There are many challengers to the sports-movie throne but few real contenders, and over the past decade, none have matched the emotional and physical ferocity of Warrior, Gavin O’Connor’s 2011 classic about two brothers—bruising amateur-wrestling superstar and Iraq War vet Tommy (Tom Hardy) and high school physics teacher and former UFC punching bag Brendan (Joel Edgerton)—who wind up both competing in a winner-take-all MMA tournament for a $5 million purse.
Released to strong reviews but only so-so box office receipts, O’Connor’s drama largely came and went without making much of a cultural dent, this despite the fact that as Tommy and Brendan’s recovering-alcoholic father, Nick Nolte netted an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. For those who caught it during its initial run, it was a downright puzzling fate for the film, since its mixture of rousing athletic suspense, unresolvable (and timely) family turmoil and arduous redemption had mainstream crowd-pleaser written all over it.
Ten years later, however, Warrior—thanks to home video, cable TV, and word-of-mouth—has finally earned its place in the genre’s pantheon. An old-school feel-good fable that’s equally indebted to Rocky (it’s even set in Pennsylvania) and Moby Dick (which Nolte’s Paddy listens to on audiobook), with some biblical undertones thrown in for good measure, it’s a meaty and muscular male weepie, as sentimental as it is rugged. It’s also a beautifully constructed big-screen thriller, crafted by O’Connor with an intense immediacy that’s ever-present both inside and outside the ring, as his characters engage in a variety of literal and figurative fights to stay afloat, to heal, and to reunite. Though steeped in 2011-specific concerns (Iraq, the mortgage crisis), Warrior’s tale of estranged siblings finding solace—and each other—with their fists remains a universally resonant portrait of overcoming odds in underdog fashion, led by a trio of stellar performances from Hardy, Edgerton and Nolte, as well as the direction of O’Connor, whose stewardship reconfirmed (after Miracle, and before The Way Back) that he’s sports cinema’s finest modern practitioner.
Simply put, it’s about as good as such movies get. Thus, in celebration of its 10-year anniversary (Sept. 9), we looked back on the film—and discussed plans for a small-screen spin-off—with O’Connor.
Ten years later, is it heartening that we’re still discussing Warrior?
I appreciate it, man. I didn’t even know that it was ten years. Lionsgate called me, and I’m just truly grateful that people actually care that I’m talking about it again. So, I thank you.
I remember saying at the time of the film’s release that Warrior seemed destined to become the sort of beloved guy’s-guy sports classic that’s constantly replayed on cable TV. Did you always have faith that the film would find a loyal audience, even after its so-so box office run and the fact that a lot of people wound up not knowing it existed?
That’s what happened—it was heartbreaking. There were a lot of conversations about how to release the movie, and a lot of disagreements about the direction to take it. I’m not a marketer, so what do I know? But I knew my movie. When it didn’t perform, it was heartbreaking. I put so much of myself into this film; it’s by far my most personal movie. I have no social media whatsoever, but I would hear from people who worked on the movie—they’re like, this is finding a new life. Because people would discover the movie through word-of-mouth, and on streaming and, back then, on DVD. So yeah, it feels really rewarding, and I’m just really grateful.
Was marketing the problem, in terms of the film’s theatrical performance?
I can tell you what I was attributing it to back then. My position was, let’s platform it, 100 screens, 200 screens, and let’s let the word-of-mouth build. Because in my opinion—and I’m not saying I’m right, it could have been worse—but back then, no one knew who Tom and Joel were. Nick wasn’t putting people in the seats anymore. I felt like, the way for the movie to have life—and I also knew what our P&A [print and advertising] was—would be to let it slowly build and percolate and simmer, and then like popcorn, let it keep going. And they wanted to come out with it in a stronger way.
