I had to take a step back and say, ‘This isn’t just that story, it’s a bigger story, it’s a story of redemption...’ Really, for a guy that perhaps has a few control issues, it really was a process of letting go.
Screenwriters aren’t generally good at letting go, and who can blame them? But Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, who admits to “perhaps having a few control issues,” says when it came to his new film Southpaw, which is produced by Eminem, letting go actually made his script better.
During the script’s nearly six-year journey through development, for a time at DreamWorks then ultimately, at The Weinstein Company with Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead, some heavyweight creative forces helped shape the film. Director Antoine Fuqua was chief among them, as was Gyllenhaal, who tweaked Sutter’s lead character, junior middleweight champ Billy Hope to make him a more powerful protagonist, according to the scripter. The film tells the story of a champion boxer brought to his knees by the sudden traumatic death of his wife, financial ruin, and the loss of his young daughter to protective care. Southpaw is very much its own contemporary thing, but it echoes classic boxing flicks like the 1931 version of The Champ while also having unexpectedly fitting shadows of the real Slim Shady.
Sutter spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about why story of Southpaw really starts with Eminem and how letting go helped return the script closer to his original version while making it better in ways he hadn’t imagined.
Tell me briefly how this script got started.
I’d had a couple meetings with Eminem’s people, the Shady people, in years past about a couple other projects. So there was a bit of a relationship there. Marshall was thinking about maybe getting back and doing some movies. He had been boxing, and it helped him a lot when he got clean and sober, [so] he was talking about wanting to do a boxing movie. So his people, Paul Rosenberg, they reached out to me. They were thinking about doing a remake of The Champ. I’m not a big fan of remakes or adaptation or I don’t know – I’m not the guy to go to if you’re wanting to…
You’re more an originalist?
I just feel like, as a writer, as a storyteller, my imagination is my greatest tool. Not that there’s not a skill and a level of talent – a lot of talent – to do those things. It’s just not what I really do well. So when they came to me with that, I didn’t spark to it. But I’ve been a fan of Eminem and was aware of a lot of his story [so] my pitch to them was what if we told the sort of second half of his life, after 8 Mile, through the analogy of boxing, with the death of his best friend Proof and his downward spiral and his attempted suicide, losing his kids – he had a sort of really fairly tumultuous four or five years. They really sparked to that idea. So, as I usually do, I put together a pretty detailed pitch document, which ultimately becomes a treatment, and we just started shopping it around…
What does your pitch document look like? Are we talking a paragraph-by-paragraph treatment or an outline?
No, I do a document that ultimately is probably more like a treatment in that I break out each character, try to have some sense of backstory. I break out the world. Then I sort of do a detailed narrative breakdown. I do that not just as a pitch document so I know what I’m talking about, [but] it honestly helps me find out a) if I can write it, and b) if I want to write it. So rather than going in with a half-baked idea and then selling it and then sitting down and going, “Alright, now what the fuck do I do?” I’m just way too anxious for that process.
So you get your fingers pretty deep into it with that pitch document so you know if you’re cold to it in the end, or if you’re into it?
Exactly. There’ve been times when I had an idea I thought I could get to work, and I’ve begun that process and realize, Oh, I don’t know where this goes, and walked away from them. But I did this – my pitch documents for Southpaw is like 15 pages, so it’s fairly detailed – not that I go in and pitch all 15 pages, but it’s sort of like…
You’ve broken the story.
Yeah, having that point of reference so I know what I’m talking about. And then we – Stacey Snider, who at that point was at DreamWorks [and] obviously had been involved with 8 Mile when it was at Universal – she loved the idea [and] wanted to work with Marshall again. So we launched into it from that point and generated a couple drafts of the script. Then we started looking for directors…We had met with a few people and I had worked with Antoine before on a project at Warner Bros. that never went. I liked him a lot, we had a good relationship. When he came in to pitch his vision for it, it was interesting because it was very personal, you know? He had grown up out East and boxing was a big part of his past. I don’t know all the details but my sense is it was one of the things that kept him on the right path. It just seemed like a good fit for him in terms of where he was at and for us. I knew we worked well together, so we brought him on.
I did another draft after that and, as things happen in the world of features, the timing ended up not working out for Marshall – he had new album coming out, he really wanted to focus on music. So it sort of slipped away from DreamWorks. Then, I don’t know how long after, but I was told that The Weinstein Company liked it and wanted to buy it and that Harvey was looking at it for Jake.
For me, it was an interesting process creatively, in that Antoine really had become the lynchpin in this whole thing, because he didn’t want to let the project go. He was looking into the right actor and at some point wanted to convince Marshall to do it. [So] when Weinstein got it and brought on Jake, he had a meeting with Jake and felt the connection. At that point I was really struggling because I was like, “Look, this is what it is. How do you take that story and have somebody else do it? It’s too personal, you know?” Then I met with Jake, who I knew a little bit and who I have a tremendous amount of respect for…It was fascinating because he had his perceptive on Billy Hope. To him, Billy Hope had nothing to do with Marshall Mathers. Suddenly I realized, Oh, this story is a lot bigger then I imagined it was. It was like I had to take a step back and say, “This isn’t just that story, it’s a bigger story, it’s a story of redemption.” So it was a fascinating process for me. Really, for a guy that perhaps has a few control issues, it really was a process of letting go.
So whatever skepticism you had -- you didn’t get it at first – it wound up actually expanding the story, instead of shrinking it.
