'Warrior' director enjoyed capturing Pittsburgh's grittiness

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A funny thing happened on the way to "Warrior."

Director and co-writer Gavin O'Connor wanted to cast two performers who were largely unrecognizable but had the potential to be movie stars. "I didn't want an audience to have any memories of these actors from other roles because I felt like that was going to get in the way of the performances."

Lo and behold, though, Tom Hardy ended up as a forger and master of disguise in "Inception," delivered a tour de force turn as Britain's most famous prisoner in "Bronson," and, oh yes, has been cast in "The Dark Knight Rises."

Co-star Joel Edgerton ("Smokin' Aces," "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," "Kinky Boots") appeared alongside Jacki Weaver in the crime drama "Animal Kingdom" and as an arsonist in the Aussie thriller, "The Square."

So, by Sept. 9, when "Warrior" arrives in theaters, audiences will be even more familiar with the men who portray estranged brothers in the movie shot in Pittsburgh in summer 2009 and once announced for a fall 2010 release. Nick Nolte is their father, a retired steelworker and former raging, angry alcoholic.

(This was the project that repeatedly advertised for extras to watch mixed martial arts fights at the Petersen Events Center in Oakland, doubling for the interior of an Atlantic City venue.)

The delay meant Mr. O'Connor could spend more than a year, rather than the usual 12 weeks, editing the picture. "It's a very, very delicate movie and it could have gone the wrong way so many times," he said of the process.

Lionsgate executives believed in "Warrior," he emphasized, but the shift also avoided a marketing and box-office showdown with "The Fighter" starring the better known Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg.

"It actually worked in our favor to wait and now these guys are actually starting to emerge and that's certainly, from the studio's perspective, helpful. For me, I wish nobody knew who they were but it is what it is."

It was Pittsburgh's history as a steel town and the state's reputation as wrestling country that led Mr. O'Connor here.

"Visually, it had what I would call working-class poetry that I really responded to when I scouted the city. There was a toughness that I needed that symbolized this family unit and also a poetry to the city I was excited about visualizing."

Mr. O'Connor, who made the police drama "Pride and Glory," rousing hockey story "Miracle" and indie hit "Tumbleweeds," says reaction at test screenings hasn't pivoted on knowledge of mixed martial arts or MMA.

"Our highest scores were not only women but women who knew nothing about the sport. ... I remember after our first test screening, I went up to the studio and they jokingly said, 'You made a chick flick.' We were all shocked."

He intended a face-off between the brothers, who separately enter a winner-take-all MMA competition, to serve as "an intervention in a cage," where one brother saves the other by kicking the stuffing out of him.

"That's because they grew up in a home where they communicated with violence. The intention was that these two brothers sort of expiate the last 14 years that they've been estranged and over five rounds, they deal with the past and slowly heal by beating each other up."

One must "die," not literally but symbolically, at the other's hands so he can be reborn.

It's all very Old Testament but also counts real Ultimate Fighting Championship champs on or behind the scenes. (Nate Marquardt, who appears in the movie, will be at a UFC event today at 4:55 p.m. at Consol Energy Center.)

Mr. Hardy was one of the last actors the director met while looking to cast Tommy.

"I needed someone who had a very tough exterior and yet had a deep vulnerability. ... The character does a lot of bad things and the audience had to understand that what he was doing was coming from a place of pain."

The director banked on the expectation that Mr. Hardy could "get away with certain things and still not lose or turn off[the] audience."

Tommy escaped from Pittsburgh with his mother, while Brendan (Mr. Edgerton) stayed behind. Once a barroom brawler, Brendan is now a husband, father and high school physics teacher with integrity.

"Joel, as a person, has integrity in spades. Joel, as a person, is a dynamic actor and you root for him and you like him."

Most of the movie was shot in Pittsburgh, which plays itself and doubles as Philadelphia but couldn't cheat for Atlantic City so the production pulled up stakes and went there.

"I think we had two and a half or three days to shoot a lot of stuff so we pretty much just went straight without sleep and it was very guerrilla filming, to be honest with you. We were runnin' and gunnin.' "

Although MMA factored into "Never Back Down," Mr. O'Connor said the sport hasn't been dramatized in this way in a feature. He doesn't count straight-to-DVD releases or Hong Kong karate movies.

"I could have made them boxers but that, to me, just felt really tired, worn territory and I wanted to do something new and fresh. The studio always says if you can make the 21st century 'Rocky' that's what would be great, aim for that.

"That's cool but Rocky's boxing and this is mixed martial arts, which is the fastest growing sport in the world. It's the new boxing."

In fact, Japan hosts the sort of single-elimination tournament that inspired the big-money Sparta contest in the movie and left actors with daily injuries, some serious.

"The thing about mixed martial arts is the gloves are four ounces. When you're making a boxing film, you can put on these big, heavy gloves, 14-ounce gloves or whatever the weight would be, and then you can pad those gloves to make them really soft because they have a big cushion in them."

Mr. Nolte is no stranger to shooting movies in Pittsburgh. He played the dad of an ailing boy in "Lorenzo's Oil" and the much-feared gangster father in "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh."

The actor is a neighbor and friend of the director and was, in fact, supposed to play the father in 2008's "Pride and Glory." Knee surgery forced him to cancel and Jon Voight stepped in.

His "Warrior" character of Paddy Conlon is seen listening to "Moby Dick" on audiotape.

"It's one of the greatest tomes ever written, it just felt right for his character. We went a lot deeper with Paddy's character in regard to a man who never left Pittsburgh but traveled across the globe through the books he listened to on tape. Now that he's sober, he's replaced his alcoholic addiction with books."

But there's only so much that can make the final cut of a movie, which ended up featuring Mr. O'Connor in a small role as the wealthy promoter of Sparta.

Charles "Mask" Lewis Jr., the founder of an apparel company catering to MMA fans, was to play the part but died in a car accident in March 2009.

"He was a very dear friend of mine, he opened up all the doors for me in the world of mixed martial arts." After the 45-year-old Lewis was killed, Mr. O'Connor stepped in to honor his friend.

The character's name and other details were changed and the movie is dedicated to him.

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her Mad About the Movies blog at www.post-gazette.com/movies .


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