Peter Segal: Ringside View | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Peter Segal

Ringside View

Dec 24, 2013 Web Exclusive
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Grudge Match director Peter Segal has been helming comedies for the past 20 years. His credits from the last decade include Anger Management, The Longest Yard, and Get Smart. But when the opportunity arose to direct Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone in a boxing film/comedy, Segal had to convince Stallone that Grudge Match would not be a parody.

De Niro and Stallone have portrayed arguably the two most iconic boxing figures in movie history. Stallone created the fictional character, Rocky Balboa, and earned Academy Award nominations both for screenwriting and acting for his work on Rocky, which won Best Picture for 1976. De Niro won the 1980 Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Raging Bull as real-life middleweight Jake LaMotta. For a comedy director like Segal, it could have been ripe for parody to get the actors behind such renowned characters to face off in the ring in Grudge Match—they play Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (De Niro) and Henry "Razor" Sharp (Stallone), two long-retired Pittsburgh fighters aiming to settle a 30-year-old scorebut Segal was more attracted to how the story gave its characters second chances, not only professionally but also with the personal relationships they had strained over the years.

Under the Radar spoke with Peter Segal about Grudge Match last week by phone.

Chris Tinkham (Under the Radar): During casting, was it always certain that "The Kid" role was for De Niro and that "Razor" was for Stallone? Was there ever any chance of it being vice versa?

Peter Segal: Yes, we actually toyed with it. We went back and forth a little bit in the beginning. But what felt right to us was, since we were tipping our hat to Raging Bull—the Jake LaMotta character was the performer wannabe in his nightclubsso that's why we felt, "Well, maybe it's better if Bob takes that role," and I liked the idea of Stallone playing the emotionally wounded warrior and thought that could really tap into what people loved about him so much in his earlier work, which was his sensitivity and humanity, and so rather than make him the brash asshole, I thought we would harken back to those kinder, gentler days of Stallone.

What were some of your reference points when you thought about how to shoot the boxing scenes? Were Rocky and Raging Bull among them?

Yes and no. I studied every frame of all of the Rocky's, Raging Bull obviously. I went back and looked at Keaton and Chaplin and every boxing movie in between. When I started working with Sly, we had to devise a plan of how to do it. It was a little intimidating, obviously, working with this legendary boxing writer/director/actor. So, after I wrote the story of the fight, I asked Sly to help me choreograph the punches in between the story beats, and he was very gracious and helped me out. And I think I surprised him a few times, because when he would reference certain moments or moves he would have done in several of the Rocky's, sometimes I would correct him. I said, "No, the camera was over here when you did that movement," 'cause I wrote down literally every punch of each film, and I would show him my notebook. And he said, "Whoa, you really are into the details of this." I said, "Yes, I'm taking this very seriously. I want this fight to be very realistic, and while I know the movie's going to be funny, I want to surprise people and have a very brutal and real fight."

I feel that Stallone's direction of the fight sequence in Rocky II is underrated. He did some interesting things visually and with sound to create a subjective perspective. When you were watching all those movies, did you find any precursors to what he was doing in that film?

I looked at all those, and I also studied a lot of real fights, 'cause I grew up in what I call the golden age of heavyweights with Ali and Frazier and Norton. So I looked at how broadcast television was covering boxing, and then how Stallone was amplifying the dramatic moments in his movies. I wanted to find something in between. We also weren't going to be as artistically in the ring as Scorsese was with Raging Bull. I felt like it would be too obvious if I was going exactly what those movies did, so I had to find my own style. I even went to the Pacquiáo-Márquez fight in Vegas and studied the HBO crew and worked with their director and watched and observed their coverage and camera placement. We even hired two of the HBO boxing camera operators. They were our ringside camera operators, because I felt those guys, they'll never get rehearsal, they just know how to cover it. From there, I fell into our own rhythm. Also, we're a lower-budget movie, and we didn't have as much time to film our boxing as Scorsese did or Stallone did in any of his Rocky's. Scorsese, according to Bob, had about six weeks for all of their fight sequences. Rocky IV was the most complicated, according to Sly, and he said that was about four weeks of filming. We had four days. So, I had seven cameras, two of them the HBO operators, and I yelled action on Monday and cut on Thursday night, and we rolled on everything in between.      

What was the chemistry like between Stallone and De Niro in the ring? Stallone's done a lot more boxing films over the years. Did he help De Niro through some things?

Absolutely. He was amazing. He's a real master, obviously, of the genre, and Bob was very willing to let both Sly and me guide him through the fight. But Sly was really masterful as the lead dance partner. And it really is a dance. To get the punches to look as real as they did, however, not all of the movie angles worked, where you're throwing near-miss punches. Sometimes, we were fighting so fast and furiously because of the shooting schedule that a lot of those punches actually connected. You'll see them in the movie when you see the sweat flying off the faces of each actor. At first, Bob was cautious about that, and he said, "Ah, are you OK? You OK?" And Sly just kept saying, "Don't worry about it. Just go ahead and hit me." But Sly will tell you, some of those did actually hurt.   

You alluded to this earlier, that Grudge Match has a couple of winking nods to the first Rocky film. Did those come about after Stallone signed on, and did he have to approve them?

Oh, absolutely. I can't force any actor to shoot anything. We were fortunate enough to have Jack Nicholson be willing to make fun of himself in Anger Management. Instead of a golf club smashing a car, it was a baseball bat. That was the creative license we took there. Here, after several weeks of wooing Sly into the movie, once he was in, it wasn't until right before we started filming that the one moment of drinking the raw eggs came up. I was a little nervous about it, because I had convinced Sly that this was not a parody. And it's not, but that kind of joke is a direct nod, so you're in the world of parody but for a brief moment. But he actually loved it and thought it was great and actually thought that we could use another one, so that it just didn't stand out there like one, weird moment. So then we wrote the meat locker scene. There's one other tip of the hat in the ring, just a line. And then we looked at De Niro's side and we're kind of winking at the performance moments of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull and heighten it with this bizarre puppet show that he did.

And what about comedic chemistry between the two leads? There's a funny scene in the hospital lobby where they're talking over each other. Does the timing for something like that develop during the reads or on the set?

It's very interesting you bring that up, because that was the very first scene that the two actors were in together. It was written as about 20 seconds of dialogue between them. It was mostly about Kevin Hart's character, talking them into this contract where they have to promote the fight. But, you can tell that their adrenaline was pumping, 'cause about eight minutes later, when they were done improvising, we had our first real moments of Razor and Kid going at it. They were trying to top each other with their improve, and it was wonderful. The whole crew could feel the electricity. Now, here we go. This is the movie, the two of these guys together.

Where did you grow up?

New York.

Did USC bring you out to Los Angeles?

No, actually my dad was head of publicity at MGM in New York for many years, and they moved him out to L.A. in the '70s, and we all went with him in our covered wagons.

And one of your degrees is in broadcast journalism?

Yeah, I was a Broadcast Journalism and English double major, had no idea I was going to get into film. Finally, in my junior year at SC, the broadcast part of journalism kicked in, and then they put a camera in our hands. Some of our assignments were to put together little shows, and that's when I got bitten by the bug, and I knew I was going to do something in television, at least. I got an internship at the local CBS affiliate in L.A., and that's where I started.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a live-action version of Jonny Quest for Warner Bros. and also a remake of Harvey. We're pushing both of those along.

Have you done any casting on those yet?

Not yet. We've talked to some people, but it's too early to really mention that.

Do you feel like Jonny Quest will be there first one?

It depends. We're doing a re-write and working on the budget, and if we can hit the right number, I would love for that to be next.


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