- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2017

A struggling boxer gets the chance of a lifetime to fight the world heavyweight champ. While he ultimately doesn’t win the match, he nonetheless becomes a legend in his own right.

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because Sylvester Stallone in fact “borrowed” a key element in the life of New Jersey boxer Chuck Wepner — aka “The Bayonne Bleeder” — whose lengthy, much-underestimated 1975 fight against Muhammad Ali became the stuff of legend, to say nothing of the inspiration for the climactic bout between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed in the Oscar-winning “Rocky.”

“Like most people, I didn’t know Chuck Wepner; I was too young when he fought Ali,” Philippe Falardeau, the Quebecois director of the new biopic “Chuck,” told The Washington Times. “As I was turning through [the script], I kept saying ‘Did he really do that?’”

Chuck” stars Liev Schreiber as the slightly fictionalized Wepner. (Mr. Schreiber is also one of the film’s four credited writers as well as a producer.) “Mad Men” alumna Elisabeth Moss is his put-upon wife, Phyliss, dealing both with raising their young child and turning as much of a blind eye as possible to Wepner’s many infidelities.

Their marital issues only increase when Wepner’s bout with Ali inspires Mr. Stallone (played in the film by Morgan Spector) to write “Rocky.” The film is a box office smash, earning three Oscars, and puts Mr. Stallone on the movie map. Now also a minor celebrity too, Wepner soon becomes awash in drugs, money and fame — and even more women.

Chuck knew that we had to show his bad side. It’s not necessarily easy to watch,” Mr. Falardeau said of the warts-and-all portrayal of his subject. “But I’m also convinced that it’s not necessarily the film [Wepner] was expecting.”

Naomi Watts co-stars as Linda, a kindly bar waitress from the neighborhood who continues to cheerlead Chuck even through his darkest hours. Miss Watts and Mr. Schreiber, a couple in real life for a decade with two children, were both attached to the project during its early genesis. (The pair split up last fall after 11 years together.)

Due to Miss Watts‘ busy schedule, Mr. Falardeau wasn’t even sure if she would ultimately play Phyliss or Linda. But when she was able to come to the set for just four days — flawlessly affecting a Brooklyn accent for the part — she quickly set to work to conjuring Linda.

“I look at the film [now], and I wouldn’t have it otherwise,” Mr. Falardeau said of the end result.

Mr. Falardeau acknowledges there is a significant “boxing film mythology,” not just with the “Rocky” films but also such other Oscar-winning entries as “Raging Bull,” “On the Waterfront” and “Million Dollar Baby.” While he has seen all of them, Mr. Falardeau said he was careful not to revisit those films in the lead-up to making “Chuck” lest he “be contaminated by the mythos.”

“I was not interested in stylized boxing matches,” he said, adding his hope for realism entailed Mr. Schreiber taking some actual hits during the filming to lend it more authenticity.

“Normally you use editing and camera placement to hide the fact that you’re not punching for real,” Mr. Falardeau said. “But what you see there are real punches.”

What is not real in “Chuck,” however, is its New Jersey setting. While Mr. Falardeau and the producers hoped desperately to film in the Garden State haunts where The Bayonne Bleeder made his mark, nearly all filming has left after decision-makers in the capital of Trenton killed the state’s tax incentive in 2011. (Gov. Chris Christie vetoed recent attempts to renew the incentive.)

“I scouted Bayonne, and I worked so hard to convince the producers to spend more money so we could shoot there, and I lost that battle,” said Mr. Falardeau, his voice both animated and crestfallen.

Accordingly, location work for “Chuck” was accomplished just across the Hudson River in the various boroughs of New York. Mr. Falardeau, desperate to at least get Wepner’s home city at least seen in the movie, filmed some exterior shots of the Bayonne Bridge as seen from Staten Island.

“For me that was extremely frustrating to be a stone’s throw away from the real place,” Mr. Falardeau said.

However, the director compensated for the lack of authenticity by having his camera up close to Mr. Schreiber, Miss Moss and Miss Watts on the streets of New York.

“The handheld [shots] close to the characters allowed me to make it as much about the subjectivity of the character [as] the environment,” Mr. Falardeau said, which allowed him to better explore the internal world of Wepner, he believes.

“If I was able to shoot in New Jersey, I think that would have opened up the frame more.”

Wepner has in fact been supportive of “Chuck” — previously called “The Bleeder” — and has even attended screenings, Mr. Falardeau said.

Chuck is very [understanding] that when you produce a fiction, you have to produce drama,” Mr. Falardeau said. “And to do that you have to show not only the qualities but the flaws.”

By the same token, Mr. Falardeau said that Mr. Stallone helped out with the initial research, and even met several times with Mr. Schreiber.

“I don’t think we could have shot it without his blessing,” Mr. Falardeau said of the “Rocky” writer and star, adding Mr. Stallone even loaned the production a small Rocky statue from his personal collection.

“It’s the actual statue he has in his own office,” Mr. Falardeau said. “Very cool indeed.”

Chuck” opens at the District’s Landmark E Street Cinema Friday.

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