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February 2004
Against The Ropes : An Interview with Director Charles Dutton

By Todd Gilchrist

Against The Ropes: An Interview with Director Charles Dutton

Charles S. Dutton has more than fifty credits on his acting resume since he began in 1985 in a small role in the suspense anthology Cat's Eye, but to this day, he's still best known- at least to the folks he produces, directs, and acts with- as the garbage man with a heart of gold whom he played from 1991 to 1994 on Fox's Roc. In recent interviews for his big-screen directorial debut, Against The Ropes, both Meg Ryan and Omar Epps referred to him as the show's title character rather than Charles, Felix (his character in the film), or any other of the myriad roles he's undertaken in his twenty-year career.

Against The Ropes- based on the true story of a female boxing promoter and her prodigiously talented prizefighter- began its journey to the silver screen almost two years ago and is finally seeing release February 20. In this recent interview with blackfilm.com, Dutton discussed the estimable legacy of boxing films, the sport itself, and his transition from character actor to actor's director.

TG: How difficult is it to be a director and one of the leading actors in a movie?

CD: I really didn't want to act in the movie, I swear to you. It was only decided two weeks before we shot, and they kept telling me that they were getting Morgan Freeman and all these other people, and then they called me when I was in pre-production and said, 'Well, why don't you play the part?' I didn't want to compartmentalize it, my first feature film I just wanted to stay out of it and direct it. But being an actor first and a director second, I said, 'It is a good part,' and that's how it happened.

TG: When you were acting were you thinking as an actor or a director?

CD: I was fortunate. I had a great crew, a wonderful director of photography in Jack Green, who had done a lot of Clint Eastwood's films, so he's a great third eye. What made it less difficult and relatively easy, if I was just acting in this movie I would have come every day with 50 ways I wanted to play a scene; but as a director you didn't have the luxury of that kind of time, so I decided one way I wanted to play the role, one style, one attitude, and then I could do that and ultimately direct the film in the character of Felix. So it made for a gentle shoot, it made for an easy shoot, it made for a compassionate shoot, because that's the way I directed in that character. I wasn't a ranting, raving director. I would just stay in the character of Felix and then direct it that way. Of course I had to deviate here and there, but I knew how I wanted to play it. I box myself, I know the fight game, I've seen different kinds of trainers, and I didn't want to be the typical trainer that every boxing trainer in every boxing movie is a rah-rah guy. I wanted to be a little different.

TG: What do you think are the fallacies that some boxing movies commit and how do you address them and correct them?

CD: Hopefully I addressed them and corrected them. The fallacies that are in a lot of films are kind of the cartoon characters, caricatures and awful fight scenes. We weren't going to do Rocky, the studio did not want to do a stylized movie like Raging Bull, so what I wanted to do was just a simple depiction of the fight game. The breath of fresh air we had the luxury of was that it was about a woman. Then it was my task, at that time, to make the other stuff exciting, and to make it a human story and not just a boxing story. I think the two lessons in the film are, that the boxing discovers his humanity by the end, and the manager learns the lesson of not becoming intoxicated with fame and power, and those were two things that we were after. Being that it is a true story, but however inspired by the true story, the fact of the matter was that in real life, just like in the story, the fighter was on his way to the penitentiary before this woman interceded. And although it was a business deal, and she wasn't the white woman coming in the ghetto and saving the black kid, because it was a business deal, there wasn't anything saintly, nun-ly about Jackie Kallen. It was about business. Yet it still had to be a film about a human story, and I think that was the difference between this and other boxing movies.

TG: How do you mean it's not like Rocky?

CD: First of all, you look at Rocky films now, and if that isn't a cartoon series there isn't any cartoon series. I mean there's no way anybody is going to take that amount of punishment in fifteen rounds. You know what I mean? It's not a true story. They should have Joe Frasier in that statue instead of Rocky Balboa.

TG: Are you talking about the Rocky series?

CD: No, I'm talking about the film itself. I'm talking about all four of them, or seventeen of them, whatever it is. And what I mean about that is, this wasn't a pug (?) boxing movie, it wasn't about a pug. Most boxing stories to me fail because it's about pugs, it's about guys who are already punch drunk before the movie starts. It's the clich» thing of the screaming trainer. This was a modern movie, this was about business deals, this was about business arrangements. LaRocca runs a multi-media entertainment, sports entertainment firm. He's not the seedy guy. We were going to do a seedy, smelly, smoky boxing movie, because that wasn't the real woman's experience. The real woman would be in the gym doing her nails. And I wanted to concern myself with where do these two people go in life? What do they learn? What values do they get from each other after this journey? Once Jackie makes the move to sell his contract, she does it without asking for anything. If she had said, 'Well, give me back what I've put in,' then it wouldn't have been a heroic move on her part. It would have still remained a business deal. Those were the things that I wanted to do, I didn't want to do a long battle, a long fight in the last scene, because it wasn't Rocky, we weren't going to do a fifteen round fight. I wanted a short fight, simply because I said, 'Let me model this fight after another fight.' I took a look at the Thomas Hearn, Marvelous Marvin Hagler fight, which only went three rounds but the greatest three rounds in the history of boxing. And I said, 'If we can catch that intensity, then I think we've got a good last fight.' Of course, you can't escape any Rocky identification because that was such a huge and well-liked film. But I don't think this is the Rocky movie.