Very much so. In fact, it was interesting because I had a done a production draft that, you know, as it happens when you do the production draft you get 1,000 notes from different people, and half of them conflict and you end up doing a draft you turn in and you go, “I don’t know what this is, but this is what you asked for.” They had that and then I had to go back to Sons for the last season at that point, or the sixth season, I forget. So it was a process of continuing to let go for me. I know they brought in a couple of the writers – Richard Wenk, who does a lot of studio rewrites and is a really talented guy, they brought him in for a draft at some point. So I again had to let it go.
Then I got a call from Antoine a few weeks outside of production… Ultimately, Antoine signed off on the draft that the studio wanted because [he] just wanted to start shooting film. Then he got in touch with me again, and said, “Look, I don’t know what this draft is that I signed off on, but I want to basically do your second draft.” So we then looked at the production realities of what it was and what we had time for, and I started adjusting story based on that… the interesting thing for me is that at some point in the process, I realized that based on where the changes that had been made because of production, and the work that Antoine had done and the work that Jake had done, that, these fucking guys, they know who Billy Hope is better than I do! It really was sort of like, “Oh, okay, I’ll give you Billy Hope.” And I really sort of gave them license to, you know...
To improvise and go off script and develop it and work with it. Jake had this whole interesting rhythm for this guy that some of my dialogue really didn’t work with. So I really had to trust them – because they knew who Billy Hope was better than I did. Look, for a lot of writers – including me – that sounds like a terrifying prospect, but I had worked with Antoine before and I trusted him, and we have a really tight relationship. I knew intuitively how smart Jake was. Just the work alone he did in terms of his physicality spoke volumes, in terms of his commitment. I just inherently knew that these guys, they weren’t going to let it not work, do you know what I mean? Like they were too committed and too invested to let it drop. That was the case, you know? I’d seen some rough cuts and pieces of stuff when I visited Antoine at editing, but to watch it all in the final cut, you know, I was really proud of it. I was really proud of what Antoine and Jake, where they took it and what they did with it. There were some production realities in terms of story that I bumped against, but that’s definitely the nature of the beast. But all in all I thought they did a really great job.
You feel the 8 Mile shadow in it, in a good way, but you also do feel resonances of The Champ or even Requiem for a Heavyweight. As much as you’re an originalist, did you want in any way to homage these archetypical boxing narratives? I mean how do you even avoid it doing a boxing movie?
You know it’s interesting because as a writer, part of the thing I like to do is to bend genre and twist expectations, and to write away from any type of stereotype or expectation. I think for the most part we were able to do that. But look, the world itself has such inherent, such iconic pieces in terms of mile markers, that there’s going to be training, there’s going to be a winner, there’s going to be a loser, there are going to be fights. The men who do this for a living, you have to be cut from a specific cloth to make that decision that this is what I’m going to do for a living, you know? It’s me and I have no teammates. It’s a completely solitary sport. I hurt other people and I get hurt. It’s a certain man – or woman at this point – that really makes that decision. So because of that you’re going to have tone that is always going to be similar. The same way that in a Western you’re going to have fucking horses, and you know, shoot outs and shit like that. But in terms of writing against stereotype, I think we were able to do that to a certain extent.
The things that really helped [that] a great deal was the style in which Antoine shoots, which is incredibly realistic and proactive – he’s definitely a proactive shooter – and then the choices that Jake made in terms of who this guy was and the commitment of it, that you never had a sense of seeing something that either you’ve seen before in terms of character…A lot of times when you see movies that are in these very specific genres and these characters that are very defined by choice and career and specificity of craft, you often go, “Oh, there’s the movie star playing a boxer.” And, “Oh, look he learned how to box.” I never got that sense with Jake. He was very aware that he didn’t want this to look like Jake Gyllenhaal’s boxing movie.
Even Jake Gyllenhaal doing a boxing movie is not conventional to begin with. But yeah, there’s none of that weight to it. You believe that he’s the guy.
Yeah, he really disappears. I never had a sense of him being there or playing, you know? That alone is really what sort of takes it out of the, I’m-watching-another-movie-about-boxing feeling.
The character of the trainer is as important almost as a fighter in a boxing movie. Here, your guy Tick, he’s really sort of postmodern and stripped bare. I love that scene where Tick basically acknowledges all this positive proselytizing he’s been doing with these troubled kids is bullshit.
Right. Bullshit, yeah.
That’s powerful – you normally don’t get quite that stripped bare. Is that something you deliberately wanted?
Yeah, it’s interesting because that scene was a scene – we basically had to streamline the entire story arch that we had with Hoppy and some of those other fighters that ultimately we had to lose for time.
We ended up having to streamline it into that one scene. I had dialogue, but Antoine really just gave Forrest carte blanche in that scene to really sort of have that moment. Again, that’s a character that like is so stereotypical – you’ve seen the boxing trainer. To try and find a guy who was you know, equally damaged, but damaged in a different way. I love when Billy asks him, “Can I buy you a beer?” And he says, “No I don’t drink, and no cursing in here.” And then the next day he goes to the bar and the guy’s fucking drunk.
Yeah, that’s great.
Like, “Wait a minute, that character’s not supposed to do that.” So it’s just a guy who leads with this sense of, “This is why I do this,” but at the end of the day is as lost and clueless as Billy is, which is ultimately the glue that holds them together.