Look, my idea may have been worse; I don’t know. I was really scared of the consequences of releasing the movie on that many screens. I kept using Rocky as my paradigm when we set up the movie at Lionsgate. No one knew who Stallone was when Rocky was made; mainstream audiences had no idea. I wanted to take a page out of that. So, I was so grateful to Lionsgate—they have big balls, huge stones, that they were willing to do that. No one else would; there was not one other studio that was willing to do it the way I wanted to do it, and Lionsgate did. So, I have nothing but good things to say about them. They were a really good partner, and we disagreed about how to market and release a movie. I’m sure I’m not the first filmmaker to disagree with a studio.
Warrior leans into its Rocky aspects, in a reverential way. How did you strike that balance?
When you watch Rocky, who are you rooting for? Rocky, out of the gate. What I was attempting to do was hook you into two characters that you will understand and have feelings for—hopefully strong feelings—and then inevitably they will face each other in a showdown, at which point I’m challenging the audience to go, OK, now who do I root for? That hadn’t been done in a sports film, ever. How do you take the genre and bend it? That was really what I was trying to do. Also, Rocky, for me, was such an indelible film. To this day, it’s in my bloodstream. From the moment I saw it as a little boy, I came home, did push-ups, ate eggs—I just love Rocky, man. It was a big, influential film to me. So, I was definitely tipping my hat to that movie, because I’m madly in love with it. I’m in no way comparing my film to Rocky, but it was just a big part of my childhood, so I wanted to celebrate it, but also bend the genre in a way that had a different kind of finale.
Was Warrior in any way inspired by Heat? I ask because, while watching it for the umpteenth time recently, I was struck by the fact that, like Michael Mann’s film, Tommy and Brendan are on this collision course, and they only have one midway-point nighttime scene together before a final violent showdown.
I love Heat, and I love Michael Mann. A lot of this stuff is, artistically, unconscious, so maybe unconsciously I was operating that way? But I assure you, consciously, not at all. I never thought about that until ten years later, right now with you. [Laughs] Never crossed my mind. Rocky was the one that was the big influence.
This is your third sports-related film. Are you drawn to those projects simply because you’re a big sports fan, or is there something else about them that appeals to you as a filmmaker?
It’s a hard question to answer, because after I finished Warrior, I was like, I’m never, ever making a movie again that has anything to do with sports. And then I did. And by the way, I’m developing another one that does. I think if I was sitting on my therapist’s chair and we were analyzing this stuff, one thing for certain is that there are a lot of parallels in the movie that are my life. My parents split up. My brother went with my mom, I went with my dad. My dad was an alcoholic. My dad was really into me playing sports. Before I moved in with my father, when I was very young, my guarantee to see my dad, and then when I lived with my dad, my guarantee to spend time with my dad, and to feel love from my dad, was by playing sports. I was an athletic kid, but as a boy, I felt like an artist. I had this thing inside of me that wanted to express myself artistically. So, long story short, I had this artistic desire that was really trying to break the chains and get out, and yet I was also an athlete. I think both of those sides of me come out in these movies.
You spoke about Tom and Joel not being that well known, and Nick not putting butts in seats. I imagine that made it tougher to convince the studio to take a gamble on Warrior.
[Laughs] You know, it’s so funny, when you just said that, Nick, I went, oh my god, that’s what I said to the studio trying to get them to finance it. When you said it, I thought, that sounds like such a death march! [Laughs] Two actors you’ve never heard of, and one that doesn’t put asses in the seats—hey, let’s make that movie! That was my sales pitch! Clearly, I didn’t get the salesman gene. I give Lionsgate so much credit, because they allowed me to creatively do this the way I wanted to do it. And when I hear you say it, it sounds like a bit of a death march.
But I’m sure you also felt some validation, since Tom and Joel have gone on to become Hollywood A-listers, and Nick received an Oscar nomination for his performance.
One hundred percent. I was really happy for Nick, and the boys, they did such a good job, and it’s lovely to watch their careers from the sidelines, seeing what they’re doing now. It feels really good. I’m really fond of both of them, and I love Nick a lot.
MMA is an enormous sport, but it wasn’t as big in 2011. Was that also a hurdle in getting the project off the ground?
