-Man shows up I throw him in and that’s what colors the movie and that’s what colors the world I like to live in.”
Taking such an experimental, on-the-fly approach to filmmaking is somewhat risky, but Montiel’s producer appeared very supportive. Misher said, “This is a great commercial movie and Dito attracts great actors like Channing and Terrence. I’m sure there will be weird things that occur that aren’t quite linear that will make the film very interesting. Dito is having a lot of fun making this film. It’s a big step up for him and he’s equal to the task. It’s exciting to watch a filmmaker like him as he creates ‘the unexpected’.”
For the star of the film, Channing Tatum, who made a splash last year in the surprise hit Step Up, this is not his first encounter with the unexpected created by Montiel, as he starred in the director’s previous movie “Saints”. While Montiel spent a great deal of time monitoring Tatum on that first film, on this one they appear to have developed both a shorthand and mutual respect for each other.
“I get the way Dito writes,” says Tatum. “I think he likes characters talking about nothing but having the feeling of a scene underneath it. That is something that a lot of directors and actors forget you don’t have to spell it out. It’s about going in the opposite direction of what’s obvious. He’ll say, ‘We’re not talking about anything.’ If a guy and a girl are sitting at a restaurant, he’ll say, ‘We can tell you like each other by you two sitting there. If you wanna fall in love, go the opposite way.’ It’s crazy, but it somehow translates. It’s all about opposites.”
“Channing is really blowing me away with how good he is,” Montiel says. “Every time I meet Channing again I’m not a Channing Tatum fan until I start working with him, then I’m a Channing Tatum fan again. He’s really good. Before we made the movie I was like, ‘You just never know it’s a thin line between Marlon Brando and Dolph Lundgren.’”
After delving deeper into the raison d’etre for a movie called Fighting it’s not hard to imagine Lundgren or Norris or Van Damme. More specifically, the fighting of the title is Mixed Martial Arts, as popularized in the Ultimate Fighting Championships currently reaching millions on cable and pay TV. MMA is a blend of both the striking techniques of kickboxing and the grappling techniques of wrestling. It’s essentially a no-holds-barred free-for-all that can be brutal and often bloody. Tatum elaborated on what his character is responsible for carrying out, and likewise Tatum as he is doing all his own stunts.
“I’m playing the character like he’s a nice kid from the South, who comes up to New York and needs to make some money. And he meets a guy who tells him he can make him some money. And my character is desperate. From there, it spirals and goes into a crazy, dark world of fighting. It’s pretty brutal. I fought with this kid Uri who’s fought at Madison Square Garden. I can’t believe I fought with him. I got hit in the nose a few times it was broken and bleeding. It was good, though. At the end of the day, you feel like you’ve been in a fight!
“I trained for a month on my own at Legends Gym in L.A. I checked out fighters on YouTube. I went in and said I want to get punched and see punches coming at me. With a real fighter, there’s no hesitation. I didn’t want to be timid. The only difference between a pro fighter and a non-professional is composure and technique. My character is a high school wrestler, so he knows how to handle himself in a physical altercation.”
Montiel found MMA appealing as well. “My friend Nerf, who’s nuts, he used to send me all the UFC stuff before it was big, with like Tank Abbot and all those people, and I used to think it was fake but I would look at it so carefully and I’d be like ‘these people are really doing this, this is insane.’ It wowed me the way an explosion wows me, I didn’t get obsessed with it. My father was a boxer, maybe a little bit of that. What excited me about this movie was the idea of two people meeting, and the fights are fun and crazy and a little more exciting than just ‘Van Damme!’ People fighting, throwing things, crying, all that stuff is sort of background. It’s the story of people meeting.”
Unlike his director Dito, Kevin Misher seemed particularly keen on emphasizing the MMA aspect of the film, because he knows which side his bread is buttered. Delicate relationships and quirky left-field weirdos peppered throughout is all well and good, but people will come into Fighting expecting to see a fight or two.
“We’re trying to accurately depict what’s going on in the world of mixed martial arts,” he said. “There’s an illegal ‘anything goes’ side to this. But the fun of it is that you get to experience all types of fights in this movie you don’t get that in any other movie. Our hero, Channing Tatum, is a natural. He fights in different disciplines. He goes out to Brighton Beach and fights a Russian boxer. We’re going to the Bronx next week where he’ll fight a Dominican grappler. And then we’ll go to the Korean community in Flushing, where he’ll fight a Muy Thai specialist. In this movie, you’ll get to see the different skill sets that each of the different fighters possess.
“The film will be gritty and hard as nails, but you’ll also see these different disciplines and how we mix them up. There’s no Michael Buffer standing in the middle of these rings saying, ‘Let’s get ready to rumble’. You’ll walk into a pretty shady place, a guy walks out, everybody looks at each other and it’s ‘Game On’. That’s what we’re doing. People will also get the opportunity to see a real Muy Thai fight, which is really ugly. Our fighter, Cung Le, who has been a mixed martial arts champion for a decade he’s badass Anything can happen in these fight sequences because there are no rules that affects both the filming and the story.”
The atmosphere on the set tonight does have a kind of “anything goes vibe”. As the cast and crew finish getting coverage of the walking and talking scene from three angles, they stake out three new angles for the latter part of the scene, where Terrence Howard’s character flags down a black sedan, and tells one of his diminutive sidekicks to “get in the car so you can sing the Oompa-Loompa song.” After they watch the playback of a take at the monitor bank (“Those guys run every betting place in the whole city!” Howard bellows onscreen), Channing and Terrence toss a water bottle cap back and forth at each other inside the video village tent. Soon after, Howard crouches behind a chair like a hawk stalking his prey, waiting for Channing to turn his back. After two minutes of crouching like a maniacal gargoyle, the Oscar-nominated actor launches towards Tatum and tosses a few surprise punches to his back, mouthing each one, “pow pow pow pow pow,” then mischeiviously darts off.
