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Current Pitt students probably know the Petersen Events Center as the home to their Panther men’s and women’s basketball teams, as well as an adequate concert venue. They might not realize that the venue once was a major filming location of a film that featured some of today’s biggest stars in Hollywood.
Director Gavin O’Connor’s film “Warrior” — shot during the summer of 2009 — used Pittsburgh as its backdrop, with a multitude of fight scenes filmed in the Pete.
The movie stars Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as estranged brothers from Pittsburgh who collide when they both enter a grand mixed martial arts tournament with big money on the line. Nick Nolte’s performance as the father of the fractured family earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Hardy’s character seeks to win the prize money to support the wife and children of his fallen best friend from his time in the military. Vanessa Martinez gives a convincing performance, although brief, as his friend’s struggling widow living in El Paso, Texas.
Although her scenes take place in Texas, Martinez came to Pittsburgh for a week to film her scenes, her first time in the City. On her night off, Martinez said she rode the Duquesne Incline and checked out some local attractions. The Pittsburgh Penguins would win the Stanley Cup that summer, and Martinez remembered seeing Penguins fans celebrating a playoff win in the streets during her night out.
“It’s such a great city,” Martinez said. “I found it to be so romantic. I wasn’t there very long, but the little free time I had I got to walk around a bit and meet some of the locals. I was very impressed with how passionate they were about sports. It’s a very passionate city in that way.”
Since Martinez’s character only conversed with Hardy’s over the phone, she didn’t actually film any scenes alongside him. Instead, director Gavin O’Connor read Hardy’s lines to simulate the scene’s conversation, one of many small actions that made her love O’Connor’s directing style.
She said O’Connor showed patience throughout the process, giving her a chance to play with the scene until she found her groove.
“Some directors are very literal, and so what they saw at the audition they have to see again or else it doesn’t feel right to them,” Martinez said. “But he really allowed, at least in my experience with him, for me to find different moments in those scenes that felt better now that I was on that set.”
Although most of the movie took place in Pittsburgh, O’Connor used the location to film scenes taking place elsewhere as well, even finding the site of a demolished mall in Pittsburgh to shoot Iraq war scenes. The concrete rubble remains proved perfect for their vision.
“The texture and color of the ground was kind-of dirt mixed with concrete, so it gave it that sort-of sand look,” the film’s set decorator, Ron von Blomberg, said. “We set up probably a dozen tents and in post they added the additional background.”
The Sparta tournament, which encompasses most of the latter half of the movie, takes place in a fancy Atlantic City, N.J., venue. But O’Connor filmed all of the tournament’s fights in the Pete, which took about 10 weeks. One of the main characters suffered a minor knee injury, requiring the crew to briefly return in the fall to finish his shots. Multiple crew members remembered the injury, but none could be sure which actor it was.
In an attempt to maximize the authenticity of the fight scenes, O’Connor brought in many actors and stuntmen with fighting backgrounds. Dan Stevens — who has practiced mixed martial arts and has served as a stunt double for Tom Hanks, Christian Bale and Ryan Reynolds, among others — helped perform some of Edgerton’s fight scenes.
Stevens said some of the five-round fights were actually performed entirely from start to finish in front of the partially-filled crowd of extras.
“It helps the editors to see how the fight’s put together.” Stevens said. “And it helps the actors know what stage of the fight they’re in and how tired they should be.”
Although he typically confines his work to performing stunts, Stevens actually got a chance to act as one of the focal characters of a scene. He played Hardy’s first opponent in Sparta, getting swiftly knocked out with one punch.
The filmmakers recruited Pittsburgh’s own Kurt Angle, a hall-of-fame WWE star, to play the fiercest opponent of the tournament, Koba. Edgerton’s character must upset the heavy favorite in order to join his brother in the championship bout. Stevens recalled his unique experience of stepping into an octagon with the 6-foot, 232-pound Angle.
“He’s the nicest guy ever,” Stevens said. “He had to do a shot where he slammed me into the ground. He picked me up, and I thought I was about to die, but he put me down so gently, it was unbelievable. He had such strength and control. That was a lot of fun.”
The crew didn’t solely rely on this mercy for the safety of their actors, of course. The construction team crafted a flexible, spring-loaded, multi-layered floor to soften the impact during stunts.
“It actually broke,” von Blomberg said. “They were so great at what they did and so real in terms of their landings, it wasn’t like fake swings and punches, they were the real deal, that when they landed they actually broke the floor and we had to replace it. That was pretty amazing.”
Although Hardy would soon become an A-list star of films like “Inception,” “Dark Knight Rises” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” he had yet to achieve such notoriety. O’Connor told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the film’s release that he wanted the brothers to be actors with the potential to be stars, but who wouldn’t be recognized from previous films. Multiple crew members emphasized Hardy’s professionalism on the set, often keeping in-character between shots to maintain his intensity.
To make sure that the filmmakers understood the sport that they wanted to portray, they had to do some research. Von Blomberg said he particularly enjoyed immersing himself in a world he hadn’t experienced before.
“This is one of my favorite projects ever,” von Blomberg said. “From the beginning, we had a very long prep time. We all traveled, the actors, the director, the design team all traveled to a place in Columbus, Ohio, to see a big fight for reference purposes of MMA fighters. It was pretty great.”
After filming wrapped up, the movie eventually got picked up by Lionsgate, although it wouldn’t see theaters until September 2011. Martinez watched the film with her co-stars at premiere, proud to see her work in the finished product.
“I thought the movie was excellent,” Martinez said. “I thought it was so beautiful and so well-acted. I thought all the performances were really spot-on and wonderful.”