Channing Tatum and Dito Montiel: 'We're Good at What We Do'
A pulpy, pulsating morsel of B-movie pop, Fighting reunites director Dito Montiel and actor Channing Tatum for the tale of a struggling small-town transplant who stumbles into contender status on New York's underground fighting circuit. It doesn't hurt young Shawn MacArthur's chances that he encounters one catalyst after another: the hustler turned de facto manager Harvey (Terrence Howard); the beautiful club waitress (Zulay Henao) who's closer to him than he thinks; and archnemesis Evan Hailey (Brian White), the mixed martial arts champ who just happened to initiate Shawn's falling out with his father years before. All too convenient? Of course. But that's only part of the story.
The other part involves Montiel and Tatum themselves. The former is a Queens native and one-time punk-rock star who adapted his own memoir, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, for the screen in 2006, hosting a fantastic ensemble including Shia LaBeouf and Robert Downey Jr. (playing young and old versions of Montiel himself), Dianne Wiest, Chazz Palminteri, Melonie Diaz and others. The cast's resulting trajectories have mostly shot upward, but only one has once again intersected with Montiel's own: That of Tatum, who portrayed the filmmaker's tormented, tormenting best friend Antonio.
Their reteaming -- particularly in Manhattan, where young Dito sought escape from Queens before finally fleeing to California -- feels like an unofficial continuation of the Saints saga begun three years ago. But the duo also fled the art house, unapologetically taking on a kinetic, squalid fairy tale for genre label Rogue Pictures -- Cinderella with fists, Midnight Cowboy for the post-9/11 era. Montiel and Tatum talked with Movieline about Fighting (which opens Friday), working within the studio system, and Terrence Howard's unusual home remedy for breaking out of jail.
Fighting seems like an unusual follow-up choice for you guys to reunite. This has a lot of the same supporting cast as Saints, though it's not an ensemble film. It's the same city, but you're out of Astoria. Did you have something left to get out?
TATUM: Actually, Dito saw Midnight Cowboy in this movie. I think he put it best when he told me, "This is a really rare opportunity to take those characters we haven't seen onscreen in a while and do them in a commercial way. And really have the studio behind it." It's really hard to do these kinds of movies now, and to put these types of characters in a commercial film is hard to do and make it entertaining -- something for more than just the art-house guys.
MONTIEL: And we would have loved to have taken all the sport out if the film, believe me. And that was our secret plan. "Oooh, we could make a really great movie if they don't fight." And that's when the studio said, "Not with us." Terrence was the same way. So what I did was say, "Let's pretend the studio is Jack [the film's adversarial underground fight pimp], and they're making us fight." So instead of it being about the Perfect Move, or "I'm going to kick ass here," it's about a reluctant fighter. One day I told Terrence, "A really great-looking gift horse just walked into Manhattan, and Harvey doesn't know what to do with him. But he knows he's worth something." And Channing was like, "Do I trust this guy?" That was a fun movie to make. And then it was like, "OK, the studio's forcing us to go shoot this fight." So Jack is forcing Shawn and Harvey to go fight. Then we'd go shoot a fight.
Midnight Cowboy and Saints are both especially evocative New York films, and this feels like an extension of that influence in a lot of ways. Did you have more to say about the city itself, too?
TATUM: Dito told me he wanted to shoot it like a '70s film, and let New York just seep into it. And almost make it like a video game -- because each fight is so different. Each is so stylized.
MONTIEL: Midnight Cowboy is an exquisite piece of filmmaking. It's insane. The only reason to bring up that reference is because we're we're making a PG-13 movie called Fighting, and it's gotta be really pop and they want hip-hop in it. But if we can sneak a few little elements of Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck and maybe The Warriors in it, we can bring a Trojan Horse into the studio. I felt like as long as I believed in the people in the movie, then the studio were the bad guys. And like Jack was making these guys fight, the studio was making us not make Midnight Cowboy. We were fighting, but enjoying it at the same time.
It increasingly sounds like there was some resistance on your side, Dito. Are you guys happy with the way the movie turned out?
TATUM: I think the system is in place for a reason. People go to these movies. Why do you think every Academy Award-winning movie grosses so little? Every Fast and Furious, though? I'm gonna see it. So we've all gotta work with each other and do stuff that's integrity-filled to us, that we find interesting. They're good at what they do, and we're good at we do.
