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‘Southpaw’ Producers on the 5-Year Fight to Make Jake Gyllenhaal’s Boxing Movie

Father-and-son team Alan and Peter Riche discuss why Eminem fell out of the lead, who else they considered and how Harvey Weinstein came to the rescue

On a hot afternoon in late June, “Southpaw” producers Alan and Peter Riche are hunkering down in their Culver Studios office like a pair of prizefighters waiting anxiously in their locker room as they prep for battle — not in any ring, but at the box office.

The father-and-son producing team have been working together for approximately 15 years, though they’ve spent the last five developing and producing Antoine Fuqua’s boxing drama, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal. The film hits theaters Friday courtesy of the Weinstein Company, which hopes to land a knockout blow against Adam Sandler’s “Pixels” and the John Green adaptation “Paper Towns.”

In a summer full of fast cars, big dinosaurs and small superheroes, “Southpaw” stands out as an original and powerful movie both inside and out of the ring. The film did not have an easy path to theaters, losing both its original lead (Eminem) and studio (DreamWorks) before the stars aligned for the project. In the end, Gyllenhaal signed on to play a boxer named Billy Hope, with Rachel McAdams as his doomed wife, Oona Laurence as his precocious daughter and Forest Whitaker as his trainer.

Peter Riche was born with Hollywood in his DNA, having grown up in the business thanks to his father and Emmy-winning mother, Wendy Riche, as well as his great uncle, power agent Freddie Fields. Alan was thrilled his son chose to enter the family business, so to speak, but he also encouraged Peter to establish his own identity as a creative producer. While the duo share a background in representation as well as a last name, they also have a common love of storytelling.

Like a couple of old school Hollywood mensches, the Riches sat down with TheWrap to chronicle “Southpaw’s” real fight — the one to get it made.

TheWrap: How did you guys first get involved in “Southpaw”?
Alan Riche:
When Peter was a young lad, I took him to see “The Champ,” the original with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. It makes you cry, and it’s an amazing tale of a father and son. Peter loved the movie and we were sitting around talking and we said, “Let’s do a boxing movie.” We spoke of “The Champ”and “Raging Bull,” but Peter said, “Let’s do a father-daughter story, not a father-son story,” to switch it up a little bit.

Peter Riche: The idea was: How do you make a boxing movie contemporary and make it fresh? How do you spin that story on its head? Father-daughter.

Alan: Peter immediately said we should do it with Eminem because he’s a boxer and he has a daughter and a life that’s somewhat chaotic. He also came from the streets, which our guy ultimately does too.

Peter: In looking at Eminem’s life, you can apply his love of his daughter when he had overcome all the insanity, the death of Proof [Eminem’s childhood friend and fellow rapper who was shot and killed in 2006] and all the things he had been through.

In a weird sense, the initial incarnation was, dare we say, a sequel to “8 Mile.” Like a spiritual sequel, not a narrative one. Our first thought was, before we get a writer, let’s go to ICM first because Eminem’s represented theatrically there. They gave us a list of three writers and the first person on the list was Kurt Sutter. He’s a great writer and a father, so we developed a pitch with him.

Alan: We said, “Let’s go out and sell it with Eminem attached, but no director.”

Peter: So we had the pitch and took it out. It was December 2010. We took it to a couple places on Monday, got a pass and a couple people didn’t answer. Tuesday was the same; a couple people held and watched. On Wednesday, we went into Stacey Snider at noon. We left DreamWorks by 12:50 and by 1 p.m. we were making a deal, which was excellent. Kurt started writing while we started making a list of directors. Antoine was always on the top of the list.

Peter: After meeting him, we knew this was our guy. He boxed five days a week, he was the father of a young girl and this story resonated with him on multiple levels. Antoine would be the first person to say that we’ve stuck behind him and his vision this entire time. He was always the guy.

Alan: Antoine was… if you expected 100 percent, he gave you 200 percent. We were gonna get a t-shirt made saying, “Our director could kick your director’s ass” — and he can.

Now we’re four weeks out from the time when Eminem has to start boxing training. We get a call from [Eminem’s manager] David Schiff and he says, “Guys, I don’t know how to say this, but he’s changed his mind. He loves the movie but he doesn’t want to do it. He wants to do an album. Sorry.”

Did Eminem just want to focus on his music career at that point or was he afraid of the commitment and the training that goes into making a boxing movie?
Alan: We don’t know the exact answer.

Peter: I would say it’s a combo, but I would say it was much easier for him. He didn’t need the movie. He had an album that he wanted to go make [2013’s “The Marshall Mathers LP 2”] and that’s who he is.

Alan: It was a shock to us. It was a big disappointment.

Peter: It was a left hook, if you will — pun intended.

Alan: It was devastating because Stacey Snider would only make the movie at DreamWorks with Eminem. So she was going to put it in turnaround.

Peter: It was an R-rated drama without a brand, and he was the brand.

Alan: Harvey Weinstein had always wanted this from the beginning, so Harvey stepped up and bought out DreamWorks in 2013. So now we’re starting to discuss casting. Peter and I had been looking very hard at Aaron Paul, who was just coming off of “Breaking Bad.”

Peter: He was being chased by a lot of people at the time.

Alan: He’s at his hottest height, and he’s an interesting guy. Travis Fimmel met with us and he wanted to do it. Word came to us that Charlie Hunnam wanted to do it. Actors want to work with Antoine. But Harvey really wanted Jake.

