Rising stars Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton command the screen as two estranged brothers facing the fight of a lifetime in Lionsgate’s WARRIOR, a moving, inspirational action drama from acclaimed director Gavin O’Connor (“Miracle” and “Pride and Glory”).
Haunted by a tragic past, Marine Tommy Conlon (Hardy) returns home for the first time in fourteen years to enlist the help of his father (Nick Nolte) to train for Sparta, the biggest winner-takes-all event in mixed martial arts history. A former wrestling prodigy, Tommy blazes a path toward the championship while his brother, Brendan (Edgerton), an ex-fighter-turned teacher, returns to the ring in a desperate bid to save his family from financial ruin. But when Brendan’s unlikely, underdog rise sets him on a collision course with the unstoppable Tommy, the two brothers must finally confront each other and the forces that pulled them apart, facing off in the most soaring, soul stirring, and unforgettable climax that must be seen to be believed.
A rousing ode to redemption, reconciliation and the power of the human spirit, WARRIOR is also a moving testament to the enduring bonds of family. WARRIOR stars Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom, Star Wars: Episode III), Tom Hardy (the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Black Hawk Down), Jennifer Morrison ("House", Star Trek) and Nick Nolte (Tropic Thunder, The Thin Red Line). The film is directed by Gavin O'Connor; screenplay by Gavin O’Connor & Anthony Tambakis & Cliff Dorman and story by Gavin O'Connor & Cliff Dorfman. Lionsgate and Mimran Schur Pictures present a Lionsgate / Mimran Schur Pictures production. A Solaris Entertainment and Filmtribe production.
about the production
What Do You Fight For?
That is the central question of director Gavin O’Connor’s WARRIOR. The movie is an intense glimpse into the world of a sport never before shown like this on film. More than that though, it’s an intense glimpse into a family’s journey from brokenness to reparation, and into the hearts of two brothers – one fighting for his country, the other for his family – both tapping into immense stores of vigor and courage.
WARRIOR thrives on the juxtaposition of its portrayal of something as contemporary, infectious, and specific as the phenomenon that is mixed martial arts with a story that is thoroughly classic, a story of family. In fact, mano-a-mano chronicles of estranged brothers confronting one another are one of the oldest themes in literature, and telling one in such a fresh setting was O’Connor’s primary inspiration for making the film. While the movie was indeed an opportunity for him to realistically dramatize a not-yet-mainstream sport with a major mystique, the story is really for and about “people who live warrior lives,” – everyday heroes fighting everyman fights for better opportunities and better relationships.
The start of the film finds Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) back in the orbit of a broken family he’d given up on years ago. When he and his mother escaped his abusive father Paddy (Nick Nolte), his brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) stayed behind to be close to his high school girlfriend Tess (Jennifer Morrison), to whom he is now married. Though Paddy and Tommy have made a patchy truce in order to train together once again, communication between the brothers is nonexistent when they both make a surprise ascent up the rungs of the nationally televised Sparta tournament. The matches, explains O’Connor, are the backdrop to “a story about two brothers on a collision course who have to deal with their past in the present day, in a cage, communicating with their fists to rectify a very painful situation.”
Although by facing off the brothers are ultimately able to break through many years of pent up hostility and regret, each has more than their fraternal relationship at stake in the tournament. Each really needs to win the giant cash prize, though for very different reasons. Brendan’s family has been hit hard by the economic crisis and he and Tess are in deep debt on their modest house. Having exhausted all other avenues, Brendan, a longtime high school teacher, reluctantly revisits his distant past and begins moonlighting in small local underground fights, hoping to win enough money to stay in the house for another month while they can figure out a viable solution. When his fighting gets him suspended from his teaching job, a comeback that began in parking lots out of desperation for quick extra cash morphs into a personal crusade: to be taken seriously as a fighter despite his age and long absence from the sport, and to push himself as far as he can possibly go.