MONTIEL: Yeah, I don't buy into the "bad-guy studio" thing. I signed on for a PG-13 movie. I sat down with the studio, and the first thing they said to me was, "So are you going to make Harvey a junkie?" And I was like, "If I was, I wouldn't be talking to you about a PG-13 movie called Fighting." I know what we're doing here. When I say "bad guy," I just mean you have to treat them like that a little bit. There's a time to make certain movies, and we said, "This will be fun. We'll have a good time out there. And as long as I believe these guys, we'll all be happy."
TATUM: It's like negotiating at a flea market. They want something for a higher price than you're willing to pay, but it always ends up falling right in the middle. It's not good or bad. You just have to figure it out.
It feels like there's some unfinished business here from Channing's character in Saints. Antonio was another tormented young man with father issues and a bit of a violent streak. Shawn's a lot more benevolent, of course. Is that just coincidence, or is that a connection you guys made?
TATUM: Personally, I don't think there's a guy out there who doesn't have Dad issues. I don't think it was planned. It could have been the mother aspect just as easily. Dito called me up and said, "Give me five reasons why you'd leave home. They could be real or not real." So I texted him five reasons--
MONTIEL: And then I got really worried. I said, "Did you do this?" [They laugh.]
TATUM: That's funny. So then he took a piece of that and put it in. That was a fun thing for me to do, because I've never been on the creative side of developing a character like that before.
How does a strapping young man from Alabama wind up selling counterfeit books in Rockefeller Center, though? Why is he there?
MONTIEL: You know what's funny is that the script existed before, and Shawn was living in a hotel in Manhattan. I was like, "Hmm." I don't think there are any Manhattan hotels under $100 a night, but even so, that's $700 a week. He's selling a lot of freaking Harry Potter books. But Channing basically created his own back story.
TATUM: Well, I went from Tampa to Miami. I didn't have any money, and Miami's different. I just looked at it as a kid who wanted to get away. Maybe he had one of those "I LOVE NY" mugs somewhere, and he says, "I'm going to get on the bus and go up there and figure it out." And that's what I did. I just kept moving, knowing that I would figure it out somehow. I don't like to call Shawn a hustler; I think of him as a worker. He didn't know they were fake books or broken iPods. He really thought it was called Harry Potter and the Hippopotamus. He was just trying to figure it out.
MONTIEL: Some things you put in script and you're thinking, "What the hell? This is so ridiculous." I keep going back to the PG-13 because God help us if they had made it an R. Then we would have had to go into Raging Bull territory. And then you know they're gonna try and make it more kick-ass. So it's like, the more you're gonna make us not say "fuck," the more you're gonna really regret it. We're really gonna go somewhere else. Shawn's a good guy, but he's got no one to talk to. Harvey's got no one to talk to, either. He's sitting outside and the lady's complaining about the city, and he's saying, "It's better now! People used to sit here and sell drugs!"
These people are in the now. And Shawn is a decent guy. Strangely, Antonio, too, was a decent guy who did very indecent things at times. What make me feel good about the film and makes me not dread the premiere is that I know Shawn and Harvey could have been such bad people. But they're good, nice people, and it's nice to spend time with them -- and get some action, too. That's really fun for me -- not the technicalities.
Channing, how did you and Terrence Howard develop these characters together?
TATUM: I knew I'd have to stay country. He's the most "Shawn" in the beginning of the movie, and then he goes through his change, and I knew I'd have to make him a little less country toward the end. And that was by choice; after the first year I was here the first time, I'd changed a lot. I'd kind of wanted that to be Shawn. And the more I hung out with Terrence, he would constantly talk about the craziest shit. Like he told me about how there's no cell that could ever hold him because he'd make acid from his urine and his feces.
MONTIEL: [Laughing] Oh, yeah. I remember that.
TATUM: I was like, "That's cool? I guess? And now I know something you'd do if you were in jail." And that's how I got to know Terrence. I just sat and we talked. That was probably the most fun in the film.
So Channing's going to be in G.I. Joe and Public Enemies. Shia LaBeouf's doing a summer blockbuster per year. Robert Downey Jr. is shooting Iron Man 2. Could you guys have believed that four years after knocking around Astoria, Saints would represent that kind of springboard?
MONTIEL: I always think they should put freaking Saints back out and say, "Starring Indiana Jones played by Iron Man, and his best friend is G.I. Joe." Fuck. Now people will go, damn it. Just put that on the poster: Iron Man, G.I. Joe, and fucking Indiana Jones. Ship it!
TATUM: Starring in: Indie Movie! That's brilliant. ♦