Peter: Well, when we met him, he had just wrapped “Nightcrawler,” so we met a 156-pound gaunt-looking Jake, which was not the vision in the script. Second meeting, he was a different guy. Different physically, psychologically, even spiritually. We thought, “OK, there’s no question he can pull this off.” And Antoine said, “I’m going to gut him.” And he did.

Alan: So Jake is now training and working his ass off and we said, “OK, we’re going to start shooting in June in Pittsburgh.” At first, Antoine wanted to shoot in New York, but it was the usual bullshit where the budget was here and then it was there. The first two weeks were all boxing.

Peter: They wanted to shoot the boxing upfront for budgeting reasons and scheduling conflicts with another actor [Forest Whitaker], and Antoine wanted to get Jake in the headspace of Billy Hope. Over the next six weeks of shooting, Jake was in the headspace of what it is to be a boxer and to literally get the shit kicked out of you and get back up.

There were a couple days where we had to hold and put some ice on Jake, because he took a few punches, but other than what was choreographed, Antoine shot it in real time. So there were three-minute rounds with a one-minute break because they wanted to create an authentic vibe and show you boxing in a way that has never been seen on screen.

Riches With Fuqua

What were some of the biggest technical challenges on a movie like this?
The first two weeks were challenging because of scheduling, but also because of the way we shot it in real time and the amount of cameras.

Peter: Those guys Jake fought [Victor Ortiz and Miguel Gomez] were real boxers. And we mounted cameras on the boxers, which was a surprise, because nobody had ever done that. We mounted one on Jake and Miguel, so you have first-person boxing.

Alan: It was really important to us and to Antoine that if the boxing didn’t blow your mind, then the movie wouldn’t feel authentic. So we went over-schedule, but not crazily.

Were there discussions about putting the death of Rachel’s character in trailer?
Alan: Antoine was on Peter’s side saying he didn’t want it. I wanted it. Granted, there’s the fear of giving away too much information and feeling like you’ve seen the movie. The other side is, let’s have as powerful a trailer as possible.

It’s rare to see a major star die in a trailer, but then again, you’re going to see the “single father” description in reviews anyway.
I personally fought to keep it out. I thought it was too much. Their idea was to put butts in seats by putting out the most powerful trailer possible, and I think they did just that.

Tell me more about the marketing plan.
Peter: They’ve been really tactical with how they’ve created awareness and buzz — buying time on the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight and the NBA Finals, and really picking and choosing their spots to compete with movies that have five times the P&A budget.

Alan: The Pacquiao-Mayweather fight was smart money and it felt like “Southpaw” won the fight, because a lot of people saw it that night.

Do you feel like this the type of mid-budget movie aimed at adults that Hollywood neglects these days?
Generally speaking, yes. We hear that complaint all over the place.

Peter: I joke about it, but there are no vampires, zombies, robots or explosions in this movie. This is a movie about people and hopefully this will prove that you can make a movie that doesn’t have capes or brand awareness. At the right price, there is a market for people to see movies about fathers and daughters, about human beings and universal themes.

Riches in Ring

After seeing the movie, did Eminem have any regrets? Was he kicking himself for not acting in it?
Here’s what we do know. He thought the movie kicked ass and he was proud of it — so proud of it that he circled back to put his brand on it, write two original songs and release them on his own label. So that was the validation to us.

Men are obviously going to show up because of the boxing, but why should women see this movie?
Alan: Because it’s a poignant father-daughter movie. In the two [test-screening] previews, women loved the movie because this brute saves, rescues and sacrifices for his daughter. In the movie, Jake says to Forest Whitaker, “I give you my everything. I have to save my daughter.” The movie makes you cry.

Because he’s fighting for his family?
Peter: He’s fighting for himself and for her. That’s the soul of the story.

Alan: “The Fighter” was great because of that family. “Raging Bull” was great because he had that relationship with his wife. “Rocky” was great thanks in part to Adrian. You’ve gotta have the heart, and “Southpaw” has a shitload of heart.

How do you feel about the movie at this point?
My mother died when I was 18 months old and I remember someone took me to see “Bambi,” where the hunter kills the mother, and they had to drag me out hysterical. This movie is like my “Bambi.” It’s hard for me to watch this movie.

Do you feel you have an awards season contender on your hands?
Alan: I definitely think we have a shot with Jake. His performance is A-plus-plus. Is the movie going to be nominated for an Academy Award? Ask Harvey Weinstein. If anybody knows how to create a groundswell and to create an aura around a movie and around a performance, it’s him. So we’ll see what Harvey does.

Composer James Horner recently passed away, making this one of the last movies that he scored. What was it like working with him?
Peter: We had limited time with him because of our schedule. In our experience, he was a brilliant, intelligent, warm, gentle and amazing soul. Having grown up as a cinephile and a fan of his, I feel grateful, lucky and blessed that his name and his soul is part of the movie.

What was the highlight of your experience working on “Southpaw”?
Peter: To make a movie about a father and [his child] with my own father, and to have it based on an original idea in the world we live in, is insanely validating.

Alan: And the greatest thing in my life, as a father, was the opportunity to work with my son. That should be the closing line for me.

Fair enough, Alan. “Southpaw” hits theaters on Friday, July 24.

Riches End