Miles Teller, fighting the good fight as boxer Vinny Paz
TORONTO — There’s been no shortage of boxing movies in the last decade.
“The Fighter.” “Creed.” “Southpaw.”
There’s not even a shortage this year; already there was the summer release “Hands of Stone,” about Roberto Durán, and “The Bleeder,” the story of Chuck Wepner, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival.
Director Ben Younger, of “Boiler Room” and “Prime,” knew the genre had been well-covered when he considered making a movie about Rhode Island fighter Vinny Pazienza, better known as Vinny Paz. Still, Younger went for it because the story seemed unique. Paz (the boxer had his last name legally changed) was larger than life — king of the city of Providence. But he also might have been the greatest comeback story of all time.
“I felt like we had the opportunity to make something great,” Younger said of “Bleed for This,” which opens Friday.
At its core, Younger’s Vinny Paz biopic — which stars Miles Teller — is not a boxing movie about inner demons or family politics. There’s some of that, as well as the familiar tale of the intense bond between a fighter and trainer. There’s also a lot of overconfident talk, and some scenes that show how Paz earned the nickname The Pazmanian Devil. But mostly it’s the story of a boxer who, after breaking his neck in a 1991 car accident, manages to get back into the ring — because he’s too stubborn not to.
After being pulled from the wreckage on Route 1 in Warwick, his hometown, Paz had to wear a metal halo brace, screwed to his head, so that he stayed immobile as he healed. Even though he was told he’d never fight again, Paz defied doctors’ orders and lifted weights. He trained, recovered, and went on to become junior middleweight champion — just 13 months after the accident.
In “Bleed for This,” there’s no look at Paz’s humble beginnings or even the years after his big wins. He starts the movie as lightweight champ, already a superstar in his hometown. Younger narrows the focus of the film to Paz’s quick recovery and how he managed to fight after the halo was removed.
At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Younger and star Teller said their main goal was to get Paz’s motivation right. They said the movie is less a sports film than it is about a man overcoming physical obstacles. Paz just wanted to keep punching.
It’s also a Providence film, they said. Paz represented the spirit of the smallest state. Fans felt like they were a part of his comeback.
“Rhode Island doesn’t have a professional sports team. Vinny was their franchise,” Younger said. “He was the heartbeat of that city and that state for such a long time.”
Teller said that when he first read the script for “Bleed for This,” he didn’t think he’d be Younger’s first choice. “Whiplash,” a 2015 best picture Oscar nominee directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Teller, had yet to be released. At the time, his big films were “Divergent,” “The Spectacular Now,” and the comedy “That Awkward Moment.”
“I thought it would be a really good part for somebody else,” Teller said. “I knew that I could get into that kind of shape, but I thought that he would cast somebody who walked into his room with a little more physical presence. A little more of a resume. It took a lot of foresight from Ben.”
Younger said it was Teller’s layered performance in the coming-of-age story “The Spectacular Now” that won him over.
He wasn’t surprised that after Teller was cast, the actor was committed to training and studying Paz’s old tapes and recordings. At several points in the film, Teller’s voice and Paz’s interviews are edited together. Younger was proud that in screenings it’s hard to know whether you’re listening to the real Paz.
Teller, along with Aaron Eckhart, who plays trainer Kevin Rooney in the film, also spent time with locals, which helped them understand the culture of the community and the accents. When it came time for Teller to gain weight (the actor had to put on 15 pounds in 10 days to jump two weight classes during the 24-day film shoot), he went to Providence’s Federal Hill neighborhood, known for its Italian restaurants, to eat.
Teller said the best compliment came during one of the fight scenes, filmed at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence. An extra who had seen every one of Paz’s fights said it felt like she was watching the real boxer in the ring.
The biggest challenge when it came to realism was the halo. Teller had to film many of his scenes with a fake version of the medical contraption not quite attached to his head. Younger joked that it might have been easier to have the thing screwed in. If the prop moved, the scene was a bust.
“If we see [the halo] move, I can’t use the take,” Younger said.
Teller said at times it was deeply frustrating to perform while making sure the halo didn’t budge, but maybe that stress added to the realism. The burden of the device is clear when Teller’s Paz tries to get out of a car, the halo in the way of everything.
“Your spine is compressed,” Teller said. “You’re just like this [stiffens his body] for 12 hours.”
The real Paz was on set to help Teller film the scene in which he bench presses for the first time, after the accident, lifting weights even though his upper body is trapped by the apparatus. It’s uncomfortable — and seemingly impossible — and makes it clear just how much Paz defied all medical advice and the odds.
“Technically, I don’t know how he did it,” Teller said, still in disbelief, even after playing the part and acting out the scene.
“There’s only one person in the world who can explain how that happened, and we had access to him,” Younger said.
That’s what Teller and Younger — who debuted the film in Providence on Thursday night — hope rings true — just how unlikely it was for Paz to come back as a champion.
“He took it very seriously. Very professionally,” Younger said, of his star. “I think that’s why local people will appreciate the film.”