FROM SCRIPT TO SCREEN: ‘The Wrestler’

DAVID S. COHEN is a freelance writer, photographer and documentary filmmaker. His articles on film and television have been seen in print outlets around the world, including US Weekly, Premiere and Variety special reports.

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Do you remember Rocky? Not the bombastic sequels with Mr. T or Dolph Lundgren or the improbable 2006 Rocky Balboa, but the  original? The one that billed itself “a love story?”

Evan Rachel Wood and Mickey Rourke star in The Wrestler

It is remembered today for launching a franchise and the career of its writer and star  Sylvester Stallone, but way back in 1976, Rocky was a sleeper hit made on a shoestring. Stories are still told about the struggle to get  the film made: about the time Carl Weathers lost his temper at his audition over the stiff they had him read with, who turned out to be  Stallone himself. Or about the exasperated grips who kept working, even when the money was running out, in exchange for some small  piece of the movie— then made out like bandits when it became a smash.

Now, some 32 years after Rocky, another little sports movie has burst out of nowhere, much as Rocky did—a film that seems like a throwback to the 1970s: The Wrestler. But this movie is, in many ways, the anti-Rocky. If there is a film that zigged where Rocky zagged, it’s this one.

Where Stallone’s Rocky Balboa was a talented young boxer who was wasting his talent as a club fighter, The Wrestler features Mickey Rourke as a pro wrestler 20 years past his prime, now wrestling for peanuts in local arenas. In Rocky, the hero steps up in class for a title shot, trains hard, fulfils his potential, then finds his self-esteem, love, and a future, even as he loses the big match.

In The Wrestler, the title character reaches back to relive past glory, his body fails him, his attempts to forge relationships implode, and the end brings him to acceptance and the embracing of his fate, which is likely to be death in the ring.

Yet writer Robert Siegel, who is seeing his first produced credit with The Wrestler, sees plenty of similarities to Rocky.

“We think of Rocky as this big blockbuster,” he says. “Saturday Night Fever is the same thing. We think of them as these blockbuster movies, but they were gritty little character studies. Also, as much as Rocky has become the template for the inspirational feel-good, cliché-packed sports movie, Rocky does lose at the end of the first movie, which really was a radical decision for one of these movies.  The team doesn’t lose at the end of Hoosiers.

“It’s a much more intimate little movie than it’s given credit for. I love Rocky,” he says.

That’s consistent with Siegel’s taste in movies, which runs to edgy, auteur films. His preference wouldn’t be surprising if Siegel hadn’t  run one of America’s most successful comedy publications and if he hadn’t struggled for years to become a comedy writer, only to discover he was meant to do something else entirely.

Lord of the Ring

The Wrestler, from Fox Searchlight Pictures and director Darren Aronofsky, follows a few months in the life of Randy “The Ram” Robinson  (Rourke). A star in the 1980s famous for a Madison Square  Garden match against “The Ayatollah,” we find him now middleaged, playing neighborhood arenas for tiny crowds, supplementing his  meager fees with a job at a grocery store, and still not making his rent. His body is breaking down and the closest thing he has to a friends Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an aging stripper he likes to flirt with at a local club.

Randy sees a chance for a payday when a promoter proposes an anniversary rematch between “The Ram” and “The Ayatollah,” so he steps up his training, his wrestling, and his steroids. But when he suffers a heart attack after a match, he gets a stern warning from his doctor—clean up his lifestyle and stop wrestling, or die.

Lonely and frustrated, Randy reaches out to Cassidy, who suggests he reconcile with his estranged daughter (played by Evan Rachel Wood). He tries, but eventually fails. He tries to romance Cassidy, but she is ambivalent. He tries taking on more hours at the grocery store, with disastrous results.

With his every effort to build a life beyond wrestling failing, Randy decides to press on with his rematch against “The Ayatollah,” consequences be damned. The movie ends with Randy in the ring, in his glory but perhaps on the cusp of death.

