“The Fighter’s Ballad” is one of the standout films of the 2012 JP2 International Film Festival and I was able to speak with the cast and crew of the film to get some of their thoughts.
Writer: Peter Cadwell
Producer Jane Frisby
Director: Tony S. Ukpo
The Fighter’s Ballad will screen on Friday November 9th at 9PM. You can purchase your tickets here: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/918701
Frank Brennan (JP2IFF): What inspired the writing/making of ‘The Fighter’s Ballad’ and what would you say the film is fundamentally about?
Peter Cadwell (Actor/Screenwriter): I wanted to tell a story of the soul…a story of the human spirit, that hopefully, anyone could relate to, world wide…I wanted to try and ask the big human, spiritual questions . As artists, that’s what we aspire for, to humanly connect…express ourselves and express our souls. As for what the film is fundamentally about, people will hopefully have their own interpretation…I hope they do! As for what I think the film is about, personally, this can be hard to answer, as it’s about so many profound thoughts and feelings. A story of the soul, from the depths of the soul. The script’s journey can still haunt me, challenge me, question me. One of the core theme’s is love and the loss of love and the spiritual suffering this brings. Other fundamental theme’s include faith, grief and mental health…the list could go on.
Jane Frisby (Producer): You could simply say it is ‘about’ an angry young man breaking into a church…and confronting a Priest…and the all consuming verbal and potentially physical battle between them. But is it ‘about’ so much more than simply that. Essentially yes…faith, grief, love, loss of love, anguish, the human struggle…the film poses many questions to it’s audience…some of which people may find disturbing and painful. They may not want these questions asked…as they either may not have, or do not like the possible answers.
Frank Brennan (JP2IFF): What where your influences for ‘The Fighter’s Ballad?
Peter Cadwell (Actor/Screenwriter): With the play and the film of ‘The Fighter’s Ballad’, my influences where the great 50′s/60′s plays, films, actor’s, writer’s and director’s. Plays by ‘Harold Pinter’ and ‘Arthur Miller’ for instance…those great theatrical, epic pieces of work, that lent towards a heightened, emotionally charged, dramatic naturalism. Films such as ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘On the Waterfront’…directors and actors such as ‘Elia Kazan’ and ‘Marlon Brando’…and the whole ‘Method Acting Movement’. Another influence would be Classical Theatre…Greek Theatre or the Medieval Passion Plays…those big emotions, theological questions and philosophies.
Tony S Ukpo (Director): We always set out to make a film that was similar in spirit to the great theatrical adaptations of the early-mid 20th Century, notable mentions being films like ‘On the Waterfront’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, where the subject matter is so deeply rooted in the human story. Once you begin to tell those emotionally charged stories, you immediately begin to lend yourself more towards a timeless quality, and I think that is essentially what our film is, a human story…the battle between and within the characters, to truly understand the world around them, and the effect it has on them on a subconscious level.
Frank Brennan (JP2IFF): The Fighter’s Ballad is an adaptation of a stage play, what challenges did you face in bringing it to film?
Peter Cadwell (Actor/Screenwriter): From writing the first draft of ‘The Fighter’ stageplay, to actually now having filmed the adapted screenplay ‘The Fighter’s Ballad’, it has been painfully passionate. Like the title, the script’s themes, and the film itself, art has mirrored life, and life has mirrored art, in that my writers journey has been one of blood, sweat and tears…a real fight to finally get the script here today. I’m very proud that through all the pain and passion, it survived. With love, but with as little compromise as possible, I fought, for the script’s story, its soul, its vision, in order that its integrity would be kept intact…and again, I’m proud that in a world of compromise, the script to screen, has managed to be as near to its original vision as it could be.
