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Interview: Channing Tatum and Dito Montiel on ‘Fighting’

Channing Tatum and Dito Montiel talk about ‘Fighting,’ their second collaboration after ‘A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,’ and the big things in store for Tatum in 2009.
By  · Published on April 24th, 2009

Channing Tatum has worked as a fashion model, helped launch the successful Step Up franchise and earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his work in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. But 2009 promises to be the start of something special for the Alabama native.

He has Fighting, Public Enemies and G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra coming to theaters between this week and August. Then there’s a Lasse Hallström helmed Nicholas Sparks adaptation waiting for Valentine’s Day 2010 and no less than three high profile projects attached to his name on IMDb.

Years from now, at whatever career retrospective, the ensuing months might well be seen as the coming out party of Channing Tatum, serious actor. They offer a great opportunity for him to reveal the full range of the talent showcased in Saints and last year’s Stop-Loss, to prove conclusively what many of us have long suspected: he’s more than just a pretty face with a cut body.

Fighting, which opens tomorrow, reunites him with Saints director Dito Montiel, the man who started Tatum on the path to respectability. It gives him the chance to flex more than his biceps, even if the title seems to promise otherwise. He plays Shawn MacArthur, a southern boy trying to make it in big, bad New York City. The character comes under the wing of Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), a local scam artist and tireless hustler, who begins entering Shawn in covert, illegal street fights with big purses. Film School Rejects spoke to the lighthearted director and star at a small roundtable.

How did this project come to fruition?

Dito Montiel: It was a basketball movie that they had over at Paramount.

Channing Tatum: This is how I always tell it. [Kevin] Misher came to me right after I wrapped a film up and he was like, “You know I have this basketball movie.”… I just didn’t want to do a basketball movie. I suck at basketball. I’m terrible. Even in Coach Carter you never see me shooting [baskets]. I’m doing all the defensive stuff. I’m a good athlete, but basketball’s not my game. He said, “Well if you had to do it, who would be your director” and I tried to think of the one person who would never do a basketball movie. And I was like, “Of course, Dito. Dito would never do a basketball movie” and lo and behold two months later, this guy calls me up [does Dito imitation] “I know, I know it’s a basketball movie, but give me a call, give me a call, I gotta take it” and I go to see him and he says, “It’s Midnight Cowboy.” It’s Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo, and there’s nothing more I want to do than play Joe Buck in a Dito film. But I was like, “It’s still a basketball movie” and he was like, “We’ll figure it out, we’ll figure it out.” The basketball games started getting more and more violent, so we just took it out and made it fighting.

Does this underground really exist?

DM: I used to watch the fights when they first started. No weight divisions and no rules. I thought that was great, that was insane. Me, Channing and Terrence all said the same thing to each other. At first I said to the producer, “Can we take sports out of this and make a really great movie?” And they were like, “Not with us.” Channing said, “Why don’t we make a story about two guys that meet” and I said “No, I tried that one” [on the producers] and Terrence said the same thing. So I think our secret plan was to make a movie that pretended that fighting didn’t exist. So it wasn’t so much that Terrence was going to be the guy like Mr. Miyagi that can say, “You move like this and it can take you down.” Ten year olds know moves now that can take you down. It’s not a secret any more, you know? And Channing’s a pretty strong guy, a physical guy who knows how to handle himself and I was like, “Ok, most fights I’ve seen wind up on the ground, getting really dirty,” so we tried to keep it as real as possible and [use] some guys that were willing to get their heads seriously bashed in.

CT: I’ve always been a fight fan. I’ve watched Kimbo Slice for a long time on YouTube and Felony Fights and stuff like that, so I’ve always kept up with it. But we didn’t have time to even go to any. [That] was a blessing in a way, because it was less about the fighting than just really trying to get these relationships right.

How did you create such visceral, brutal fight scenes despite working with a PG-13 rating?

CT: [Dito] didn’t want to have a fight coordinator, he didn’t want to have a stunt guy, anything like that, and the studio pretty much forced it. We just wanted to go film some really violent shit and put it in a motion picture.

DM: I love this movie. [Making it was] a weird, weird time. They kept hitting me up with these weird things. Fighting is PG-13. I go, “What does that mean?” “You can only say fuck once.” I said, “You just said fuck twice.” They would say, “You can’t fucking use it.” [I’d think] “You’re already at an R, you know.” Then it was, “What else can’t we do?” We can’t have squirting blood, so I said we’ve got to rethink it, because if we make a bad version of Raging Bull we’re all dead, and we’re not going to make some of the other nightmares in the other direction, the other way it goes. So we said, “Ok,” we started talking and, of course we all work these things together and talk a lot, and [we decided] Harvey, the guy will be a nice guy. He doesn’t curse, and the funny thing is the first thing the studio tells you is, “Well you get one fuck, so use it big. Open the movie with ‘fuck!,’” and I’m like, “Woah, if they don’t curse, they don’t curse, they don’t say shit, I know they can say shit but they don’t say it. They don’t say asshole, they don’t say cocksucker. They don’t say anything.” And it became like [they were] decent people, which was nice to have.

