Bleed for This stars Miles Teller in the true story of boxer Vinny Pazienza, the world-champion boxer who refused to retire after a life-threatening spinal injury sustained in a 1991 car crash. The film will be released by Open Road Films on November 18. Boxoffice recently spoke with director Ben Younger about his 11-year break from directing and how it may have helped rather than hurt his filmmaking, and his unforgettable time at the first-ever showing of The Matrix in 1999.
Your film is based on the true story of Vinny Pazienza, a boxer who refused to retire after a spinal injury. Did you meet Pazienza before filming?
I spent a lot of time with him in Rhode Island, interviewing him, just hanging out. This is the same neighborhood that he grew up in. He still has access to all the people that he grew up with and the old haunts. Rhode Island doesn’t have a sports franchise, so Vinny Paz is kind of “it.” Everywhere you go, people yell on the street, “Hey, Champ! What’s up, Champ?” You can’t buy toilet paper without somebody saying, “Get ’em, Champ.” It’s pretty awesome.
After you met him, what changes—if any—did you make in adapting his story for the screen?
I met him before I wrote the script, so it wasn’t changing so much as informing what direction to go in, getting all this detail about his family. His life is pretty well documented. The [boxing] fights are on YouTube. But they shot a lot of home video. There was a treasure trove of reference material to pull from, to get a sense of his family. His parents had already passed when we made the film. There was so much stuff to look at.
Can you give an example?
There was home video of post-fight. People were waiting in a restaurant for him to come in. You see Jon [played in the film by Daniel Sauli] talking, Doreen, the sister, the mom. Nobody even cares that there’s a video camera running. It’s really intimate. Some if it’s banal, but you don’t care because it’s such an insight. You almost want those moments where they’re just asking for a soda, or other off-the-cuff, casual moments before Vinny walks in. Those are some of my favorites.
The last feature film you directed before this was Prime back in 2005. Did you worry that during that 11-year gap you would lose your skill set or your edge when it came to directing feature films? What did you try to do to keep that muscle prepared?
I did. I worried a lot. There’s nothing that replicates directing. Writing is good, you can do that all you want, but you don’t need a lot of people’s help for it. Filmmaking is pretty specific. So there was definitely a little bit of fear involved in the making of the movie. If you take 11 years off, you’re not allowed to miss. Spielberg can miss—so can anyone who makes a bunch of good movies in a row. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It makes you work harder.
You hired musician Julia Holter, who’s never scored a film. Why?
First-time DP [Director of Photography Will Vinci], first-time costume designer [Melissa Vargas], first-time cinematographer [Larkin Seiple].
I didn’t know that; I just knew about Julia Holter! Why did you take those risks?
I wanted everyone to be as scared as I was. I wanted everyone to be reaching. Sometimes that’s what it takes to get it to the next level. I find that people who are in a place that’s maybe a little bit above their station work twice as hard and are that much hungrier. Sometimes you get really interesting results. The music—Julia Holter, that’s an interesting one. Not only was she enthused and motivated to do something great because she had never done it before—the DP still knows what he has to do; the costume designer knows what she has to do—but [Holter] came at it from a different place because she doesn’t come from a background in cinema. It was a bit of a learning curve, realizing where the emotionality of a scene is and having to build to that. We got some really interesting things out of her. I like directors who don’t go to film school. You make some mistakes, but they also break rules in a more interesting way.
Did you go to film school?
I didn’t, that was me passively plugging myself! [Laughs.]
Can you give an example of something you did in this movie that somebody with a film school or industry background wouldn’t? How did you break some of the rules that you just alluded to?
The car crash [scene] is a good example. Filming a crash like this had never been done before. It came because I’m a drone operator. I like playing with toys. I once taped my iPhone to the bottom of a drone in upstate New York and chased my dog around the backyard. It was a really interesting vantage point. The iPhone is great for sticking under an airplane because it’s so thin, there’s very little drag, and the camera points straight down. That’s not something I probably would have learned in film school. Remember you asked earlier about the 11 years? That’s the good thing about the break: you’re not just stuck in L.A. trying to make movies, you’re out in the world doing other things. When you keep your window open, sometimes you do get ideas that are a little fresher. If I didn’t have varied interests, I’d have never thought of shooting the car crash that way. And we had no money to shoot the car crash. That whole sequence ended up occurring because we couldn’t afford to do the crash in the way that it would have been done in a more conventional manner.
