The Boxer: About The Production

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A lullaby sung by a mother to her newborn drifts through an embattled village. Friends toast each other in clandestine meetings. Children play hide-and-seek among the rubble of deserted buildings. Neighbors in urban gang territory share backyard gossip. Lovers embrace on moonlit rooftops in brief respite from the violence below.

Wherever lives are played out under siege - Sarajevo, Beirut, Somalia, South Central L.A. - moments of joy seem all the more precious.

At such times, life is affirmed.

Danny Flynn and Maggie Hamill know how it feels. They have been drawn to each other since they were teenagers growing up in Belfast, but because of where they were born, their lives have been shaped by random danger. They have seen bullets shatter bedroom windows and bombs rip apart local pubs, and they are bound by ancient, unquestioning loyalty to the ties of blood, tribe and tradition. To violate such a code would be to willfully sacrifice what looks like their people's only hope.

Now, after 14 years in prison, former IRA member Danny is returning to the neighborhood where Maggie has managed to survive by marrying, and then raising a son by Danny's best friend. Ill at ease in the outside world, Danny is imploding with 14 years of silence. Cultural taboos and unwritten rules militate against Maggie and Danny. Friends, family and IRA members watch their every move, observing their forbidden glances.

But in the boxing ring, Danny is home. There, the rules provide a structure that the chaotic streets of Belfast cannot, and therefore offer him a way to communicate with dignity and, in the process, rebuild his life.

In the midst of turmoil, as Maggie realizes she has never stopped caring for Danny, they begin to steal brief moments together-exchanging a look, a word, a touch. In a world where violence is a way of life, the most dangerous thing they can do is fall in love.

Academy Award® winner Daniel Day-Lewis and Academy Award® nominee Emily Watson star in Universal Pictures' The Boxer, a poignant love story from acclaimed filmmaker Jim Sheridan. The film reunites writer-director Sheridan with Day-Lewis after having successfully teamed on Universal's In The Name Of The Father, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards® including Best Picture, Actor and Director, and My Left Foot, for which Day-Lewis won an Oscar® as Best Actor.

Joining the team once again are In The Name Of The Father co-writer Terry George, producer Arthur Lappin and editor Gerry Hambling, with two-time Academy Award® -winner Chris Menges serving as director of photography and Brian Morris as production designer.

Danny Flynn has just been released from 14 years in prison. Leaving the relative safety of jail, he returns to Belfast and the discord in the streets.

Maggie has been in a confinement of her own. Her role as the daughter of an IRA leader has always demanded that she be the model of exemplary behavior, while Danny's imprisonment forced her to suppress her feelings even further. When Danny refused to communicate with the outside world, including her, Maggie resorted to a loveless marriage. Her husband, himself incarcerated, expected sacrifice-the vow of a prisoner's wife. Her son, Liam, is rushing to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather despite his mother's unspoken fears. Trapped by local intolerance, gossip and suspicion, Maggie has repeatedly denied her own heart.

When Danny returns to the neighborhood, he is the catalyst for change in both Maggie's life and the life of his community. As a boxer determined to restore himself in the ring, he is capable of resurrecting his people's self-respect. As a man, he can renew his own self-respect and perhaps build a life with Maggie-one that is not only worth fighting for, but worth living for.

The Boxer marks the third collaboration between director Jim Sheridan and actor Daniel Day-Lewis. (Day- Lewis also starred in Sheridan 's In The Name Of The Father and My Left Foot, winning and Academy Award® for his performance in the latter film.)

It is a tale that star Emily Watson describes as "strong, gritty, kind of warts-and-all," explains Emily Watson.

Women factor into The Boxer more prominently than in most films centered on such a brutal sport. Echoing a theory from Joyce Carol Oats in her book On Boxing, Sheridan is fascinated with the loyalty Maggie's community of women express for the underdog, whereas men more readily switch allegiance to whomever is winning.

"In this film, women characters are not peripheral to the action," Sheridan says. "But like the Irish in general, they stand by the victim. They love when Danny's in the ring and they can say, 'we might beat England for just one hour.'"

Equally important, women in The Boxer are ruled by the code that exerts tremendous influence in the oppressed culture of Northern Ireland.

Ireland - the code of the prisoner's wife. "The men inside the prison feel that if the women aren't loyal to them, the morale of the army would collapse, so all the women are watched in a kind of self-censorship," explains Sheridan. "Their every move is being watched because of the impact it can have. There is no privacy in this war."