Tommy, on the other hand, is a lone wolf. He joined the Marine Corps after his mother’s death and has been drifting and falling into trouble since he returned from Iraq. When we first meet him, Tommy’s past is a mystery and his motives are inscrutable. But as the story unfolds, we learn he made a promise to a fallen comrade to take care of his family in the event of his death. Now, he is fighting for the money to fulfill that promise. Should he win the $5 million grand prize at Sparta, he has pledged to give it all to the now single mother and small children his former friend left behind.
Balancing the audience’s sympathies and alliances between the brothers was one of the biggest challenges inherent in the filmmaking. With both of them fighting for something so important, as O’Connor puts it, “you’re rooting for Tommy to keep winning, and you’re rooting for Brendan to keep winning.” But then, the audience is faced with a decision: who they root for when the brothers finally face each other. In O’Connor’s mind, despite Tommy’s noble motives for entering the tournament, the trick to the movie is that the audience has to be ready to see Tommy lose, which for him is also actually to win. He elaborates, “Tommy’s win is losing, because he’s so spiritually bankrupt. He needs to die at the hands of his brother to be reborn. It’s very Old Testament storytelling in the most contemporary way.”
In many ways, the project was a second-nature stop on O’Connor’s filmmaking trajectory. Many of his colleagues on the film see WARRIOR as sitting firmly at the intersection of the sentiments and stories at the heart of his previous films “Miracle” and “Pride and Glory.” “Gavin brought an energy and a populist quality to ‘Miracle’ that had you standing on your feet cheering at the end of the movie, despite the fact that you knew exactly what was going to happen,” explains producer Greg O’Connor. “He’s an All-American college linebacker. He understands camaraderie, how sports work. ‘Pride and Glory’ was sort of an evolution of Gavin’s style – a very intense, muscular cop movie, a hard ‘R’ where ‘Miracle’ was meant for a broad audience.” Greg O’Connor points out that WARRIOR combines the best of both of these films. “We get the investment in the sport and the on-your-feet cheering response from ‘Miracle,’ but also the drama – the story of a father-son relationship getting torn apart and put back together again –, with some of the grit of ‘Pride and Glory.’ That makes this the perfect movie for Gavin.”
Another thing that made this film the perfect fit for O’Connor was his credibility in the fight world, after having produced the acclaimed 2003 HBO documentary “The Smashing Machine: The Life and Times of Mark Kerr,” which took a hard look at the life of MMA fighter Kerr in and out of the ring, as he battled his own demons and attempted to hold his personal life together while traveling the world as a mixed martial arts professional. The film was noted especially for presenting Kerr as an intelligent man who made a calculated decision to pursue a career in a physically dangerous sport. The honest portrayal is what resonated with so many in the professional fight community, which led to their support of O’Connor’s desire to make a fictional film set in their world. Says JJ Perry, the film’s stunt coordinator and fight choreographer, “’Smashing Machine’ is my favorite documentary of all time. It really captures what MMA is, and it came out before the sport was popular. I knew immediately that if WARRIOR was in the same hands, it was with someone who understood and would do justice to what we love as stuntmen, martial artists and fighters. That’s what really got us here.”
O’Connor’s original, enduring story idea was one about two brothers who haven’t seen each other in fourteen years and end up fighting for the world championship, both coming up as extreme underdogs. Although on paper the story might sound farfetched, the door to the room where Anthony Tambakis and Gavin wrote bore a sign with the Aristotle quote “A convincing impossibility is better than an unconvincing possibility.” To them, this meant that in the world of fiction, anything is possible if it’s told truthfully. Despite starting in two extraordinary sets of circumstances and meeting in an against-all-odds scenario at the film’s climax, the brothers’ journey has a deep-seated veracity. Tambakis drew inspiration from the real life examples of the Williams sisters facing off at Wimbledon, the likely eventuality of the Manning brothers playing against one another in the Super Bowl, and the Ukraine’s Heavyweight Champion Klitschko brothers. “It seems impossible, yet it isn’t impossible. That was our job,” he explains, of making the seemingly unlikely feel absolutely authentic.
