If you're an aspiring business owner, finding the right idea for your new business may seem like the hardest part of entrepreneurship. But it's not. Finding the right idea is just the first step on the long and often torturous journey required to bring that idea to life.
That's true for entrepreneurs... and it's also true for filmmakers.
And that's definitely true for the movie Chuck, opening tonight in New York and Los Angeles. Chuck is the story of boxer Chuck Wepner, widely assumed to be the inspiration for Rocky. (The movie's tagline sums it up perfectly: "You know Rocky. Now Meet Chuck.")
14 years ago.
But wait, there's more: Chuck is profitable even before selling its first ticket. In true entrepreneurial fashion, Tollin bootstrapped the movie on a remarkably low $5 million production budget, compressing the film schedule to less than 30 days (instead of a more conventional 40 to 50 days), using digital technology to create the crowd for fight scenes, and getting stars like Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, and Elisabeth Moss to work for less than their usual quote. (How much less is, of course, their business.)
On the revenue side, Mandalay sold distribution rights to IFC Films and post-theatrical rights to Showtime. Add in assorted foreign rights sales and voila! The film is already in the black.
An idea that takes fourteen years to bring to life...and a product that is profitable before it's even released... yep: I had to talk to Mike to find out more.
Take me back to the beginning.
We first met in 2003. There was this lawsuit between Wepner and Stallone, and Rocky is one of the most profitable film series in film history...
I love larger than life and flawed characters. So we met with Chuck's attorney, Anthony Mango. He was very receptive, Chuck was too, so we optioned the life rights.
Back then I was a partner in Tollin/Robbins Productions. We started out making documentaries and then made films like Varsity Blues. We thought this could be a hybrid, where the real character and the actor portraying him could share the same frame. As luck would have it, Jeff Feuerzeig had recently made The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a movie that took festivals by storm. I thought I'd been duped, that it was a Spinal Tap-esque treatment. Even better, though, I hadn't been duped but I thought I had. His technique and storytelling was so clever.
So in 2004 we decided that since some of the key characters in Chuck's story -- family members, old boxers, his manager Al Braverman -- were somewhat elderly, so we self-financed and got as much as we could in the can, including a very extensive black-and-white extreme close-up interview with Chuck.
Essentially all that material was shot years before.
But you didn't quite know where you were going with it.
No, we were still on that circuitous path to develop it. It's actually hard to sort out the chronology. (Laughs.)
Then along came ESPN's series 30 for 30. I was invited to be kind of the "outsider inside the tent." Bill Simmons, Connor Schell, John Skipper... they had looked at the sports media landscape and thought, "Why have we ceded the sports documentary territory to HBO?"
They invited me to be a liaison with the filmmaking community, asked me to reach out to filmmakers to see if they had any personal stories they wanted to tell, any passion projects -- with the unspoken notion that you won't get to make money but you will have independence, and a lot of people will watch what you make. I participated as well, directing Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?
At the same time Ron Semiao was put in charge of feature film development effort. They were going to create ESPN Films to do feature films for the big screen. Jeff and I had a pitch, we had a sizzle reel to show the real-life Chuck and some of the characters in the story, and Ron commissioned a script which was written by Jeff and Jerry Stahl.
In the meantime Jeff directed and I produced The Real Rocky, a documentary about Chuck for the second round of 30 for 30.
I told you it's a circuitous path. (Laughs.)
But you're still hanging on to this idea for a live action film.
Jeff and Jerry finished the script and we took it to Liev Schreiber as our first choice. Incredibly he took an interest and loosely attached himself to the project.
"Loose attachment" can mean a lot of things, but with Liev, his loose attachment is extremely meaningful. He took a real interest in the project. He really dug in with us.
By that time I had a producing partner, Carl Hampe, and we started having meetings on the script. Liev is really into boxing, loves boxing history, has an incredibly sense of story... and we did a lot of work on the script.
When The Real Rocky came out it was extremely well received, and we saw it as an extended trailer for the movie.
You'd say to someone, "This is the story of the real Rocky," and they wouldn't understand. But when you tell the story of this crazy sequence of events that unfolded, how Chuck was a 40:1 underdog against Ali, how a young aspiring filmmaker bought a ticket for the pay-per-view, and had this inspiration, how depending on who you ask, in a feverish seventy-two hours wrote the script for Rocky...
Liev was always accessible, always supportive. Then Ray Donovan happened and his profile increased, but he stayed focused and committed to the project and really became a true partner. Ultimately he is one of the writers, one of the producers, he's obviously the star of the film and appears in every scene... I can't imagine a more immersive involvement.
It's easy to say we couldn't have done it without him, but we really couldn't.
But you still needed to pull everything together.
Yes, so let's go back.
In 2015 we got a phone call from Christa Campbell. They had read the script and asked to meet. Jeff Rice, an executive producer, was there. They loved the script, they worked with Avi Lerner and he loved the script... and it was this eureka moment where we realized it was finally going to happen.
