Inside the Mind of a Hollywood Director: Bitterness, Love, Verisimilitude


An interview with Gavin O’Connor director of WARRIOR

WARRIOR is a motion picture story about two bitterly estranged brothers who end up fighting in a cage for the mixed martial arts world championship. It is also about their relationship with their father, whom neither can forgive. The violence we see in the cage is visceral. Brothers fight. But more impactful in this story is the spiritual warfare that pits the brothers and their father in a three-way psychological cage. All three are warriors. Yet the movie dares to be about how each of us is called to fight the good fight and be a warrior for love.

Why do Hollywood directors make movies that contain intense violence, offensive language and questionable thematic material, which are the elements that earned WARRIOR its PG-13 rating from the MPAA? Some will object to the film’s realism, calling it gratuitous. But O’Conner would disagree. Why? Because he’s intent on telling the truth about the spiritual warfare that exists in every man. And that includes you.

So, offered below is a different kind of interview with a top Hollywood director. It offers a spiritual and psychological glimpse into a director’s motivation for the kind of tough but true films that someday be may be dubbed the “Gavin O’Connor genre.”

While I have edited out the spoilers from the interview, it will nonetheless make more sense if you’ve first seen the film, or have read a thorough review or synopsis of the story. You can do so here

Gavin O’Connor is truly one of the best director’s in Hollywood, although his filmography is not that long. He’s known for three major films: MIRACLE (2004, starring Kurt Russell) about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s victory over the seemingly invincible Russian squad; PRIDE AND GLORY (2008, starring Collin Farrell, Edward Norton, and Jon Voight) the saga of a multi-generational family of New York cops and moral corruption; and now WARRIOR (2011, starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte).

Stan Williams: We hear about actors asking a director: “What’s my motivation?” Let me turn the tables. What motivated you to make WARRIOR?

Gavin O’Connor: That’s a very difficult question to answer. There were things going on in my life that I knew I wanted to deal with or gain some type of insight or understanding of them. I was really struggling with forgiveness. There were also things that happened in my childhood that I think I was trying to explore through my art. I also have a love of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), and I had never seen it dynamic portrayed in cinema before. So, I thought that was an interesting kind of possibility. Then it started to culminate with this idea, which I called “intervention in cage.”

Stan Williams: Which is a metaphor for what the film is really about…

Gavin O’Connor: Yes. What started to emerge, as I was thinking about the characters, was the idea of one man living in his higher self and someone living in his lower self and a third someone living in his spirituality. Then there is the idea of spiritual warfare. All these things were matriculating in a weird way, and they all started to come out.

Stan Williams: WARRIOR successfully engages audiences with several impossibilities: (a) it’s about two underdog brothers, who have been estranged fom years, and (b) and yet they end up fighting each other in the final match for the mixed martial arts world championship. Ironically, it’s (c) their estrangement out of the cage that entangles and embraces them in the cage. While that’s intriguing, what do you do as a writer and director to help the audience embrace such improbabilities and make it seem so real? (1)

Gavin O’Connor: When I walked my co-writer, Anthony Tambakis, through the idea for the movie, he said, “You can’t have these two guys fight each other in the end. How are you going to pull that off?” Well, the way we approached all of this is to only tell the truth. We don’t write it and then shoot what we wrote. What we write becomes the blueprint for months of work-shopping the film with the actors.

Stan Williams: What do you do when you workshop a movie?

Gavin O’Connor: You meet extensively with the actors and you start connecting emotional lines. You start going so deep and dissecting the verisimilitude [the quality of realism in a work of art (3)]of every scene, that if anything seems false you address it. Like, how do we capture the essence of a marriage? How do we do that in the most truthful way? We always try to put everything under a microscope. We call it “non-acting.” For me, the word “acting” has a certain falseness to it. When I hear the word “acting” I always go for “non-acting.” We’re always trying to get to the truth of the scene. If we can keep doing that systematically and consistently throughout the whole film, hopefully, by the time we get to the impossibility [of the story’s plot]we’re so immersed in the emotionality of the piece and the characters, that the audience will want it, desire it, and be convinced of its reality.

Stan Williams: It seems that what you’re talking about is the psychological or moral motivation of the characters — because if you don’t tell the truth about their psychological motivations with respect to natural law, then the audience is going to pick up on that, and they’re not going to identify with the characters.

Gavin O’Connor: Absolutely. That’s exactly it. The characters must be rooted in their true psychological motivations. We’re always putting the microscope on the “want.” What do you want in this scene? And how are you going to get it?

