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From The Streets To The Screen
The story of Micky Ward's hard rise and unexpected transformation into a sports legend was such a gritty, real-life fairy tale that many people who heard about it remarked that it sounded just like a movie. Bringing the story to the screen would take nearly as much passion, devotion and hard work on the part of a whole team of filmmakers as to match Micky's own bid for a championship title.

What excited producers Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman was that it was also about the invincible bonds between brothers and a family's quest for redemption. Those elements made the story worth fighting for, say the producers. "We got involved in The Fighter when screenwriters Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson brought us a 15-minute DVD on the lives of Dicky Eklund and Micky Ward,” explains Hoberman. "When my partner Todd and I watched it, we were in tears. It's a story of overcoming the odds, of redemption in the face of adversity, and that's the kind of story we love to do. We asked them right away if we could partner with them and they said yes."

Adds Lieberman: "I must have watched that DVD five hundred times. It was truly inspiring to learn about the story of these two brothers and what they overcame throughout the years. We felt it had a lot of parallels in terms of its mix of drama, redemption and brotherly love.”

The story would take three years and a fighting spirit on the part of the filmmakers to get to the screen. Mark Wahlberg had long wanted to make a movie about Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund. Hoberman and Lieberman were thrilled to team up with Wahlberg and director David O. Russell spurred the production into a rough-and-ready, fast-paced production schedule that immersed the cast full bore into their characters and the crew into the world of blue-collar boxing in America.

"Clearly, he was going to be the perfect Micky Ward,” says Hoberman.

Adds Lieberman: "From the moment we started enquiring into the story, we knew that Mark wanted to play Micky. Micky had always been one of his heroes and he knew this story as well as anyone.”

Having worked with Wahlberg twice before, including on the critically acclaimed Iraq War thriller, Three Kings, everyone was excited to see what Russell's notably creative perspective could bring to The Fighter's mix of visceral sports drama and emotionally exposed family portrait.

"The great thing about David is that he's so passionate about everything he does and he's not afraid to fall in love with ideas and things and people. I think it's what makes him such a terrific director,” says Hoberman.

"I've known David for a couple of years now and we had looked at working together. As soon as I sat down with him, I saw and heard his passion for the movie,” comments producer Ryan Kavanaugh. He adds, "He was approaching it from a very artistic point of view, but understood that this was a commercial story. We told him to keep the heart and soul, but that we needed more ‘Rocky' out of it. He gave us everything we wanted and then some.”

Adds Lieberman: "David brought to the material a real charm and sense of humor. He saw that even though these characters are flawed, they are also entertaining, revealing and loveable, and he really helped bring all of that to the screen.”

Russell also saw The Fighter as a love story. He approached it not only as Micky and Dicky's story as brothers, but also as the story of Micky's quest to reconcile his tight-knit family to the woman he loves, and he put the collision course between Charlene and the family at the center of the narrative. "The Fighter is about people who are really human, all too human, like every one of us,” he says. "These are the best types of film characters and they are also authentic Lowell characters. Lowell is a very particular working class town outside of Boston and this family is a large presence there. They have a very particular way of living and being. The mother is this bleached blonde force of nature with the cigarettes and the glass in her hand, managing her sons' careers over two decades. Then you have Dicky, who is the biggest hero out of Lowell since Jack Kerouac, who is this warm, charismatic, loose kind of guy who's also a little outrageous. And then here comes his younger brother, Micky who is quiet and disciplined and can't quite figure out how to separate himself from his family.”

He continues: "I wanted to tell the story of these people and their world. They are in some ways heartbreaking, in some ways hilarious, yet always very, very real.”

To write the first drafts of the script, screenwriters Paul Tamasy, who produced the film as well, and Eric Johnson, who also serve as executive producers, spent lots of time in Lowell, interviewing everyone connected with the story, which turned out to be a good portion of the community. In the 1920's Lowell, long a major East Coast manufacturing center, forged on the bedrock of hard-working immigrants, had experienced a downturn as its mills and factories began shutting down. Meanwhile, boxing became an outlet for a lot of the town's young men and the ring became one last place they could still hope to hit it big.

"There were something like thirty boxing gyms at one time in Lowell,” explains Johnson. "It was seen as a way into a better life and out of poverty. After the mills closed, there was such high unemployment, boxing became a kind of opportunity.”

Tamasy notes that the Ward/Eklund family came across as the quintessential Lowell clan. "They're very representative of the town in how tight they are and how much they believe that, no matter what, family is an anchor,” he says.

After an initial draft from Johnson and Tamasy, Russell continued working with screenwriter Scott Silver, who earlier penned the Detroit-set drama 8 Mile starring Eminem, to give the brothers' story additional layers of grit and comic bite. As production approached, it became a bottom-line priority to Russell to involve the entire Ward/Eklund family, and the town of Lowell, in the process which, in turn, he says added a daily dose of real-life inspiration to cast and crew. "We wanted to be absolutely respectful of who these people are and, at the same time, be completely direct about the truth of their story,” Russell reflects, "and they inspired us to do that because they are so comfortable in who they are.”

Micky Ward says Russell stayed true to the promise of depicting the family with compassion and honesty, as well as a storyteller's instincts. "He said right from the get-go that he wanted to make this as real as possible and that's what he did. He really listened to me and to Dicky and he was never afraid to try absolutely anything.”

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