Chuck, Rocky & The Art of Adaptation
This week we are going to be looking at Chuck by Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer and Liev Schreiber.
What is really interesting about Chuck is that hidden underneath this little character driven drama is actually an adaptation of three different stories.
The first is the true life story of Chuck Wepner’s life; Chuck Wepner was a down and out fighter who went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali. And many people believe, although Sylvester Stallone has denied it, that Chuck Wepner’s life was actually the inspiration for Rocky.
At the same time, it is also an adaptation of the Rocky film. It is a reimagining of Rocky— what if you looked at Rocky not as a hero’s journey but as the story of an anti-hero? What if you stripped all of Sylvester Stallone’s American dream sugar coating off of Rocky and turned it into a story about a guy who keeps on turning lemonade back into lemons?
And at the same time, it’s also an adaptation of a third film: an old movie from 1962 called Requiem for a Heavyweight.
So here, we have this unassuming character driven, independent feeling little film, that looks like just a simple biopic, but under the surface, there is actually something very complicated going on.
An interesting thing about adaptation and revision is that people think of them as different, but I think of them as actually in many ways the same.
In an adaptation we take something that isn’t yet a movie Whether it is a true life story like the true life story of Chuck Wepner, a novel, a poem, a short story, a dream that you had, an experience from your own life, the story of your grandmother– it is taking this thing that isn’t yet in the form of a movie and translating it into a form that is a movie.
Similarly, I believe revision does exactly the same thing. When you are revising a script what you are actually doing is taking an early draft that isn’t yet a movie– and the way we know it isn’t yet a movie is that if it was already a movie, you would have stopped writing it– So, you are taking a screenplay, a draft of a screenplay, something that is in early stage of development that isn’t yet translated into movie terms and you are translating it into movie terms.
And there is also a third kind of adaptation, which we are seeing now more than ever in Hollywood, which is a remake of old movies. And a remake of old movies works along the same principle, which is basically to say, “Hey we are going to do this again because it was awesome the first time.”
But if we do it exactly like the first one, it is probably not going to play. At the very best, we are going to do a slightly worse version of a great movie.
So what is our take on it now? How do we translate this thing that isn’t a movie today– because it has already been made– into something that feels relevant and new and fresh today?”
And, of course, this also happens to us often when we realize that something that we are writing already either has been made or is about to be made– when you realize that your story isn’t taking things far enough, or when you finally get your script out into the industry and you start to get feedback like, “Oh I have read a lot of scripts like this…” that is also a time that we are doing an adaptation.
We are taking something that maybe once was viable as a script, but in the current market isn’t and we are translating it into something that is viable– something that is new and fresh within the genre.
And Chuck is an interesting example of this, because I know I asked myself when I was going to see Chuck, “do I really want to see this movie? After all, I have already seen Rocky?” And simply selling this movie as the true story of the guy who inspired Rocky doesn’t really make me want to go see it. Because my first thought is “Well, I have already seen this story. And okay maybe I saw the more Hollywood version of this story, but is this film actually going to take me someplace that I haven’t already gone?”
Fortunately, once I sat down in the theatre, I learned that this movie was going to take me to a much more interesting place.
Part of the reason the film takes me there is because of the extraordinary performance by the cast.
Liev Schreiber is absolutely wonderful as Chuck Wepner. It is worth going to see the movie just for his performance.
If you’ve seen Manchester by the Sea, and you’ve seen the performance that Casey Affleck won the Academy Award for, you should definitely go see Chuck. Because Liev Schreiber is doing in Chuck what Casey Affleck is trying to do in Manchester by the Sea– playing this troubled, deeply internal character and bringing a layer to the movie that it would not have had without him.
Similarly, it has really great performances by Elizabeth Moss as Chuck’s wife, Phyliss, and by Naomi Watts as Linda, a local bartender who plays a really large role in his life.
So how do you make a movie about a guy that we have already seen a movie about? And at the same time how do you take that character and put him through essentially the same movements that the character in Requiem for a Heavyweight goes through, and make it feel like a new movie?
Well, the first step is to know what your movie is really about: to know why you are telling this story.
Why does this story matter in a world where some people have already seen Requiem for a Heavyweight? And in the world has seen Rocky.
