Daniel Graham: Taking On Jem Belcher

On the heels of his 2021 film The Grand Duke of Corsica, UK-based Australian director Daniel Graham is back with the highly anticipated, Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher.

Based on the 19th Century boxer, who became the world’s youngest boxing champion, the film stars Matt Hookings as the prize-fighter, as he is guided by trainer Bill Warr (Ray Winstone) and raised by his grandfather Jack Slack (Russell Crowe).

FilmInk caught up with Graham to talk about the challenges of making his latest and what’s ahead.

How did Prizefighter begin? it’s quite different to your previous two films.

“When I came back from Mexico finishing Opus Zero, I started to contact producers in England to work together on projects. And one of the few who answered was Matt Hookings from Camelot films. We’re talking early 2017, so actually almost five and a bit years ago.  What happened then was that I wanted to make The Grand Duke and he wanted to make Prizefighter.

“It just so happened that The Grand Duke of Corsica was the one that got made first, probably because the budget was lower, it was a bit less complicated. He then did another movie almost straight away in Malta. Whilst I was developing other things, he finished that.

“And then I said to him October of 2020, I think it’s about time he did Prizefighter because he wanted to play Jem Belcher. Because for him, it’s a very personal story. His father was a boxer in the eighties. So, in October of 2020, I went back to Malta again and we did another pass on the script. We spent a couple of days going over the script and then finally it was time to make that movie. I’d done my Grand Duke. It was time, in a way, to return the favour and to direct Prizefighter for him.

“In March of 2021, we went to Wales and started. And then throughout the course of last year we made the film and completed it. But you’re right, it is very different from my first two movies.  And this was the thing really, when you are given a script like this, you have to put aside your sense of self as a writer and do the job that’s been handed to you, even if it’s not your invention. Reading the script, it’s a very conventional story in the best sense, with a very clear narrative and a very clear character journey for Jem Belcher. The job was to tell this story in the best way possible and to make people love Belcher and for them to understand him.”

Was part of what interested you in Prizefighter was that it was so different from what you’ve done before?

“It was a number of things. I thought it would be good for my discipline as a filmmaker to make a completely different story to the kind of thing that I would invent, and it would improve my skillset at adapting other people’s written work. I recognised that this would present challenges to me that I wouldn’t normally have. It was a much bigger film, a much larger budget, many hundreds of extras, big set pieces, fight scenes, and obviously a big cast of at least five or six really major actors. And for all of those reasons, I thought this is a great challenge and you put aside for a moment the fact that it’s not normally the kind of movie you would make because you see that it’s going to challenge you and equip you better for the next time you go back to your own scripts. It’s sort of a training, it’s a refinement process, I guess. And I knew that we were going to get these great actors and you have to be benefiting from that as a director in terms of working with actors.”

Prizefighter is a much bigger film than The Grand Duke of Corsica. How much of a challenge was this?

“From a purely technical point, you’re absolutely right. Because The Grand Duke of Corsica was a small and more concentrated story about these two men, so that was relatively straightforward. We had only one camera, but Prizefighter was another level altogether. And when you’re going into that for the first time, you do rely on the expertise of the people you’re working with, the camera operator, the fight coordinators, and your editor as well.  The editor would call me and say, ‘I watched the rushes, we could really do with this shot ‘because the big fight at the end of the movie, we shot it over three days with three cameras to get as much coverage as possible. And the editor said to me, ‘The one thing that’s nearly missing from scenes like this in other movies is enough reaction shots of the crowd’. So, we got a lot of reaction shots of the crowd and that just helps fill the scene out.