You hired a first-time film composer, costume director, and DP. But arguably the most important personnel decision you made was Miles Teller. At the time he was cast, his biggest role was as a sensitive musician [in Whiplash], not a tough fighter. What made you want to cast him?
Actually, you’re wrong. That movie hadn’t come out yet. I hadn’t seen it. He was off The Spectacular Now, mostly. But even the lighter stuff he’d done, even in Footloose, there are moments where you see the kid has got a spark. That’s that range combined with the way he looks, meaning he’s not a pretty boy. In my movie, everything about it is very real for that area, from the extras casting to the costumes to the design. I couldn’t drop some model or pretty boy actor into all that and have people maintain their belief in the world that I created.
What films, whether boxing films or otherwise, influenced this film?
Martin Scorsese is an executive producer. So obviously Raging Bull was an inspiration, though there’s no relation to it. I’d say we’re closer to The Fighter than we are to Raging Bull. But we didn’t sit and watching boxing movies. We didn’t have time to do anything, frankly. We shot in 24 days.
How did that influence the production process?
That just means you’re shooting seven or eight pages a day. There’s no time for shooting 10, 11, 12 takes on a scene. We’re shooting four or five. That kind of schedule influences a shooting to get it right the first time out. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. I don’t know how much better you get on take eight or nine. For me, five is kind of the magic number. You see different things, it improves, and after that it falls off sharply.
I do have to ask one box office question. You’re opening on Friday, November 18. You’re up against Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Does that worry you at all, that the Harry Potter movie might overwhelm your film?
If I had a movie called Rogue One [the new Star Wars film] and we were opening that weekend, I’d be very worried. I made a $6 million family drama with boxing as the backdrop. It’s apples and oranges. We’re going to do okay on this movie, because we made it for a low price and we made a good movie. There are no monsters, no special effects. We made something very real, very accessible, that this whole country needs at the moment, I think. It’s escapism, but not in a fantastical way. It’s an inspirational story. I can’t say I set out to make one; it’s not my sweet spot. This man inspired me—he got me off my feet and got me writing. Everyone who sees this film, boxing aficionado or otherwise, should feel inspired to get up and do likewise.
You’re saying the process of working on this film changed you?
I would say that. I was having a bit of a low moment. Things weren’t going exactly my way. There were challenges to be overcome. Then you sit down with this guy and see what he did, and you just realize that everything is in scale. Everything is in perspective.
I’m reminded of a great line in the movie Awakenings. The character who’s De Niro’s elderly mother says, “When my child was born perfectly healthy, I didn’t say, ‘Why God? What did I do to deserve this?’ But when my child got sick, you bet I asked.”
That just gave me goosebumps. It’s true. I’ve broken my leg a couple times and other bones. Every time you have a cast on, you’re like, ‘Wow, when this cast comes off, I’m going to be grateful for walking every day.” Then a month later . . . What makes us human? It’s every trauma. It’s really the idea that nothing stays with you. You should keep moving on. You acclimate to everything, whether it’s good or bad. That’s how we’ve come to dominate the planet.
What is your favorite movie theater?
That’s an awesome question! The answer is bittersweet because the theater just closed. It was the theater where I saw The Empire Strikes Back with my dad, the Ziegfeld Theater on 55th Street [in New York City]. It’s no longer. They’re getting rid of it.
What was your favorite moviegoing experience? Was it seeing The Empire Strikes Back?
There, yeah. But my favorite moviegoing experience was strangely enough seeing The Matrix at the Chinese Mann [in Hollywood] on a Wednesday morning. I saw the very first showing of The Matrix in North America. I went with a bunch of nerds, of which I am one. They didn’t tell me what it was and I didn’t ask. That was probably the best moviegoing experience I ever had.
Now the first “bullet shot” with the 360 pan is classic and everybody knows it. But when nobody knew it was coming and nobody had ever seen anything like that in a movie before, did that just blow your mind?
People started cheering, people started screaming. It was like seeing Rocky Horror. It was the coolest thing I have ever experienced, the howls. How interactive that screening was. Who was going to The Matrix on a Wednesday morning at 11? Committed people. It was awesome.
What’s your favorite snack at the concessions stand?
These are questions I have never been asked! I need a second to think about it. [Pauses.] I’d have to go with Raisinets.