And the writers and the director make a very strong choice: we are going to go into Chuck but we aren’t going to go into him with that wide-eyed enthusiasm with which we follow Rocky. We aren’t going to see Chuck primarily as an embodiment of the American dream.
We aren’t going to have epic battle sequences, we aren’t going to tune this guy up and turn him into this incredible fighter who just never got a chance. Instead, we are going to run directly at the truth.
We are going to run directly at the truth of a guy who was known as the bleeder because his greatest attribute was his ability simply to keep standing while people whaled on him.
We are going to tell a story of a guy who did go 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali. But we aren’t going to turn that fight into an epic battle; we are going to have one moment where he does knock Muhammad Ali down, as he did in round nine. But we are not going to shy away from the fact that he stepped on Muhammad Ali’s foot when that happened. Instead, we’re going to use that moment to get under the skin of the character.
And we are primarily not going to amplify the excitement of what is happening in the ring, but rather the sheer stick-to-it-iveness of this guy who just refused to go down. Who made it within 18 seconds of getting to the end of a fight with the greatest boxer of all time.
We aren’t going to turn this guy into a hero, we aren’t going to clean up his personal life, we are going to see the journey, and there are some spoilers ahead…
We are going to see the journey of his real relationship with his wife, Phyliss.
Sure, they may clean him up a little, in that they don’t tell you that she was his second wife. But we are still going to see his philandering. This isn’t the story of Rocky and Adrian, these two people destined for each other, who love each other so much that she just can’t bear to watch him get hurt.
We are watching a story of the guy who has everything- the loving wife, the beautiful child, the chance to go toe to toe with Muhammad Ali– but whose need for validation from other people is so strong, whose need for fame is so strong, whose need for women is so strong– that most of the damage gets inflicted outside of the ring, and not upon him, but by him, upon the people he most loves – his brother, his wife, his daughter.
The writers make the decision not to clean up his drug problem, not to clean up his jail time. And in a really interesting structural move, the writers merge the structure of Chuck Wepner’s true life journey with the structure of the main character’s journey in Requiem for a Heavyweight, fusing these ideas together in the same way that Rocky and Rocky III took elements of Chuck Wepner’s life and then ran with them. Just as Sylvester Stallone allowed Rocky to at once grow from the inspiration of Chuck Wepner, and at the same time to be a separate character with his own wants, needs and structure, so too do these writers allow structure of The Mountain’s journey in Requiem For a Heavyweight and the real life structure of Chuck Wepner’s life story to merge into a unified character, and a unified journey, that is greater than the sum of its parts.
This movie builds upon the structure of Rocky by rejecting that structure.
By taking the big fight and not putting it at the end but putting it in the middle. By turning the training sequence mostly into a story about how he has screwed up his relationship with his wife. B y telling the Rocky-Adrian story not as a fable, but as a tragedy.
So, you can see that Chuck is turning the story of Rocky inside out. It is taking some of the same events and putting them in a different order, with a different polish, in order to tell a different story.
And it is doing it because the main character isn’t a pull-himself-up-from-his-bootstraps hero. He is an anti-hero; he is a messed up guy.
He isn’t a bad guy, but he is a guy whose ego is so fragile and whose need for other people’s approval is so desperate that he would do just about anything to be famous.
That he will ignore all the people who actually love him in pursuit of fame – and what a powerful place to look right now in our fame-obsessed society.
In the hands of a different writer, this true life adaptation would be a completely different story. In fact, a writer like that, Sylvester Stallone, plays a role as a character in this piece. And in this movie, he plays the same role Apollo Creed plays in Stallone’s adaptation of Chuck Wepner’s life– as a symbol of the American Dream– the man who opens the door for Chuck Wepner to finally achieve it. In the hands of a different writer, Sylvester Stallone would have ended up as an antagonist. After all, Sylvester Stallone did take Chuck Wepner’s story and make the movie Rocky about it and not pay the man a penny. In fact, Chuck Wepner sued Sylvester Stallone at one point and settled a case with him for an undisclosed amount. So, there is historical evidence to create Sylvester Stallone as an antagonist. But this is all left out of the movie because this is not the point! It’s not what the movie is about.