Through the journey from ‘The Fighter’ as a play, to ‘The Fighter’s Ballad’, as a screenplay…over the years, I have spoken to several spiritual figures about the issues within the script. For a long time I think I’ve underestimated the impact that the writing and the characters have had on people…but the longer the journey continues, I’m realising the script is hitting a powerful nerve within people, whether it be spiritual, emotional or psychological! Many seem to love the film for its challenging passion, but many are fearful of this also! I now really believe we have a deeply important film, especially for our times…a film that I believe should be seen, for the thoughts/feelings it provokes, for the issues it raises and for the debates it could potentially create!
Many in the church community have embraced, supported the film, some who are very established…but there have been a few, who have not liked the film for its challenging nature, it’s potentially too much of a hot potato for some of those in the faith community. For me personally, in the writing of the film, I didn’t wish to condemn faith or for the film to be pro faith either…it’s a battle of faith! Although I have deep religious feelings within myself and lean towards pro spirituality, I wanted the debate in the film, to pose more questions, rather than give answers!
One of the challenges along the way, is I wanted the film to stay as a simple character driven two hander, one location, dialogue heavy…but so many in the commercial film/TV industry told me this would never work, and I could never achieve this! I really now believe we have achieved this, and as a team, we feel it is working as a film. Of course, the film won’t be to everyone’s tastes, as it’s an arthouse film…but I don’t think there are any rules? Throughout the 100 or so years of film, there have been many films that have been one location and dialogue heavy…some of the greatest film classics ever!
Jane Frisby (Producer): I cannot obviously answer this fully…though I do know that Peter worked very hard on the film adaptation of his play. One of the versions did open out more, using flashbacks and back stories…but this totally lost what is essential to the power of Peter’s script…it’s unique claustrophobic quality…and consequentially the intimacy and energy of the continuous, powerful, verbal battle between the two leads. The story is partly about an uncompromising character that challenges us…so in making the film, we celebrated this, by not compromising the scripts power! We made a film that is challenging and asks more from a modern film audience.
Tony S Ukpo (Director): I had originally read the script for the play, and then seen it performed some months later when Peter the writer/actor invited me down to one of the shows. What attracted me to the material was that it’s more of a performance piece, and it comes across a lot better seeing it live than written on the page. My goal in the adaptation was to try and bring that energy to screen. However the main challenge was trying to spread it out a little bit in the blocking, as in the play it all takes place on the altar of the church and nowhere else, so I tried to take advantage of the space we had and the variations within it to give a more dynamic feel to the story. The inclination with these kinds of adaptations is to really open it out and take the story out of the church and into other aspects of their lives, but I wanted to go with a more claustrophobic tension having these two characters face off with nowhere to go until one of them gave in, as that was what appealed to me from the play in the first place. There’s a long tradition of films that are adapted from the theater that lose no emotional punch or resonance by having a dialogue heavy story happen in an enclosed space, Twelve Angry men comes to mind, and they’re all the better off for it.
Frank Brennan: The acting stands out in the film, what did you do as a director to keep the two actors so emotionally invested?
Tony S Ukpo (Director): I didn’t have to do much because a lot of it was on the page in the dialogue. But what I think i did was to help give context to some of the feelings they were having, and also to find meaning behind all the religious rhetoric that is inherent in the story and the setting, and keep the characters true to the pain they both felt in their lives that pushed them towards the paths they were on. Ultimately the emotional grounding of both men comes from the pain of loss in their lives, and I thought it was important to never lose sight of that. Also it’s easy to get melodramatic with this kind of material, and I’m all for subtlety. Though there is a theatricality, certainly when it comes to the title character, it needs to come across naturally and not overly performed, so it was trying to tone that down so it was at just the right level of fantasy with some creative license, and a genuine reality.
Peter Cadwell (Actor/Screenwriter): Tony was brilliant, he gave Clive Russell and myself the space to be free and just be, and he didn’t dictate for us how to act. He was a true director, in that he trusted us to do what we do, and only give notes and directions when needed. Also, he endeavoured to make the shooting environment as best it could be, in order for us, to feel safe and secure, to go as deep as we could.