That kind of artful storytelling is exactly what lends the movie an appeal beyond sport-specific fans or even general sports fans. Although WARRIOR offers a glimpse into the world of the sport, it was made for a general audience, a huge portion of which will no doubt be completely unfamiliar with of it. Not a problem, as O’Connor explains, “If you don’t know it technically, you’re going to get it emotionally, because every fight has a story. And the dynamic of the story within each fight is very clear. It’s as simple as, ‘I’m rooting for him. And I know that if his hand goes up, he won. If the other guy taps, that guy lost.’” A viewer may not understand arm bars and grappling techniques, but it doesn’t matter because they understand the stakes of each fight. The fighting is contextualized and dramatized very clearly. Adds co-writer Tambakis, “To talk about WARRIOR as a fight movie is like saying “Rocky” is a boxing movie, or “Breaking Away” is a bicycle movie, or “Hoosiers” is a basketball movie. They’re not. They’re character pieces that are set in a specific world, like all good stories are set in a specific world.” Audiences walk away from all satisfying movies learning something about a world they previously knew nothing about, and this film is no different.
While making the movie meant to capture so many specifics of a rarely-portrayed sport and sports culture, the obvious question would be how to cast the film—with real fighters who would be trained to act, or with professional actors who would be taught to fight. For O’Connor, there was no question. The emotional complexity of the roles demanded experienced actors. Convinced that a traditional actor-director rapport and a common language of film was key and that with enough commitment, actors with natural athleticism could be trained to look like authentic fighters on screen, O’Connor set out to cast the film’s two pivotal roles.
Finding an actor with an absolutely unique balance of opposite qualities to play Tommy Conlon, a character who does some unlikeable things and who is often unpleasant but whose core goodness and vulnerability must be ever apparent to the audience, was the key to the film first and foremost. O’Connor had read close to 200 actors for the part when after an initial phone conversation, he arranged for an in-person meeting with Tom Hardy. “It wasn’t a traditional audition” explains Hardy, who was confident in the dramatic essence of the character but had fierce initial doubts about whether he could “close the gap” presented by the accent transformation, physical transformation, and cultural transformations the role required. After sharing his concerns with O’Connor, the two settled on a pow-wow in the United States to do some reading, development and analysis, and hopefully arm Hardy with a fully rounded character. That experience turned out to be more in-depth than O’Connor ever imagined. He recounts, “(Hardy) showed up at my house at midnight on a Sunday, unannounced. Just a knock on the door, and there’s Tom Hardy. He was supposed to go to a hotel, but instead stayed at my house for five days. He never left, so I got to know him very well. And the qualities that he had as a human being were just right for the character.”
Hardy’s co-star Edgerton feels strongly that the people with the most interesting lives off-screen make the most interesting presences on screen, and thinks that Hardy’s performance falls squarely into that category. He feels that the key to playing this combustible character was that “Tom is definitely a character in real life, a really loving, lovely, thoughtful, intelligent guy. He’s a complex guy and that shows through in his work.”
The next step was finding the right actor to play Tommy’s brother Brendan. The brothers are almost psychological mirror images – where Tommy is full of surface rage that masks the decent person he really is, Brendan is very mature and thoughtful, but harbors a fierce fighting spirit at his core. With a black belt in karate and a famed Australian stunt coordinator for a brother, Joel Edgerton had the athletic background O’Connor was looking for. But he also had the key layers the role of Brendan required. O’Connor needed an actor who the audience could sense straight away had an abundance of integrity, and “integrity reeks off him. You can’t fake that.” However, the role also demanded someone that the audience would believe had a past. “Brendan was a fighter when he was younger, and he got into some trouble,” O’Connor elaborates. “But he’s evolved and become a man, a father, a great husband. Still, there’s something primal about him. So you need to see in his eyes that he could have the capacity to regress, to drink and throw a punch.” It’s a balance that O’Connor thinks today’s Australian actors exhibit more readily than their American contemporaries, an Aussie mystique of sorts. Edgerton’s co-star Nick Nolte also makes the connection, pointing out a discernable “pioneering spirit” from Australian actors of Edgerton’s generation.
Jennifer Morrison adds of her on-screen husband, “Joel has a huge heart. He always wants the best for those around him, and he’s incredibly disciplined. Having all those qualities in Joel obviously infused the character of Brendan. They automatically make you want to stand behind him and root for him. Whether it’s him working out his finances, saving his family, or winning the fight, you want him to win.”
