ESPN Films: 'The Real Rocky'
Question: Who is the only man on the planet to fight Muhammad Ali, Andre the Giant and a real grizzly bear (and inspire a movie franchise worth a billion dollars)?
Answer: New Jersey's own Chuck Wepner, aka "The Bayonne Bleeder."
The "Real Rocky" is Chuck Wepner -- a liquor salesman from Bayonne, N.J., who drives a Cadillac with "Champ" vanity plates. A former New Jersey state heavyweight boxing champion, he was christened with the nickname "The Bayonne Bleeder" for the abuse he suffered at the hands of Sonny Liston. In 1975, Wepner fought Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight title. In the 15th round, Ali knocked out Wepner after breaking his nose and opening cuts over both eyes. Sylvester Stallone wrote a screenplay, and starred in and won three Academy Awards (including best picture) for the film "Rocky," based on Wepner's gutsy challenge. Wepner was left out of the "Rocky" glory, and his career took turn after strange turn as he worked to stay in the spotlight. He went on to fight Andre the Giant as "The Assassin" and boxed a 900-pound Kodiak bear. Twice. Using too-good-to-be-true footage, Jeff Feuerzeig ("The Devil and Daniel Johnston") and Mike Tollin will explore the colorful life and bloodied career of this unique New Jersey character in their 1-hour ESPN film.
MEET THE DIRECTOR
Jeff Feuerzeig is an award-winning director and nonfiction filmmaker whose feature film "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" won top documentary directing honors at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and was distributed theatrically by Sony Pictures Classics. The film, which has developed a large cult following, is a compelling portrait of a schizophrenic musician and outsider artist who overcame his private demons -- many of them quite literally in the subject's own mind -- to develop an avid international following. Combining techniques drawn from the documentary canon (Feuerzeig has worked with Albert Maysles, among others) and the new journalism of the 1970s (the creation of first-person point-of-view and internal monologue through audio cassette letters, journal entries, home movies, etc.), the film presents one of the finest portraits available of whom writer and clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison has labeled the artist "touched with fire," and the connective tissue that links genius to madness.
As New York Observer film critic Matt Zoller Seitz declared of "Devil": "A true nonfiction film, a movie that tries to do with sound and image what journalists like Nick Tosches (Dino) and Norman Mailer (Armies of the Night) tried to do with prose, bending prose into poetry to find a more subjective route to truth."
Coming out of the fertile early '80s punk and independent music underground and its pervasive do-it-yourself aesthetic, Feuerzeig began his career as a film editor before successfully transitioning to commercial directing. In 1993, his independently produced and self-financed first feature "Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King," a loving documentary portrait of the cult band, was distributed theatrically in art-house cinemas nationwide, expanding a personal passion project into a humorous yet ultimately heartfelt valentine to the kind of fringe artists who often deserve but rarely receive anything like it.
As Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times, "But underneath [this] pose burns a fiercely anti-establishment passion and an anarchic teen-age spirit that insists on the ultimate value of noise for noise's sake."
Continuing to push the boundaries of nonfiction, Feuerzeig has recently completed the screenplays "God Bless Tiny Tim" (with Julien Nitzberg), a feature biopic about the legendary crooner of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" fame, and "The Bleeder" (with Jerry Stahl), a feature biography of boxer Chuck Wepner, who in 1975 went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali and inspired the Sylvester Stallone film "Rocky." Liev Schreiber is attached to star in the latter.
In addition to "The Real Rocky," a 1-hour documentary special for ESPN Films, he recently completed "The Dude" for USA Network -- an 18-minute documentary short about Jeff "The Dude" Dowd, a legendary producer's rep who became the basis for the Coen brothers' cult film "The Big Lebowski." The short is broadcast online as part of the network's "Character" series.
"The Real Rocky," airs Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
I've been a Chuck Wepner fan ever since 1975, when I was 10 years old and my father took my brother and me to Sports Night at the Raritan High School gymnasium in Hazlet, N.J. to see Chuck -- aka "The Bayonne Bleeder" -- just months before he was set to go up against Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title. There were no figures who loomed larger in the 10-year-old imagination of mid-'70s suburbia than Evel Knievel, Andre the Giant and, especially, Muhammad Ali -- "The Greatest" -- and here was a 6-foot-5 behemoth in a full-length fur coat, pimp hat and ridiculous amount of jewelry leading us in a chant of "Who's gonna beat Ali? WEPNER!" Even better, the bloody 16mm fight films he projected proved his nickname was more than mere hype. The place exploded. And in that instant, Chuck Wepner became a real-life mythological figure -- as real to me as the Jersey Devil that haunted the local pine barrens.
This film is very much about myth -- the myth of Narcissus. When Chuck Wepner stood on line like an average schmoe and paid for his own movie ticket and sat in a dark theater in 1976 watching Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky," a film and character that were directly inspired by his truly heroic fight with Ali, he could not distinguish the mirror image from the real person, and like the hero in the Greek myth, he fell in love with his own reflection up there on the silver screen. And who could blame him? He was Rocky. Stallone even said so. If, as certain cultures believe, to capture someone's image is to steal their soul, Chuck had his soul hijacked.
I believe documentary is a blank canvas -- in which all kinds of disparate ideas and stylistic techniques can co-exist as long as they serve the story. As with my previous films "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" and "The Dude," about Jeff "The Dude" Dowd, who inspired "The Big Lebowski," I worked hard to come up with a unique visual palette and sound design approach to tell the Wepner story. It was important to me to capture Chuck's interview in extreme close-up and lush Super 16mm black and white because it made it arresting.
Being in so tight made every story feel like I could see the synapses firing in his brain as I cut to the visual evidence "in his mind." And if it seems like you're noshing at the Carnegie Deli in Woody Allen's "Broadway Danny Rose" during the Greek Chorus Sportwriters Round Table sprinkled throughout the film -- well, there's a good reason. This setup provided an opportunity to riff on Chuck's career while creating a fitting homage to one of my favorite films. There's probably a bit of Roy Lichtenstein's pop art slammed together with Jamie Reid's Sex Pistols ransom note album cover design on display in the Wepner newspaper clippings. And while I'm showing my hand here, I might as well point out the heightened sound effects owe as much to Walter Murch in "American Graffiti" or "Apocalypse Now" as to Howard Stern's sound effects guru "Earth Dog" Fred Norris. When it comes to style, I believe you are what you eat.
A documentary film can set out to accomplish many things, but in this case, ultimately, it's an honest attempt to settle the score for a fellow New Jersey underdog and to help him take back what is rightfully his. Because sometimes, even a giant needs somebody to watch his back. That's the Jersey way. -- Jeff Feuerzeig
- •The Real Rocky
-- ESPN2: 11 p.m.
- •The Real Rocky
-- ESPN2: 7:30 a.m.
WEDNESDAY, OCT. 26
SATURDAY, NOV. 26