As an Actor, my main method and approach is that of ‘Method Acting’ inspired by the great American Actor’s…however, fused with this, is still my classical theatre training and background. Clive Russell was mainly more classical in his method and approach.
Frank Brennan (JP2IFF): Can you talk about the location. How long did it take to find the Church and were you looking for anything specific when scouting?
Peter Cadwell (Actor/Screenwriter): The Church ‘St.Leonard’s, Shoreditch, East London’ is very close to my heart. A good few years ago, my father, who is a builder, was the foreman on the Churches re-build. His main job was to work on the foundations, as the Church, being hundreds of years old, was in desperate need of restoration. It was at this time, I first wrote the stageplay of ‘The Fighter’s Ballad’ and performed it, as a workshop performance, within the church. From here, we performed the play in many major churches in London…but when it came to filming the story, I felt it only fitting to return to it’s spiritaul birthplace.
St Leonard’s Shoreditch Church is round the corner from the hedonistic playground of London’s youthful and trendy, that is Hoxton. Slightly further down the road from the Church, is London’s financial heart…however, East London is still a deprived inner city area, with many social and spiritual issues. Through the frenzy, chaos and gloom of London, St. Leonard’s is a sanctuary, a beacon of light for London’s most vulnerable…such as the homeless and the mentally ill.
Sadly, because of the area, lack of funds, the Church struggles to look clean and decorated for it’s parishioner’s…but for me, it’s cracks, scars and imperfection’s, are beautiful. I feel, the Churches imperfections and vulnerability, honour and celebrate our own vulnerability…the cracks, scars in our souls. Like the character’s in the film.
Also, St.Leonard’s has a great theatrical history. The Church is situated very near the original site of ‘The Theatre’, England’s first purpose built Playhouse, built in Shoreditch in 1576. The Church is noted as being the resting place of many actors from the ‘Elizabethan Period’. Those buried in the grounds of the Church include ‘James Burbage’, the Founder of ‘The Theatre’ and his son ‘Richard Burbage’ who was the leading man in many of Shakespeare’s play’s, which were first performed in ‘The Theatre’.
Tony S Ukpo (Director): We had maybe a day or two where we considered other possibilities, but really it was always going to be St Leonard’s. It was the first place the play was performed, and also of all the possible places we could have gone to it was the closest to the feel we were going for. Somewhere that was as worn and so full of history, as both the characters are, especially the Priest, that didn’t have that glossy feel to it. It had to be somewhere slightly grungy and dangerous.
Frank Brennan (JP2IFF): Was there anything that you cut from the script that just didn’t work on film?
Tony S Ukpo (Director):One of the things I wanted to do from the get go, was to stay true to the script. The way it was written, and the importance of a lot of the scenes in terms of building the character of the Fighter for the audience, and also the evolution of the Priest’s journey made it very difficult to cut things out. It was mainly a word or two here and there, or rephrasing the odd sentence for fluidity, but really pretty much everything you see on screen is what was on the page. I think there may be a few minutes in there that could be trimmed down, but it’d be tough to find those moments, where taking them out doesn’t affect the overall rhythm and substance of the film.
Peter Cadwell (Actor/Screenwriter): We didn’t cut anything majorly from the stageplay to screen…I can remember, I was worried there was potentially too much dialogue and that some things might not work…but Tony, was happy with everything, and felt that we didn’t need to cut anything, as it would lose something. Saying that, throughout it’s theatrical development, I cut loads, before we got close to the film. Now watching it back, I feel it works…but maybe some others won’t like the heavy dialogue! But all what is on screen, I really believe is important for the character’s voice.
Frank Brennan (JP2IFF): The battle between the Fighter and the Priest is one of the soul rather than of physicality. How would you describe this battle to someone who has never seen the film before?
