DVD Interview: “A Fighting Man” Director Damian Lee

Now out on DVD, A Fighting Man (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 88 minutes) centers on Sailor O’Connor (Dominic Purcell), a former boxer who returns to the sport to finance an Ireland trip for his dying mom. James Caan, Louis Gossett Jr., Adam Beach, Kim Coates (Sons of Anarchy)and Famke Janssen also star in the feature.

This is my favorite Dominic Purcell role to date, as he perfectly captures a scarred soul who’s still tormented by his past. The entire cast is terrific, and during my interview with Damian Lee I asked about his rehearsal process and working with the actors. More importantly, he also talked about how a filmmaker can survive in an age where tentpole and franchise based features dominate today’s theaters. Although he’s directed his share of genre pieces in his day, Lee is a writer-director whose work has a character driven base. Below is my Q&A with the filmmaker. Enjoy!!

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Did “A Fighting Man” have a ton of rehearsal time before production time?

We had a lot of rehearsal time. Dominic Purcell was training for five months prior to the filming of the movie. Izaak Smith (he plays Sailor’s opponent)was training for at least five or six months. And then we had close to two months of rehearsing the fight scenes together. I had an Olympic boxing coach working with them in terms of choreographing the fight.

The coach also worked on the movie as the referee, which must have been advantageous for the production.

That allowed us to be able to stage the fight so (the actors) were like dancers. They knew their moves inside out. We were able to control chunks of the fight without cutting away because the integrity and the organic (feel) of the fight was there to be played out between the two fighters. Having that rehearsal time was essential to capturing the fight in a very realistic way.

You assembled a great acting roster for A Fighting Man. Does the cliché of great actors making a director’s job easier hold true?

 You’re absolutely right. I think the director’s job is set if he’s worked hard on the script with his fellow partners on the film. I had some great people collaborating with me. Jeff Steinkamp is the editor, and he comes from a long line of great editors – I think his family has won like 15 Academy Awards. His grandfather was an editor on Ben-Hur. His father (William Steinkamp) worked with director Sydney Pollack (The Interpreter) for years. William Steinkamp – he cut Tootsie, Scent of a Woman, and A Time to Kill – and he worked with me on the set, as did Lauren Craniotes from Sony.

 

The three of us worked on the script, and we would go through it line by line. There were days when we would discard pages and pages, and then build the script back up. That was hugely beneficial, and Lauren is very well versed in film, as is Bill. Not only was Bill working on the script, he was on set as well. So that really helps in terms of the (shooting) coverage.

 

We also had a great production designer in Anthony Cowley, who did an absolutely fabulous job. We discussed the philosophy of this before we started the picture. If you work it through well philosophically, and you know what you’re going to do in terms of the story, the work is done before you get there. If you have to fix something up on set, it’s too late.

I don’t believe a director’s job is to direct actors. If you hire actors, they better know how to act. They better be right for the part!

A Fighting Man – Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

With digital filmmaking a reality, some movies have an all too crisp image. “A Fighting Man” has a warm visual texture to support the story. Was there a ton of thought into giving your film that rich look?

I got a really good DOP in Bobby Shore who’s got a great eye. I have a great colorist with Drake Conrad who I’ve worked with before as well. After we had the digital cut locked and everything done, we did a film wash on the movie itself.

We took the digital (look) way down. It doesn’t have a digital look at all. With a film wash, you can dial the grade you want to see and in many respects it can be even better than using a 35mm quality film. You can actually accentuate, from scene to scene, the film look which is a much more artistic look.

You’re right with what you just said. People are shooting films, but it doesn’t look or feel like a film. It just doesn’t.

Is there a key to getting financing for character driven movies that don’t fit today’s tentpole film environment?

I think one of the first things that a filmmaker has to do is look at the financial plan. A financial plan has to entail and embrace as much free soft money benefits that you can get your hands on. For example, we know certain sections of the U.S. and in Canada, we can get a lot of tax rebates back.

Now the tail can’t wag the dog, so we have to find the right location for the film and try to find the location that can maximize the amount of soft money that we are going to get back for this film. So to be a filmmaker, in this day and age, I think you have to get to be a pretty good financial engineer as well.

(With A Fighting Man), Sony was a terrific partner, and if you can bring some aspect of some financial energy to a potential partner or a distributor, they’re going to be more predisposed to doing (the film).

“A Fighting Man” isn’t your average boxing film. There’s a humanistic, and at times epic, take on Sailor O’Connor’s journey.

The mythology that we embrace in this film, to some small degree, is the concept of the fisher king. We all suffer. I believe that, and I’m taking this from the great writer Joseph Campbell, that the real quest in life is to become more conscious. So in the quest for wholeness, which I think all stories are about, how can we tell that story in the most dynamic way?

So the concept of the spiritual wound, which is what the fisher king is all about, that for me was the touchstone. I wanted to explore that as simple as possible, and boxing is beautiful in its brevity and simplicity.

What advice would you give writers who also want to try their hand or maybe even embark on a directing path?

If you can get a strong story and arm yourself with some experience in production, then you can seek to fulfill the right to articulate your vision. But you have to arm yourself with knowledge. You can’t be a writer who’s never exposed yourself to production. You have to try and stay as close to a production as possible and serve the production in certain ways. If you’re a writer, perhaps you can be a co-producer in some capacity or maybe even an associate producer. Gain credits and credibility by serving the production and by doing that, you’ll be serving yourself. You’ll be putting arrows in your quiver that will help you drive your career forward towards directing, if that’s your inclination.

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