Casting the role of Paddy didn’t require an international search. In fact, Gavin had to look no further than down his own street. The part of Paddy, a man very much in need of redemption, was actually written for O’Connor’s neighbor and friend Nick Nolte, who was originally cast in “Pride and Glory,” but had a last-minute scheduling conflict that prohibited his participation. O’Connor and Tambakis both grew up as enormous fans of Nolte’s work and vowed to write him a special part. O’Connor tells of humoring everyone on the production by “pretending to go through the lists” of suggestions for the role, all the while knowing that it should and hopefully would belong to Nolte in the end. “He’s a national treasure,” says O’Connor, “and I wanted to use him how he’s best and hoped the role would remind everyone what he’s capable of.”
“Acting is a contact sport for Nick,” says Hardy of his co-star. “You’re going into the room with somebody who’s going to judge you on your give and take. He’s a live wire, an actor with incredible presence.”
Though the primary relationships explored in the film are father-son and fraternal, Jennifer Morrison’s character Tess is in many ways the “heartbeat of the film,” as producer Greg O’Connor puts it. Where Paddy is holding together Tommy’s side of the fight, his training and his business, Tess is holding Brendan’s world together. “If it’s not for Tess’s female qualities holding these men together,” explains co-star Nick Nolte, “we don’t have a film.” With the audience’s investment in Brendan and Tess’ relationship the key to their emotional investment in the final fight and indeed the whole story, the filmmakers were prepared for a vast search for their Tess. But Gavin O’Connor tells of turning to the casting director after hearing from Morrison, only the fifth actress to read, and calling off the search on the spot. “That very rarely happens, and when it does, we don’t challenge the movie gods on those things. She just had it. She had the fire, the spirit, the compassion, the sexiness, the toughness, the maternal qualities.” On-screen husband Edgerton agrees, “The warmth of Jen becomes the warmth of Tess. The goodness you see on screen is a quality that cannot be manufactured for a role.”
For all of the actors, understanding the complicated, emotional history of the characters’ relationships was a key part of their preparation. Tommy and Brendan haven’t seen each other in fourteen years and beyond being out of touch, they are completely estranged when they reunite. Conversely, Brendan and Tess have shared a fourteen-year marriage that grew out of a high school courtship. The challenge for each actor was to believably erase – or instantly populate – fourteen years of a shared story with another actor prior to shooting. Along with O’Connor, all kinds of details were discussed and explored with the actors that according to him “eventually worked their way into the DNA of the script and the movie,” going deeper and deeper until “it had footprints and fingerprints that just felt truthful.”
Perhaps as important as any of the above, the locations where WARRIOR was filmed and is set truly become characters. After originally considering a range of gritty, working class locations such as the docks and gyms of Long Beach, California, O’Connor and his team ultimately chose Pittsburgh as both the film’s shooting location and the story’s setting. “Pennsylvania felt right,” says the director. “Pennsylvania is wrestling country, it’s football country. I went to Pittsburgh and fell in love with the ‘working class poetry’ of that city. Its trains, its rivers, its churches. It’s a tough environment and its textures just felt right.”
The filmmakers also chose to forgo the glitz of Las Vegas for the grittier atmosphere of Atlantic City for the tournament. “I love the way it looks,” explains O’Connor. “It was the hub of boxing many years ago, and now it’s kind of downtrodden. I loved the look of the beach, the old boardwalk, casinos that are falling apart.” But another major selling point for the filmmakers was the fact that Atlantic City had not been photographed in quite some time. On all levels, from the sport it portrays to the settings where it portrays them, the film felt like an opportunity to show a world on film that is little-seen in the medium.
Stunt coordinator JJ Perry was also satisfied with the chosen shooting location, explaining that filming in a city like Pittsburgh really brought everyone together to focus on the training and work in total “eat, train, and sleep” mode in a way that might not have happened in a more cosmopolitan environment.