Stan Williams: The Physical Wants and the Psychological Needs

Gavin O’Connor: Yes. And they have to come from a truthful place. You really have to challenge it and poke it and prod it, because if it’s flimsy at all, it’ll fall like a house of cards.

Stan Williams: I’ll tell you, what you did in both PRIDE AND GLORY and WARRIOR translates incredibly to the screen. How long did you workshop?

Gavin O’Connor: I call it making the movie before you make the movie. With Nick Nolte [Paddy], the dad, we spent months together working on the character. Everyone has to do a biography on their own character. I give them a questionnaire with 100 questions to answer. And I want detailed answers. Because that’s what will inform everything, such as the emotional story lines. Then we start doing backstories on the [characters’] histories because since we’re making a movie about a family, there are things that everyone [among the actors and characters]has their own perspective on about what is true. We spent months doing it.

Stan Williams: What inner values are motivating Tommy to fight? Is he really trying to make things right with the Marines? Or is there a deeper motivation? Is he looking for an excuse to find forgiveness with his father?

Gavin O’Connor: The intention is that Tommy’s making a statement against God. He’s rejecting everything good. He’s rejecting love. He’s rejecting beauty. He’s rejecting all that is good in his life. There’s an expression, “Hurt people hurt people.” He’s a man who’s living in a lot of pain. And when you live in pain, it’s easy to inflict pain on others because that’s what you’re feeling yourself. I used to say to Tommy [the actor was Tom Hardy], think about Tommy as a guy who’s hitting a crack pipe.

Stan Williams: What’s that like?

Gavin O’Connor: It’s one of the most godless acts you can do. People who smoke crack experience an immediate high. But it’s a false high that goes away very quickly. It happens very quickly and then it goes away quickly. You’re always chasing it; and it’s so destructive. So, I’d say to Tommy, “When you get into the cage, you need to get high. You need to hit the crack pipe so you can actually experience this godless act that makes you feel good in the moment.”  But once it’s over Tommy has to deal with himself again and ask himself, “Who is this guy who’s living in all this pain?” That’s what I was going for with Tommy.

Stan Williams: By the end of the movie Tommy changes, in a surprising way. I promise not to give away the ending. But where does Tommy begin to change? Where does he start to turn and start to embrace the good like he uncharacteristically embraces his father?

Gavin O’Connor: That’s very perceptive. That’s exactly what’s going on. At the top of the movie Tommy’s waiting on the doorstep and he offers his father a bottle of the brand that his father used to love. His father says, “No, thank you.” And we come to learn that Paddy is a thousand days sober. Tommy in essence is becoming his father. And he’s come home to get drunk with him.

Stan Williams: Ah!

Gavin O’Connor: Tommy’s expecting the man he knew as a boy growing up [drunk and abusive]. But it all gets turned upside down. Now his father’s not the man he knew at all. He’s an entirely different human being. And Tommy’s becoming like his father was. So, when Tommy finally gets his father [Paddy] to take a drink and become drunk once again, even while Paddy is listening to Moby Dick on tape as he does throughout whole movie, Paddy [the white whale]gets in Ahab’s face [Tommy] and yells: “Ahab! You godless son-of-a-bitch.” At that point, Tommy sees himself reflected back in his father’s face. It’s an Jungian archetype thing. And that’s the beginning of the surrender. It’s the first time you see Tommy become compassionate toward his father. To be healed, Tommy has to die to self. (2)

Stan Williams: We’re rooting for Brendon, Tommy, and their father, throughout the film. But it’s like Brendon and his Dad are both trying to pull Tommy along.

Gavin O’Connor: Tommy is on this godless path, this warpath of personal destruction of anything in his way — but his father and his brother force him to change.

Stan Williams: In PRIDE AND GLORY there are crucifixes on the wall in everyone’s house, even the bad guy’s. But you don’t bring the spirituality forward as you do at the beginning of WARRIOR. In Tommy’s absence, Paddy has dramatically returned to his Catholic faith and Tommy tears him to shreds over it, as if what Paddy is doing is hypocritical. Why is that? Why the shift from one film to the other? Why did you bring the spirituality forward in WARRIOR?

Gavin O’Connor: I think it was something that was a little more prevalent in my life, and also more prevalent in the characters’ lives. In short, the story demanded it. And I always intended the title, WARRIOR, to be about spiritual warfare, and warrior lives outside of the cage. The intention of the title was never about guys fighting ]inside (the cage].

