The Actor as Boxer
Neither could anyone foresee the extent of Washington's fierce enthusiasm for the role. He attacked the role of Rubin Carter head on with a force that inspired all those with whom he came in contact.
Langlais says, "His commitment was total. He said, 'I'm going to lose weight, I'm going to become a boxer. I'm going to get a body like Rubin's. Even as Denzel described what he planned to do, he was becoming the man right before our eyes. This role demanded an all-or-nothing attitude. Denzel had that."
Known for his meticulous approach to his work, Washington hired boxing trainer Terry Claybon a year prior to the start of production. Through a special diet and strenuous physical training, Washington started to become the man, by first becoming the boxer Carter had been. Washington ended up being so comfortable working with Claybon that he suggested him for the role of boxer Emile Griffith.
"I had to start with who he was and let that take me through. I did a lot of boxing and spent a lot time in the gym," Washington explains.
The transformation was extraordinary for everyone who witnessed the boxing scenes being filmed. Washington entered the ring wearing a brown robe like the kind Rubin Carter always wore for luck and to commemorate a former sparring partner.
"When he pulled off that robe, there was a man who had spent a year dedicated to this movie," says Bernstein. "He had lost almost 60 pounds. I've made a lot of movies with actors who say they're very dedicated to their parts. Denzel transcends dedication. To get in that physical shape and to have choreographed these fight scenes took months and months of dedication."
The complex boxing scenes, depicting three of Carter's most significant fights, actually took three days to film. Jewison had never made a film that included a specific boxing match in a ring, and found himself preparing three separate matches that demanded its own distinct look. To prepare, Jewison watched Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull and other boxing movies for inspiration.
Veteran stunt coordinator Ron Stein and trainer Terry Claybon choreographed the fight sequences. The Carter/Griffith fight alone is comprised of more than 90 punches, thrown in 1 minute and 40 seconds. After a year of training and rehearsing, Washington and Claybon were able to stop and start at any point in the choreographed sequence.
To capture the speed and grace of these scenes, dewison relied on veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, who received Oscar® nominations for his camera work on Kundun, Fargo and The Shawshank Redemption.
Jewison explains, "When you shoot fight sequences in the ring and re-create actual fights, the camera is so revealing that it's impossible to set up each shot separately like a stunt fight in a normal film. I found that I had to get the camera in close and use a lot of hand-held to make the fight sequences work. What Roger has done is extraordinary."
Deakins appreciated dewison's approach as well. He says, "Norman knows that he wants this angle to go with that angle. It can be very elegant working in that way. It's very matter-of-fact and right for this project, because it's a realistic film in many ways. We didn't want to make very big camera moves: it's a film that's best served by a low-key approach. We kept the camera moving and created some interesting stuff."
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