Shawn’s bare-knuckled journey weaves him through New York City’s cramped, roach-ridden housing projects to spectacular penthouses, where he finds himself part of the evening’s entertainment for wealthy Wall Streeters. Each of his four key fights in the film takes him to different ethnic neighborhoods. The climactic battle atop the Wall Street high-rise is preceded by a fight in a Russian community hall in Brighton Beach, one in an Asian pleasure palace in Flushing, and another in a back alley in the Bronx.
“What was wonderful about working with Dito was knowing how he is completely grounded in reality,” says production designer Thérèse DePrez, whose work was recently seen in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium and will soon be seen in Antoine Fuqua’s Brooklyn’s Finest. “This is a film in which the design should not outshine anything. As a New Yorker, it was very important to me to make sure that it never screamed New York; things should be subtle but very real, warm and authentic.”
Montiel wanted to bring audiences the same excitement he felt as a kid on trips to Manhattan. In order to keep an authentic feel for the film, the casting directors looked for extras from the different neighborhoods where the fights take place. Many Russian extras were found in Brighton Beach, many Dominican cast members were found in the Bronx and many Korean extras were found in Flushing. “I wanted to show New York off and roam around the city,” says Montiel. “We didn’t need close-ups of the Empire State Building to let the audience know they’re looking at New York. The extras, who randomly walk through our shots, have such interesting faces. That’s why you film in New York.”
Agrees producer Misher: “You get a feeling that these people actually are New Yorkers. Hopefully, in the finished product, you get to feel like you’ve actually taken a trip to a New York that people haven’t seen that often—a city of great diversity and very different people.”
DP Czapsky hadn’t shot a film in Manhattan since 1989’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. “I wanted to come up with some out-of-the-ordinary, iconic visuals of New York City,” he says. “I hope the audience feels like they’ve been taken to places in the city they normally wouldn’t get the opportunity to visit as a tourist or an outsider.”
Montiel, Misher and DePrez were eager to find unique locations for each fight. “There were a lot of places that were incredibly cinematic but they seemed very stagey,” says DePrez. “We would find a terrific location with great vantage points, but Dito would question why the characters would fight in that particular space.” For example, while looking for a location for Shawn’s final fight with Evan, DePrez found the perfect spot under the Brooklyn Bridge in an old factory that had arched windows. The setting had a Roman Coliseum feel to it, almost completely set up to host a fight scene, but it seemed too staged for Montiel. Explains DePrez: “Dito asked me, ‘Why would they come to this location?’ So we honed that scene down to the Wall Street penthouse. That made much more sense for the characters, and it’s more in keeping with the obsession Dito and I had with keeping the film as realistic-looking as possible.”
The filmmakers used Linden Place (which features a large dim sum banquet hall on the first floor) in Flushing as the location for Shawn’s battle with the Korean fighter. A popular establishment that often hosts weddings, the setting reflected that this fight involved much more money than the ones in Brighton Beach or the Bronx.
The penthouse fight, set in a work-in-progress home atop an early 20th-century Beaux Arts skyscraper, is now the finished apartment of one of the leading Google entrepreneurs. It is located on Nassau Street and Spruce Street, right in the Wall Street area. With its three floors, huge arched windows and vast open spaces, it is one of the most spectacular living spaces in the city. Montiel and DePrez were looking for a raw, unfinished location, and it fit perfectly. An added bonus was that it contained an expansive outdoor terrace with astonishing views of Manhattan’s surrounding bridges, high-rises and night sky.
“We wanted something that was under construction,” reflects DePrez, “because it was important to have the fighters crashing into and through various elements. What was great about this location were the vantage points—the views and the huge exterior and interior space.”
Filming of this complex, final fight sequence stretched out over the course of more than a week, much of it outdoors in bone-chilling winds. What was tough for the crew was even tougher for the actors, who were stripped to the waist throughout. Recalls Tatum: “I practiced martial arts as a kid, but preparing for fight scenes that are similar to backyard brawls, in which only one person can come out alive, was an intense experience.”