Actor Jack Huston says two creative sparks convinced him to make his feature directing debut with boxing drama Day of the Fight. The first concerned the premise; the second, his star.
“Several years ago, I was watching Stanley Kubrick’s first film, a documentary short he shot in 1951, also called Day of the Fight,” Huston says. The film famously follows the great Irish American boxer Walter Cartier over the course of an ordinary day as he prepares for a 10 p.m. title bout.
“It’s this amazing glimpse into the real life of a boxer,” Huston explains. “He eats breakfast, he goes to church, he visits his twin brother, he goes around town — and it’s all leading up to a big prize fight. I remember thinking, ‘What a wonderful premise for a deeper narrative to develop.’ As we follow our boxer through his day and meet the people in his world, what if we learn that his whole life has been leading up to this fight — that this is his one chance to sacrifice himself for all of the people he’s loved?”
Huston’s Day of the Fight is set in 1989 (but filmed in luminous black and white, giving it a timeless quality) and follows a once-celebrated boxer named Mikey on the day of his first fight since leaving prison. After a life of pain and suffering, Mikey takes a redemptive journey through his past and present over the course of one day, leading up to a tragic fight for the ages.
Huston acknowledges that there were several “amazing shadows” looming over the project — and not only that he planned to base his directing debut on the work of a cinema legend like Kubrick. There was also the fact that his own grandfather is yet another screen icon — John Huston, director of at least a dozen classics, including the acclaimed 1972 boxing drama Fat City (Anjelica Huston is Jack Huston’s aunt and Tony Huston is his uncle). Huston (the junior) also had envisioned a key role in his film for Joe Pesci, officially semi-retired and famously elusive and irascible.
But the casting of his star came easily. Huston made his career breakthrough as an actor in HBO’s prestige drama Boardwalk Empire, playing the disfigured former marksman Richard Harrow (he next appears opposite Nicole Kidman in Lulu Wang’s Amazon series Expats). Huston says he knew instantly that he wanted to build his boxing movie around his co-star from Boardwalk, the mercurial character actor Michael Pitt (Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days).
“From our first day on set together, I found him such a beautiful and tragic person,” Huston says of Pitt. “He has such empathy and such depth, and I used to look into his eyes and he would sometimes say something to me in a scene that had an immense impact on what I was doing. I said to myself way back then, ‘I want to make a film with this guy.’ ” (It also helped that Pitt was an amateur boxer, known for hitting a speed bag on set to focus himself before stepping in front of the camera.)
“When I wrote every word, every page of the script, there was nobody in my mind but Mike,” Huston says.
With Pitt in place, Huston had little trouble assembling an uncommonly strong supporting cast for a first-time writer-director: Ron Perlman plays the boxer’s trainer, Steve Buscemi, another Boardwalk alum, is a family friend, John Magaro is a priest and the boxer’s oldest friend, while newcomer Nicolette Robinson is his ex-wife.
For Pesci, Huston had envisioned the character of the boxer’s father. Once an abusive and volcanic personality, the audience meets the character when the fighter pays him a visit in an old-age home shortly before his title fight. The father has had a stroke and can no longer speak, but the champion boxer still cowers in the old man’s presence.
“What other actor could I put in there and not have him say a single thing, but you still believe with every ounce of your soul that this guy was once a dominant, force-of-nature personality?” Huston says. “It had to be Joe Pesci. It’s a testament to all of the amazing work Joe has done over the years playing tough guys that we can instantly picture it.”
Huston had appeared with Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, playing the supporting part of Bobby Kennedy. Shortly after that film’s premiere, he pitched Pesci’s longtime producing partner Jai Stefan on his premise for Day of the Fight — and somewhat to his surprise, they signed on as producers and Pesci accepted the part.
“I landed the white whale!” Huston says, laughing. He admits that the process wasn’t without its difficulties, though (“fucking Joe …every battle under the sun,” he says, laughing again and adding, “I say
that with complete love.” Even on the day before shooting Pesci’s scenes, Huston wasn’t certain that the actor would show up. “But he came in and gave the most beautiful performance,” he adds.
Huston sums up: “That’s the beauty of this business — when it’s difficult, the reward is so much greater, because you know you’ve fought tooth and nail for every fucking slice of it.”