“It comes with its own pressures and stress points that smaller films don’t have. And this film was especially stressful for a myriad of reasons, but I enjoyed the challenge and you learn a great deal that you wouldn’t if you stick to the small indie films. The fight scenes were especially interesting because they were choreographed by some really great fight choreographers, the whole film was storyboarded as well. For the first time, the whole film was storyboarded and normally I wouldn’t take storyboards onto the set because it blocks you in. It can restrict your ability to respond to what’s happening on the day with the actors if you’ve got a template.  However, with fight scenes, it was a lifesaver. The first big fight in the film with Belcher and Andrew Gamble, the Irishman, in the forecourt of the big Ashford estate, that was fully storyboarded. And that really is what got us through covering that scene properly. With scenes like that, you have to get as much coverage as possible. We had more than one camera on many days, whereas on Grand Duke we just had one. So, in every sense it was an opportunity for me to really grow as a director.

“But, those scenes, a lot of the work frankly is the stunt coordinators and the camera operator getting it right. You’ve just got to make sure that story points are hit. For example, the scene when Jem punches Bob The Blackbeard Britton, that’s probably the first time that guy’s being punched like that maybe ever. And I think on the first day, Julius Francis, who was a real boxer with Mike Tyson, he was playing the scene, doing punches, doing the hits. And I said to him, ‘It’d be really great if we can have this character show that he’s a little bit more surprised that this annoying cocky kid has come out of nowhere and all of a sudden is hitting him’. And so, we played that and then you’ve got everything that you need from the scene, you need the punches, you need the hits, the misses, you need the coverage and so forth and the makeup, but you also need to see what’s going through those characters’ minds in addition to focusing on the punches as well.”

One of the biggest scenes is the last fight scene in the film. How difficult was this?

“Yeah, gosh, that was a big sequence. Every department was working at really their full capacity for three solid days, especially the actors, Ricky Chaplin, who plays Henry Pearce,  who’d never acted before, who’s actually a fireman as well as a real boxer. And Matt Hookings. It was just a matter of breaking these things down really. The camera operator was in that ring, bouncing around for three days in a row. There were hundreds of extras. The fight coordinators were on every single thing to make sure there weren’t any misses. And those guys did an amazing job just purely on a stamina level. It was summer, we shot that in Lithuania, actually, in an old disused disco hall, which we designed to look like Georgian England. So, it was summer as well. It was quite hot and stuffy.  There wasn’t a lot of ventilation going into that place. And we were still wearing masks as well because of Covid. It was a massive joint effort. It was a big scene, a big sequence.”

How was working with Ray Winstone?

“Ray was great to work with because he is so close to the character of Bill Warr already. Ray, when he was a teenager, was a boxer, and he knows that world. He knows boxing, he knows the world of boxers and trainers. Bill Warr was from the east end of London. The distance between Ray Winstone and Bill Warr was quite short. Sometimes, an actor has to go really far to get into the skin of their character. But with Ray, he was so close already that he fitted into it perfectly. And I would sometimes say to him, ‘Do you not think that in this particular shot, in this fight, he would be a bit more energised or a bit more excited or a bit more nervous?’ And he said, ‘No, no, he wouldn’t be’, because what Ray was good at with this character was he’d done boxing movies before. For it not to fall into cliche like Rocky, an extremely popular and famous film. However, just by comparison rather than criticism, he didn’t want the coach to be this kind of thing that we’d seen many times before, which was maybe a cliche.

“Instead, he was measuring out the proper emotional journey of Bill because the thing that we talked about was that to begin with, Bill Warr wasn’t sure whether Jem Belcher would actually amount to anything. He may have been some young dickhead who’s going to waste his time, become cocky and so on and so forth. And so that was Ray’s approach to that character at the beginning of their relationship, he was more businesslike, a little bit more sceptical, Let’s see how this goes, kind of thing, a bit more tentative.

“But then as the story progresses, when he comes back sort of grovelling for forgiveness, that’s when Bill becomes a little bit more personable towards him. Actors who’ve been working as long as he has, have done this so many times before. And not only do they have the technical skills with the delivery of lines and body language and the actions and the objectives of the scene, they understand storytelling as well. They read their character in the script and they plot it out and they see where on that journey line that character needs to be and that scene to get to the end point. That’s what those experienced actors bring. And that was the case with Ray.”

What was Russell Crowe like to work with?  

