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Pittsburgh's 'working-class poetry' drew 'Warrior' here

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Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011

The setting for the new mixed martial arts flick "Warrior" was supposed to be Long Beach, Calif., a gritty working-class port town. The hardheaded father and coach played by Nick Nolte was meant to have worked on the docks.

Then writer-director Gavin O'Connor found Pittsburgh.

"It was working-class poetry," he says. "It smelled right.

"Also, it's wrestling country. There's a hardness and athleticism and love of sport that just felt right for this story. Literally, I was there a day, and said, 'Tell the studio this is where we're shooting.''"

The film, opening Friday, was shot in Pittsburgh in spring 2009.

O'Connor hadn't want to travel far from home, so he set it in Long Beach. But budget concerns put the production on the move.

"When I had to get it to a certain budget -- which was $28 million -- to make it, it was required of me to find a city or state with tax breaks or rebates," he says. "So I started traveling to all these cities and states, and also Canada, that have them. When I got to Pittsburgh, which was high on my list for a number of reasons, I said, 'OK, we don't need to go anywhere else. this is it.'"

So, for all of Pittsburgh's efforts to show that it has moved on from its rusting industrial past, the city is still the answer to Hollywood's need for gritty authenticity and "working-class poetry." Shots of the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock feature prominently in the beginning of the film.

"Warrior" concerns the return of two sons to the orbit of their father. Son Tommy (Tom Hardy) is an emotionally scarred Iraq war veteran. His brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a physics teacher and family man in the Philadelphia suburbs who frets over the impending foreclosure of his home. Both grew up fighting -- taught by their father, Paddy, a wrestling coach. Both were driven away, at different times, by his alcoholic rages.

In the past, this might have been a boxing movie. Now, mixed martial arts is all the rage, drawing in fighters of all backgrounds, sorting out the toughest regardless of style. "Warrior" depicts the two brothers as polar opposites -- Tommy as a rage-fueled wrecking machine, Brendan as a canny technical fighter with untapped reserves of heart.

O'Connor, who already has one successful sports movie under his belt -- "Miracle" (2004), about the 1980 Olympic USA Hockey team -- first became interested in the sport in 2000.

"I had executive produced a documentary called 'The Smashing Machine,'" he says. "That was my introduction, and I've followed it ever since."

He doesn't fully embrace the "sports movie" label.

"It's a drama," says O'Connor, who insists the mixed martial arts action is just a backdrop. "It can't be about the sport. It has to be about the characters."

Still, he says, "you have to get the sports right."

To that end, he hired professional mixed martial arts fighters to portray the opponents for Tommy and Brendan. Nate Marquardt, a rising star in the UFC, fought Edgerton in the film.

"I was in Pittsburgh for five weeks, and my scene is probably two or three mintues long," Marquardt says. "I could not believe how many times they'd film the same scene over and over again -- and get the wide angle three times, the close angle on me three times, the close angle on him three times, the view from the audience, the view from the referee, the view from the corner.

"Then you have to do it again with the stunt double. It's just a lot of filming. I couldn't believe how much work goes into these films. It's amazing."

There was one fighter in the film from outside the mixed martial arts world -- Pittsburgh's own wrestling legend, Kurt Angle, who played the unstoppable Russian fighter Koba.

"I honestly didn't know who Kurt was," O'Connor admits. "I'm not a (pro wrestling) guy. I met him, and thought he was great."

Sports movies are challenging to make, because the outcome is rarely in doubt. If the good guys win in most movies, that goes double for sports flicks.

"The challenge to 'Miracle,' for me, was that everyone knew how it ended," O'Connor says. "What I was going for in 'Warriror' was to turn that upside down and do something you haven't seen before in a sports movie -- to get the audience invested in two different people. Usually, you're rooting for a person, or a team."

"Instead, you're rooting for Tommy and Brendan. You're emotionally invested in both of those guys. As they slowly go on this collision course to fight each other, as they go through this Grand Prix tournament, you're faced with a choice -- who are you rooting for• That, you haven't seen before."

Local boxing fixture gets a role — and a ring

Jimmy Cvetic says he didn't want to be in "Warrior," but Nick Nolte talked him into it.

Cvetic, a local boxing fixture for decades and executive director of the Western Pensylvania Police Athletic League, supplied fighters for the film. He became friends with Nolte and director Gavin O'Connor during the shoot, and flew out to the red carpet premiere in Hollywood on Tuesday.

"We became good friends," Cvetic says. "Gavin O'Connor, his dad was a policeman. I was a policeman. I met Nick Nolte, who's just a really great guy. They used my boxers in the movie."

O'Connor told him that a small speaking role had been created for him, but Cvetic surprised everyone by turning it down.

"They said, 'Well you've got to do it -- we wrote you in.' I said, 'I don't care, write me out.' They said, 'It'll be a lot of fun.' I said, 'You didn't want me when I was young and buff ... now that I'm shrinking and wrinkled, you want me now?'"

Nolte finally convinced him to change his mind.

Instead of a paycheck for his performance, Cvetic asked for the boxing ring when the film was done with it.

"I said I didn't want any money -- I just wanted the equipment when they were done," Cvetic says. "He was true to his word. Gavin O'Connor and Lionsgate, they gave me the ring and equipment, and we built a ring in Fineview with the Housing Athuority. It's one of the best gyms in Pittsburgh now."

The gym, in the Allegheny Dwellings on the North Side, offers boxing, fitness programs and mentoring to all Pittsburgh Housing Authority residents without charge.

Working with "Warrior" was a great experience all around, Cvetic says. He hopes they come back every few years to make a new one, like "Rocky."

"200 people working in Pittsburgh• I'll take it any day," he says. "That 's 200 people you don't have to worry about housing in the county jail."

Nick Nolte in Pittsburgh

Nick Nolte's grizzled, world-weary visage is not exactly a common sight around here, but it's getting close. He has appeared in three movies -- including "Warrior" -- shot in Pittsburgh.

In "Lorenzo's Oil" (1992), Nolte plays a father whose son develops a disease so rare that nobody is working on a cure. So he and his wife (Susan Sarandon) try to learn all about it, and find a way to cure it. It was shot in 1991 at Carnegie Mellon University and other locations in Pittsburgh.

In "Mysteries of Pittsburgh" (2006), the little-seen adaptation of Michael Chabon's beloved novel of the same name, Nolte plays the gruff gangster father of the main character, Art (Jon Foster), who meets him for a chat at a restaurant on Mt. Washington.



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