“That’s how we keep each other entertained, just beat each other up,” says Tatum.
Terrence Howard is clearly a force of nature himself. People come out of the woodwork to see him, including a surprise visit from his Hustle & Flow co-star Anthony Anderson during one of the early takes and supposedly P. Diddy earlier in the week. He has a unique energy and never delivers a line the same way twice.
“Terrence is the most generously gifted crazy man I’ve ever met in my life,” says Tatum. “He’s crazy, but in the most beautiful way possible. He’s such an empathetic person he has that passion and compassion for people. He’s really is a street corner poet he’s an artist from the ground up every piece of him!”
As it turns out, Howard was on the 2006 Sundance committee that selected Montiel as the best Director. “I thought Dito had the most incredible film when we were at Sundance,” Howard said. “I saw ‘A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints’. It was the very first film we saw in the competition, and I said afterwards, ‘Wow. We could leave the festival right now and come back nine days later and give this film every award and be justified in doing it.’ And they had some really incredible films there. They had ‘Half-Nelson.’ But this film was the most dynamic one. I thought Channing should have been nominated for an Oscar last year.
A film set can be an awkward, if not flat out listless place. Terrence Howard puffs on a cigarette, chats with his director, gets back in place for yet another take. A woman comes by with inserts for Channing’s shoes. Apparently he’s getting blisters. An audio person moans, “Aww man, can you believe it? I dropped my beef jerky.” Waiting between takes inside video village again, Howard nudges Tatum with a conversation starter
Terrence Howard (to Channing): Dingleberries grow in the fields of Winter.
Channing: Abraham Lincoln grows down on Crow’s Street on Thursdays.
Terrence Howard: Alexander Dumas – he got killed in a duel.
Channing: Pink license plates always over Betty Boop’s shoulder.
Terrence Howard: Very interesting.
Channing: We talk in code.
Meanwhile the flow of foot traffic is controlled by the PAs, who between takes let one disgruntled woman by as she tries to maneuver her way through the long stretches of cables and crew people munching on craft service empanadas. “This is ridiculous,” the random New Yorker yells, “I just want to get into my building and I better not trip over one of these wires or I’ll be pissed!”
As the last take ends, once the actors have gotten into the black sedan and driven off, Dito giggles and yells “cut” and they check the gate.
When the rainstorm the crew has been anticipating all night finally comes, the gear gets stowed and they are unable to continue shooting for the time being. This worries Dito as they are scheduled to head for another location later tonight and there’s still more shooting that needs to be done here on 54th. It’s now close to 1 in the morning and he decides to head into a diner across the street for a bowl of soup. With eyes bloodshot from two weeks of night shoots but still retaining his speedy energy, he speaks frankly about the sticky issue of what Fighting will ultimately be rated by the MPAA.
“I kept getting this note, ‘We really want this to be PG-13,’ he says referring to the brass at Universal. “At first it was like, ‘Oh this is ridiculous, you want me to make a realistic movie about New York City hustlers that are fighting, but I can’t say ‘f**k’.’ Then I started looking into all the rules, and it’s like ‘No spurting blood.’ Okay, who cares? I don’t need spurting blood. I don’t think I would use that if you gave me the allowance to make an ‘X’. It doesn’t excite me. ‘Raging Bull’ did it pretty damn good, other than that I’m bored by it. If someone shoots you at the table right now and I’m filming it I’d rather know what you guys are thinking. That part was easy.
“But the ‘f**ks’ got me freaked out. At first I said ‘let me see if this is possible, because if it’s not I don’t want to make the movie.’ The funny thing is when people try to make PG-13s a lot of times instead of ‘f**k’ they’ll say ‘friggin’. No, if someone doesn’t curse they don’t curse. So then we took all the curses away from them. It was kinda fun in a way, because it turned Harvey into a guy who was polite and wanted everything to be good, and Sean as well. I don’t think anything is sacrificed. It’s every bit as violent as I want it to be, they’re being honest and real. If I need the ‘f**ks’ I’ll say ‘em, and then they’ll shoot me over them, but 20-days in I haven’t needed them.”
Is Dito Montiel really this comfortable with making a big studio picture a genre picture a PG-13 picture a non-autobiographical picture? Or, as Kevin Misher said of everything in the movie, is this all a hustle? Who knows. Perhaps Montiel is really and truly content in working outside his safety net and simply making a fun popcorn movie that has the serrated edge of an indie picture. Right now Dito Montiel is in New York City, 10 blocks away from where he used to sell peanuts on a street corner as a child, but where is Dito Montiel in Fighting?
“I’m from here, I’m from Queens and I live in Queens. As long as I feel familiar with a subject I will do it. At first I didn’t feel familiar with the idea of this film. People fighting or things blowing up or people talking about money doesn’t appeal to me unless there’s a way to find it. We were shooting the other day and I saw this guy who still takes pictures of people on the street, Polaroids, and when I was a kid I used to see him and he’s still there by the Marriot, and we’re actually gonna go there tomorrow. That’s a way to find yourself in something. You could probably find something in the Amish that appeals to you.
“I didn’t ever plan on making movies, it’s a nice coincidence. I have a hard time believing it. I just get so wrapped up in it being good I can’t enjoy it. I’m counting down the days. After today it’s 19.”