“Russell was fantastic. I didn’t have a lot of prep time with Russell, it wasn’t unlike some of the other actors. But in fact, it turned out really not to be necessary. The short answer is it was a fantastic collaboration and experience for me to work with someone at that level. When actors become that recognised and famous, a lot of time is spent talking about things other than what they actually do. He is a very, very bloody good actor, we need to remind ourselves of this sometimes because we get distracted by other things. He is a brilliant actor. The first time I went to meet him in his hotel in England, it was a day or two before shooting, and he was completely businesslike, completely professional, completely to the point, and always really respectful of me as the director, which I really appreciated, and I thought was fantastic.

“He asked pointed questions, I answered them, I gave him a little description of how I conceived the character in terms of the standalone sense and in terms of what function that character fulfilled within the movie at large. I only needed to say it once, and he got it completely. That was the prep. And then when we were shooting, every take he did was just gold.

“He is just really exceptionally good. He’s been making movies as we know for a very, very long time. And he’s completely  aware of everything, of how a movie set works. He could see what the camera was doing, he could see what the lens was.”

Did you do a lot of research into boxing?

“Yes. An awful lot. And not just boxing, but also going into Regency period England for example, when we did rehearsals with the actors who played the Belcher family, which is Jodhi May and Lucy Martin and Matt Hookings and Stanley Morgan. I made these little booklets for them, which was information that I’d researched about families of that type at that time in England and how close poverty always was to working class people. Well before social welfare, no GPs, there were hospitals, but they were pretty basic. And so the attraction, therefore, of earning a lot of money quickly was a huge one, which is hopefully what comes across in the movie; that no matter how much his mother warns him off against following this lifestyle because of what happened to your grandfather, an alcoholic, he does it anyway.

“In addition to doing the research on boxing, I tried to do historical research as well, so that we could work from the ground up. For me, ultimately, it’s a movie about a family who are struggling to do the best they can with limited means.”

What was the biggest challenge of making Prizefighter?

“One is technical challenges. The other is dramatic challenges, which was keeping that character of Jem Belcher front and centre – you’re really trying to ensure that the audience would be seeing and feeling his emotional journey. That was a challenge because Jem Belcher as a character doesn’t actually say very much in the film.

“But technically, t was the physical aspects of going across three or four different countries over quite a long period of time and starting from scratch all over again as it were, to keep the consistency going. You’ve got to try to block out many things when you move from country to country. You get on your plane, you go to your hotel, so on and so forth. And you’ve just got to have your mind only on the story. You should feel like there’s no difference between directing a scene in England and then directing the same scene where they come out the other end of the forest, thousands of miles away in Lithia on the other side of the Baltics.

“You mentally have to be in exactly the same place. And in Malta with Russell’s scenes, that was supposed to be Bristol. And then in November five, six months later, we were shooting in Malta in the Mediterranean Sea and it was meant to be the same piece of rock. So, I suppose that was the most challenging aspect, to keep that, despite the fact that all of these huge things are constantly moving around you.

“The shooting of Grand Duke of Corsica was a walk in the park really compared to Prizefighter. I think we had 28 days to shoot that, this was 46 days. But this was spread over a six month period as well.”

What are you planning to do next?

“I’ve got two semi-fictionalised biopics in development. One I’ve written an original script, and the other one I’ve adapted from a play. Hopefully they will both take place next year. One is about Richard Wagner, the composer, that’s called Wagner in Venice, about his death in 1883. And then the other one is about the English actor David Niven, which is based on a play which is set in a Swiss ski chalet in the 1970s. That’s kind of a Christie murder mystery black comedy. They’re both very different subject matter, different treatments, but again,  really exciting projects and they’re both looking pretty good at the moment, so fingers crossed we’ll do those two next year.

“I’m waiting for a script from a producer in Australia. I’d love to make a movie in Australia.  I left there in 2004, and the ultimate thing for me to do would just be to come home and to make a movie there.”

Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher is available on DVD and Digital now

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