Though the sport of boxing has fallen out of favor among fight fans with the growing influence of MMA, the sport of boxing remains an indelible part of the cinematic landscape. The latest boxing film to grace the silver screen is Bleed for This, based on the unbelievable comeback story of Vinny Pazienza, who was in a horrific car crash that broke his neck and placed not only his career in jeopardy but his life. Despite the pleas of medical professionals, Vinny trained and returned to the ring victoriously, scoring a major upset victory over Roberto Duran in 1994.
“I wanted to tell this story simply because of the comeback,” writer-director Ben Younger said of his film. “I mean, Vinnie won 50 fights. I’m sure to real boxing aficionados that would be a real exciting thing. I’m not one of them. For me, it was all about the crash and the comeback.”
Younger scored success early in his career with films like Boiler Room and Prime only to take an extended sabbatical from filmmaking. “I started this as a writing assignment,” he said. “I wasn’t supposed to direct this. I didn’t think I wanted to direct it. Once I realized there was a parallel between his story and mine. You know, I took a long time off. I didn’t make a movie for 12 years, which is kind of like having a broken neck.”
The shoot for Bleed for This was incredibly short considering the physicality of the action and the choreography necessary to bring the fights to the screen. “I was fairly prepared. Also there was too much on the line,” Younger continued. “If you make a movie every two years and some of them are fairly successful, either commercially or critically, you get a few like, ‘You can screw this one up.’ You get a few passes. You go into director jail for, like, six months. But if you don’t make a movie for 12 years you don’t have a choice. If I didn’t nail this one it’s game over.”
Starring as Vinny Pazienza is Miles Teller, the young star whose career is on a mercurial ascent at present. “The physicality was very tough,” the actor said. “To get that look, for me, and just be able to have that conditioning to be able to shoot a boxing fight. That last fight was the only time we went overtime. That was like a 16-hour day. We did those last two fights on back-to-back days. Each fight took one day which was unheard of.”
Teller took the abbreviated shoot and the physical transformation required for the role in stride. “We shot in 24 days,” Teller explained. “To even just look like a boxer took eight months – I had to shoot two movies in between – but that was eight months of very strict diet and working out, and got down to 6% body fat for the first fight. But Vinny also moved up in weight – one title lightweight and the other junior middle – and we showed that. I started at 168 pounds and had to gain 15 pounds to get to 183 in like two and a half weeks. Once I had to gain weight it was fun.”
Co-starring as Pazienza’s trainer Kevin Rooney is Aaron Eckhart, who himself committed to a physical transformation for his role. “Kevin Rooney, at this time, had just been fired by Tyson. He was once a good fighter himself. He sort of lost himself, gained weight and was psychologically damaged, felt betrayed and started drinking and gambling and let himself go,” Eckhart explains of his role. “That’s when we first met him. Both our trainer and fighter have basically been dismissed. I played a real person. I tried to look like him. I gained 40 pounds. I shaved my head and tried to tackle that accent.”
The physical transformation required of the actors wasn’t limited to weight loss and weight gain, as Vinny Pazienza spent months with a halo screwed into his skull so as not to allow his movement impede on the healing process. “The beginning of the physical transformation, it was eight months of all that stuff you hear – I didn’t eat bread or drink for that time and you’re just eating like a rabbit, hoping it will all pay off. This guy dedicated everything is in his life to this so it would’ve been very immature of me to, like, slack off and mess with that,” Teller said. “As far as the halo goes, that was highly uncomfortable. Again, you don’t like to complain because for Vinny it was screwed into his head. It wasn’t screwed into my head so we really had to make it as tight as possible because if the thing moves at all it doesn’t matter what you just did in that take and you only get so many takes. It’s not usable because if that thing moves people understand that it’s not real. It sucks.”
Teller didn’t exactly have a lot of time to get acclimated to halo. “If this was a big budget studio film, I would have a ton of fitting with it. Like I just did a firefighter movie. I had more fitting for my boots than I did for this thing,” the actor explained.
There was some input from the real life Vinny Pazienza on Bleed for This, though he only gave minor pointers to Miles Teller. “[Vinnie] was on a set a little bit. Certain things, absolutely I wanted to talk to Vinnie about,” the actor said. “Other things, you know, he’s a little older now making a movie about his life. I had a lot of material to build my character around Vinnie 25 years ago. The time I absolutely said I need Vinnie to be on set when I go down and bench press for the first time. I just didn’t know how to get underneath the bench with this thing on.”
Upon seeing the film, Vinny Pazienza had an emotional response to the finished film. “I didn’t think it through. I just thought ‘Let’s show Vinnie the movie. We’re locked and I’ll just sit next to him.’ It was much more intense than I imagined,” writer-director Younger said of watching the film with the boxing legend.
“It seems obvious now, but I just didn’t think it through, Younger continued. “I mean, he’s seeing a movie about his life. The interesting thing is where he got emotional. It wasn’t like the big fights or the car crash or the moment you’d think. It was these small, tender, familial moments, like his mother praying for him at the shrine or his father putting his hand on his shoulder. And you realize that he could look up all those other moments. You could see any one of those fights on YouTube. Tons halo footage, even him training with the halo on. But we recreated his family life in a way that moved him.”
Though it may seem that Bleed for This is riding the coattails of the resurgent boxing movie genre, the fact is that it’s been a long road from production to release for the film. “I finished this movie before [Michael B. Jordan] shot Creed,” Miles Teller explained. “I just remember that because we doing Fantastic Four reshoots. We didn’t know Hands of Stone, Southpaw, and Creed. We shot this two years ago. At the time you don’t really know. It’s interesting, everyone seems to get the same idea around the same time.”
Bleed for This opens nationwide on November 18th, 2016.