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The Mixed Martial Arts drama Warrior opens today, and a lot of the critics seem to agree with our own John Rubio’s impression: “What makes Warrior interesting is that all that machismo is used to set up a theme: forgiveness.” That is to say, there’s much more going on here than supertough dudes beating each other senseless. I had a chance to speak with director (and co-writer) Gavin O’Connor on the eve of the film’s release.

First of all, congratulations on getting this made.

That’s a feat in itself, right?

Sure. Especially since this is a Mixed Martial Arts movie that doesn’t give you a Mixed Martial Arts tournament for almost 90 minutes. Instead, it hits you with family dynamics between an ex-drunk father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), and his two sons, Tommy and Brendan (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton). Paddy used to be a drunk, and it’s clear that the wounds brought on by that aren’t even close to healing.

What I said to the studio was, ‘It’s a very slow build, but the emotional impact – which is an aggregate thing over the course of the film – isn’t going to land if we don’t take our time in the beginning. We need to allow the audience to not only understand but also become invested in these two brothers’ lives, and the father’s life. If you’re patient through that, I think the emotional payoff will be effective.”

By the end, the fight is more about the family than it is about the tournament.

Yeah. The $5 million purse becomes almost irrelevant, because the brothers are, in a way, in a spiritual war inside a cage. I call the movie “an intervention inside a cage.” In essence, one brother saves the other’s life by beating the hell out of him.

You directed the hockey movie Miracle back in 2004, and at one point in Warrior, one of the announcers calls an unlikely victory a miracle. And it struck me that sports is one of the few places left where you can use a word like ‘miracle,’ and nobody looks at you funny. And on top of that, sports is one of the few places where you can show hugely powerful men emotionally broken open, even weeping, and nobody looks away in embarrassment. Instead, they’re riveted.

Well, I think there’s nothing more emotional than triumphs in sports – and also, underdogs. I was dealing with underdogs – not only as fighters, but also underdogs in life. So when you take all that, and you get invested in the characters, and you throw them into the tournament, I think it provides an emotionality that, if you have a heart, it will touch it. I was certainly trying to move people, speak to them in a way they could relate to.

The film makes a lot of gutsy moves, beginning with that slow build, and including the use of “Ode to Joy” in a training montage. And then it has the nerve to go and include highbrow literature like Moby Dick in a film about brawling Pittsburgh Irishmen. Tell me about using novel the way you did – with Paddy listening to it as a book on tape throughout the film.

You know how people replace their addictions? Paddy replaces his addiction with books. He becomes an armchair traveler – traveling the world through novels. So when I had to pick a story, I chose Moby Dick, because for Tommy, the old man is the white whale. In the book, there’s only one white whale in the oceans. In Tommy’s eyes, there is no one else like his dad. In the book, the whale bit off Ahab’s leg, and now Ahab is hunting the whale in this megalomaniacal way, in order to kill him in revenge. That’s what Tommy is doing. He’s come home to destroy his father, because he sees his father has having eaten him when he was a boy. When Paddy gets drunk in the hotel room, he calls Tommy on it – he calls him Ahab.

Paddy also begs him to "stop the ship," and he calls Ahab a gutless son of a bitch before breaking down.

That’s where the breakdown begins for Tommy. When Paddy gets drunk and gets in his face, Tommy sees himself in the old man.

My initial note on Tom Hardy’s performance as Tommy is “Tom Hardy as Vin Diesel.” But by the time we get to the scene with Brendan on the beach, I’m writing, “Tom Hardy as Marlon Brando.” He was able to do that pathetic, wounded animal thing that Brando put across so well without ever sacrificing masculinity.

That was the trick to the casting. I needed an actor who had that primal, sort of animalistic quality, and who also had extreme vulnerability, gentleness, and tenderness. Tom Hardy has those things, and they were very important for his character, because Tommy does dastardly things. And when he does them, you have to believe – even if you believe it unconsciously – that what he’s doing is coming from a place of pain. Tom was able to represent that in a pretty potent way.

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