For his feature directorial debut, Day of the Fight, Jack Huston has reteamed with his former Boardwalk Empire colleague Michael Pitt to tell the story a once celebrated boxer who takes a redemptive journey through his past and present on the day of his first bout since leaving prison.
Huston also wrote and produces the movie which premiered to a warm and extended reception in the Horizons Extra section of Venice on Tuesday night. An experienced and award-winning actor, Huston was effusive in his excitement for the process of making Day of the Fight when we spoke ahead of the festival.
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In the interview below, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, he tells me why lightning had to strike in order for him to get behind the camera, how he “called in every favor” to pull together a cast that also includes Joe Pesci, and why he’s “the luckiest son of a bitch” to have grown up immersed in the movies as part of one of the most legendary families in Hollywood.
DEADLINE: Talk me through why you decided to make this your feature directing debut, a story of a fighter on one day when he’s making the rounds to tie up loose ends.
HUSTON: I suppose the cheesiest way of saying it is lightning never struck. It was one of those moments where I was hit by the idea that I felt what had only been described to me as that feeling of when you know you’re onto something, that moment where you go “Oh that’s it, that’s the feeling.”
I was watching Kubrick’s 1951 documentary short he wrote and was the first thing he ever sold, to MGM for $1,000. He followed Walter Cartier, the welterweight champion of the world, on the day of a prizefight and nothing very exciting happens. He visits his twin brother, he goes to the park, he drives around with his dog, he goes to Mass. He does all these things that all led to him going to Madison Square Garden and fighting for the title. I sort of sat there and imagined if you took that day and turned it into a narrative-driven movie, but you made it his last day.
What’s the guy fighting for? It’s wonderful, the idea what is it to be a fighter anyway in life, what you’re fighting for and what if actually what you are fighting for, if you’re under the knowledge that the thing you’re dong will kill you. It is in essence that sort of penitent man, it is that journey for forgiveness.
DEADLINE: And why shoot in black and white?
HUSTON: I was struck very early on by many black-and-white films and I always felt it gave such grit, such depth and the noir-esque feeling that I went for. But as much as anything, it’s 1989, it’s period, and black and white is incredibly forgiving especially in a modern world when you’re shooting. Colors change. When you walk down the road in New York, it’s very different to what you imagine the road looked like back in the ‘80s or the ‘70s. And we didn’t have a lot of money, black and white gives you that gorgeous depth.
To use a rather cheesy metaphor, I suppose his world is black and white and that’s why he’s sort of trying to paint color to his life in those memories, as one colors their memories. Memories aren’t reliable, they don’t have a start and an end, they come at you in strange ways.
I was very lucky that I got a brilliant DP in Peter Simonite. We discussed at length. The funny thing about it being your first film or something that you’ve written is you have everything in your head, every way the camera is going to shoot. It’s like the picture is quite fully formed in your mind because that’s all you’ve thought about up until the moment you start shooting.
DEADLINE: How long was the process?
HUSTON: Surprisingly quick, four years. For a first film, especially one like this which was an uphill battle every single day, it was insane.
There were moments where people were like “You’re insane, you’re never going to get this done,” which only put tinder on the fire: Well now I have to, I have to prove everybody wrong. It became my life’s mission and quite rightly so because I loved it.
DEADLINE: How did you land on Michael Pitt?
HUSTON: When I conceived the idea, I saw Michael Pitt instantly. It got to the point where there was a bit of a standoff between me and the financiers and it was sort of, either it’s Mike or it’s nobody and we won’t make the film because I knew in my gut there was nobody else for this film.
Also, what he’s been through over the last sort of 10 years, a bit on the outs of Hollywood, but never at one moment has Mike not been magic. He’s got something about him and he always had something about him and I never for one second doubted that he would come to set and fully embody this character. So when you talk about second chances, or redemption or sacrifice, what the character is going through, I found Mike was sort of going through a lot of these things anyway.
DEADLINE: Were those conversations you had with him?