Instead of turning Sylvester Stallone into the easy villain, the writers instead turn to the structure of Rocky for inspiration. Because they know, this movie isn’t about antagonism from without, this isn’t about a world that beats this man down. This is a movie about a guy who continually beats himself down. Who the world keeps on throwing beautiful opportunities– the beautiful opportunity of his wife and his daughter, the beautiful opportunity to go one on one with Muhammad Ali, the beautiful opportunity to be a star in his hometown, and finally the beautiful opportunity to star in Rocky II with Sylvester Stallone.
Now, I don’t know if this scene is literally true or not, but what I do know is that it feels emotionally true– even though this scene plays out with the exact same structure of Requiem for a Heavyweight– the movie that Chuck Wepner keeps on referencing throughout the film as the story of his life prior to Rocky. The movie that is a story of his future in the same way that Rocky is the story of his past.
This is the future that he envisions for himself.
And the story of Requiem for a Heavyweight, just to give you a little bit of detail, is a story of an aged boxer. He is no longer able to fight, in fact he will go blind if he continues to fight. He is looking for a job, and he is disfigured, and he has no experience except fighting in the ring.
And he gets an opportunity to become a camp counselor which is the thing that really he wants more than anything in the world.
And on the day he is supposed to go and interview and try to start a new life, he ends up getting drunk and showing up drunk for the interview and destroying this last little glimpse of a positive future– the positive future he actually wanted for himself– a life after boxing.
And you can see, structurally, that Chuck takes exact same approach.
So what happens is Chuck is trying to find Sylvester Stallone. Rather than making him angry about money– which I am sure to some degree or at least to some point he was, considering the lawsuit–they allow him to not be concerned about the money at all.
His focus is on the fame. He is so proud to have a movie made about him, he isn’t even thinking about the money. Because this isn’t a character who is driven by money, this is a character who is driven by fame, by ego.
It is interesting my last podcast was about Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume II, a movie that was trying to be about ego, but that wasn’t. And this is a movie, on the other hand, that is actually about ego. This is a movie about a character whose ego keeps on getting in his own darn way.
So, he keeps on trying to get a face to face with Sylvester Stallone, and he finally stalks him to a bar where he knows he is hanging out. And you are thinking, “there is no way this guy is going to get to talk to Stallone.”
But instead, Stallone is delighted to see him! Stallone is such a big fan of Chuck Wepner. Stallone is delighted to meet Chuck Wepner. And they have this lovely interaction, and Stallone decides he wants to put Chuck into Rocky II. All Chuck has to do is drive down to Philadelphia for an audition.
So what does Chuck do? Chuck does just as The Mountain (the main character in Requiem for a Heavyweight) does in that film, except this time it’s drugs rather than alcohol.
He gets high on coke with friends and girls, drives down with his coked up entourage to Philadelphia without even having looked at the script, and blows the audition.
So, here is what is really interesting, this is a structure stolen from another movie, used to adapt to true life story. This is a true life story used to adapt to a movie. And then this is a movie about that true life story written in reaction to both of those movies.
Because, ultimately, Chuck Wepner’s journey is neither the journey of Rocky nor the journey of The Mountain- the fighter in Requiem for a Heavyweight. Rather it is a journey of a guy who the world keeps giving opportunities, who keeps messing them up… who finally sees the opportunity right in front of his face.
For the last couple of podcasts, I have been talking about Theme. And Theme is your greatest tool whether you are telling a true life story, an adaptation or revision. Theme is your tool to know what to emphasize and what not to emphasize. To know what details to put in and what details to let go of.
For example, if you go look at Chuck Wepner’s Wikipedia page, you will see very quickly that he continued to fight– and not just bears– he continued to fight real boxers and sometimes win for quite a while after his fight with Muhammad Ali.
But in the movie, all those fights are left out, because those fights are just plot. The structure of the movie is the guy fights Muhammad Ali, becomes a hero for one moment, and tries to bask in that glory of being a hero, rather than just living his life with the people who love him.
Movies don’t unfold in a real time, and as we adapt– whether we adapt a true story, a script, a dream, a novel– if we try to capture all the plot exactly the way it happens, we are, first off, not going to end up with a movie. But more importantly, we aren’t going to end up with an emotional journey that actually makes sense.
