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Foxcatcher opening in November ... with high hopes

Mark Palmer

7/3/2014
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

An amateur wrestling match is over in minutes ... but it takes months, if not years, to make a mat movie.

That was an opening line for an article I wrote more than two-and-a-half years ago for my first of many stories about the movie Foxcatcher for the online news service Examiner.com. Since January 2012, I've written dozens of stories for Examiner.com about the much-anticipated film about brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, Olympic gold medal-winning wrestlers, and their involvement at the Foxcatcher Olympic wrestling training facility owned by multi-millionaire John du Pont, who murdered Mark's older brother Dave in January 1996.

Looking back, that first story 30 months ago is unintentionally amusing for a couple reasons. For starters, it reported that Channing Tatum would be playing Dave Schultz, which was the Hollywood buzz at the time. (It was later revealed that Tatum was cast as Mark Schultz, with Mark Ruffalo portraying Dave, and Steve Carell would play du Pont.) Also in that first January 2012 Examiner.com article on Foxcatcher: an update on the production of comedian Kevin James' movie in which he played a former Penn State heavyweight turned school teacher turned mixed martial arts competitor. That movie, Here Comes the Boom! has come and gone from movie theaters; DVD copies may be now found in the bargain bin at your favorite store. Meanwhile, Foxcatcher won't be released to theaters until Nov. 14.

With the considerable ongoing interest in Foxcatcher within the amateur wrestling community, InterMat figured now would be a good time to take a new look at what we know about the movie.

My dual role as wrestling writer

In addition to my work as a senior writer for InterMat, I also write about college wrestling for Examiner.com. The types of articles I generate for the two websites are distinct. For nearly a decade, my work for InterMat has consisted primarily of long-form pieces -- profiles of current college wrestlers, historical articles about past wrestlers or events (such as the 1960 Rome Olympics, and the murder of Dave Schultz), and interviews with novelists and journalists who have written books of interest to the amateur wrestling community. By contrast, the writing I've done for Examiner.com is mostly concise (350-500 word) news stories concerning developments within college wrestling -- new college programs, programs that have been axed, coach hirings and firings, and concise analysis of "big picture" developments affecting the sport, such as rule changes or new media coverage options to help fans keep up with the sport.

Having written a five-part series for InterMat in January 2006 on Dave Schultz's murder to coincide with the tenth anniversary of that horrific crime, I was eager to track the developments concerning the Foxcatcher film. Especially realizing that most news stories about the movie were from entertainment media publications and websites such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter -- or mass-market magazines like People or US -- sources not necessarily on the reading list of most wrestling fans.

I figured I couldn't be the only amateur wrestling fan to be eager to learn more about Foxcatcher. So I started to write about the movie for Examiner.com, sharing news from Hollywood media reports while incorporating wrestling-specific information lacking in those original sources. My initial hunch has appeared to have been right; a number of these Foxcatcher stories rank among my ten most-read stories as College Wrestling Examiner.

The story behind Foxcatcher

There seems to be a notion among many in the amateur wrestling community that the Foxcatcher movie is essentially The Dave Schultz Story. However, after months of reading numerous Hollywood media reports on the movie which appear to have been based on press statements and other information supplied by the filmmakers as reference, I have learned that the Foxcatcher screenplay is based on Mark Schultz's autobiography about the Foxcatcher Olympic wrestling training facility owned by multi-millionaire John du Pont, who murdered Mark's older brother Dave in January 1996. This perspective has been corroborated by Mark Schultz in posts at his Facebook page.

Here are a couple examples of how Hollywood has been presenting the movie.

In describing Foxcatcher, The Hollywood Reporter wrote, "The film -- which recounts the true story of an Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz whose brother Dave Schultz, a fellow Olympian, was murdered by a paranoid schizophrenic millionaire John du Pont."

The American Film Institute -- which had been slated to show the world premiere of the movie in November 2013 before the film's delay -- described Foxcatcher as "a psychological drama" which "tells the story of Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz, who sees a way out from the shadow of his more celebrated wrestling brother Dave ..."

The film is directed by Bennett Miller, who has been responsible for two award-winning feature films -- Capote, the 2005 film on the life of author Truman Capote, and Moneyball, the 2011 baseball drama. Miller, 47, earned an Academy Award nomination for best director for Capote. After winning the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival in May (where the film made its debut), Bennett revealed that the movie had been in the works for eight years, struggling to find financing. Miller specifically cited Megan Ellison and her Annapurna Films as being key financial backer for Foxcatcher. The screenplay was written by Academy Award nominee Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye. Futterman, a high school friend of Miller's, earned an Oscar nomination for his work on Capote; Frey was a writer on the HBO series Band of Brothers.

