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The less said about the boxing scenes in the Rocky franchise, the better, Foster says. “Audiences don’t like to be lied to. As soon as you fake a punch in a boxing movie, you can lose your audience.” However, he can appreciate the story lines: “If you reward them with story, enough emotional experience, they’ll forgive you.”
He’s unapologetically biased toward his own movies. “The most authentic boxing movie I’ve seen is Ali. I want you to be able to slow my films down. I dare you to find a miss. Watch the Rumble in the Jungle, frame by frame. You’ll be there all day trying to find a disparity.”
The hardest part of his job on that set was “de-training” the professional fighters, he says. James Toney played Joe Frazier, and Charles Shufford played George Foreman. Foster had to teach them each fighter’s idiosyncrasies, and in the process undo their own reflexes. “That was the fun, difficult part,” he says.
Though Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is often credited as one of the great boxing movies, Foster finds its fight scenes a chore to watch. “The blood gushes like he pumped it out of a hose,” he says. “You clearly see them missing.” But the story and the acting are so good, Scorsese and Robert De Niro get away with it: “You don’t know what it is. You just know you’re on this ride.”
Play It to the Bone
Foster got his start in Hollywood on the set of Ron Shelton’s Play It to the Bone (1999), which starred Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas as best friends set to square off in the ring. Shelton, who had a good track record with sports-related films (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump), “wanted to portray what goes on in the mind of a fighter, as a result of the power of a human punch,” Foster says. “So he used a lot of imagery that went over the heads of the audience. I think at times it didn’t work.” The experience taught him to push for authenticity whenever possible — no obvious misses on a punch that’s supposed to land, no huge, looping hooks that miss by three feet. “I try not to put any kind of hokey punches, anything that’s not authentic in the choreography.”
More recently, Mark Wahlberg’s portrayal of the underdog junior welterweight Micky Ward in The Fighter drew critical praise, and the movie scored two supporting acting Oscars and nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. But Foster wasn’t impressed with the fight scenes. “I didn’t believe the punching,” he says. “They put the camera behind the guy, and the other guy throws his head back, almost like a barroom brawl. It took away from how good the movie was.”
The fight scenes in Cinderella Man were “decent,” Foster thinks. “Ron Howard took some artistic license, with the coloring and the smoke-filled arena. It’s a period piece. You can get away with it more in older movies. There are times in Somebody Up There Likes Me [Paul Newman’s 1956 portrayal of former middleweight champ Rocky Graziano] when the punching looks believable, until it doesn’t.”
“I saw a lot of misses” in The Hurricane, “the 1999 film that starred Denzel Washington as the wrongfully convicted former middleweight contender Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. “Style-wise,” however, the great Denzel pulled it off, he says. “It really does come down to, are they trying to do ‘picture fighting’ or give you authentic fight scenes? It can be more difficult if the actor doesn’t want to absorb any punches at all. I don’t know how you’re gonna do a skiing movie and have an actor who doesn’t get on skis.”
Bleed for This
At first, Foster found Miles Teller a tough nut to crack on Bleed for This. The actor was trying to imitate Vinny Pazienza, “instead of becoming him.” Then Foster found out that Teller is an exceptional dancer. “When he showed me he could dance, it was almost like James Brown – whoa! You can demand your space with your feet. He could own any part of the ring he wanted.”
He also learned that Teller grew up playing baseball, so he had him hit the heavy bag with a baseball bat and a martial arts staff. “You can’t just bring in an individual and say, ‘This is the cookie-cutter version of what you gotta do.’ You gotta find them, and bring what they have to the table.”
Most of all, Foster wanted to help Teller find his way inside the real-life character of Vinny Pazienza, who returned to the ring after suffering a broken neck in a car crash. “The story in the story is that Vinny felt like he had no life if he could not fight,” Foster says. “It was more who he was than what he did. I want to honor the legacies of the true fighters while they’re still around.”
Foster, a fight trainer and master of several styles of martial arts, has worked with Will Smith on several movie sets. He trained Eddie Murphy for his boxing scenes in I Spy and Chiwetel Ejiofor for the upcoming Triple 9. “I teach by analogies,” he says. “It’s like trying to translate a foreign language, almost. A lot of actors have never been violent guys. I’ve trained people who’ve never played sports before.”
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