One-two punch: 'Warrior' filmmakers drawn by city's look, state's incentives


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The off-camera direction wasn't something Erik Apple likely or ever hears.

"Like a rag doll, bro! Like a rag doll."

Apple, a professional fighter with a fierce brown mohawk, was in the ring with actor Tom Hardy or his stunt double, Jace Jeanes. Hardy, recently Handsome Bob in "RocknRolla," and Jeanes sported matching hairstyles, tattoos, sleeveless white undershirts and gray sweatpants.

They were in Colt's Gym, a place so authentic and photogenic that you might swear the heavy punching bags and speed bags, the weathered wooden floor and the banners and American flag hanging from the painted, peeling brick walls had been there for decades.

If it didn't smell quite like a gym -- no funky perspiration burned into the bricks -- that's because Colt's was created for the movie "Warrior," shooting in town. But, even from the outside, the Strip District set looked so real that a couple of strangers recently inquired about joining.

Had they come earlier this week, they would have found Gavin O'Connor in his literal director's chair, which is black with "Warrior" in yellow letters and the silhouette of a fighter with his arms raised.

"Warrior" explores fathers and sons, brotherly bonds and rivalries and the increasingly popular world of mixed martial arts.

It marks Nick Nolte's third movie here, after "Lorenzo's Oil" and "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh." This time, he's a retired mill worker and recovering alcoholic named Paddy, who raised his boys as competitive wrestlers.

Now, his sons, Tommy (Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton), are on a collision course to end up in a $5 million mixed martial arts competition called Sparta. Could it sound any more manly?

Tommy left 14 years earlier with his mother, who wanted to escape an abusive relationship.

"When we come into the story, he is in the Marines, but he's been at war and now he's mysteriously out, and we don't know what that's about," explained "Warrior" producer Greg O'Connor, Gavin's twin brother and frequent collaborator.

As Tommy returns to Pittsburgh and trains with his father, however, they start to repair their broken relationship.

Brendan, meanwhile, is a high school teacher and father of two who gave up fighting at the insistence of his girlfriend-turned-wife, Tess. But, facing foreclosure on their home, he returns to the ring.

The cast also includes Jennifer Morrison ("Star Trek," "House") as Tess, pro wrestler Kurt Angle as a Russian named Koba and Frank Grillo, one of "The Kill Point" bank robbers, as Brendan's trainer.

The movie builds to Sparta, a 16-man, single-elimination tournament set in Atlantic City but being staged at the Petersen Events Center with real fighters lending some verisimilitude. With 17 key fights in the script, stunt-fight coordinator J.J. "Loco" Perry has his hands full.

Between bites of lunch, Perry talked in double time about the challenge of pairing real fighters with actors and making the performers look believable. In actual fights, it's more important how it works than how it looks, but that formula is reversed for the movies.

Perry and his team, who also worked with Hugh Jackman and others on "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," helped key players each gain 18 pounds of muscle.

"They're eating 120 grams of chicken four to six times a day, with protein shakes, and they have to lift twice a day. It's not just putting the weight on them, it's putting lean muscle mass on them and at the same time, teaching them how to fight," mixed martial arts style.

"A lot of people misjudge it, they think it's a bunch of brawlers .... It's actually a very technical sport," said Perry, who has been rehearsing out of Eric Hibler's Pittsburgh Fight Club in Robinson.

"I've filmed in 23 countries and pretty much every state in our country, this is my first time to film in Pittsburgh and it's been a real, real pleasure," Perry said. "And I dig that Eat'n Park place."

Training started in late January in L.A., and Perry came here for a month and a half before shooting started.

Pittsburgh has proven fertile ground for extras who are not "pretty-boy cry babies," as they sometimes can be elsewhere. "These guys have been really hard-working cats and really, really easy to get on with," Perry said.

Pittsburgh plays itself in the Lionsgate movie that is expected to be released in nexst year, possibly in the summer, although no date is set. Lionsgate made "My Bloody Valentine 3-D" here along with the TV series "The Kill Point" and steered the filmmakers this way.