TG: What are some of the great boxing movies of all time?

CD: For me, Requiem for a Heavyweight, the Anthony Quinn, Mickey Rooney, Jackie Gleason film - that was a film that I watched over and over again and I was a fan of that movie, and, of course, Raging Bull in a different way, because of its stylized nature. And like everybody else, I like the Rocky movies, but if you look at them again you can see all the misses, but the intensity of it, but that wasn't what this is. This was a true story, albeit inspired by it. The thing is there have been so many boxing movies, you find yourself in bed at night saying, 'Okay, what can I do different that wasn't like that one, or wasn't like that one.' You can't escape from the whole thing, but you can try to come up with some new creative things.

TG: What was it about Meg Ryan that made you think she was right for this role?

CD: Meg is the polar opposite of Jackie Kallen, the polar opposite. She was also chomping at the bit to do something like this. There were some doubters, Meg Ryan as a boxing manager - I never doubted it, because listen, as actors you get paid those multi-millions to do what sells at the box office. The thing is, the studio then forget that you're an actor and that you can do other things, and so since they pay you for that, they don't want you to do anything else. She was able to do these kinds of things for a long time. We haven't seen her as this brassy or flashy or trashy in some aspects, but she was excited to do this, so she was a doll to work with. She admitted, 'Charles, I don't know anything about boxing,' and we went to Vegas and saw a lot of fights, we went to boxing gyms, she got to smell the sense of what it's like in there, and like a lot of women I know, once she saw people throwing punches, she was like, 'Wow, this is fun.' She got into it.

TG: How did you find the Spanish fighter?

CD: Juan Hernandez was an actor out of New York, but what made Juan so great and what made Omar so great was that they both already knew how to box, so we didn't have to take them into a gym and teach them how to throw a left jab. Omar boxes for real, Omar can kick some serious ass, and so can Juan Hernandez. And those guys had such spirited and fierce sparring sessions that I would have to stop them and say, 'Guys, save it for the movie.' And because they both could box, all of the fighters in the movie that Omar has bouts with were real professional fighters, so these guys knew how to take care of themselves and if they got hit accidentally it wasn't any big deal. If Omar got hit, it wasn't a big deal, Omar wasn't going to stop and say, 'Cut. My nose is bleeding, call my agent.' He'd say, 'Nice punch,' and then he'd accidentally hit the guy back.

TG: How difficult was it to shoot the boxing sequences?

CD: It's part choreography, but it's also the camera angles and stuff. What I did was, I told the guys, 'Listen, whenever you forget the choreography, don't stop, just jab. Just jab like fighters. And what I mean by that is don't jab not to hit the guy, jab to hit the guy, but the other guy, you'd better damn move like a fighter would.' So in those breaks, they were really winging some punches at each other. But because they were professional guys they knew how to protect themselves.

TG: What are your plans for the DVD?

CD: We haven't even discussed it yet. I'll probably throw another 15 minutes into the movie that was cut out. But I've been so busy I haven't begun concentrated on the DVD.

TG: Was there any thought of developing a romantic relationship between them, because it seems implied in one scene?

CD: It was one of those things of the script taking many changes. When all this really happened in real life, Jackie Kallen was married with two teenage children. That used to be in the script, but the question was, what's the story about, is the story about this woman who has a strained relationship with her family because she's trying to run around in the boxing world? Is that the story? At one point, Gavin was more instrumental as a love interest, the sport's guy. There was a story about her and Gavin, and there was a story about her and the fighter. We decided this story was about her and the fighter. Now, is it a romantic relationship, is there something subtle going on underneath, sexual? What was implied, I think, is interpretation. To me she's jealous of Renee simply because she thinks that's going to distract him from where he needs to go. I never read it as a romantic jealous. I read it as boxing people want their damned fighter focused. They don't want the wives around, the girlfriends around, or anything. And Jackie Kallen being the old school, she still believes in the old adage, no sex during training. Just as a sidebar, all the old school trainers who believe that, they only believe that depending upon what kind of love-maker the fighter is. If the fighter's a three minute man, then he can have all the sex he wants, but if he's got a lot of stamina and he's acrobatic and he uses his legs in the lovemaking process, that's a no-no, because the next day in the gym you're going to be weak, because you've trained and then you did an extra workout that night. So if you're a bang-bang, yeah, then you can have sex. It does seep though, it was intended to be Juan that says, 'Listen, you've got to focus.' And also, she says what I think clears it up, 'Look, Renee is my friend. If they get involved it's a friend thing. Renee, he can't go with you tonight, he's got to get his rest.' And then their friendship gets a little tension in it because she wants him to do one thing and Renee wants him to do another.