"In many ways, this is a film about the emergence of women in this society," he adds. It's about love and the feminine coming into the society-the gentle."

As a springboard for The Boxer script, writer George referred to Sheridan's screenplay about the life of Irish World Featherweight Boxing Champion Barry McGuigan, who later became actor Daniel Day-Lewis' boxing trainer during filming. But the story evolved into a purely fictional piece and, true to Sheridan's fluid, spontaneous style of directing, the script continued to change throughout shooting.

Known for working in close partnership with actors, Sheridan explains his philosophy: "I essentially think that great acting is also great scriptwriting-but this isn't as anarchic as it seems. If a story becomes really structured, I fear it will be too predictable. On the other hand, if an actor has to fight for the character, then it becomes a mixture of the actor's perceptions and mine."

After starring in two other Sheridan films, Day-Lewis is especially attuned to this approach. "We both went into this willing," he says. "You're telling a story, but don't really know its outcome. That unleashes a huge degree of insecurity which is quite useful to us both."

In fact, as creative spontaneity increased on the set of The Boxer, the film took on more and more of the distinctive feel of a Sheridan effort. "I see so many films that are planned out ahead of time and never work," says Sheridan. "When film gets closer and closer to documentary-closer to whatever happens and farther away from opera, in which everything is organized-then it seems to kick in."

Shot on location in Dublin over 16 weeks, The Boxer incorporates urban environments reminiscent of Belfast, where the story takes place. Some scenes were shot in a district of old derelict flats similar to bombed-out neighborhoods in the troubled North. Others took place near Sheridan's childhood haunts: Maggie's house in the film is next door to the one in which Sheridan was born.

Also in the interest of realism, the cast researched the harsh personal side of "The Troubles." Emily Watson visited Belfast with Terry George's brother, driving through hard-hit areas, talking to residents and meeting prisoners' wives. The process allowed her to develop a back story for her character, Maggie.

"Once you've got the structure of the place where your character lives and the political and social background, then it's an imaginative process," explains Watson. "At the beginning of the film, Danny and Maggie haven't seen each other for 14 years, and they were desperately in love as teenagers. What you create are all those memories to use as a reference point."

Finally, the actors adopted appropriate physical attributes, ranging from the moves and physique of a boxer, in Day-Lewis' case, to characteristically Northern Irish accents. Fourteen-year-old Ciaran Fitzgerald, who portrays Maggie's son, Liam, shifted easily from his own more southern lilt and learned boxing footwork as a prerequisite to the choreographed fight he takes part in.

Last year Day-Lewis, already in training as a boxer for three years, stepped up his efforts in preparation for filming. For two years prior to filming, and about six months during production, Day-Lewis was coached by the champion who originally inspired Sheridan's story, Barry McGuigan.

"Barry is a gentleman of the ring," says Day-Lewis. "What is deeply moving to me is that he had tremendous respect for the people he was pitted against, like bullfighters in the past: purity, dignity and respect between two separate beings."

Yet McGuigan's raw, unfiltered drive to fight showed in the relentless training he put himself through and in the fact that even after a hard day's work, it was so much in his blood, the fighting itself, that he was still up for the scrap.

While McGuigan acknowledges he trained like "a madman," he also describes Day-Lewis as equally driven. "Daniel and I are alike in that way," he says. "We both believe that you only get out what you put in. It's Daniel's nature that he doesn't do anything easily, so he trained incredibly hard. He actually lived the life of a fighter."

Day-Lewis stayed in fighting form the entire 16 weeks of the shoot, to accommodate the three matches at the film's beginning, midpoint and end. "It was grueling to keep such an unnatural level of readiness," Day-Lewis explains, "because athletes go through peaks and troughs, working toward a level of fitness where you're razor sharp for the moment itself, then burning yourself up in the event."

McGuigan reports, however, that Day-Lewis was "the most determined person I have ever met. He's a chameleon. He molded himself. I've worked with fighters who haven't trained half as hard. And this guy can truly fight. I'm a commentator for fights around the U.K. now and I know all the middleweights, but I can say that he could fight, right now, any of the top ten in the country. If I'd had him at 19, I would've made a world-class fighter of him."

The combination of McGuigan's coaching, Sheridan's direction, George's psychologically insightful script and Day-Lewis' tenacious immersion in his role created a subtle and quietly potent title character with, in Sheridan's words, "a silence at the center."

