Interview: Gavin O’Connor Discusses His Underdog Drama, ‘Warrior’

By  · Published on September 10th, 2011

In the wrong hands, Warrior could have been a disaster. If a few beats in Gavin O’Connor’s family drama missed the mark even in the slightest, the final result could have been a sports parody. Despite playing in familiar territory, the Miracle and Pride and Glory director didn’t make that parody.

Instead, the filmmaker strived to be as honest as possible with the material at hand.

In doing so, he’s made an underdog of a film that’s, ironically, about underdogs. Like his previous works, O’Connor explores the meaning of brotherhood, family, and overcoming insurmountable odds. The trick for O’Connor was to make those well-known ‐ drama, not sports ‐ tropes believable.

Here’s what co-writer and director Gavin O’Connor had to say about striving for realism, telling personal stories in mass appeal films, and love stories among men:

[Note: This interviews contains spoilers]

The film’s more of a family drama than a sports film. Did you approach it that way?

To be honest with you, Jack, I’ve been doing these interviews and so many people call it an “inspirational sports drama,” and I never intended it to be a “sports” movie. It’s a drama. The whole idea of it began with the estrangement of two brothers, reconciliation, healing, and forgiveness. I’m an MMA fan, so the idea of utilizing that sport in cinema became fascinating to me. I like this idea of having an intervention in a cage, where one brother saves the other brother’s life by kicking the shit out of him. The genesis of it all began with characters and drama, and I view it as a drama.

That whole idea of an intervention is interesting in the film in regard to the catharsis between two brothers beating each other to a pulp. I’d imagine handling that concept would be tough, or am I wrong?

You reverse engineer it. What you didn’t see is these two kids who grew up in a home that was volatile, dysfunctional, toxic, and at times violent. The idea of two brothers who communicate through what they know, which is violence, was attractive to me. What’s going on in those five rounds is a conversation. We applied words to every punch and kick. These guys were exploring and dealing with their past in a way of trying to heal it. This isn’t metaphorical, but one brother has to die at the hands of another, so then he can be reborn. Tommy needs to surrender, so he can live. It’s a heavy notion to try to pull that off. If you root it in the characters, it wasn’t as daunting as one may think. That’s just what they’re comfortable with.

Warrior is thematically similar to Pride and Glory and Miracle in how they deal with brotherhood. What draws you to exploring that type of dynamic on film?

Probably from my own background, trying to come to terms with things in my own life, and exploring the nature of brotherhood ‐ whether it’s blood brothers or friendships ‐ and expressing it through cinema.

I’d guess the trick there is infusing commercial films with personal statements.

Yeah, it’s about trying to write films coming from a very personal place, and doing things you know you need to do to get the films financed. That’s the balancing act.

It seems to be working, though. I’m sure you’re pleased with most labeling it as “crowd-pleaser.”

It feels good. It’s an interesting experience. I’ve sat through the film a couple of times with an audience, and you can feel the room. They get caught up in the emotionality of the story. I think the coup de grace to it all is ‐ you’re delivering action people respond to, but it’s grounded in the characterizations of these two brothers. I think that elevates it, so then it’s not just disposable fighting.

Structurally, the film isn’t just about Brendan and Tommy, but it’s almost an ensemble story, with Tess and Paddy. Is that how you see the film?

Also, the character of Frank, Brendan’s trainer. To me, that was a love story as much as Brendan’s relationship with Tess. I was trying to dramatize a marriage being tested, but how do you handle that in a truthful way? Also, I like the idea of love stories amongst men. Speaking to what you’re asking me, the emotional line between Brendan and Frank was potent, and we spent a lot of time trying to get it right. Brendan could have never done this on his own and he needed a comrade in arms, and that’s what Frank represents.

A lot of people talk about Tommy being the loose cannon of the film, but there are hints to Brendan once being that type of man. Since he’s now that respected family man, was it important to make sure he’s not someone without his own baggage?

That’s very perceptive, man. It’s a character living in his higher-self, a family man, a good husband, a good father, and a respected man. You need a sense that 10 or 15-years ago he was the guy starting fights in bars and knocking down beers. He has that in him. It was important, so when he steps into the cage, he can tap into his more primal self.

The whole idea of two brothers facing off in the championship is ridiculous sounding, so was the key of making that believable to have the drama be as genuine as possible? Both in the script phase and with the actors, how did you approach finding that realism?

I work-shopped all the scenes. We didn’t just write it, and then go shoot it. We work-shopped everything, so we were constantly questioning, deepening, and getting to the emotional truth of every scene. If anything ever felt flimsy, we’d put a microscope on it. Getting these two brothers in the cage at the end is a tall order, with making it believable and convincing. From the beginning, the DNA had to be grounded in honesty and truth, so by the end, you’re immersed and believe it.

Was a lot of that truth found on the set? Are you a writer that’s tied to his words, or will you let an actor run with an impulse?

Yeah, always. The script is just a blueprint. There are certain scenes that stayed exactly the same to the words we wrote, but other scenes had a lot more flexibility and looseness. The scene that scared me the most ‐ on paper, it was a very simple scene ‐ was when Brendan goes to the bank. Do you remember that scene?

Yeah, where Brendan talks about his daughter’s heart problem.

Exactly. That scene is all exposition, and that’s the terrifying part. When you looked at it on the page or read it, it felt like exposition. When you do scenes that are just exposition, they feel false. I did a number of things. First, I called my friend Noah Emmerich, and I said I needed a favor and had no money. I needed him three days before shooting, so we could workshop it, improvise it, and play with it. We needed to do a biography on his character, because we needed to do a very detailed back story to his relationship with Brendan. With that, there’s more emotion to it, since it’s not just two random guys talking to each other at a bank. My goal was to have the dialog fly back and forth, but having something contextual. It made the exposition a little more invisible.

There’s a catharsis to the ending, but you get a sense that there’s still going to problems for Brendan, Tommy, and Paddy. Was that the middle-ground of making the ending hopeful, but not dopey?

I wanted to end the movie on some wisdom of hope. The beginning of healing has started, but I don’t know where that goes. For Tommy, he needed to surrender. For Paddy, the old man had to see the two brothers reclaiming their relationship. What happens after that is probably tumultuous, but I wanted to end the movie with hope.

Warrior is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.