THE BLOG
07/28/2015 01:35 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2016

The Fight for Authenticity in Southpaw

Bryan Steffy via Getty Images

Our lead makeup artist, Liz Bernstrom, had a problem -- and it was entirely my fault.

While shooting one of the fight scenes on our Pittsburgh set of Southpaw, she was having a nearly impossible time keeping the fake blood on our actors' faces and bodies. Keep in mind, when you're shooting a movie you have to pay extremely close attention from take to take that your actors' makeup stays consistent, otherwise the audience will notice that something's not quite right. The fact that Liz was dealing with the complications of fake blood and the likes of prosthetic swollen eyes and noses is not unique to a boxing movie, of course. But I wasn't shooting this like any other boxing movie. Instead of creating the illusion of fights in the ring, I was insistent that we film each fight in three-minute rounds, like an actual match. Could we achieve a respectable scene using a million takes and edits and special effects? Maybe. But my cast and crew will tell you that if there was one thing I was unabashedly passionate about during the making of SOUTHPAW, it was authenticity. I think most of them probably never want to hear that word - authenticity - ever again.

So Liz powered through sweat and hits and a continually rolling camera, making her job a thousand times tougher than it ordinarily would be while making a movie like this.

When Kurt Sutter came to me with his script for the film and Jake Gyllenhaal signed on for the role of Billy Hope, we really had an embarrassment of riches on our hands, because we were all equally adamant when it came to making this as real as possible. A big part of it for me was personal - boxing is a huge part of my life. I got into the sport when I made TRAINING DAY about fifteen years ago, and it's been a part of my day-to-day ever since. No matter what kind of project I'm working on, or where, I make sure there is a ring nearby or right on-set with me. It's a sport that I've come to love and respect and continue to be fascinated by, so it only felt proper to pay homage to it on film in the most realistic way possible.

It's been well-documented at this point what an incredible, grueling training regimen Jake went through to get ready for this part. For six months, twice a day, he was at the gym with me and our first-class trainer Terry Claybon, not just transforming his body to look the part, but really, truly becoming Billy Hope in technique and mindset. If you've seen Nightcrawler, it should come as no surprise that Jake went to all lengths imaginable to help realize my dreams of authenticity for this movie. You watch him on screen and honestly believe you're watching a fighter that's been in the sport for ten, twenty years, not an actor that worked on it for handful of months.

As director, you can have all the wild visions you want for how your film will be created, how the finished product will take shape behind that vision and live on to be remembered accordingly. But that simply is not a conceivable goal without the proper team behind you. For this movie, I knew that in order to portray Billy Hope in an exceedingly authentic light, we needed to immerse the entire team in the sport itself and make our movie set feel not like a movie set, but a real-life match.

Possibly one of the most fortunate things to happen was securing the likes of the boxing world's most established names to lend their talents and guidance during production. For training the actors and choreographing fights we had Terry, who's a thirty-year boxing veteran and has worked with everyone from Muhammad Ali to Denzel Washington. We also had Tony Weeks with us during filming. For anyone who's never watched a professional fight, Tony is a referee who's hands down one of the most familiar and beloved faces in the game. Then there was Jim Lampley and Roy Jones, Jr. on set with us, whose voices and personalities are essentially synonymous with boxing. I pinched myself when I watched playback and heard those two serving as the broadcasters for our fight scenes. And last but certainly not least, I have to mention the magic behind our camerawork. Our DP Mauro Fiore and I joined forces with Todd Palladino and Rick Cypher, who have been shooting fights for HBO Boxing for a collective forty years or so, and shot the matches just as they would have for television, advising us on everything from where the ring girls would stand to how a boxer would walk through the tunnel for his big entrance into an arena.

With all those legends of the sport surrounding us, there were many times when we all forgot we were shooting a movie and weren't just lucky enough to have scored some ungodly expensive ringside seats at a hyped up "fight of the century," as they call them. One night during filming, Jim Lampley and I were sitting talking shop about Michael Nunn and James Tony fighting in Davenport, Iowa in the early '90s. Mid-conversation, Jim suddenly stopped and asked if he was wasting my time with our chat. The answer was no - it was a love of the history and passion behind boxing that drove me to make SOUTHPAW in the first place. Even the tiny, invisible elements like that conversation with Jim informed that authenticity we were trying to accomplish, and for them I am forever grateful.