In addition to a much-honored director and scriptwriting team, Foxcatcher has a quality cast. Besides Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as the Brothers Schultz, Steve Carell -- best known for comedic roles in movies and TV series, most notably the American version of The Office -- delivers a possible career-changing performance as John du Pont. Also in the Foxcatcher cast: Sienna Miller as Nancy Schultz, Dave's wife; Vanessa Redgrave as John du Pont's mother, and Anthony Michael Hall.

Athletic backgrounds of Tatum, Ruffalo

A natural concern from many in the wrestling community who have seen their sport portrayed in unrealistic ways in movies and TV shows: Do Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo look like wrestlers?

Tatum has starred in a wide variety of roles, from romantic leads to action heroes to a male stripper in Magic Mike to comedic roles such as 22 Jump Street now in theaters. The 34-year-old actor was a multi-sport athlete in high school in Alabama, and participated in martial arts as a kid ... but did not wrestle. In the 2009 movie Fighting, Tatum, 34, played a former high school wrestler turned New York City bare-knuckle brawler.

Tyrone Lewis and Channing Tatum
Despite not having a mat background, Tatum earned the respect of at least a couple individuals who worked with him on Foxcatcher ... and know their way around a wrestling mat.

Tyrone Lewis, former Oklahoma State All-American who is now an assistant coach at University of Maryland, played a Canadian opponent of Mark Schultz in Foxcatcher. The Cowboy mat alum had nothing but praise for his movie "rival," telling College Wrestling Examiner, "It was an honor and a privilege to work with an individual like Channing Tatum. Not only is he a gifted actor and phenomenal athlete, he was also a class act and complete professional. He helped me at any moment necessary and was open-minded to learning from anyone he was working with."

Fred Feeney, an actual mat official (and president of Mid-State Wrestling Officials Association) who played a referee of a match featuring Channing Tatum, said about the actor portraying Mark Schultz in a January 2013 InterMat story: "At one point, about one in the morning, after a long day of shooting, Channing and I were standing up on the mat platform, alone. I told him, 'You look like you've wrestled all your life' and he said, 'Thanks, man' and gave me a man hug."

Ruffalo, whose film resume includes everything from playing the Incredible Hulk to roles in independent films such as Begin Again now in theaters, wrestled at First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach, Va.

In two separate interviews with USA Today and NBC Sports' OlympicTalk.com this May the 44-year-old former matman told about his preparations to play iconic wrestler Dave Schultz.

"I came to know guys like Gene Mills, who's a hero of mine, quite a great deal during the film," Ruffalo told the OlympicTalk website. "And all of these great American wrestlers and Olympic champions were coming in to support us. So I met guys like Bruce Baumgartner, John Guira, and Jesse Jantzen, who was my coach for the role. And I just became friends with all of them during the six months we were working on the film."

"I started training with these guys; it's a tight knit group of people," Ruffalo told USA Today. "Honor and respect come from your accomplishments in the wrestling world and Dave Schultz is one of their beloved wrestlers so there's a lot of caution and pride around him. You had to prove yourself. So that became my first hurdle. Once I did that that, the community really opened up to me."

Ruffalo continued, "It's probably one of the most close-knit, stand-up group of individuals from all walks of life that I've ever come in contact with. They all have a sense of decency and righteousness and are incredibly disciplined and all leaders in their own fields and they love the sport."

All four wrestlers Ruffalo mentioned in the two articles brought considerable freestyle and collegiate mat credentials to help the actor portray Dave Schultz. Mills was a four-time NCAA All-American and two-time NCAA champ for the now-defunct wrestling program at Syracuse University. Guira was a three-time NCAA All-American (1983-85) for the University of Wisconsin at 142 pounds. Baumgartner, arguably the most decorated US Olympic wrestler in history, was a four-time Olympic medalist (two gold, one silver, and one bronze) who was a three-time NCAA finalist and 1982 heavyweight champ at Indiana State. Jantzen, New York's first four-time high school state wrestling champ, won the 149-pound title -- and Outstanding Wrestler honors -- at the 2004 NCAAs for Harvard University.

More wrestlers -- and a real-life referee, too

It's only right that a movie about two legendary wrestler-brothers would feature a number of actual wrestlers in supporting roles. In fact, open casting notices for actual wrestlers were posted on online wrestling forums.

The first hint that Foxcatcher was employing real-life mat stars as opponents to the Mark and Dave Schultz characters -- or as wrestlers at the Foxcatcher Farm training facility -- came from interviewing Fred Feeney, an actual college wrestling official, for a January 2013 InterMat feature.