Day-Lewis describes the extreme introversion of Danny's time in prison as running a close parallel to boxing itself, an activity that does not require words but weaves an entire secure world all its own. The sport can be comforting in the way that a prison cell can have something comforting about it after 14 long years, providing a known place with well-defined, simple boundaries and rules.

McGuigan refers to the gymnasium as a sanctuary. "When everything else is going crazy around you, you can punch the bag, spar-get rid of all the tension in your life and in your head," he says.

"In the ring, Danny's fighting within the rules," explains Sheridan, "hoping that if he stands up and fights fair it will draw people naturally to the nobility of the fight. On the other hand, when fighting moves from, say, war into terrorism, it does so because people have lost the rules and lost a vision of what they want the future to be. Danny has a positive view of what can be achieved by staying within the rules."

In a related thematic undercurrent, the film explores the nature and the limits of human fear.

"Boxing brings fear out into the open in a very clear way," notes Day-Lewis. "It puts you in an enclosed space where you confront things that are fearful, face-to-face with someone trying to hurt you. Most fighters won't really talk about that because so much of it is about dominating the fear long before they ever reach the fight situation, to such an extent that the appetite completely eclipses the fear."

"At least with boxing, the enemy is out there-outside yourself," adds Sheridan. "Most people are trying to be normal and prove that they're calm and cool, when, in fact, we're all in terror all the time anyway."

"Boxing forces the fighter to answer his innermost fears and feelings," says McGuigan. An example of this is when Danny must choose between winning the big London fight and pummeling his opponent.

"You must face questions about your courage, your nature," McGuigan continues. "Ultimately, it's about character. Ninety percent of the people in boxing are great guys, very ethical and upstanding. The training and the conditioning of your own mind makes all the difference. It makes you a better person."

Since boxing is so much about the internal dynamics of the individual, the bond between trainer and fighter is a particularly close one. "It requires complete trust," McGuigan explains. "The trainer knows not only every detail of your moves, but your behavior and innermost thoughts, as well. There are no secrets between a trainer and a fighter."

The trainer is like a mentor or a teacher, according to Sheridan, which adds to the enormous audience appeal of Ken Stott's character, Ike Weir. To portray Ike, Stott spent time with an Irish trainer and some of his charges, learning the ways of that close relationship. But, as in other films where boxing has played a major role, the trainer in The Boxer has a personal flaw. "Whether it's drinking or a physical impairment, Ike Weir is somebody who represents us because he's not physically up to fighting the way the boxer is," explains Sheridan. "So we empathize with the person who's trying to help."

Sheridan calls Day-Lewis' performance "smoldering. You get to know the private world of him, and you ascribe your own reasons to his actions. It's not as driven as Daniel's work in, say, In The Name Of The Father."

But if Danny resonates on a powerfully internal level, then the character of Maggie is like a stifled ember exposed to oxygen.

"She's very strong and she's very weak," says Watson of her character. "She's been brought up within the political structure of the IRA, her father is head honcho and she's very much played the role. As the ideal prisoner's wife, she must behave in an exemplary fashion, but suddenly she begins to realize that's not what she wants to be or do. She's forced to choose what she wants, to grow strong, really."

Watson has been described by Sheridan as "very generous and very giving-precisely the qualities that were needed to complement Daniel's character, who is very quiet and withdrawn. It was a perfect match and good charisma."

No less a love story than a pugilist's tale, The Boxer has an arguably classical theme: Danny and Maggie experience a fateful love discountenanced by society, and from that discord arises drama.

"The funny thing is that once something becomes a love story, it can lose the drama," says Sheridan. "Drama is conflicting stories at play and love stories are about the conflict being over."

"There's even something almost mundane about Maggie and Danny's relationship under any other circumstances. But it becomes absolutely extraordinary in this kind of cage that they're living in, and the drama in keeping them apart is what's most interesting," Sheridan adds. "Their contact is mostly through their eyes and a big part of their relationship is being comfortable in silence together. In the end, you feel they just have to be together to survive. So in the middle of this crazy boxing tale and violent war story, the film is actually very gentle at heart."

In fact, Sheridan seems drawn to exploring fundamentals like love, allegiance and human dignity in settings as violent as Northern Ireland and the boxing ring. "When you describe just the physical side of boxing," he says, "then what's missing is a spiritual dimension-a spiritual quality that occurs when people have to go through bad experiences and undergo change."

"But the outstanding people, the people who link one era to another, will always have that quality," concludes Sheridan.

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