Although Edgerton’s physical preparation involved gaining almost twenty pounds of muscle for the role, his fighting style in the film didn’t call for him to bulk up beyond recognition. Perry describes Edgerton’s physical presence in the film, in contrast to Hardy’s, as that more of a technician. “He uses jiu-jitsu, the slick maneuvers, and is the underdog who comes from nowhere whereas Tom is like the Raging Bull that just comes through and wrecks everything in his wake.” Edgerton describes his training experience as being a physical, mental and emotional “patchwork.”
While both lead actors were put on a grueling ten-week, full-time training regimen and a strict high protein diet of six small meals per day, Hardy’s regimen focused much more on heavy weightlifting with the goal of bulking up, ultimately to the tune of twenty-eight additional pounds of muscle put on for the part. Unlike Edgerton, Hardy didn’t have previous athletic experience. The son of a Cambridge academic father, Hardy is the first to admit that prior to WARRIOR, he was not a fighting man, and not intimately familiar with “alpha male territory.” While the structure of his training days, which consisted of two hours of boxing, followed by two hours of kickboxing and Muay Thai, followed by two hours of choreography, and finally two hours of lifting, won’t be missed by Hardy (who Perry lovingly described during training as “carb-depleted, angry and moody”), the sense of accomplishment and athletic prowess gained as a result of appearing in the film will be forever treasured.
Edgerton concurs, relaying a somewhat transcendent moment during filming: “I always imagined that when you’re fighting, the crowd just disappears, and I had an experience of that sort on set. You can see them, you can hear them, but for some reason, when you step into the ring, it all falls away. Then you step out, and you’re like ‘Oh, that’s right. There are thousands of people watching.’”
With three World MMA Awards to his name, and having been named the 8th Most Powerful Man in MMA by Fight! Magazine, the legendary Greg Jackson was a technical advisor for the film. Jackson has trained many successful fighters, including current UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre. He is also the trainer of former King of Pancrase Nate Marquardt, who appears in the film. On WARRIOR, he would be entrusted to run both lead actors through their grueling training regimen.
Production of the fight scenes went on for six straight weeks, with over two hundred hours of footage ultimately shot for the film, much of it extra fight coverage. As the shoot began, training transitioned from Jackson’s Albuquerque, New Mexico facility to the Pittsburgh Fight Club, which played dual host to the production, both as a setting for the film’s gym scenes and as the cast’s off-camera training center. While both actors did have stunt doubles, Edgerton and Hardy themselves eventually completed at least 85% of the fight work seen on screen. Observes Jackson, “I was incredibly impressed with the quality of the actors on this project. They were dedicated to really understanding what it takes to be high-level fighters and trainers. They partook in heavy training and the results speak for themselves. I was honored to be a part of such a significant project for our art. The script positively shows the great impact MMA can have on individuals and families.”
Filming mixed martial arts fight scenes presented a unique set of challenges. For one, the gloves used in MMA are four ounce gloves – far thinner and less padded than boxing gloves – and fighters’ chests and legs are exposed. Describing how little room for protection there was, Perry says, “If we do a fight scene in a nightclub and you’re wearing clothes, I can use knee pads and elbow pads. We can cheat a lot of things.” Though small concessions were made, like replacing the gloves’ thin padding with equally thin but higher density padding and installing a special gymnastics style spring floor in the bottom of the cage to help absorb impact, at the end of the day, both actors had to literally throw themselves into a physically precarious shooting environment.
They also had to face real fighters, some of the best in the world, from across a multitude of specialties. The film features Olympic champion wrestler and Pittsburgh local hero Kurt Angle as Koba, the Russian wrestling champion who is expected to win Sparta. Though his screen time is limited to one match, his shadow hangs over the entire film as a fearsome opponent. In fact, the shadow of Angle himself, as well as those of fellow world class martial arts professionals who make appearances in the film, from Nate Marquardt, Erik Apple, Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, and Yves Edwards, hung over the set as forces to be reckoned with.