In the real world, life comes at us all at the same time, all these different themes, all these different threads. And that is why life feels so confusing, that is why it is so hard to make sense of what we are actually supposed to be doing, what actually matters, what our actual values are supposed to be.
But in a movie, we only have 105 pages to take a character on the journey of their life. And this means we have to do two things.
We don’t do these things– when we are revising, when we are adapting, when we are telling a true story– we don’t do these things in order to lie, in order to make up a better version of the story. Instead, we do these things in order to tell a more focused version of the truth.
In life, all of our themes hit us at once, but in movies, we zoom in on one theme, one section, one little piece of a life that tells us the most important part of the story. Not the whole story but the most important part to this writer. The part that feels true to you.
To Sylvester Stallone, the most important part of this character’s journey was the American Dream of what it means to rise from failure to success. And that is a part of Chuck’s story.
So, Sylvester Stallone takes that one piece and he lets it breathe into a character. And the character of Rocky is a truthful character. He isn’t a fake character, he isn’t a bullshit character that was made up for an audience. He is a true character, inspired by a true piece of who Chuck Wepner was and some true events of Chuck Wepner’s life– given focus by the understanding of the writer of what really mattered to him.
Similarly, Requiem for a Heavyweight focuses on an entirely different part of the boxer’s life. It focuses only on the part of life when things fall apart, only the part of life after fame.
But the story of Chuck isn’t a story about the hero, and it is also not a tragedy about a man for whom it all falls apart.
Chuck is a story about the battle against ego. It is a story about what it means to learn what you really have and to stop trying to be who you think you are supposed to be. About what it means to stop looking for the answers on the outside and start looking for them on the inside.
And so, what is really interesting about this film is that it takes these archetypal moments, moments that actually exist in other movies. And it plays them for its own purposes.
It integrates them seamlessly into Chuck Wepner’s life in the same way that Rocky integrated these true moments from Chuck Wepner’s life into the life of Rocky.
It takes these elements of plot, but it turns them upside down and uses them for its own structure: to tell the story of a man who finds a different future.
Part of the process of adapting a true life story, or any other story, is figuring out what to leave out, and it’s also about figuring out what to put in. It’s about figuring out what internal experiences to dramatize, and which to leave boiling under the surface. And it’s always about turning life into scenes, and oftentimes those are scenes that don’t actually exist.
When I was coming up in the industry I did a ton of true life stories. That is where I really started.
And I worked with good producers and I worked with bad producers. And bad producers always said the same thing, they always said, “the truth sucks, you’ve just got to make it up.”
And those were the producers who made bad movies and who were always surprised with the stories that I came back with which didn’t fit that model.
But the best producers were not the ones who said, “it is a true story, we can only tell the things that actually happened,” because those producers didn’t make great movies either. Because in life, so much of what happens, happens inside of us.
In a single moment, lying down to bed, you can have 500 emotions and 500 feelings. But in movies, we can only see the scenes that happen on the outside. If you have a great writer with a great actor with a great internal life like Liev Schreiber, that actor can serve a script that takes a character on a journey and push it to a deeper level.
But if you don’t have that journey externalized, if you don’t have those big choices, if you don’t have that structure, if you are gummed up with true events that don’t serve the main story you are telling, you don’t get closer to the truth, you get further from it, because all those details end up distracting you from the essence of the story
So the way I always look at adaptations is the same way that I always look at revisions. I start by going, what is the movie about for me? What are the things that really happened that matter in relation to that theme? And I always start by building around what is true; I always run towards the truth.
But then you do have to also have the courage to ask yourself, “what are the scenes, what are the internal emotions, the internal experiences that haven’t made it to the outside yet? That have to be dramatized, that have to be created into scenes, in order for this character’s internal journey to actually be externalized for an audience? In order for us to actually feel what the character is going through not in real time, but in, in an hour and a half?”
In other words, a bad producer will tell you to lie, and a bad producer will tell you to shut down your creativity. But what a good producer tells you to do is to tell the truth: not the literal truth but the emotional truth by any means necessary– to run towards the truth that existed externally in action, and to run towards the truth that existed internally in your character, and to find some way to bring both parts of that truth to the screen.