Peter Cadwell (Actor/Screenwriter): Brilliant, but tough question! You’ve got me there…I’ll have to think on this one further. But as you said, it’s two Men, who are both deeply suffering, who challenge each other on a deep, dark, soul level. I suppose from this, through this, it’s what happens…is there healing, is there forgiveness, is there peace…is there redemption?
Always, part of my thinking and vision for the story and it’s character’s…is this thought, feeling, that through our darkest moments, eventually God’s light will shine. The film is a dark film, but for me, it is fundamentally more about it’s light.
Another thought I’ve always had, is that the Fighter character in the film, breaks into the church…but really, what I feel he is mostly trying to do, is metaphorically and spiritually, break into the soul of the Priest, break further into his own inner soul. But beyond this, the Fighter is trying to break into the soul of man, and possibly the soul of the audience, in order for us, to hopefully look further into our own souls.
Tony S Ukpo (Director): It’s actually a very easy pitch in a way, because even if you take the religion out of it, it’s something a lot of people battle with everyday. Everyone is plagued with doubt, and loneliness, and anger, or resentment at some stage in their lives. How does one respond to those feelings? what are the consequences of those reactions? Mental and emotional anguish is often the most difficult to deal with, and even if it’s just for moments in the day, or a bad couple of weeks someone goes through, it’s something that everyone can relate with as a very base aspect of human nature and how society affects us in different ways. How certain relationships are so strong that once they’re severed there’s little that can pull you back from those depths of despair. Now what happens when two people who’ve lost something so close to them, both trying to deal with it in different ways, confront each other about moving on when neither of them actually wants to, or has the strength to do so. They either wipe themselves out, or something happens where that shared experience helps them both realize that letting go might be the only way to ease the pain. And it’s something that can only happen when faced with someone who has gone through the same thing, because there’s a credibility there. As if to say, well if you can do it, then I guess maybe I can too.
Frank Brennan (JP2IFF): What do you find most haunting about the film? Most beautiful?
Peter Cadwell (Actor/Screenwriter): There are so many moments that break my heart, as so much of it comes from my own soul. I couldn’t say to be honest. All I can say, is Tony did such a beautiful, haunting job, bringing the screenplay to life.
Tony S Ukpo (Director): The film is quite intense, and one of the things I tried to emphasize were those few moments where the audience gets a chance to breathe, and to understand that there’s something more to the characters than what they are presenting to us. Where you can see them first start to let go and connect with each other. There’s something magical about connecting so deeply with another human being, a stranger especially, that is both cathartic, and also strangely uplifting. I think it’s my favorite moment in the film that first moment, that transition.
Frank Brennan (JP2IFF): In your opinion, how does your film fit into the ‘JP2IFF’ 2012 theme, REVELATION. This question applies to the film itself as well as its production process.
Peter Cadwell (Actor/Screenwriter): ‘Revelation’…since ‘The Fighter’s Ballad’ was selected to screen at ‘JP2′, I’ve been thinking about this…as I feel deeply humbled and incredibly moved that the film has been selected to screen, and then potentially be discussed in relationship to ‘Revelation’…in relationship to Catholic Faith.
‘Revelation’…a revealing…a vision of truth…something possibly prophetic…something possibly apocalyptic…God’s disclosure. For me…’The Fighter’s Ballad’ connects to the theme of Revelation, in that I truly believe it transcends from all the above, within its production process and within the film’s story and character’s.
In the writing of the screenplay, it was a revealing of myself and my own soul, a revealing of other people’s souls through my writing…it is an artistic vision of my own human, spiritual experience, throughout my life. When writing the script, I felt many thoughts and feelings came from something profound and prophetic, beyond my understanding.
The anger, the darkness, the sadness in the script, is my revelation of where I think we possibly are in the world today, which could be prophetic, apocalyptic. We can’t deny the pain and suffering within our world today, and is it getting better? Since time began, since man was born, how much have we evolved, spiritually? How much are we continuing to evolve spiritually? How spiritually healthy are we deep down, as a human race? My fear, is that we are possibly de-evolving spiritually… this is spoken within the script. But also in the script, I feel in many ways, is the revealing of pure love.