Liev stays in incredible shape, he was in boxing shape, and it's a good thing because now we were on the fast track. It was only a matter of months before we started shooting. We shot in NYC, in all five boroughs and a few things outside the city, but we did the boxing scenes them in Sofia, Bulgaria. Oddly enough it was cheaper to fly everyone to Bulgaria to shoot the fight sequences there.
So you have a movie, but then what?
We premiered at the Venice Film Festival, got very positive reviews, were invited to the Toronto Film Festival and the positive response continued... and IFC Films picked up the movie. Jonathan Sehring of IFC told me they went to Toronto just to get the film.
We loved their spunk and spirit. We just felt like IFC got it. Chuck is an indie film by an extremely talented filmmaker who got the look and feel of the 70s, the music, the wardrobe, the photography... I've compared it to American Hustle. We don't consider it a boxing movie; the fight between Wepner and Ali happens well before the midpoint.
It's really a character study. When Wepner looks in the mirror, starts to see his reflection as Rocky, becomes the self-proclaimed King of the Jersey Shore, that leads to a downward spiral... and, ultimately, redemption.
At the end of the day, it's a love story. It's a lot more than a boxing film. It's not just a spectacular performance by Liev. We're incredibly lucky to have assembled this A-list cast: Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Chuck's manager is played by Ron Perlman, Jim Gaffigan plays his knucklehead sidekick, and Morgan Spector plays Stallone in an eerily accurate portrayal. Close your eyes and you think you're listening to Rocky. Michael Rapaport plays Chuck's brother, Don, in two scenes, and he breaks your heart.
It's a really emotional film.
That's why you changed the title of the movie?
We changed the title because we listened to the audience and how they responded. The original title was The Bleeder, but that doesn't reflect the spirit of the movie.
We love the tagline: "You Know Rocky, Now Meet Chuck." That puts the movie in the right lane for the audience. And it fits what we were trying to do.
One of the wonderful things about going on this journey was doing it with Chuck. Often the person you're depicting has already passed away, or loses interest in the project... but this was kind of a love fest from the beginning. (Laughs.) Chuck and I get along great. He knew we were committed -- so much so that halfway through he stopped taking option payments.
He believed in us that much.
I would imagine it's pretty complicated taking a person's story and making it into a movie...and yet also keeping the individual at least somewhat happy with the result.
Chuck is hale and hearty. He's maybe ten pounds over his fighting weight, laughs all the time, loves to tell stories, is always the life of the party... he enjoyed this ride.
Basically we're just hanging on to Chuck's coattails and reintroducing him to the world as he really is. It's an honest portrayal, and to his credit he acknowledges what he did and is grateful for having survived and getting the last laugh.
His wife is also a delight, and they feel like having our folks portray them is a dream come true.
Like if I'm Billy Beane, I could do a lot worse than have Brad Pitt play me in Moneyball.
Chuck and Linda are extremely happy with the film, and we're very glad.
And Chuck didn't ask us to pull any punches. We had all the transcripts from those original black-and-white interviews. He told us about drug dealing and forgery and infidelity... he wasn't trying to hide anything, so there really wasn't a conflicting agenda.
Chuck read every script. Michael Christofer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, he and Liev rewrote extensively and they and Chuck had discussions about things, but it was only about getting it right. It was never about softening the story.
Dumb question, but when you say IFC Films "picked up" the movie, what does that mean.
That's not a dumb question, because now with Netflix and Amazon, the playing field has changed. "Picked up" doesn't always mean getting the theatrical rights anymore.
IFC Films has the theatrical rights. We were always committed to having a genuine theatrical run. We made the movie to be seen on the big screen.
Chuck will have a platform release. It opens Friday night on four screens, and then wider later in the month. Every few days I get an update on play dates, and the list is getting bigger, not smaller.
Theater owners have a lot of choices. Sometimes there are ten or fifteen new releases every weekend, and it can be hard for a small film to break through that clutter. In our case, though, the buzz is growing, there's a lot of anticipation to see Liev in this role, the word of mouth is great... so we'll go from four screens to a few hundred, and hopefully more.
The film is finished and you're getting great reviews... but how did you know it was a great idea?
You never really know. It's art, not science. There is no real playbook.
Meeting Chuck, knowing the audience would be surprised by the story and the mythology behind such a beloved movie character, getting Liev to play it... it just felt like a winning proposition.
But you never really know.
There are thousands of criteria on which to make a judgment regarding the level of success of a project. At a really simple level, though, you can break it into three categories: Commercial response, critical response, and the journey.
The first two have not been completely resolved, but the third is very, very satisfying. Everybody pulled their weight. This was a producer's dream.
When it goes well, you make friends for life. There's nothing like being in the trenches, sitting on a set for 30 days for 12 or 14 hours, knowing the decade-plus you've invested in the project... you mark your life by these films and by the families that emerge.
Critical and commercial success is great, but the journey is the best part.
Seeing Chuck and Linda beam, seeing the pride the cast takes in the film... that's a great feeling.
That's why this movie is already a success.