Director Peter Segal had the utmost challenge of making Grudge Match and having its story be believable about two old boxers who finally have a score-settling rematch 30 years after their glory days have passed. As shown in the Grudge Match trailer, those two boxers are veterans of boxing films… Robert De Niro of Raging Bull and Sylvester Stallone of Rocky.
Segel phoned Movie Fanatic for an exclusive chat to discuss the finer points of making a movie like this work, as well as how Stallone proved priceless in his ability to craft a boxing match that not only worked and felt real, but also reinforced the uplifting themes of the film. He also dishes what it is about the boxing movie that keeps audiences coming back, year after year.
Movie Fanatic: Choreographing action sequences is one thing, but a boxing match over 12 rounds that has to be believable when the fighters are older like Stallone and De Niro is another. Was that one of your biggest challenges?
Peter Segal: I knew when I got the script that I wanted it to be a funny movie, but I also wanted it to be a story of redemption, and if I could work that emotion into the comedy and top it off with a very realistic fight, we’d have something. And if the fight could be taken seriously and come off silly, I knew it would work. The only two people, actors, who could pull that off were Bob De Niro and Sylvester Stallone. There was a gravitas to them in their subtext because of the iconic characters that they’ve played in Raging Bull and Rocky in the ring. The next challenge was getting both guys into fighting shape. Nobody had done a movie about boxing with guys this age. Sly normally keeps himself in fantastic shape, but still had to drop about 15 pounds to get in the same weight class as De Niro. Bob, on the other hand, he had the harder time because he had to drop 30 pounds and had to be willing to commit to getting into shape. I wanted to bring a realism to the fight, and I couldn’t have done it without them.
Peter Segal: It was a challenge. We looked at doing it a number of different ways. From buying footage of those guys in their early films to using doubles. At the end of the day what was really intriguing was to deliver on the promise of Rocky and Raging Bull going at it, subliminally. The only way to do it was a very technologically advanced aging process. It was the same company that aged Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button. That was combined with some rare footage from De Niro and Stallone training for Rocky and Raging Bull. This is never-before-seen footage!
Movie Fanatic: Mr. De Niro and Mr. Stallone are both actors who also direct. For you as a director, what kind of benefit is it to have actors who keenly know the craft of directing?
Peter Segal: There was an understanding about the process, but it was a little intimidating for me working with two legends in a square circle. I had never directed a boxing movie before, so I wanted to be as respectful as possible. I wrote the story for the fight, but had never choreographed a fight. I needed the help of one of the great choreographers of fights, and that was Sly. I asked for his help filling in the beats in the fight scenes, in addition to throwing the punches.
Movie Fanatic: De Niro seems to be having a true blast in the last several years showing his ability to do it all -- be goofy, serious and just let it all hang out. What impressed you most about that legend?
Peter Segal: He’s fearless. When he runs out of the bar in the movie and the camera is up high and he’s screaming, “Yes!” Razor has finally agreed to the rematch after 30 years -- the day we shot that in New Orleans, there were tour buses in the French Quarter and crowds of people watching. It can be a really embarrassing moment for an actor to come out and scream your guts out. But, Bob has no hesitation and gave it his all. I just thought, “That takes balls.” I think his choices in the latter few years -- he has let his hair down.
Movie Fanatic: You’ve had experience with the sports film, with The Longest Yard (one of our Top 10 Football Movies) and now Grudge Match. What do you think it is about the sports film and how it can be a metaphor for so many different things and how audiences can’t seem to get enough of this sub-genre of film?
Peter Segal: Someone once described sports films as chick flicks for guys. I do agree. Ironically, it is this film… the number one demographic we’ve found in testing it, is women over thirty. That was a big surprise for me. They can be uplifting and invigorating as they are usually stories about underdogs. But, I think what works so well historically about boxing films is they are a metaphor for life. Can you get up when you’re knocked down? That builds character. We get knocked down in our daily lives all the time. But, the key is do we come back swinging. That is why people identify with boxing movies.