Teller says the first step is all about curiosity. “You get a script. You need to be curious about this person that you’re playing, and then there’s usually a sense of empathy that goes with it. I just want to understand them—I’m driven by that.” One of the advantages of portraying a public figure is the media available, especially one as colorful and prolific as Vinny Paz. “At first I just started listening to radio interviews,” Teller said. “I didn’t want to watch him; I didn’t want to imitate him. So I listened to radio interviews to get a sense of how this guy talked, this bravado that came through how he talked. He could talk with the best of them—he really had that Muhammad Ali DNA.”
Enter, again, fear as motivator. “That fear of failure set a certain mindset and a certain drive right from the beginning. It would have been shameful not to put in the work that Vinny did. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, or anybody.”
Compounding preparation was the fact that Teller was shooting two movies (Fantastic Four and Insurgent) at the time, one in Atlanta and one in L.A. While shooting in Atlanta, he’d go to an open-boxing gym. He soon began working with boxing coach Darrel Foster in Los Angeles. (Foster trained Will Smith to portray Muhammad Ali.) “He was on the film as well, and choreographed all the boxing scenes. All of the boxers in the film are real boxers. And they were literally coming right off of a fight. They’re professionals! Even when you’re blocking shots, it hurts. They don’t really know how to pull a punch.” The aggressive boxing and weight training, along with an equally aggressive diet of protein shakes, chicken and vegetables, transformed Teller into the film’s lean, mean fighting machine.
Younger honored his actors’ commitment by creating a space where they could soar. As Eckhart describes it, “Directors are the captains and the generals. No matter how big a star, we take our energy and mood off the director—and if the director loves his actors, and loves what we’re doing, we’re gonna feed off each other.”
That’s a big responsibility for a helmer, who has an obligation to create a safe emotional environment where actors feel confident taking risks. Younger’s upbringing helped: “My mom is a shrink. I grew up verbalizing everything. There were no subjects in my house that were taboo. The sense was, the best idea in the room wins. Therefore, anybody can put forth any idea; we’re gonna try different things. We’re gonna experiment. Sometimes a writer-director can get caught up in his own words. But the older I get, the less precious I get about those words. It’s funny—the more you let go the better: the better performances you get, the more interesting things that happen. You gotta leave the window open.”
But how does a director establish trust with actors who come with baggage from past productions? Says Younger: “Actors get burned by directors all the time. I try to push through whatever barriers they have or whatever traumas they’ve experienced with other directors. It’s not like we have a year to get together, hang out, get to know each other and establish some rapport. You’re thrown in to the deep end.”
Once the preparation is done, time for instinct to take over. Younger shepherds his actors to where they need to be, and he too mentions curiosity at this point. “It’s about seeing what an actor has brought to the table. I think I know how to get an actor to that place. But even if I know it straightaway, he or she may not be able to get there right away, and you need to gently guide them to that spot. Sometimes it’s the other way around, though, and they gently guide me to where we need to be.”
Bleed For This’ depiction of Pazienza’s comeback is raw. The scenes of Vinny, his head still caged in the Halo, endangering his life by attempting to lift weights in his basement, are absolutely chilling. Many moments are hard to watch. Correspondingly, visuals—shot by DP Larkin Seiple—are stripped down, bare; the colors desaturated and washed out. There’s a documentary-esque quality to the immediacy of what’s happening on screen; sometimes we see what appears to be period VHS of Teller working out, while archival footage of the real Vinny crops up from time to time. The choices bring out the gritty soul of this world. It’s not pretty, but it feels incredibly alive.
“I work on a more instinctual emotional level than a technical one,” says Younger. “Same with my filmmaking style: I didn’t go to film school. I made a lot of mistakes, early on. At the same time, when you’re not encumbered by rules and schools of thought, you also get to try things you wouldn’t if you’d gone a more traditional route. Sometimes you find something magical.”
Often magic happens when you do less. This philosophy resonated with Teller: “Ben would know when to not say anything—which can sound kind of passive, but it’s not. There’s so many directors who want to get in and talk to you after every take, and that can mess you up, but this whole thing flowed. He just knows how to let a scene go and let his actors find it, and then when he needs to jump in, he does. And it’s right on.”
Bleed For This isn’t a boxing movie. In a way, it’s more My Left Foot than Raging Bull. Teller’s Vinny Paz is a cinematic cousin to Daniel Day Lewis’ Christy Brown, the Irish quadriplegic who struggles to overcome his disability to become a poet, painter and author.
That’s the heart of the movie: Vinny’s struggle. “Storytelling trumps all,” says Eckhart. “It is the most important thing. I’m always asking myself as an actor, ‘How do we best tell this story? How does my body language or my five senses help tell this story?’ Miles as Vinny is the story. And so, every actor in the movie, their job is to define Vinny in a way that helps us tell the story. As a human being, as a five time pro, as a son—how do I reflect that? That, I feel, is my most important job in a movie: to define the hero.”
Teller handles the nuances of that struggle beautifully, drawing from his own life: “My uncle’s a quadriplegic. Before his accident, he was a really good artist, and after his accident he learned how to draw with his mouth. If you’re really passionate about something, you’re gonna figure out how to do it. Vinny was told that boxing was impossible at that point, and he proved them wrong. I love that kind stuff.” The actor’s own face bears the scars from a near-fatal car crash suffered when he was 20, coming back from a Deadhead festival in Connecticut. (The parallel to Pazienza’s accident is startling.)
Even the adversity of filming or a certain prop can be fodder for a talented actor. Says Teller: “It’s an independent film. We shot the movie in 25 days, so there wasn’t a lot of time for prep with certain things, and that metal Halo was easily the most difficult prop I’ve ever had to work with. We had to get it tight so it wouldn’t move around. It’s impacting your spine, you’re in it for 12 hours a day—it’s highly uncomfortable. Living through that was frustrating. I could understand what that would be like, being in that for a couple of months and thinking, ‘Yeah, I gotta do something. I know I’m meant to box, so I’ve just got to do it.’”
When performances sing, as they do in Bleed For This, a director’s hand is invisible, and the effect is not only elevating, it’s ennobling. We’re brought closer to who we are as human beings: our fears, our desires, our dreams. And for those of us with “No Religious Preference” stamped onto our dog tags, movies become our leap of faith.
That was the case with Eckhart: “In college I was a surfer, and I had to give up surfing, because I thought, ‘I can’t have two religions.’ That’s what acting is—and you have to treat it as such. Acting’s the biggest high I’ve ever had. Surfing, riding my bike—they all have their highs, but when you have a real moment in movies, it’s mind-blowing.”
What he’s saying is: We believe in Al Pacino, too. MM
Bleed For This opens November 18, 2016, courtesy of Open Road Films. This article appeared in MovieMaker’s Fall 2016 issue.