It was a challenge not just to train the two lead actors as credible fighters, but train real fighters who have spent a lifetime physically crushing opponents to the ways of stunt fighting, or “selling” punches versus actually throwing them. In other words, Perry’s challenge was to train the fighters “not to wreck the actors,” as he puts it. Despite his best efforts though, the occasional punch did accidentally connect, and there were a handful of “comes with the territory” injuries on set, including Hardy’s personal tally of a torn ligament, broken foot and cracked rib, and a serious injury to the MCL of Edgerton’s right knee that jeopardized the shooting schedule. Despite doctor’s warnings, the Australian toughed it out and finished the shoot despite the tear in his knee. Perhaps the steepest learning curve for each of the film’s real fighters, however, was to go against the grain of everything they’ve ever learned and accept that they would ultimately lose the bout in their filmed fight.
Apart from the real fighters shown in WARRIOR, so many other people who appeared in the film or participated behind the scenes are renowned members of the sport’s community or just plain passionate about it.
Officiating the film’s visceral fights was longtime professional referee Josh Rosenthal, one of the top refs in the world and himself a jujitsu brown belt. Rosenthal was quite at home in the role, having refereed over 2,000 real life fights. A staunch admirer of the way O’Connor has captured the heart and soul of bouts from a fighter’s perspective as well as the infectious crowd energy of the live events, Rosenthal also had an abundance of compliments for the two lead actors. “They really stepped up,” he says. “They put themselves through the paces to perform with guys that are world class athletes at the top of their sport.”
In addition, the film’s ringside announcer is none other than acclaimed sportswriter Sam Sheridan, author of the acclaimed national bestsellers “A Fighter’s Heart: One Man’s Journey Through the World of Fighting,” and most recently “The Fighter’s Mind: Inside The Mental Game.”
As a jiu-jitsu purple belt and boxer, “Pride and Glory” actor and dear friend of the director Frank Grillo was a natural fit to play Brendan’s trainer Frank Campana, modeled to some extent on Greg Jackson. To prepare for the role, Grillo spent over a month with the famed trainer in New Mexico, being schooled in the art of training and closely observing Jackson’s work with Hardy, Edgerton and the professional fighters.
One thing that struck the filmmakers and actors about the professional fighters was their gentlemanly ethic. “There’s a real vein of humility, honor and respect that underpins their sport,” explains Hardy. “People are finding kinship and craftsmanship within this sport. It’s an art form.” He continues, “I didn’t see that coming – to see that these beings that could tear me limb from limb are actually really gentle personalities that you could take home to Mom, that’s quite the opposite of what you’d expect. These are young professionals who really care about what they do.”
When it came to choreographing and shooting the fight scenes, O’Connor had a very specific set of criteria in mind. “I didn’t want any Hong Kong fighting,” he explains. Not to be misunderstood, he clarifies, “It looks great. It’s highly stylized and it’s great cinema, but it’s movie stuff.” O’Connor went so far as to decree that he didn’t want any move in the film he couldn’t see on YouTube in a clip from a real match. To make sure they got it right and were economical with time when the cameras started rolling, Perry pre-shot digital video mock-ups of each fight scene as he was envisioning it for Gavin’s approval before filming began.
It was also important to work closely with top cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, an up-and-coming director of photography who was a protégé of Rodrigo Prieto on “Babel,” on honing the perfect cinematic style for WARRIOR. In tandem with the fight choreography, O’Connor knew he needed the sequences filmed in an intimate way rather than with a glossy veneer. Takayanagi learned an immense amount about the sport to prepare for the shoot, and together he and O’Connor developed a very specific style involving multiple cameras, long lenses and a good deal of hand held work that afforded the right kind of intimacy and an extremely naturalistic look.
At the end of the day, for all of the ‘stand in your seat and cheer’ infectious energy of the film’s climax, it’s the intimacy and truthfulness of the whole story that makes it really hit home. Looking back at his personal filmmaking journey, director Gavin O’Connor reflects, "I would never have been able to make WARRIOR without having made my other films. They freed me to up the artistic and emotional ante, and though there's a continuity, I think I found in myself a voice that is stronger and more concentrated. I have no idea how the film is going to be received commercially, but I do know artistically it's been the most satisfying and fulfilling experience of my career."