"We just love the atmosphere, we love the sort of steel town quality of it," producer O'Connor said, while his brother was busy directing. "It feels very real, very working class, very salt of the earth. My dad was a cop, which was why we made 'Pride and Glory,' so we tend to like that kind of world."

The O'Connors' now-retired dad was a big boxing fan who took his boys to the Golden Gloves and joined them watching the star-studded heavyweight bouts on TV.

Still, when Greg pitched the idea to his director-brother, he needed a little convincing.

"I think his original thought was maybe it's too much of a genre movie, like it's a fighting movie. 'Is this going to feel too much like a genre, B-ish kind of movie?' And I said, that's exactly what I like about it," Greg recalled. "It's a genre, that if elevated, could be spectacular because you have elements in it that we relate to."

The brothers, who grew up playing sports and "in that whole environment of mano-a-mano," gravitate to stories with strong patriarchs and brotherly bonds, as with "Pride and Glory" and the rousing hockey story "Miracle."

Greg figured his brother, a former college football player, "would understand how to shoot masculine sports and yet bring an artist's perspective to it." The pair also had produced an HBO documentary, "The Smashing Machine," about extreme fighter Mark Kerr, so that further prepared them to enter this world.

Gavin, a stickler for authenticity, consulted with experts ranging from trainer Greg Jackson in New Mexico to apparel and gear maker Tapout.

"I think one of the things we want to do with the movie is to show the sport to a wider audience as a real sport, as an incredible skill," Greg said. The movie will demonstrate "what goes into training and how great an athlete you need to be."

Some people, he acknowledged, still think of it "as cockfighting, two guys get in the ring and beat the [expletive] out of each other, when the level of skill that's required to get into the ring at the highest level is as much as any sport there is, and you'll see this."

A few days will be spent in Atlantic City, West Virginia and Mexico, but almost all of the picture is being filmed here. Three weeks into a 10-week shoot, everyone professes happiness.

Veteran producer John Kelly, a resident of Los Angeles whose long list of credits includes "Into the Wild," has been in Pittsburgh since early March, just in time to see the St. Patrick's Day parade.

"So far, it's been wonderful," Kelly said, with the crew taking advantage of the unseasonably warm days to shoot outside late last month. The production has logged time in Ross, Downtown and the Strip and will spend the next month at the Petersen, with more filming outside the city and then back Downtown.

Kelly, who had never been here until "Warrior," has found himself giving scouting reports to outsiders.

"I can tell you, in the last three weeks, I've had four or five studios and/or directors call me to ask how Pittsburgh is. Are the people here nice? Are the crews here qualified?

"Because people want to come to Pittsburgh now because the cost of living is far less than it is in Philadelphia or New York, the incentive in Pennsylvania is wonderful, and some of the directors I've talked to are well-known directors that are coming here based on they can get more for their money here."

"Warrior" may have brought Kelly and the O'Connors to Pittsburgh, but the production net also snagged lots of locals.

Among them: Casey Stanton, a Pitt-Greensburg junior who auditioned in a bright orange bikini to be a "ring girl"; extras Jose Caraballo and Mike Pofi from Sharpsburg and Mike Migliozzi from North Versailles; and Jimmy Cvetic, a retired county police officer and goodwill ambassador who steered young athletes to the set.

"There's about 12 of my kids in this movie, and they're all great guys. It's magic for them," said Cvetic, director of the Western Pennsylvania Police Athletic League, who has squired around the O'Connors and befriended Nolte.

"You gotta give somebody a dream," Cvetic said, waving over a couple of his "boys," Mark Daley and Amonte Eberhardt, for interviews. "See, everybody isn't going to hell in a bucket, there's a lot of good kids out here."

And some of them, thanks to "Warrior," got paid as extras and could turn up on the big screen in 2010.

It's not too late to score your 15 seconds of fame.

The movie is looking for thousands of people to fill seats at the Petersen on May 30.

Although spectators won't be paid, they will watch filming and be eligible for prizes being raffled. Also, the production will donate money to the Pittsburgh Police Fallen Heroes fund for every person who shows up May 30 and stays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., although times could be subject to change.

That day will be open to the public, no registration needed, with more details to come.


Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.


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