Through performing the character of the Fighter, again, there was a revealing of my myself, my soul, my truth and the soul of the character I was giving voice too…hopefully dignity too.
Through seeing many audiences watch the film, I have felt a revealing of the audience member’s themselves. A revealing of either their spiritual truth, or lack of spiritual truth…which has often felt beautiful, yet at other times, felt very painful!
There is revelation in the character’s, in that throughout the film, they reveal their past, their pain, their truth’s, their soul’s…and I believe through this, God discloses his love and his light, to character’s themselves and the audience.
Another small thing that could also connect to the theme of ‘Revelation’, is that of a spiritual vision. Many audience have thought, questioned, that possibly, could the character of the Fighter in the film, not be real, but instead, be a spiritual vision, visiting the Priest. The Priest’s angel and devil, a vision of his tormented self possibly. I have my own thoughts on this…yes, the Fighter is the everyman in a way, he could possibly represent all of us in a way, as so could the Priest…but I’m not telling anyone whether I think the Fighter is real or not…that’s for the individual audience to decide.
Tony S Ukpo (Director): The production process was itself a revelation in ways I won’t go into too much here, but the film is all about revelation because these characters find each other at moments in their lives when they are in desperate need of change, whether they knew it or not. And the fact that they have such an impact on each other’s lives where there was so much resistance and suspicion early on, and arguably through most of the film, to end up where they do at the end is very much what I would describe as a revelatory moment. I think for Peter as a writer it was probably the most personal experience, both in the writing of it, and in finally seeing the script brought to life in a cinematic way.
Frank Brennan (Jp2IFF): How has this film been received thus far?
Tony S Ukpo (Director): It has been received very well so far from a variety of different audiences. Everyone seems to connect with the emotional impact of the story, and the intensity of the performances certainly drives home that feeling of helplessness that the characters are going through, and that’s something everyone has experienced in their own lives, or has been a witness to. It certainly seems to have affected some people in a deep way, and ultimately that was the goal. To create an emotional connection with the real world inspirations of the film.
Quotes/reviews from some of those who have seen ‘The Fighter’s Ballad’ so far:
“While some films depend on lavish CGI flights of fancy, The Fighter’s Ballad draws its strength from its simplicity. Taking place in a cavernous east London church, this is a stark two handed confrontation between the gentle-spirited Reverend John and the Fighter of the title – a loquacious ball of anger and despair who breaks in from the street. Though the rhythmic back and forth of their exchange often smacks of the stage, there’s an impressive visual sheen here – and the dialogue is given a weighty intensity by the performances of Peter Cadwell and Clive Russell.” Danny Leigh – Film Critic & Co-host of BBC One – Film 2012
“Brutal but beautiful” Sadie De Jouer Taylor – Producer
Frank Brennan (JP2IFF): Are you working on any current projects or developing ideas for future projects?
Tony S Ukpo (Director): I’m finishing up post-production on another feature film, a sci-fi drama I wrote and directed called After the world ended, and working on other scripts. I’ve got quite a few projects on the go, or ready to go, so I guess it’s just seeing where the wind takes me. It all depends on various factors falling in to place, and then I work according to what those factors dictate in many ways, but the idea is to always keep productive, and try new things.
