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Q&A: Hollywood Takes A No-Holds Barred Look At MMA, Life In 'Warrior'

Gavin O’Connor may be best known by sports fans for his work directing Miracle, the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s legendary run to gold and their improbable victory over the Soviet Union.

O’Connor, whose directing credits also include Pride and Glory, Comfortably Numb and Tumbleweeds, will now try to capture the emotion and drama of life’s challenges, also shown through sport, with the fictional action film Warrior.

The production, from Lionsgate Films, which stars Nick Nolte, Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Morrison, follows the story of two brothers struggling to overcome great personal obstacles against the backdrop of the fast-growing sport of Mixed Martial Arts. Nolte portrays the father of the two brothers – one a military vet, one a schoolteacher – who has worked to overcome the demons of his own.

In advance of the film’s Sept. 9 opening, Big Lead Sports spoke with New York native O’Connor about the movie and why MMA was so integral to telling the story.

Big Lead Sports: We’ve seen how you were able to successfully tell personal stories using hockey. How important was MMA in exploring the personal lives of characters in Warrior?

Gavin O’Connor: This story is much more a life drama than a movie about Mixed Martial Arts. It tells the story of a family that has to overcome great challenges that everyone can relate to in these tough times, and the backdrop happens to be this particular sport and the tournament that takes place. I do think it will help more people understand MMA, but you don’t have to be a fan of the sport to enjoy the story.

BLS: Could this storyline have come off with any other sport?

GO: I think maybe it could have come across with boxing or wrestling. But the real drama is in the two brothers and what they are fighting for. I have followed MMA and all the other disciplines very closely and for the story to work you needed the Grand Prix type of tournament to bring the brothers together. I loved the PRIDE tournaments that were legendary in Japan, and nothing like that really exists in the States, especially in the 48 hours where our tournament takes place. So in order to deliver the story we needed MMA.

BLS: What sets this apart from oither films that revolve around sport?

GO: This film is really an intervention in a family, especially with the two brothers who eventually meet each other in the Grand Prix. In most films the audience knows who to pick as the hero or the villain or the underdog after a few minutes. If it is a real life story, there is some anticipation as to who wins and who loses and why. In this film, it is hard to pick who you want to succeed throughout the movie, and that tension and drama is what captures the audience. There is a rooting interest for both brothers, and in many ways one has to lose in order to succeed in the rest of his life. There is no clear winner or clear loser despite what happens in the Octagon.

BLS: How authentic is the fighting in the film?

GO: [That was] very important. We studied every aspect of MMA to make sure we got it right and it was legitimate to both the diehard fan and those who may be seeing the sport for the first time. The guys we had oversee the fight scenes had to make sure everything was authentic, and the fighters we have in the film made sure that everything was legitimate. You get a great sense for the sport, and its drama in the fight scenes, and that excitement comes through in the acting. I think everyone will enjoy what they see.

BLS: Warrior and the baseball-themed Moneyball are due out in September, so it seems as if sports are hot in Hollywood. Is there another sport-related story you would like to tell?

GO: Yes. We have a project based on a film called Victory that starred Silvester Stallone and Michael Caine. The original movie played out with POWs taking on Nazi guards in a soccer match during World War II. The new film idea is much bigger, and will ideally take place in 1942, the only year there was no World Cup, and will have Hitler’s Nazi athletes taking on the Allied Forces team. Soccer is a great universal theme set against this backdrop, and I think it has great potential for a film that talks to much bigger themes.

BLS: Will we see a sequel to Warrior?

GO: If people like it and we have the time to do it correctly, maybe it will happen. I wouldn’t want it to become like Rocky, where after Rocky 2 they just started to become exploitative. There is definitely the potential for another movie or a trilogy.

Editor’s note: See the trailer and learn more about Warrior at WarriorFilm.com.

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