The idea for the story sprang from Feeney's Facebook page, where he had shared some of his experiences working on the film, where he played an Olympic referee. During the interview, Feeney revealed that it took 12 hours of filming to capture a single Olympic wrestling match from the 1988 Seoul Games featuring Mark Schultz vs. Turkish wrestler Necmi Gencalp. Feeney disclosed that the Turk was portrayed by Muzaffar Abdurakhanov, former American University wrestler who's now an assistant coach at Harvard.

In subsequent months, a number of wrestlers let it be known on Facebook and Twitter that they too had roles in Foxcatcher.

Jake Herbert, 2012 U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestler and two-time NCAA champion for Northwestern, got the ball rolling with this message on his Facebook page: "My first big screen appearance Dec. 20 -- what a Christmas gift. Excited to see it all come together." (That late December 2013 date was the original scheduled release for Foxcatcher; it was later delayed until November 2014. More on that later.)

Mike Sheets
When College Wrestling Examiner contacted Herbert to see who he played in the movie, the former Wildcat mat champ replied, "Mike Sheets, two-time NCAA champion and a veterinarian now. Needed someone to match the part lol." (Sheets, an Oklahoma State wrestler, went up against cross-state rival Dave Schultz of the University of Oklahoma a number of times during the 1982 season, losing to Schultz in the 167-pound finals at the 1982 NCAAs. Sheets went on to win two NCAA titles. And, to this writer, Herbert DOES bear a resemblance to Sheets during his wrestling career.)

A couple days after Herbert's post, former Ohio State heavyweight J.D. Bergman mentioned on his Facebook page that he too had a role in Foxcatcher. Asked about who he portrayed in the film, Bergman, who this writer had interviewed for InterMat about his role as a 2012 Olympic alternate, responded, "Just an Olympic wrestler -- no one specific."

Bergman then revealed that a number of other wrestlers had been cast in the much-anticipated movie, including fellow Ohio State NCAA finalists Reece Humphrey and Mike Pucillo, along with Keith Gavin and Zack Rey, NCAA champions for Pittsburgh and Lehigh, respectively.

Gavin's Facebook page confirmed his participation in Foxcatcher, all the more appropriate, given that a number of scenes were filmed at Pitt's Peterson Events Center. "Check this out!! My nephew Keith Gavin is in this movie," wrote his proud aunt, Heidi Lavin Gowarty, on the wrestler's Facebook. "He is wrestling Channing (Tatum). Keith in the movie is a Bulgarian wrestler! Some guys have all the luck. Keith, you know I'll see it!!!"

Yoshi Nakamura and Mark Ruffalo
Another mat champ appearing in Foxcatcher is David Zabriskie, 2010 NCAA heavyweight titlewinner for Iowa State. When asked about his role in the movie, the former Cyclone wrestler turned Lehigh assistant coach responded, "I don't play a real person in the movie. Just a Foxcatcher wrestler named Dan Bane."

In addition to the wrestlers listed here -- along with Gene Mills and Tyrone Lewis, mentioned earlier -- others who are cast in Foxcatcher include Ethan Bosch (as a referee), former Olympian Ken Chertow, Yoshi Nakamura (portraying a Japanese opponent to Dave Schultz), and James Yonushosis (who plays wrestler Rico Chiapparelli).

Despite much of the movie being set at Foxcatcher Farms in Newtown Square, just outside Philadelphia, the bulk of Foxcatcher was actually filmed at the opposite end of Pennsylvania, in the Pittsburgh area. One reason: the original mansion at the Foxcatcher estate where John du Pont lived had been bulldozed, and the 800-acre grounds were in the process of being developed into an upscale residential community of sizable freestanding homes and townhouses. A mansion in Sewickley Heights outside Pittsburgh substituted for the du Pont home; along with the Peterson Events Center, other school facilities in southwestern Pennsylvania were also used as sports venues for the movie. Most of the filming took place in late 2012 and early 2013.

On track for Christmastime release ... then derailed

Throughout late summer and early fall of 2013, all signs pointed to Foxcatcher being released to theaters sometime during calendar year 2013. That would have complied with rules from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- the organization that doles out the Oscars -- that, for a film to be eligible for the gold statuettes, it must have played in theaters in New York City and Los Angeles before Dec. 31. Considering that the director, screenwriters and their films had earned Oscar nominations -- with late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played Capote in the movie of the same name, being awarded the Best Actor Oscar -- expectations within Hollywood were that Foxcatcher was going to be a contender at the Academy Awards broadcast in March 2014.