It’s a glimpse of a fascinating hidden world, but a very simple story—and that’s exactly what its creators wanted it to be.

Onion Soup

I meet Siegel on a sparkling November morning in the lobby of a Santa Monica hotel. We can see the beach from the windows, but with his tousled hair, brown pants, and work jacket over a Katz’s Deli T-shirt, he looks more Tribeca-hip than Hollywood-chic. He’s not feeling entirely awake and stops on occasion to critique his own answers. Still, he makes a go of it.

He explains  that he grew up on Long Island, attended the University of Michigan, and after college followed his girlfriend to Madison, Wisconsin. He’d worked on his college newspaper, and in 1994 that experience helped him get a job at the satirical newspaper The Onion, which was then headquartered in Madison. Two years later, he was editor-in-chief.

He kept the job for eight years, overseeing  some of The Onion’s most memorable issues. (If you’ve never seen its coverage of the 2001 Bush inauguration or its post-9/11 issue, look them up.) But, he says, “At a certain point, I got the itch to use a different part of my brain and try a different form,” so he started  writing comedy screenplays.

“I kind of just assumed I was a comedy writer. That’s what it says on my tax form, so I should write  comedies.” But after several scripts, he says, “I was struck by how bad I was at it.

“At first, I just thought screenwriting was hard. And it is very hard. I thought I’ve got to keep at it and just get better. In certain aspects of the craft, I saw improvement. But still, the scripts were bad. They just felt very derivative and a little bit cynical, like ‘Here’s what people like. Here’s your comedy.’ And it wasn’t working.”

As it happened, his favorite movies were the opposite of the ones he was trying to write. “I’m one of those Easy Rider/Raging  Bull guys,” he says. “I love all that stuff. So I decided ‘Why don’t I try writing one of those movies?’”

The result was a spec script originally called Paul Aufiero, since retitled Big Fan, about a New York Giants football fan who gets beaten up by his favorite player.

“It just totally clicked, it totally flowed. It clicked with that one script. Since then, I feel like I’ve found my voice.”

The spec found its way to Aronofsky, who had made a name for himself with Pi and Requiem for a Dream.

Aronofsky tells Script, “For me, it’s rare you read a script that just blows you away and you feel you could shoot it as is. Paul Aufiero was one of those scripts. It had a great sense of place and had a great mood and had very, very funny dark humor mixed with a lot of sad drama.”

Mat Movie

Aronofsky flirted with directing Paul Aufiero but ultimately passed. However, he was looking for a writer to work with on another sports-related subject: professional wrestling.

“No one had done a wrestling picture in a serious way,” says Aronofsky. “There had been boxing pictures, it’s like its own genre, but no one had tried to do something serious about wrestling. Probably because people hear it’s fake and they think it’s a joke. But the more I looked into it, the more I realized if you’re a 200-pound guy jumping 10 feet onto concrete, even if you try to  protect yourself and your opponent, you’re going to wake up the next day feeling something. So, there was a real theatrics to it. I  thought was interesting.”

Aronofsky asked Siegel out for coffee and pitched him the idea of a movie set in the wrestling world. “I immediately responded,” says Siegel. “Usually, when people pitch in Hollywood, they pitch you plot. I get excited about settings. So the idea of spending time in this world of low-rent indie wrestling got me excited.”

Aronofsky sent Siegel off with a copy of Barry W. Blaustein’s 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat, which follows several declining wrestling stars, men still performing at local arenas but  suffering with age, drug addiction, health problems, and poverty.

With little more than a setting and a documentary for background,  Siegel plunged in. The project was initially set up at Warner Bros., so Siegel was paid by the studio for his early drafts. He started by meeting Aronofsky in coffee shops to talk about movies, their project, and the character they wanted to create.

Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson

“ That’s the nature of writing. You kind of have to get lost. You go down a bunch of wrong paths and then you find the right path.” — ROBERT SIEGEL

“The goal was let’s make a movie about one of these guys,” says Siegel. “And that was really it. We both knew we wanted to make something very realistic. We both knew we wanted to make something that was respectful of these wrestlers because we both had  tremendous admiration for these guys. And this world. These guys are—as strange as the world of wrestling is—craftsmen. They’re  guys who take great pride in their trade. Their trade happens to involve hitting people over the head with folding chairs while wearing lime-green tights, but still.”

The collaborators attended wrestling events and talked to wrestlers, deepening their understanding of the wrestling world.

Siegel explains, “In the course of our travels to these events, we came across Nikolai Volkov, Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka,  ‘King Kong’ Bundy—all these guys who at one time were big stars playing big arenas. They’re still out there [wrestling] because they  don’t know what else to do, and they love it. They still get such a thrill out of it. So, it’s sad and it’s also really moving and sweet. I think we knew we wanted to create a character along those lines.”

Siegel continues, “When you start with that character, I think we both  trusted we would get to a story. The first series of drafts were just different attempts to locate. We had a general idea of what we  wanted the character to be and then it was trial and error. I’d think of a potentially interesting scene or a moment or a possible  character. Maybe he’s got a roommate. I’d write a scene with him and a roommate. Maybe he’s got a dog. I’d just mess around.

“I guess,  if anything, the process was to try and find the simple version of the story. This didn’t need to be a complicated story with twists  and turns and lots of subplots. I don’t particularly like plot. I’m much more into character and inhabiting a world, inhabiting someone’s mind.

“Some of the drafts I wrote, if you showed them to a studio executive, they would have called an emergency meeting.  But Darren understands that’s what you do. That’s the nature of writing. You kind of have to get lost. You go down a bunch of wrong  paths and then you find the right path.”

Star Track

Siegel went on this way for a couple of years while Aronofsky worked on The Fountain. One thing Siegel says helped him is, “Right from the start, we knew we wanted Mickey Rourke. We knew the character wasn’t  going to drift too far in one direction or another because those words I was writing, they were coming out of Mickey’s mouth, and we knew what kind of guy he was.”

There were press reports that Nicolas Cage had been set for the part, but Siegel says they always  thought Rourke was “the ideal” guy and everybody else they thought of was “a good alternative but not as good as Mickey.” He says he  even printed out two pictures of Rourke—one from his Diner days and one from a recent movie premiere looking older and beaten  up—and taped them to his wall and his laptop screen.

“It really was helpful anytime I wasn’t sure what this character would say or do,”  says Siegel. “We’re not talking about some kind of blank-slate pretty boy. Mickey Rourke is hardly unmolded clay. He comes with his  own personal mythology and his own story. Randy and Mickey have these built-in parallels. Mickey was destined to be the greatest  actor of his generation and—as he will be the first to tell you—threw it all away.

“We wanted to use the specificity of Mickey Rourke in building the character and he just really fit. It’s almost hard to imagine anyone else in the role now. He is Randy ‘The Ram.”

That’s not to say, though, that Rourke was attached all along. Aronofsky kept in touch with him about the project, but waited a long time to show him the script “because you only get that one chance to make a first impression,” says Siegel.

As he experimented, Siegel hit on a number of parallels for Randy’s situation. One that Siegel calls “pretty obvious” is the resemblance between his situation and Cassidy’s.

Aronofsky explains, “They both have fake names, they both create a fantasy, age is their great enemy. The line between their real lives and their fake lives is an issue. So, that just became a really interesting way to humanize ‘The Ram’s’ story.”

Another parallel emerged as Siegel went through draft after draft, tinkering with the characters: Randy as Christ figure.

Director Darren Aronofsky (left) and screenwriter Robert Siegel (below)

It’s not hammered too hard in the finished movie; it really only comes up in the dialogue when Cassidy tells Randy he should see The Passion of the Christ. But as Siegel notes, “He’s got long blond hair. He bleeds. He bleeds for others, which you could say  the same thing about Christ. Just as Christ died for our sins, Randy is willing to die, not for our sins, but for his followers.”

