Gavin O’Connor and first-time scripter Anthony Tambakis smuggle a heavyweight drama into a mixed martial arts cage in Warrior.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
The new mixed martial arts film Warrior is a bit like a Sam Shepard play in a fight cage. As writer and director Gavin O’Connor (Pride and Glory) and one of his co-writers, first-time scripter Anthony Tambakis readily admit, their intention was to “smuggle in the art” of weighty drama in the Trojan horse of the increasingly popular world of mixed martial arts.
Warrior abounds with skillfully shot MMA mayhem, but it also courses with a starkly classical drama centered on two estranged brothers, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy), driven by the violent, domineering alcoholism of the father they both seem, at movie’s open, to genuinely loathe. Nick Nolte plays the woefully contrite Paddy, wool cap in hand, with strokes of marrow-rattling truth.
Part of that truth comes from the fact that both O’Connor and Tambakis (who also share co-writing credit with Cliff Dorfman) had their own paternal battles with alcoholism and have East coast roots, where the film is set.
Tambakis is a former creative writing professor and who was introduced to O’Connor by mutual friend Brian Callen, an actor and comedian who plays the ringside color man in the film. In a highly unusual leap of faith for any writer, O’Connor tapped Tambakis, with whom he’d never written a word, to co-write Warrior. Soon the two hit a groove and Tambakis was crashing at O’Connor’s house during an intensive six-month initial drafting period.
They spoke to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about forging this writing partnership in process and how, to them, Warrior is more Eugene O’Neill than fight movie.
After being introduced by Brian Callen, how did you two start the actual writing of this film?
Gavin O’Connor: [After] I started to get into doing Warrior, starting to crack it in long-form… I approached Anthony. We’d never worked together, [it was] sort of a risky thing. I said, “Let me show you what I have so far. This is the story I want to tell.”
It was weird, man. We just started writing together. That’s really how we got to know each other was through the process of writing.
Anthony Tambakis: That’s true. Our friendship was actually formed doing the work, which is kind of a cool way for adult male friendships to happen… It was like, we’re either going to love each other and this is going to be great, or it’s gonna be a disaster.
You’ve described this film as an “intervention in a cage.” Was there a personal desire for a kind of catharsis that drove you to first write this film?
Photo: © 2011 Lions Gate Entertainment
Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton in Warrior.
O’Connor: These are always hard things to answer. I don’t know. It’s like Leonard Cohen has that great line: “If I knew where it came from, I’d go there all the time,” meaning the magic, the art.
I don’t even know where the fuck this thing stared. I believe in the movie gods. I believe in God. I think for some reason Anthony and I were put together to do this, I really do. There were things going on in my life personally with regard to trying to come to some understanding of the anatomy of my childhood, my relationships with my parents, with my brother. My brother and I were separated; I went with my father, my brother went with my mother. There was drinking. I was really trying to understand forgiveness. I don’t mean the word forgiveness but the act of forgiveness. True forgiveness in your heart was something that I was really struggling with.
While all these things were kind of percolating in my system, the idea of using the sport of mixed martial arts to dramatize a story [emerged]… What was interesting was, when I started pouring these things out to Anthony, maybe because we came from similar backgrounds, he started pouring bits of his own life into the story that I had started with, and it became a fusion of something personal for both of us.
Tambakis: Both of our dads were alcoholics so both of us came from that place of [knowing] Nolte’s character. There was a definite through line in the way we grew up so I was able to wrap my head pretty quickly around what Gav was going for story-wise.
Also, we shared a taste in film. A lot of the movies we grew up with in the’70s were populist and artistic, you know? Movies like The Godfather. I remember Gavin saying one day he wanted to give the audience what they wanted in a way they least expected… we called it smuggling in the art. Give the studios what they want, the growing sport of MMA, a world they want to make a movie in, but in reality we were writing more along the lines of Eugene O’Neil.
It’s really a character drama?
O’Connor: Absolutely. I don’t consider it a sports film, but I guess if it has a sport in it, it gets called that. How do you get the audience to be invested in both characters and to understand on a subconscious level that Brendan needs to win to win and Tommy needs to lose to win. Tommy needs to die at the hands of his brother in order to be reborn.
How long did it take you guys to write this movie?
O’Connor: It wasn’t that long. What do you think, Anthony?
Tambakis: It wasn’t that long, comparatively speaking. Six months maybe? But all along we never really stopped [writing]…
O’Connor: We were writing until that last day of shooting.
Tambakis: So in a lot of ways, it was like two years. Gav has a real commitment to work-shopping the material and rehearsing deeply with the actors. So much came out of that, just sitting and watching what the actors were doing and deepening scenes based on what they were bringing to the table.
There were some scenes that just came out of the oven right the first time, but we also wrote to the very end. We wrote until we were editing, adding little voice-over dialogue in the fight scenes. We never stopped writing.
This was a great process. It was such a treat for me, with my first movie, to be with Gav from casting, when we just met Joel and Tommy all the way to end. It was really a master class in filmmaking and, as a writer, for someone who always wrote fiction alone in a room, to understand the beauty of the collaborative nature of the art. The real joy of it is to work with so many people who are so great at what they do and to put your ego aside and watch people elevate your work. There are so many scenes that are taken well past the point of what you write. You can do so much on a page, but watching what Gav and the actors and the composer and the sound guy… it was a great experience.
And at the end of the day, what is this story about for each of you? I’ll start with Anthony and close with Gavin.
Tambakis: It’s about redemption and forgiveness. For me, those are definitely the two things you leave with.
O’Connor: Anthony and I obviously wrote the movie together so…
Tambakis: So I stole your words…
O’Connor: We have the same answer. It’s about redemption and forgiveness. That’s what we always talked about in the writing of the movie.