It all seemed on track. Last September, it was announced that Foxcatcher would have its world premiere at the prestigious AFI Fest, a fundraising event for the American Film Institute in Hollywood in early November. A brief preview of the film was posted online. Then a release date was announced: December 20, 2013 for theaters in NYC and L.A., debuting the same weekend as two other much-anticipated movies, Nicole Kidman's Grace of Monaco, and The Monuments Men starring George Clooney and Matt Damon.

Then, days before the AFI Fest, the studio announced that Foxcatcher would not be shown at the festival ... nor would it open in theaters the weekend before Christmas. The preview was no longer available online. Reports at the time indicated that a rough-cut version of the movie weighed in at more than three-and-a-half hours -- a length usually reserved for epics such as Gone with the Wind and War and Peace.

In a late November article about films that had been anticipated for release in time for the 2013 holidays, the Wall Street Journal wrote, "Delaying Foxcatcher was 'a real practical decision,' driven by (director Bennett) Miller's need for more time to finish the film, says Michael Barker, co-president of distributor Sony Pictures Classics. 'We thought it was better if they took their time to finish the movie rather than rush to make a date.'"

With that delay, Foxcatcher was no longer in contention for any 2014 Oscars. The studio did not provide any new release date, other than to say the movie would premiere "sometime in 2014." (Of the three major motion pictures originally slated to open December 20, only The Monuments Men was in theaters that weekend.)

Making a splash at Cannes ...

For the first couple months of 2014, Foxcatcher seemed to have vanished from the radar. Hollywood entertainment publications and websites had no news about the movie. Then, in April, it was announced that Foxcatcher would make its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May, arguably THE major international film festival. As Cannes drew closer, it was revealed that the movie had been edited down to 2 hours, 15 minutes ... and was in the running for a number of awards, including the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) for Best Picture.

When Foxcatcher was shown at Cannes, the reaction was overwhelmingly strong. The film garnered a standing ovation from theatergoers ... and film critics in attendance heaped praise on the movie, the director, the screenplay and its actors, especially Channing Tatum and Steve Carell for their "against-type" performances. More than one critic said Foxcatcher had to be an early contender for the 2015 Oscar sweepstakes. While the movie did not earn the Palme d'Or, its director, Bennett Miller, was presented with the festival's Best Director award.

Now opening in November ... with high hopes

The good news about Foxcatcher continued. About the same time as Cannes, the studio announced that Foxcatcher would debut in U.S. theaters on November 14, 2014 -- nearly a year after its original release date. Just last month, the MPAA -- the Motion Picture Association of America -- revealed that "Foxcatcher" would be rated "R" (Restricted), for one scene of violence.

At this writing, filmgoers and wrestling fanatics will have to wait nearly four-and-a-half months to see the much-anticipated Foxcatcher. For those of us who were aware of the initial casting announcements two-and-a-half years ago -- or the original release date more than six months ago -- we'll have to continue to wait patiently.

In the meantime, wrestling fans can hope for the best. After all, there are many encouraging signs that Foxcatcher will be a film that provides a realistic portrayal of wrestling and two of the sport's most iconic and popular figures.

First, consider the credentials of the director Bennett Miller (2014 Cannes "Best Director" award, Oscar "Best Director" nominee for Capote) and one of its screenwriters, Dan Futterman (also nominated for an Oscar for Capote). What's more, four actors in Miller's two feature films have earned Oscar nominations: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener for Capote, and Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill for Moneyball, with Hoffman winning Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Truman Capote.

The hiring of actual wrestlers -- some as consultants and trainers, others as opponents for the Schultz brothers, or Foxcatcher teammates -- can also be considered a good sign. In addition, having Fred Feeney on board -- not only playing an Olympic freestyle referee, but also serving as a consultant -- to make sure all aspects of the portrayal of Olympic wrestling and officiating were true to life ... right down to making sure all the wrestlers had the then-mandated hankies in their singlets.

It's also good to know from Feeney that filmmakers took 12 hours to film that one match from the 1988 Olympics, using videotape of the actual match as reference. That would indicate an attention to detail that's been sadly lacking in some movie depictions of wrestling. As Feeney told InterMat in January 2013, "An assistant director told me, 'a hallmark of Bennett Miller is that he'll get it right.'" We can't wait to see for ourselves.

Can't get enough Foxcatcher? There are two related products due to be released about the same time as the Hollywood film. Mark Schultz's autobiography -- titled Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother's Murder, John du Pont's Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold -- will be published in November, and is already available for advance purchase. And Nancy Schultz has been working on a documentary about her late husband Dave which was the subject of an InterMat article late last year, slated for a release to coincide with the theatrical movie.

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