10 Years Later, Warrior Director Gavin O'Connor Looks Back On One Of The Best Sports Movies Ever [Interview]

Gavin O'Connor has directed sports-centric movies like "Miracle" and "The Way Back," but for my money, his best film — and one of the best sports films of all time — is his 2011 movie "Warrior," which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this week. (To mark the anniversary, AppleTV has instituted a price drop for a limited time. The movie is also streaming for free on Peacock.)

The film focuses on two estranged brothers, played by Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, who find themselves on a collision course toward the title match in a massive televised MMA tournament. Hardy is unreal in the film, playing his character like a wounded animal backed into a corner, brimming with rage but vulnerable underneath, while Edgerton is a more grounded presence but whose desperation and determination drive him forward regardless of circumstances. I think audiences at the time must have assumed this was just another typical underdog drama, but O'Connor, who also co-wrote the film, was able to do something that few other sports movies can do: he makes you root for both characters equally, introducing incredibly high stakes so these guys aren't simply fighting over pride or jealousy or glory, but for far more noble reasons. When these characters inevitably step into the ring together, the audience is in the awkward position of not knowing how it wants the final match to play out. It's the best kind of cinematic manipulation, and it holds up incredibly well.

We caught up with O'Connor over the phone to look back on the movie a decade later, and the filmmaker recounted stories of Tom Hardy's intensity on set, working with Nick Nolte (who does some of the best work of his long career here as the brothers' alcoholic father struggling to stay sober and rebuild his life), and how he was able to capture such realistic-looking fights in the ring. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Hey Gavin. Thank you for speaking with me. I appreciate it.

I'm happy to be talking to you about this. It's really surprising that people actually have any interest in talking about my movie ten years later, so I express my gratitude. Thank you.

Absolutely. This actually made it onto my top 10 films of 2011, so I've loved this movie for a long time. What sticks out to you the most when you look back on making "Warrior" ten years later?

Artistically, it was an experience unlike any other. As you know, in our business, it can gestate for years. It's a miracle to even get it made, but if you do, it can take a long time. And this was one of those experiences which I've never had before or since: we wrote it, got it to Lionsgate, they greenlit it, and we were going. It was so inside of me – in my bloodstream, almost cellular, molecularly inside of me – because of the writing of it, and then to be able to make it right away without any gestation was just a very unique experience for me. It was so personal. There were so many things from the movie that I took from my own life and metaphorically massaged things in a way that would hopefully feel slightly invisible, but it was actually really me. It's just emotional because it's personal.

I think this is one of the best sports movies ever made, and part of the reason for that is that you make the audience invest in both brothers equally. Was that part of the plan from the earliest incarnations of the story, or is that something that evolved as you started fine tuning things?

That was the original idea. For me as a little boy, "Rocky" was the movie. That movie just hit me in a way that was profound. As a filmmaker, I went to make "Miracle," and the parallels there are – when "Rocky" stars, you know who you're rooting for. When "Miracle" stars, you know who wins. With these movies, the setup tells you this is who you're going to root for, and let's see what happens. The brilliance of "Rocky" was he didn't win. If Rocky won that fight, we wouldn't be talking about it. But the personal journey was what was so satisfying. What I wanted to do, which was the conceit right out of the gate, was, how do I get the audience to invest in both of these characters? How do I get them to have deep feelings about both of them, and not only their trauma, but also the stakes of their lives? The fight outside of the cage? If I can hook them into that, I'm going to challenge them to, Now what? When they face each other in the showdown, now who are you rooting for? That was the idea. I didn't know if it was going to work until we had our first test screening, and I was like, Oh sh*t, this is working really well. Because there was a complexity to the emotionality that people were experiencing, because they weren't used to not being certain of who they're supposed to root for in the end.

Did you study "Raging Bull" and the "Rocky" films when it came time to start staging the fights?

No. Because, first of all, those are boxing movies, and this is hands, elbows, knees, feet. It's a whole different approach to choreography. I didn't study any movies, but I can tell you this: I've seen "Rocky" fifty, maybe a hundred times. I've seen "Raging Bull" maybe half of that. So they're in my brain. They're in my hands. They're in my nuts. It's everywhere, those movies. The only movie that I watched for action, was the "Bourne" movies. The reason I did that was the marching orders from Lionsgate, which were fair, was that I had to get a PG-13. It really came down to, as I started to study how to pull this off, to not get an R, you're dealing with blood and you can only use one F bomb. The "Bourne" movies were PG-13, and not that I was in any way replicating that kind of action, but I felt the action in those movies was really done exquisitely well. That was the only movie I looked at, just to understand how to pull it off without blood.

There are plenty of stories about how intense Tom Hardy can be on film sets. What was your experience like working with him?

It was great. He's intense. He likes to be loved, in a lot of ways. I think if you understand Tommy psychologically, where he's coming from, there are less landmines dealing with whatever his intensity is. But it always comes from a place of caring and working on the character. He and I had a good experience.

Did you or anyone on your team ever think that he could actually compete in MMA for real? I'm so blown away by his physicality in this film. It's unbelievable.

Not once did I ever think either one of them could ever compete in an MMA fight. [laughs] That's a whole other level.