“Powerful, Provocative, Poetic, Profound.” Anonymous Viewer
“An excruciatingly beautiful film that asks questions of us all.” Mike Warburton – Actor
“Peter Cadwell is a truly transformational actor, a stunning performance.” Jack Price – Director
“Shocking, thought-provoking and dark; a vision of the battle between hope and hopelessness. Emma Engers – Agent
“If you’re into dialogue driven indie films, in which the acting, writing and characters are intensely powerful, challenging, yet truly beautiful, heartbreaking, then this already cult classic is for you.” John Howard – Filmmaker
“Peter Cadwell is a tour de force, tackling a difficult subject matter with both brute force and compassion/sensitivity, reminiscent of early Brando! ‘The Fighter’s Ballad’, blow for blow, is the best Low Budget Film of the year!” Russell Taylor – Director
“Ukpo’s direction is understated, letting the feelings and characters speak out for themselves. Breaking up the action effectively is Samuel Karl Bohn’s moving score. Cadwell’s work explores religion, man’s existence and how the two ebb and flow around each other…he has bravely taken on and tackled a huge body of thought, which really makes this film stand out in style and content from what one is used to seeing on our stages and screens.”
Caroline Vice – ‘Glitterazi’ online arts reviewer
“Unflinching, questioning and brutal. This powerful film will stay with you for sometime. A brave, stylistic commentary on contemporary society, or lack of, and the relevance of religion and forgiveness. Memorable.” Tara Newton – Actor
” ‘The Fighter’s Ballad’ deserves all the support it can get, regarding the insightful direction and convincing performances, in a film that proves once and for all that big budgets and special effects don’t make big and special movies. It’s the creative heads behind a production like ‘The Fighter’s Ballad’, that give birth to films that stay in people’s minds.” Robert Sigl – Director
“Strong performances from Peter Cadwell and Clive Russell make ‘The Fighter’s Ballad’ a thought provoking and poetic piece of work; a great example of how a Low Budget Film can offer high hopes for the indie industry in the UK.” Andi Reiss – Director
“This Film delves into uncomfortable depths, exploring the difficulty of communicating with a troubled soul, seemingly out of sync with the ‘normal’. The audience’s instinct is to be afraid and repulsed by people whose reality seems dangerously misaligned; ‘The Fighter’s Ballad’ suggest that mental illness has to be treated early, at source, through pity, patience and openness. In the film’s darkest moments, we see the friction caused by divergent world views; the comforting idealism of religion versus the despair and violence of hopeless nihilism.” Tom Quillfeldt – Agent
“I am still thinking about ‘The Fighter’s Ballad’, which I take to be an excellent sign! It’s raw and powerful, but as I’ve started to distance myself from it, it’s the beauty of it that’s staying with me. The poetry stands out … ‘The Fighter’s Ballad’ has a rare lyricism usually reserved for the theatre and the love song is a particularly moving sequence. The central performances balance each other out beautifully and I think some really brave artistic choices have been made throughout the production of the piece.” Elizabeth Boag – Actor
Although the film is very dialogue heavy, the performances were strong enough to carry it off. Russell’s portrayal of Reverend John was natural, utterly convincing and at times very moving. Cadwell, brought an energy to the nameless Fighter, that’s not often seen on the screen. The Fighter’s dialogue being lyrical and almost rap-like…this powerful energy brought the angry, troubled character to life. The film is superbly shot and they make full use of the dereliction of the building and the features inside. A grand piano covered in water stained dust sheet says everything about this supposed sanctuary surrounded by gritty inner London. Online ‘Frost’ Magazine – Genevieve Sibaya
Festivals and Screenings so far:
Official selection ‘John Paul II Independent Film Festival‘, Miami, Florida, November 2012.
Official selection and opening film of the ‘London Independent Film Festival’ April 2012.
Official selection ‘Cornwall Film Festival’ November 2011. UK Premiere
Frank Brennan (Jp2IFF):Are you working on any current projects or developing ideas for future projects?
Tony S Ukpo(Director): I’m finishing up post-production on another feature film, a sci-fi drama I wrote and directed called After the world ended, and working on other scripts. I’ve got quite a few projects on the go, or ready to go, so I guess it’s just seeing where the wind takes me. It all depends on various factors falling in to place, and then I work according to what those factors dictate in many ways, but the idea is to always keep productive, and try new things.