HUSTON: Yes, yes, oh, boy. We’ve sort of stayed close since Boardwalk and I found him beautiful to work with. He has this great ability to see through you and to call bullsh*t so there are moments when you’re with Mike and when he taps in, he’s fully present and he pulls everything out of you as your scene partner.
I thought this film is him, its Mikey’s journey. It’s almost Ulysses-esque. He’s living in purgatory right to the end in that taxi, he’s crossing the River Styx. Did it ever happen? It’s like the boatman — the taxi driver, his father, these things that are coming back to him — it’s meant to be that journey that he committed this horrible thing and he’s been living in purgatory ever since and this has sort of given him the ability to give himself back to get out of purgatory. Whether it’s to hell, whether it’s to heaven or the stars or whatever the hell, it’s never meant to be anything religious. It’s meant to be this journey of this man, this wanderer, this traveler, this fighter. The most basic human parts. No one suits that better than Mike.
DEADLINE: And what about the rest of cast? Was that a dream team for you?
HUSTON: Oh, absolutely. Funnily enough, everyone in the movie I’ve worked with. I called in every favor, it was one of those moments I had zero shame: I will ask anything of anybody, I will make the call, I will grovel, I will plead, I will be on my knees, I will beg, I don’t care.
Thank God everybody probably got sick of me so they had to say yes. Getting Joe Pesci was sort of landing the white whale. That was one of those moments where they were like “You’re out of your f*cking mind,” and I said, “Well I wrote it for him, so he can’t not do the film.”
The reason Joe specifically I thought of and wrote that part for him was I went to a friend’s house who is a musician and he’d just worked with Joe in the studio cause Joe is a phenomenal jazz musician. That’s him singing in the film.
But I had no idea that Joe was a singer. My friend put on a song and says, “I’ll give you hundred bucks if you can figure out who it is.” So I listened to this music and my jaw dropped, like who the f*ck is this? This is insane. He says it’s Joe Pesci, and I was like are you kidding me?
Then it came to me. It’s such a beautiful piece of casting because what we’re using is his body of work. It gives the father the history that you fully believe the dad was tough, abusive, that you believe is Joe Pesci, you know, Goodfellas Joe Pesci, Casino Pesci.
Thank God his body of work sort of supersedes him in some circumstances. So when you first meet him in the film and he’s this shadow, it’s as if he’s not even there but you don’t for one second disbelieve the history between these two. And I thought, what if he doesn’t speak, what if he sings? My gran, when she was suffering from dementia, the one thing that would pull her back into the room was music. So when I heard the song, I was thinking of the dad being in the home and suffering from dementia and I hadn’t put it together yet, but then I heard Joe sing and I was like Oh my God, now I have to get Joe Pesci.
DEADLINE: It was a good epiphany to have.
HUSTON: It was a hell of an epiphany to have and thank God I’d just done The Irishman, I was in it for like a scene, but it got me in the door to have a chat.
DEADLINE: Did you consult with directors you’ve worked with before in terms of prep, or has your career been your schooling?
HUSTON: I love that quote, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” In this essence, I had to steal from everything. I’ve been lucky enough to be on set with my absolute heroes, a lot of them. Hopefully there are more to come, but every film I was on what I loved was that there was not one way of doing something. I’m talking about a handful of my favorite directors, let’s say Marty, the Coen brothers, Park Chan-wook, Ridley Scott, David O Russell, and every single one of them is so different about how they go about making a movie. The one thing that I noticed that was similar is the immense respect and love they actually have for the process.
So that’s always there, they’re just so confident about what they’re doing. I never doubt any one of those people for a second and I think that’s what I learned the most. If you believe something, believe it with all your heart, go for it, do it your way. For sure, it’s all about the collaboration, it’s all about pulling everyone in and saying this is something we’re making, it’s our movie. It’s not my movie, but for us to make this movie you have to have direction.