I think that's a compliment to how well you were able to capture a realistic feeling. In the "Rocky" movies, for example, there are several wide shots in those films where it's blatantly obvious that the actors are not making contact with each other in the ring. They're missing by multiple feet –

[laughs] You literally see missed punches in "Rocky." You see them miss, and they're still reacting. By the way, there's a wide shot in "Rocky" where you can see the Steadicam operator running around the ring shooting, and back then, you couldn't digitally erase anyone out. But who cares? Hang that movie on a museum wall.

The only reason I bring it up is because your film feels so much more realistic than that. Even knowing how movies are made, there is a level of realism that you were able to capture in this film that made me wonder, are these guys really making contact here? How did you accomplish that?

It's like dancing. Build the choreography, and once we have the choreography down, like dance steps, I would always say, Now we have to unwind the choreography. Make it dirty. Make it messy. Because obviously in a sport, everything's happening moment to moment and you don't know what anyone's going to do next, and we have to make it feel that way. There were times when people were really hitting each other. It got intense, because I was definitely going for realism, and to do that required, sometimes, people getting hit. [laughs]

Were there any memorable moments you had of something like that?

My most memorable moment in any of the fight portion of the film [came during] the Sparta we shot at the end, the tournament. The most memorable moment for me was in the fourth round in the final fight, when Brendan is pummeling Tommy up against the cage, and Tommy won't break yet, but he's breaking, and then the round ends. Brendan walks back to his corner to go sit down with Frank and he sees his dad. When we were shooting that, we wrapped Nick [Nolte] the day before that scene. That wasn't in the script. But when Joel was walking back to the corner, I was like, Oh no. He's gotta have a moment with his dad now. His father has to look at him, and the look tells him, basically, kill your brother. Slay him so he can be reborn. He has to spiritually die and be reborn. So I stepped off set and called Nick, who literally got back to L.A. the day before, and I said, "I need you to come back here tomorrow for one shot." And he did, because that's Nick. That's what I remember most, because that moment is so important to me. This paternal moment with his dad where a decision is made. I called it an "intervention in a cage," where one brother beats the p*ss out of the other brother – out of love.

"He Kept His Word and He Didn't Drink"

You mentioned Nick. Tell me a little about working with Nolte. He famously had a lot of problems with substance abuse in his real life, so I'm curious what your first conversations were like with him about this role, because that's such a big part of this character.

We wrote it for Nick. Nick was the first person to read the script when we finished it. He and I were neighbors for years, and we became good friends. I was a big Nolte fan. Once we decided to do the movie together, I had one rule for Nick: "You can't drink, dude. I need you to promise me and give me your word that you're not going to drink, because I can't have a man approaching Day 1,000 of sobriety after a lifetime of drinking if you're going to be f**king drunk. Spiritually, that can't work." I told him I would save the scene in the hotel until the end, so I said, "If you want to have a sip of something beforehand" – which he didn't – "or if you want to drink afterwards, be my guest." We shot that and then one other scene at Sparta, and I think that was his last day. So he kept his word and he didn't drink. I actually had a friend, I call him Jimmy Pittsburgh, who I just had as his sober buddy, just to make sure. They became really good friends. It worked. He kept his word.

In any other movie, the Brendan vs. Koba fight would be the traditional climactic fight that the story is building toward, and you sort of film it in that light – it's super triumphant, and the crowd reaction is at its peak. Did it sort of feel like you were able to have your cake and eat it, too, in the sense that there is this great moment, but then you also get to have a whole separate fight that includes the emotional conclusion between the two brothers?

It's interesting you put it that way. I knew that I wanted to have the David vs. Goliath scene and get the audience to be on their feet and leaning into it in a way that was going to be a very different emotional experience for Tommy vs. Brendan. So I did want that big, rousing, kind of feeling, and that's how I shot it, that's the tone of it. Because once the two brothers face each other, there's a somberness to it. There's not elation here. It has to happen. This is fated. I wanted to be able to shift gears in a way, for the audience to be able to settle into something emotionally different.

There's a big training montage that happens near the middle of the movie –


– and I was wondering if you could tell me about the editing choices you had to make in that scene, because it feels like you might have had tons of footage that didn't make the final cut.

You're hitting some nerves here. I did not want to do a montage from the writing of it. I kept saying to [co-writer] Anthony [Tambakis], "I refuse to do the sports montage. I'm f**king never doing it." I could not figure out a way to have this passage of time and also have the audience be connected to the athletic growth of these characters as they're on this collision course. So I finally capitulated and said, "OK, I'm going to shoot a montage." And to be totally honest, I was just trying to entertain myself editorially by doing something different. [laughs] We literally built the movie except for the montage. My editor, John Gilroy, kept saying, "I'm terrified." We just waited until the end. It was the last thing we did, and it is what it is.

I like it. I think it's a unique approach to it, the way the screen bounces back and forth. It may have struck a nerve for you at the time, but looking back on it, hopefully people will look at it with kind eyes.

I appreciate that. You know, I haven't seen the movie in ten years. I haven't seen it since the premiere. My wife said to me last week, "You need to watch the movie again," and I don't know why, I'm just scared to revisit it. I just haven't done it yet.

I would highly encourage you to give it another work, because it really holds up spectacularly well.

Well, I appreciate that, man. And I appreciate this phone call. It feels really good, ten years later, to even know that anybody cares and that it somehow moved people or inspired people or affected people. So I want to extend my gratitude to you, Ben. Thank you.