Fight of a Lifetime: Making The Bronx Bull Taught Its Director the Keys to a Knockout Biopic

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“It’s better to be feared than to be loved,” goes the old adage—paraphrased from Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince by a world-weary mob boss in A Bronx Tale, yet just as relevant in the context of director Martin Guigui’s “based on a true story” account of the life and times of boxing legend Jake LaMotta, The Bronx Bull.

The tension between love and fear that ran throughout the former World Middleweight Champion’s childhood and into his adult years is freely explored in Guigui’s cinematic adaptation of LaMotta’s autobiography, which was also shaped by the boxer’s participation as a creative consultant. Whereas Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull delved into the sadomasochistic tendencies of hyper-aggressive masculinity and was filtered through the authorial lens of its singular director, The Bronx Bull takes aim at a more factual, and thereby “actual,” portrayal of its titular fighter, focusing on the abuse LaMotta suffered as a child that was only implied in the former film.

Guigui spoke with MovieMaker about the equipment and techniques he harnessed to make a film that spans multiple eras of 20th-century America; how he staged and shot the film’s boxing sequences “for impact”; the story behind why he attempted to name the film Raging Bull 2; the four core components that make a great biopic and more.

Max Weinstein, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): The Bronx Bull was shot in 35-milimeter…

Martin Guigui (MG): Super 35-milimeter.

MM: Yeah, and obviously that’s a rarity these days. Talk about your decision of going with that format and its pros and cons.

MG: I’ve only shot on film, so I wouldn’t know any other format. That was certainly a factor in that I am so comfortable with the textures and the emotional sensibility and the sensitivity that light has when going through a lens onto emulsion. I knew that this particular project, stylistically and in terms of tone, would definitely benefit from film. Also, we went with film because we were traversing so many different eras. My DP Massimo Zeri and I discussed the concept of how to capture each era. It starts in the 1930s and traverses all the way through to the 1980s, late ‘80s. So, what we did, which was kind of cool, is, when acquiring the film stock, we specifically engaged film stock that emulated the stock of the era. So, we were able to go as far back as stock from the ‘70s… ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s pretty wild working with Panavision cameras and emulating the look of those particular eras, and also utilizing the base stock of those eras.

MM: Besides Panavision cameras, what other gear did you use—lenses, lighting, etc.— to shoot the fight sequences and, as you mentioned, to capture the look and feel of various time periods? 

MG: We used Panavision lenses and we did work in a single-camera format throughout, including the boxing sequences—those were shot handheld and also with steadicam. We had a second camera, second super 35-millimeter camera on set all the time, and there were a couple of moments where we did use two cameras. The actors who had been used to working in the digital format liked the digital format because you can do takes over and over and you can keep rolling without having to stop. To emulate that with a couple of the sequences that we shot, we put the two super 35-milimeters side-by-side [with] the same lens, so just before one camera rolled out, we started rolling the second camera. The actors and the crew loved hearing that we were holding to change rolls. It was pretty cool.

Mojean Aria plays a young Jake LaMotta in The Bronx Bull. Image courtesy of Main Street Film and Sony Pictures Entertainment

MM: What was the process behind the film’s fight choreography, knowing that you weren’t going to cover as much ground as you would shooting with multiple cameras and anticipating the number of handheld shots in those sequences? What compositional and staging elements were considered, and how did you direct actors without losing the spontaneity and intensity of what a fight should feel like?

MG: I shot the whole film in 20 days. I knew that that was going to be a challenge, but that’s where we landed in the preparation process. Part of our financing fell out, so I didn’t have a choice. I knew I was going to have to lose days in order to get the movie made, and subsequently, got an extra week of preparation. William Forsythe trained for almost three months to get his weight down and learned to box. We had, as I call them, the two Jakes—Mojean Aria and William Forsythe—both trained in downtown L.A. with Freddie Roach, the legendary trainer who works with [Manny] Pacquiao and everyone else.