Lionsgate was excited. No other studio would make the movie, and Lionsgate was definitely ahead of the curve vis-à-vis the sport. They really understood the growth and direction of the sport. I mean, it’s the fastest-growing sport in the world. It’s a global sport. There’s not a sport on planet Earth that compares to fighting. If you go around the world, all these different countries and cultures have their own relationship with fighting. You can’t say that about any other sport, globally. Soccer? Not globally. Cricket? Not globally. Certainly not football and basketball. Literally, in 190-something countries, they all have some version of it. They like fighting. MMA, I really believed it was going to go in the direction it’s going; otherwise, I would have never made the movie. I’m so happy and passionate about the sport. I actually just did a deal with Lionsgate—we’re going to do a TV series based very loosely on the movie, because I want to re-explore not only the sport, but also the themes of the movie, through all-new characters. That’s what we’re all going to do.
This will be a long-form dramatic series?
Yeah. It’s in the spirit of the movie, meaning it’s still going to be about the painful realities of contemporary America, and explore social ideas, and this idea of fighting for something bigger than yourself. Allowing the audience to fall in love with characters, and then have this emotional complexity because they’re going to be facing each other, and who do you root for? That’s the DNA I’m taking from the movie. There will be Sparta [the winner-take-all fighting tournament], and literally every season, it’ll be four characters—two men, two women, all fighters—from different parts of the world, and the show is really about, what’s the fight outside the cage? I really believe everybody has a fight in life. Fighting your way out of poverty. Fighting your way out of incarceration. Fighting your way out of addiction. Whatever it is. So, that’s what I want to explore in this show, and then the wish-fulfillment of the show is the fighting part of it—that’s the juice, that’s the fist-pumping, stand-up-and-applaud kind of stuff with the show.
Warrior’s MMA action looks real, and brutal—but you had to keep things PG-13. Was there a particular strategy for making that work?
There was. One of the marching orders that Lionsgate gave me because of the way that I wanted to make the movie and populate the movie with not-famous people—and it was a $30 million budget—was that they said you can’t make this an R-rated movie. This has to be a PG-13 movie; that was their one marching order. So, what I did was, I went and looked at all the Bourne movies, because all the Bourne movies have really good action. They have a different style of fighting than I wanted to do, but it was still well done, and intense, and no blood. That’s really the difference: it’s no blood. I watched those, and I thought, I can do this. I’ll agree to PG-13, that’s cool, and I’ll just be really judicious with blood. The other thing to not get an R is that I was allowed to only have one F-bomb [Laughs]. That was fun, to figure out, where do we drop the ‘fuck?’ Where is that ‘fuck’ going to go? And we decided it was going to be in the scene between Tommy and Paddy in the casino.
Has the TV show taken the place of a possible sequel?
Tommy and Joel and I had a couple of conversations a few years ago about revisiting the characters. I just never came up with a story that was better than the original one. I knew that I didn’t want Tommy in Brendan’s corner now, and he’s coaching his brother—it just felt so cheesy to me. I didn’t want to do that. Then when this TV idea started kicking around with a writer named Adair Cole, I was just like, I can still pursue a lot of passion and feelings I have about not only fighting but social issues in the world, and explore that through new characters, and just take some of the DNA from the movies. So, I’m going to call it Warriors, it’s going to have Sparta—that’s going to be the tournament—and after that it’s going to be all-new characters.
You have a small on-screen part in Warrior, as MMA/Sparta promoter J.J. Riley. Any chance there’s more acting in your future?
[Laughs] The whole reason I played J.J. was because my friend, Charles “Mask” Lewis, who owned Tapout at the time, was supposed to play the promoter, and Charles got in a car accident when we were in prep. Charles was my doorway into the world, he introduced me to everybody in mixed martial-arts and UFC, he sanctioned me, and we wrote the part for him. When he passed away, several people said to me—and Charles and I had become really close—that in honor of Charles, why don’t you just do it? That only happened because of that. I dedicate the movie to Charles at the end; he was a really dear friend, and I also had his ashes, which I wore every day that I shot and cut the film. I had his ashes in a little container with me all the time. So no, I won’t be acting anymore. That was not intentional.