DEADLINE: There has to be a leader and you need to project that confidence in order to instill confidence in the people you’re directing…
HUSTON: Absolutely, absolutely that’s the truth. I always felt confident in those directors as an actor. I think that comes down to a lot of time, it’s so weird to say, but if you feel it in your gut — and I followed my gut on pretty much everything and it got the movie to our first day of filming — I was like, believe in yourself, you’ve got this.
I had the most wonderful experience because you can feel making a film your cast and crew turn very quickly in your favor. Your first day, no one’s really sure, and then by the end of that first day — and I remember our first day was Mike and Steve Buschemi and our second day was Pesci so it was right in — there was sort of like a nod from both of those guys where they just had a really good day on set they were doing the work. It became about the work and the art and the beauty of why we do this and everyone was kind of f*cking on the vibe while I’m weeping behind the monitor most times. It was brutal but emotional, it was sort of what this whole thing was about. I can’t explain how much I loved it.
DEADLINE: Speaking of actors, you’re not able to have your cast with you in Venice owing to the strike…
HUSTON: The very sad thing that’s coming out of all of this, and I’m speaking purely selfishly about us and our film because that’s the closest I can talk about it, you know, someone like Mike has given the performance of a lifetime and I can’t imagine not standing up with him and getting to hug and sit next to each other and experience this film together with an audience.
We don’t have distribution, we’ve got to sell our film and there’s some companies that are saying we won’t do business with movies if they’ve signed any type of (interim) agreement. It puts us between a rock and a hard place.
It breaks my heart, literally, the thought of not being there specifically with Mike. We’re not the enemy, that’s the hardest part. We’re a little independent movie and shouldn’t Mike be able to go forward and promote his work that he diligently and beautifully crafted and put together? I mean, sure, hopefully we sell the film, but I think right now the major thing which he understands more than anything is we have to get this movie sold.
I think it’s the wild west out there. I always believed in life about lifting each other, lifting others because you get lifted alongside them in that essence. Karma’s a bitch and its beautiful to share in the wealth, share in the beauty. I want to share this with everybody because that’s how a movie is made, a team that has to start working together very clearly.
What people are getting very wrong right now is, it’s affecting everybody. It might be the actors on strike, it might be the writers on strike, but nobody’s able to work… It’s affecting craft service, security, every single part of it.
These heads, for what they’re doing to this amount of people, you feel like just the goodness of one soul or for their humanity, give everybody what they want, raise them up and they’ll work that much harder for you. I always believe that.
DEADLINE: I want to talk about your family a bit if you don’t mind. I’m finally getting around to reading Five Came Back in which your grandfather John plays a big role. Growing up in such a storied creative family, did you in any way feel it was pre-ordained that you’d direct a movie?
HUSTON: Some people get very funny about talking about them, but I can’t tell you how much my family have given me. When I say given me, from the moment I was born I have been consistently inspired, in awe, proud, inordinately proud. I mean, they’ve left this indelible mark on my soul.
I’m the luckiest son of a bitch in the world that I got to grow up around these f*cking amazing titans of creation and sure I guess it did (become pre-ordained) because I watched films, I loved films. From before I could walk, I was on a movie set watching my aunt in dress-up playing the Grand High Witch in The Witches, the adaptation of a Roald Dahl book that I was being read to at the same time. It was like what?
It makes this beautiful impression on you and I think what it did was it made me want to tell stories, but it made me want to tell a specific type of story. I have to say, from my father reading me Oscar Wilde and these gorgeous tragic fairy tales that would break your heart like Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, there was something that I was always drawn to tragedy, but the beauty in tragedy.
My family sort of have always been a guiding force and a light, and I always said I never felt like I’m in their shadow or I have to fill these ginormous shoes because I never will. But I do feel that they passed the baton and it’s my chance to just keep running.
My son plays the young Mike in the movie and he’s fifth generation of my family on screen. We’ve been in the business for nearing 100 years and I find that beautiful. It’s a wonderful thing. We’re continuing to actually try to make a mark in the arts and I see it as a great honor. That’s why lightning had to strike, I didn’t want to do anything before I felt that feeling.
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