One approach that I took, in order to get the boxing sequences in with the short amount of time that I had, was that I went for actual contact. I worked closely with the stuntmen and alerted them that we were going to go for contact. I wanted there to be actual boxing as opposed to just choreography, because we just didn’t have the time to get the choreography learned, practiced, rehearsed and then shot, and to do the multiple shots required in order to capture every swing and every punch was going to be a challenge. So, we threw the guys into the ring and on action, in most cases, I shot the rehearsals. We did some walk-throughs, some blocking to get a sense of the ring, and then we actually let them physically box. That helped use a great deal in terms of the realism on the boxing sequences.

The ring that we used was made by Jack Taylor, the production designer of Million Dollar Baby. He held on to the ring that he used for that film, so we definitely utilized the same ring. It was to scale, not a larger ring [than actual size.]. It was the size of the rings were back in the 1950s and ‘60s. It made it a pretty crowded situation, but it made it very real. I shot a lot of wide-angle with a lot of wide lenses to capture what was going on. If you notice the first fight, the first professional bout of the film, which was in the 1950s, you’ll get a close look at the punches that are actually making contact. The stuntmen’s faces were pretty puffy afterward, but it made for some great realism.

MM: You had a hefty ensemble cast on your hands for this film. Talk about your approach to handling so many dynamic character actors. What did you learn along the way as you slipped into a groove with your actors through every phase of production, from training, to the shoot and in between takes?

MG: This cast made it easy for me in many instances because they did their homework and they have a pedigree in terms of character arc and preparation. Some of these actors knew each other. Apparently Joe Mantegna and William Forsythe had shared similar experiences when they first got started in the industry. They were both in Hair, the Broadway show, so they broke into song a couple of times. There was a connection to the material. All the actors felt a kinship to the material and there was respect and a sense of comradery from the get-go, and also from knowing that we had to move quickly. I prefer two or three takes at the most, and that’s how we shot it. We moved in for coverage right away, so we would get the first master on the first or second take. William was extremely committed, living the part on and off the screen, and everybody worked around that to accommodate him so that he could stay focused. He had traversed so many different eras, and one of my favorite lines on the set was when William would say, “I’m gonna go get old,” or, “I’m gonna go get young,” [laughs] and he’d run back into the trailer. I’ve worked with the same core team over the years, and that helped a lot in making the actors feel comfortable. They saw that there was an emotional chemistry on-set from the get-go.

William Forsythe as Jake LaMotta and Joe Mantegna as Rick Rosselli in The Bronx Bull

MM: Obviously not everyone took kindly to the fact that you and your team tried to get the rights to name the film Raging Bull 2, and I’m sure to some extent you must have expected that kind of backlash. What were some of the legal implications involved in your attempt to give it that title? What did you have to know and prepare yourself for once you decided that that was a legal battle that you wanted to pick?

MG: I can tell you that there are two different stories, and The Bronx Bull was based on a book written by Jake LaMotta called Raging Bull 2. When the producers were gearing up to make this movie, they were just basing it on the book and assumed that Jake had the rights. They had no idea that Jake didn’t have the rights to use that title [laughs]. But it was resolved pretty quickly, it was really no big deal. When I was first approached to make this movie, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be involved in a Jake LaMotta story. To me, Raging Bull is so sacred. But then when I met with Jake and he told me some of his stories about his childhood and about his involvement with the underworld, I realized that there was as an entire story that needed to be told in order to set the record straight for him—especially at this age in his life, he’s just turning 95 now. For him to have seen two movies made about him… I don’t know if there’s anybody else that can say that they had two films made about them, except maybe John F. Kennedy [laughs]. That’s why I jumped into it. You could probably make an entire movie about Jake’s childhood. That was the trickiest part about this film: Which story, or stories, do you tell? We opted to cover the “life and times,” if you will, of Jake LaMotta, from his point of view, without taking much creative license.

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