CT: You don’t miss it. I didn’t miss even saying it as a character and I like cuss words. I like to punctuate every single sentence of my life with one and I didn’t miss it in the character, I didn’t miss it in the movie. It still seems like New York.

DM: It worked with the fights as well because once they say you can’t squirt blood, crunch bones, I said, “Well good, because that’s going to be kind of corny anyway.” If we can’t curse, but we can squirt blood, how’s that going to work? So we kept it real. The only thing that did bother me is they have certain rules that, you tell me you can only say fuck once I’m going to live by it and I’m not going to complain, but then there is the other rule which is an opinion. We didn’t do anything we couldn’t do, but then they were like, “These fights are a little too realistic.” And I’m like, “Realistic?” “So we’re getting an R.” I was like, “What does that mean, realistic? Make it worse?” Basically, yeah make it a little bit [worse], so we had to pull a few things back that killed me, but it still feels real.

How did you keep the film a personal, grounded depiction of New York despite the constraints?

DM: I used to do a lot of these things in the street. Not fight this good, but sell junk in the same exact locations that Channing’s character does. That was my job. As far as [the actors’] jobs, we talked about personal things. [I said] “Tell me your stories.” Nothing is ever entirely real and also everything is autobiographical. Everything you ever do when you write, you find a way to stick yourself in. That’s life. I think everybody did their jobs as actors, production designers and everyone made it feel honest. Like I said, these constraints were a blessing on a movie like this. I’d hate to try and make a movie like Saints in a PG-13. That would be worse than making a fighting movie. This allowed these guys to be real. It made such a difference.

Do you guys work with shorthand now?

CT: He comes up to me, he’s like, “Why does the chicken cross the road” and he walks away. That’s it [laughs].

DM: I think you get it, you get a certain language. For me, [it’s] just comfort around people. When we made Saints, I’ll say this in front of him: I thought he was great in it.

CT: He didn’t want me in it.

DM: I didn’t want him in Saints originally. I had this kid [who] was great, this guy just killed it and while we were making it I was starting to understand…you know a guy, you write something. I had a vision of my friend in that movie. He was 5’6… and Channing showed up and he freaked me out. But there was something he brought to it that reminded me of my friend…For this movie there was a moment we’re filming a [romantic] scene in the hallway with Zulay [Henao] and Channing and I looked over and I said, “Oh man, he’s a good actor.” I mean that in the most complementary way, because it’s so exciting. Saints was such a different thing. That was an animal that was moving around. It was like a predatory movie. This was, I think personally, it’s a lot harder to sit down and say “I want to kiss you.” That’s a hard thing to do as an actor, for me.

What did Saints mean for your education as an actor?

CT: I learned an immense amount on Saints. I think it’s one of those things were you learn and it settles in later. I remember I said on set to Chazz [Palminteri], “I don’t know who’s gonna like my character. I’m punching six-year old kids in the face. I’m doing terrible things in this movie. I don’t know who’s gonna like him” and he said, “No, no one’s gotta like your character. They just have to understand him.” That’s changed a lot of the ways I read scripts, or even deal with people in normal life. I don’t have to like you. I just have to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing that.

This is shaping up to be your year in a way. Can you talk about your summer projects?

CT: I have a small part in Public Enemies. It’s a big character. It’s Pretty Boy Floyd. He’s a big character in history but I have sort of a small cameo that introduces [Melvin] Purvis’s character, Purvis is the first head honcho of what birthed the F.B.I. G.I. Joe is just one of those amazingly huge popcorn films. I grew up on G.I. Joe and it was nuts. I remember calling Dito and being like, “Can I do this? I don’t think I can do this” [laughs]. Shia [LaBeouf] apparently called him with the same questions, like, “Dude, am I blowing up the world? Can I do this?” We needed permission for some reason. I don’t know why. I always trust Dito’s taste and I constantly, even with my own projects that I do I call and bounce stuff off him. He’s like, “Hell yeah, why wouldn’t you? Do that shit! We’ll always go and do our little movies. Don’t miss that opportunity.” So I did it and it really opened my eyes to [the fact that] you can do a big movie like that, [and that] they’re fun.

Fighting is in theaters nationwide today.

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