TG: Why is there a diarrhea scene?

CD: That was a true story. Some guys actually did try to do that to a fighter of Jackie's. That's an old boxing trick, that you any way whatsoever that you can get an edge on your opponent. And the guy tried to put the laxative in a fighter's orange juice, and tried to give it to Jackie and she switched it. That's our only point of inelegance, but the audience loves it. Actually, I had that scene cut up until the last minute, and we worked focus groups it was the moment in the movie where I said, 'You know what, it doesn't have a laugh in here.' And the studio kept telling me, 'That's because you don't have the orange juice scene.' When I put it back in, and it was a true story, but I thought it was a moment of inelegance, and I said, 'Well, it's our only moment. But it was true.' There's rumors why Roberto Duran decided to say 'No mas' and it wasn't because he was losing the fight with Sugar Ray so bad, he wasn't losing so bad. He had to shit. He did. Roberto Duran had to go to the bathroom bad, and if he had stayed one more round and Sugar Ray Leonard hit him in the body one more round, Roberto Duran would have never been able to go back to his home country of Panama, because they would have stopped the plane - if a fighter shits on himself in a gym, you never live that down. Twenty years later, people say, 'You know what, he got the shit knocked out of him.'

TG: What is your role in Secret Window?

CD: I play Johnny Depp's friend who happens to be a private detective who Johnny hires me to check out this guy who has been intimidating him. I come in and sort of a bodyguard him, and investigate the case for him. It comes out March 7th, real fast turn around.

TG: Are you familiar with the Stephen King story?

CD: Yeah, I was. I figure it sticks to it pretty good. I think it's perfect casting with Johnny and John Turturro as the sort of alter-ego.

TG: What's next for you?

CD: I'm trying my hand at writing. I'm writing a couple of projects for HBO, a half hour comedy and a miniseries.

TG: You've had such a multi-layered career, which do you prefer?

CD: I'm still an actor first. This directing thing just sort of fell my way and landed in my lap. I don't even know if I can call myself a director. I didn't go to film school, I went to acting school. Acting is the easiest money you'll ever make in your life, and directing is probably the hardest money. I equate directing to washing a battleship with a Q-tip, and so I only want to do it every now and then, because it is all encompassing and you have to stay with it in your life for two years and you can't do anything else. I could do four movies during that time as an actor. I still make more money as I do as an actor than director, however I don't want to be a commercial director. I just don't want to do a movie because it paid me a lot of money. For me, I have to love it and feel something for it because you're going to be stuck with it for two years, and if you don't love it it's going to look like that on screen.

TG: What is it about boxing that intrigues you so much?

CD: To me it's - I don't know if it's the ultimate sport, but it's definitely the penultimate sport. I've walked around fighters, we had boxing gyms in my community just like you have basketball and baseball gyms, and football fields, we had boxing gyms. There was nothing like understanding the science of boxing, because it is a science, it looks brutal but you have to think in there. Everybody's pretty much equal physically, the two have greater mental prowess, and as savage as it is, there's a certain beauty about it, a certain primal thing when you look across a room and it's just you and him, there's no team, yeah, you've got a corner instructing you, but once the round starts and he hits you, and you hit him, it's just you and him, who has the more willpower, the more mental focus, who wants it more? And then the ultimate thing is actually who's ready to die that night? And that determines the champion from a non-champion, is actually who's ready to die that night? It's the epitome of machoism, if you want to say that, but women seem to dig it, with to men slugging it out with these shorts on. And guys like that challenge.

TG: How was it working with Halle in Gothika?

CD: Let me put it this way, I would have done the movie for free, I would have donated everybody's salary to charity - I've know Halle a long time, I knew Halle when she first started and I've watched her grow, and she's turned into a real pro now. We had many kisses in that scene and we did them many different ways, and the kiss that ultimately came into the film was the one that the director wanted. He said, žI want a sloppy, aggressive kiss to suggest that my character was a little strange. But it was wonderful, she's a comes in prepared, there's no ego, the old adage, she comes in and she knows her lines, she knows what she's doing and it was great working with her.


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