How “The Fighter” shot 35 days worth of fight scenes in only three days – (37signals)

Experts go with what they know. And they’ll often insist something needs to take a long time. But when you don’t have tons of resources, you need to ask if there’s a simpler, judo way to get the impact you desire. Sometimes there’s a better way than the “best” way.

I thought of this while watching “The Fighter” over the weekend. There’s a making of extra on the DVD where Mark Wahlberg, who starred in and produced the film, talks about how all the fight scenes were filmed with an actual HBO fight crew. He mentions that going this route allowed them to shoot these scenes in a fraction of the time it usually takes.

Every filmmaker that we talked to about directing this movie was like you can’t shoot the fights in 20 days, you need 35 days. And I said, “Well, we’re going to shoot the whole movie in 33 days and we’re going to shoot all the fights in three days.” And they said, “How are you going to do that? It’s never going to work.” And I said, “Because we’re going to film them like actual fights.”

So we literally did every fight from the actual beginning, coming out of the dressing room into the arena, into the ring, first bell, introductions, to the last bell, and everything. And we just did it over and over and over again.

And what I kept telling everybody is that HBO does it in one take and they don’t know what’s going to happen and they never miss a thing. We have the luxury of showing them what we’re going to do in the morning before we shoot it and doing it over and over and over again. So why do you need 20 days? For what? To jerk each other off? To touch up your makeup? To go in the trailer and take a nap?

We’re not talking about putting the camera in there and saying, “OK, we’re going to do a stunt punch here.” No, we’re going in there and beat the shit out of each other and we’re going to make it real.

Judging by the film’s success at The Oscars and the box office, the plan worked. And it’s a great example of reframing the problem and asking the right questions.

All these filmmakers insisted on a month+ to film the scenes because conventional wisdom says that’s the “right” way to do it. But sometimes conventional wisdom is more convention, less wisdom. And that’s when it pays off to take a questioning attitude and challenge assumptions.

Would taking the extra time with these scenes really add significant value? Sure, there’d be more slow motion, spit-flying, macro closeups. But would those shots really have made it a better film?

It ties in with another great question to ask: What problem are you solving? The goal was to make the fights seem real. Not to make them look good. To seem real. Focusing on that changes the requirements.

And that leads to another good question you should always come back to: Is there an easier way? The HBO fight crew is made up of experts at filming fights. They don’t need to be taught how to make it look real. They’re used to capturing a fight in one take — and that’s without knowing what will happen beforehand. Shooting this way is a piece of cake for them.

And maybe the most important question: What’s the opportunity cost? The whole film had a shooting calendar of 33 days. Filming it the HBO way means the movie gets made. A longer, pricier approach might have doomed the film and prevented it from ever being shot in the first place.

Most of us aren’t filming fight scenes. But the way Wahlberg and his team challenged assumptions and questioned traditional “best practices” is something that can be applied to all kinds of arenas, not just boxing ones.

Below: (Spoiler Alert! Don’t watch if you don’t want to know the outcome of a fight in the film.) This video compares Micky Ward vs. Shea Neary in “The Fighter” with the real fight.

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