How the fight scenes for the Vinny Paz movie were shot
The year is 1991. The Soviet Union has collapsed, the Dow has closed over 3000 for the first time, and I'm at the Providence Civic Center for a classic on USA's Tuesday Night Fight series. The fans -- men in wide-lapel suits and moustaches, women in slinky dresses and teased hairdos -- are all on their feet as Vinny Pazienza readies to fight Gilbert Dele for his WBA junior middleweight belt. Dele is from Paris by way of Guadeloupe and is making his second defense of the title. Pazienza was born and raised in Cranston, Rhode Island -- practically down the block -- and is fighting in only his second bout since vaulting up in weight from 140 pounds to 154. In the center of the ring, the two fighters bounce jauntily on their toes. The crowd goes nuts. The bell rings. Here comes the ...
"Action!" barks a voice.
Okay, I am standing in the Providence Civic Center, but the year is 2014. Punches are thrown, but none land. The stands aren't filled with 10,000 ticket holders (like the night of the actual fight), but 1,000 extras have been lured with the promise of free sandwiches, soft drinks and the chance to win a WBA championship belt signed by Paz. The two men facing off aren't even Dele and Paz. Instead, a pro Haitian southpaw named Jean Pierre Augustin squares off against 29 year-old actor Miles Teller.
I'm ringside for a scene from "Bleed for This," a feature film based on the life of Vinny Pazienza. A month after the actual 1991 Dele/Paz fight, Pazienza cracked his third and fourth vertebra in a horrific car accident. If he was lucky, doctors said, he'd walk again. But he couldn't fight. Pazienza, known for his determination and guts far more than talent, didn't heed doctors' warnings. He rehabbed and rebuilt himself with the same maniacal style that earned him the moniker "The Pazmanian Devil." A year after breaking his neck, Paz returned to the ring. In their "Boxing's Book of Lists," boxing cognoscenti Bert Sugar and Teddy Atlas named Paz's return to the ring the second-greatest career comeback in the sport's history -- only behind 45-year-old George Foreman's 1994 upset of Michael Moorer.
The film project began six years ago, when movie producer and Providence lifer Chad Verdi acquired the rights to the Paz story. Angelo Pizzo, who'd penned the movies Hoosiers and Rudy, wrote the script. Scott Caan and his dad, James, were asked to play Paz and his old man, Angelo. But the best-laid plans didn't pan out. The Caans found themselves with scheduling conflicts. Names floated around -- Peter Facinelli (Nurse Jackie, Twilight) to play Paz, Al Pacino to portray Angelo. A nagging problem, however, prevented Verdi from pulling the trigger.
"We had a good script but not a great one," Verdi explains in his heavy Rhode Island brogue. "Can't make a great movie with a good script -- and even with a great script, you can still make a bad movie."
The tipping point arrived in the form of Ben Younger. The 41-year-old writer/director (Boiler Room, Prime) tossed the original script and started from scratch. His version thrilled Verdi, who then brought it to Martin Scorsese (through Verdi's contacts in Rhode Island politics), who jumped on board as executive producer.
With "Maty's" blessing (a silent "r" as Verdi pronounces it), the project quickly gathered momentum. Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen (American Beauty) came aboard, and the cast fell into place: Aaron Eckhart (London Has Fallen, The Dark Knight, Thank You For Smoking) as trainer Kevin Rooney, Ciarán Hinds (Game of Thrones, There Will Be Blood) as Paz's dad Angelo, and Katie Segal (Sons of Anarchy) as mother Louise Pazienza.
The final piece of the puzzle? Miles Teller. The Downingtown, Pennsylvania native is blue-collar handsome, as evidenced by his recent breakthrough roles in The Spectacular Now and Whiplash. Teller radiates a raw, physical intensity. Wears his emotions on his sleeve. Burns with a hunger that is far from dainty or precious. In 2007, Teller was in his own near-fatal car crash and still has facial scars to prove it.
Still, the film wasn't smooth sailing. What should have been a $25 million dollar movie had less than $7 million for a budget. The actors, according to Verdi, weren't "in tune" at the start, and tensions ran high. Teller, who stands at 6-foot-2, had to pull a Robert DeNiro-esqe move from Raging Bull, dropping from 200-plus pounds to a sinewy 160 pounds for the staging of the Roger Mayweather fight (in real life, Paz's weight loss and subsequent dehydration sent him to the hospital after the bout). And Teller, a sweet science neophyte, had to learn to move and behave like a fighter.
"Miles is an extremely physical actor," Younger says. "And studious. The same way he took on drumming in Whiplash he's taken on boxing. Not just the specificity of boxing but the training."
A task harder than it looked.
"A couple times I told him to stop crying," Pazienza says with a laugh, regarding Teller's training sessions. "This is what I did for a living. You only have to do a couple hours a day for a few weeks."
Then there was Younger's challenge: making sure the movie magic looks real. Directors such as David O. Russell (The Fighter), Ron Sheldon (Play it to the Bone) and Scorsese have all had to deal with this problem when creating fight films.
"I'd never done a fight sequence," Younger says. "Never even had a punch thrown. So the hardest part about that is the choreography and matching camera angles. I learned very quickly how some were great and some simply weren't."
To ensure the fight-scene authenticity -- of which there are three: Paz versus Mayweather (played by former middleweight titlist Peter Quillin), Dele and Roberto Duran (played by light heavyweight Edwin Rodriguez) -- the producers hired Darrell Foster, a veteran fight choreographer who consulted on Play it to the Bone and turned Will Smith into a believable Ali.
"Miles had already done training on his own," Foster says. "But not the right type. He looked at it as rock 'em sock 'em robots, but he lacked the basic foundation. Balance, movement, generating power from the ground up."
Foster began schooling Teller, and he asked the actor one simple thing that made all the difference: Can you dance?
"Miles broke off into James Brown and Michael Jackson," Foster says. "I knew I'd struck gold. All we had to do was put the two and two together."
The most sensitive critic has been pleased with the process.
"It was a little weird watching someone play me, but Miles has been unbelievable," Paz says. "In the ring, he's good! Throwing body shots and rockets -- just like the old Vinny."
The 1991 Dele/Paz bout lasted 45 minutes with Paz earning the TKO victory in the 11th round. Today's recreation lasted 10-plus hours, more grueling in some ways than boxing. Yet if all goes as planned, Younger will have made a movie more memorable than the fight itself.