Stan Williams: A strong metaphor to be sure. I see that the movie is really about love, but there’s a lot of bitterness, hatred, and violent fighting in the cage. Isn’t love about being kind and gentle?

Gavin O’Connor: If you want to dramatize love you need to see the flip side of it. I think visualizing love is a hard thing to do without seeing the opposite because you want something organic to emerge from it. (4) Then, there’s the balancing act as a filmmaker trying to capture the verisimilitude of this sport, which is violent. But what I was going for, and maybe it doesn’t come through, is to at least root the violence in the characters and never make it gratuitous. It is also mixed martial arts and I also have to shoot the sport in the truthfulness of its intensity, although I tempered it a bit. Once again, that all served the intent of the movie because I was driving toward [the metaphor of a spiritual]intervention in a cage. So, the spirituality in the film and the love in the film and the message of the film were all driving toward those five rounds [at the end]in that cage with the two brothers.

Stan Williams: What I think makes the film unique is that neither are fighting for selfish reasons, not pride, not ego, not to be rich, but for other things. They are both sacrificing themselves, in the cage, for something greater than themselves.

Gavin O’Connor: I think there’s nobility to both of their causes and quests. There’s something beautiful within Tommy’s pain — his loyalty towards what he calls his [Marine] brother, whom he calls Manny, whom he lost. There’s a nobility to what he’s doing — to try to save somebody else. He can’t save himself, but he can honor a promise and save Manny’s wife and children, and give them a life — that sacrifice is really important to him.

Stan Williams: What about Brendon?

Gavin O’Connor: In regard to Brendon, there’s the nobility of fighting for your home, to save your family. But I didn’t just capture it in the movie. As a nation were in the midst of the housing crisis [when we shot the film]and it hasn’t changed three years later [now, during its release]. You have this man being in debt, and because of his mixed martial arts background he literally is able to fight his way out of debt. I thought that was, in a way, wish fulfillment. There are so many men in this country that are on the doorstep of losing their homes and have wives and children and are trying to put food on the table – they’re working several jobs. They’re just trying to keep a roof over their head. So, they’re [figuratively]fighting their way out of debt. But Brendon literally fights his way out of debt. I just thought it was a perfect metaphor to explore.


1 When O’Connor and Tambakis were writing WARRIOR, on their door they placed an Aristotle quote: “A convincing impossibility is better than an unconvincing possibility.” That’s good advice for all storytellers.

2 For my Moral Premise readers, this is Tommy’s Moment of Grace. While it does seem that both Brendon and Tommy are co-protagonists, and that is Gavin’s intent, Brendon changes little, and Paddy changes not a bit, although for one scene he slips off the wagon. But Tommy changes a lot. It is Tommy’s arc, not Brendon’s or Paddy’s, that creates the catharsis for the audience at film’s end. For that reason Tommy is the real protagonist, with Brendon and Paddy as the co-protagonists. The antagonist in this film is the bitterness, hatred, and inability to forgive, which is so prevalent in our culture. All of that is metaphorically represented by the hatred we see in the MMA cage and the tournament’s opportunistic promoters. Another way to analyze the characters is that this is a buddy road trip film, with three buddies. Each is the antagonist to the others who are their own protagonists. Remember, antagonists exist to change protagonists. But, however you analyze the film, O’Connor has created a masterful work drawing us in and helping us understanding a bit more about what sacrificial love is all about.

3. For more on the importance of verisimilitude (the quality of realism in film), and how it’s absence can kill the most nobly intended of film projects, see Life As It Is vs. How It Ought To Be.)

4. This is an important point that needs some explanation. When O’Connor says you want something “organic to emerge” from the juxtaposition of hatred and love, he means this: Just saying it, or TELLING it (as in a didactic sermon, homily or teaching) will not connect emotionally or memorably with the audience. Audiences learn through experience (or simulation of the experience which a well produced movie is). It’s the adrenalin rush that creates memories. So, you have to SHOW something with such verisimilitude that it’s ingrained in the audience’s mind, and not just a passing intellectual thought. This explains the power of stories, and why the Bible is 75% narrative.

[Copyright 2011 © Stanley D. Williams]


About Author

Stan Williams is owner of Nineveh's Crossing (media publishing, marketing and distribution), SWC Films (Film Production), and author of the Hollywood Screenplay Structure book "The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success."