Siegel had tried, especially early on, a version of the story where  Randy was a masochistic wrestler, in the model of Terry Funk, one of the wrestlers in Beyond the Mat. In that version, says Siegel, “This is why the fans love him. They love to see him bleed.

When Siegel combined that with a version of Cassidy  where she was “a flighty, flaky, spiritual seeker,” the idea of  Randy as Christ figure became more overt. Siegel eventually moved away from that portrayal of Cassidy, but that one line  remains, and in combination with Randy’s suffering in the ring, the parallel, however odd, is hard to miss.

“Certainly pro wrestling is not as important as Christianity,” says Siegel, “but to Randy it is. After he has his heart attack and he’s contemplating his own mortality, he’s weighing this idea of sacrifice and dying for someone else, for the pleasure of others.”

The story does feature a memorable scene with a real masochistic wrestler—a scene that leads up to Randy’s heart attack.

We find Randy backstage talking with the wrestler he’ll perform with that night, “Necro Butcher,” who asks him, “Have you ever done the staple gun?” Which turns out not to be jargon; “Necro Butcher’s” act includes shooting himself and his opponents with real staples from a real staple gun.

“Within the wrestling world,” says Siegel, “there are more family-friendly events, and then there are more hardcore events. At all the matches, you see the guys being hit with folding chairs, but the hardcore stuff is where you see bug spray and thumbtacks and scouring pads. And ‘Necro Butcher’ is one of these guys who’s famous for being a hardcore masochist.”

“Necro Butcher” (who, like the other   wrestlers in the movie besides Randy “The Ram,” is a real wrestler doing his real act) improvised the bit. “It’s probably an actual  conversation he’s had many times with people,” says Siegel. It’s not just a jaw-dropping bit, though. The match with “Necro Butcher” is  much more violent than the other matches in the movie and provokes Randy’s heart attack.

In the film, it’s an intricate sequence. We  see Randy in the dressing room before the match, then Randy at the end of the match, a bloody mess, then flashback 15 minutes more  to the start of the match. Then, once we’ve seen the carnage, we return to Randy alone and see him collapse. It’s the only [instance where] the movie jumps around in time quite that way, and it came not from some creative leap but from budget concerns.

“I think  what Rob wrote originally was Randy had a heart attack in the ring,” says  Aronofsky. “It was a really dramatic scene and we couldn’t afford it. Then I realized there was really no way to track the blood. So, we came up with this idea that we’ll do it in sections, we’ll do it with [Randy] remembering it.”

Drilling Down

Siegel estimates that he wrote perhaps 50 drafts, with 10 major revisions among them. By the time Aronofsky was finished with The Fountain and could really bear down with him on The Wrestler, says Siegel, “We’d gotten within the general vicinity of what we wanted.”

There was no breakthrough moment that told Siegel he had cracked the script. “You know you’re getting close to a final script when the conversations get more focused on minutiae,” he says. “Our first conversations when we began would be, ‘What is this movie about? What are you trying to say? Who is this guy?’ A year later, the questions were  things like ‘Do you think he should be lacing up his boots before he goes over to talk to “The Ayatollah?”’ When you’re down to that kind of detail, you’re probably close. But you never feel like it’s done.”

Once Rourke was attached, that ended studio interest in the project. In fact, says Aronofsky, the only company that would support the movie with Mickey Rourke in it was a French company, Wild Bunch.

“They were a little wary of it because they didn’t think wrestling would be big,” says Aronofsky, but since Rourke is a box-office draw in France, they signed on.

The movie eventually won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight after it screened at the Toronto Film Festival.

Siegel is now hard at work on promoting The Wrestler  and finishing Big Fan, which he has directed. He is grateful for Aronofsky and for what he calls the best writing experience of his life.

“It was better because I was working with a  director and I was working with people I could actually talk to. And I was actually talking to them on a daily basis. It makes a world of difference to have another human being to talk to, and someone on the creative side. So it was a really great experience; I hope I have more like it.”

Originally published in Script magazine January/February 2009

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