Sunday, May 7, 2017

Director of Liev Schreiber’s ‘Chuck’ Really Wanted to be an Archaeologist

Director Philippe Falardeau
Director Philippe Falardeau (IMDB)

INTERVIEW

Philippe Falardeau, known for directing Reese Witherspoon’s movie, The Good Lie, is French Canadian, so it might seem strange that he was chosen to direct a movie about former American boxer Chuck Wepner from New Jersey. Then again, given his love for archaeology, its a wonder he’s directing movies at all. Earlier this week I had the privilege of interviewing this humble director and chatted about his early days of filmmaking, and how he wound up in the director’s chair for the upcoming movie, Chuck coming to theaters on May 12.

First of all, a little bit about the movie. In 1975, Chuck Wepner took on world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and lasted almost 15 rounds with the champ. According to Wepner, it was that fight that was the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. Unfortunately, it was also the incident that helped to fuel Chuck’s false sense of fame that almost destroyed his life. He was able to find redemption before it got too late. Like myself, Falardeau wasn’t aware of Wepner’s story before reading the script that was sent to him by his agent.

“As I was reading that I kept saying ‘Wow! Wow! That really happened? I didn’t know that,’ but as I was reading it, I didn’t feel that I was the right person to do it. The next morning I wake up and it’s still with me and when that happens, it means something,” says Philippe. “I started to think about it and I was fascinated by what he had accomplished by the Rocky mythology and by the fact that this man despite all of the mistakes that he does, you still like him. He still remains very lovable.”


Liev Schreiber in Chuck
Liev Schreiber in Chuck. (IFC Films)
Philippe was able to get a phone interview with one of the producers and actor Liev Schreiber (who had been signed on to play the part of Wepner) and shared his vision for the film. Philippe says that he felt that he and Schreiber connected on many levels but even after Chuck was completed, he still wonders how he got involved in the first place. “I keep thinking that it was strange that a French Canadian would come in a very specific Americana film like that and come out of it alive.” He tells me.

Chuck also stars Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perman and Michael Rappaport. The actors are all so good in their roles that I had a hard time recognizing them. I asked Philippe if any of actor’s performances surprised him.

“Yes and no. We often ask ourselves when we throw around names, ‘Is he or she able to do that role?’ I think that answer is always, if they are a good actor, then yes, they will get there and I had the chance to work with very good actors,” says Falardeau. “The thing was, we just had to make sure that if felt real in terms of environment. We’re talking about the 70s in New Jersey, so when you talk about someone like Mike Rappaport, you know that you’re in business because he knows that culture. He’s from that region. Naomi Watts, when you think about, was a more interesting choice in the sense that she not from here, so she had to do a lot of work dialect-wise, but she is such a professional and such a workaholic that I think she did a pretty good job doing the Brooklynite. Liev is also someone who has an extremely good ear.”

I mentioned that I was surprised to see Jim Gaffigan in the film playing Wepner's good friend John. Philippe admitted that he took a chance with Gaffigan. “I love Jim. I think he’s from the Midwest and Liev and I said, ‘Ah, we’re looking for some people who are more from here,’ but he was gracious enough to come twice to the auditions and the second time, he made me laugh so hard, not necessarily doing the scenes, but pitching me that he was going to be John, that he would be a great John.” And the truth is, he is.

Philippe also had some kind things to say about the other actors in the film as well. “Michael Rappaport for me was great to work with but the candy, or the icing on the cake was to work with Ron Pearlman. He is such a character himself in life. I remember seeing him in Quest for Fire like 30 years ago when I was a kid. I was so impressed.”

"Chuck" poster
(IFC Films)
Chuck isn’t the only film being made about Wepner’s life. Actor Zach McGowan is also playing the boxer in a competing film called American Brawler that was actually being filmed the same time as Chuck. Philippe tells me that he first learned about the rival film when someone informed him that they were shooting just two blocks away from where he was filming. However, Philippe says that it is was the script for his film that Wepner approved. Last year, The Guardian reported that Wepner was suing a former business associate for allegedly stealing his life story for the rival film.

As for making movies, Philippe tells me that “it was an accident.” He explained that he had initially wanted to work with political science but that got sidetracked when he auditioned for the French Canadian TV series Race Around the World. “Every year they would choose eight young people and they would have to travel alone for six months with a SVHS camera and shoot 20 short films in 20 countries in 26 weeks. One year I decided to submit my name and to my surprise, they chose me to go on the trek for the next program in 1993.”

At the time, he didn’t have any experience with a camera. “I would arrive typically to a country like Columbia, Panama, Libya wherever…I had to find a subject, shoot it, lock myself in a crappy hotel room, do the editing, send the film and everything back to Canada by FedEx where it was edited and shown on live television before a panel of judges. I won the race that year so that kind of shifted my plans.”

After Race Around the World had aired, Philippe began getting offers to do some documentaries which led to his first fiction film, the mockumentary The Left Hand Side of the Fridge in 2000. So, I confirmed that he basically began directing films on whim.

“Yeah. Maybe I won’t be doing this all my life,” he says. “I really wanted to become an archaeologist actually and I’m still thinking about that – there’s not a week that goes by that I don’t think about archaeology. It’s my real passion, but it would be tough at this point in my life to leave cinema for that. I think that there would be huge drop in salary.”

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