An exclusive interview with Kent Moran, director-writer and co-star of Michael Clarke Duncan's last movie "The Challenger" -- the Opening Night Film of Dances With Films Festival (May 28-June 7)
an exclusive by Oliver Carnay
Dances With Films Festival, now on its 18th anniversary is opening with a great film -- "The Challenger" on Thursday, May 28 at the TLC's Chinese Mann 6 Theatre with a star-studded gala at 6 p.m..
I had a privilege to watch the film ahead of everyone and I must say that the film was very impressive considering it's an indie project. The production value was high, the cast performances were extraordinary, and what a way to remember and pay tribute to the Oscar-nominated actor who's most remembered from his powerful performance in "The Green Mile."
Kent Moran plays Jaden, an adopted son to an African-American single mom, Jada (S. Epatha Emerson). Jaden is trying to make both ends meet by working at a regular car body shop to save money from being evicted of his apartment. When he meets a retired boxing trainer Duane (Michael Clarke Duncan) and convinced to train him, he tries to prove he can match and qualify to challenge James (Justin Hartley), the undefeated boxing Champ. Jada was against anything about boxing and when she gets hospitalized, the connection between Jaden's trainer and her mother will be revealed.
If you watch this film, stay until credits are over. Michael Clarke Duncan gave something to impart his fans, an outtake during shooting this film.
I caught up with Kent Moran, the talented director, writer, and co-star of Michael Clarke-Duncan's last film. In this exclusive interview, Kent talks about how Michael and other cast members got cast, what motivated him in doing this film, the process from writing to production and some of the challenges he encountered, including how he first learned the passing of Michael. He also mentioned how he prepared for the role, training with Freddie Roach and being a Manny Pacquiao fan.
This is an in-depth interview from a talented producer, writer, director, and singer - Kent Moran. Please read on:
Hollywoodflip: Michael Clarke Duncan acknowledged you as two of the actor-directors (the other one is Anthony Hopkins) he has worked with and noted "it was a unique experience!" -- flabbergasted working with your crew "doing a great hell of a job". He also mentioned "The Challenger" is "one of the most innovative movie he has worked with." How does it feel having this endorsement and acknowledgment from a great actor? What was the best advice he has imparted in you being an actor and director?
Kent Moran: "That was Michael's very last take in the movie. Before we filmed that, he pulled me aside and said, "Let the cameras run a little longer on this one." I said sure, but had no idea what he was going to do. I figured he wanted to improvise or something, since he did that a lot and I loved it. I was definitely shocked and of course flattered when he said what he said. The whole crew was. We very much respected the opportunity to work with such a great actor and had done our best to make the experience a positive one for him. So it was great reassurance to hear that he enjoyed the experience as much as we did. For me, it was so great, not just to act side by side with such a great actor, or to direct him, but to learn from him. In between takes, we would talk about his experience preparing for the Green Mile with acting coach Larry Moss and how he thought so much great content was moving to television and that I should get on one of those shows as an actor. But what I learned the most from Michael was not what he said, but simply watching him work. He was a complete professional and literally every take he did was a good, useable take. He would deliver from the first take to the last and yet always give me something different and unique."
"When filming a scene, after we had said the dialogue on the page, I would just let the cameras roll and see where it took us. Sometimes he would keep improvising for minutes. And some of that was some of the best footage in the movie in my opinion. So what I learned from Michael, by watching, was to bring it, every time, just keep giving until they call "cut.""
Hollywoodflip: Can you talk about casting Justin Hartley, S. Epatha Merkerson, and how did Michael Clarke Duncan first knew about your film, was he the first choice?
Kent Moran: "Michael wasn't my first choice originally, but only because he hadn't come to mind yet. I had set a meeting a manager to talk about representing me as an actor. When I was doing my research to prepare for the meeting, I noticed that he represented Michael Clarke Duncan. As soon as I saw Michael's name, it sort of hit me that he was perfect for this role. I was a huge fan of the Green Mile and knew he was a great actor. And this role fit him like a glove. So when I went into the meeting with his manager, I think I talked more about wanting to cast Michael than needing representation myself. His manager got Michael the script and he liked it so much he also came on as an Executive Producer. The rest is history."
"The way I cast Justin Hartley was pretty funny. His character is the Light Heavyweight Champion. So there was a pretty specific criteria for this role. He had to having boxing or fighting/choreography experience, be in great shape, and also look similar to me. I wanted his character to represent the goal my character was trying to achieve, the person he was trying to become, so having us look alike would help. So there was a short list of people I was looking at for this role and Justin was at the top of my list. I had just started casting this role. I went to the gym that day at the same time I usually go and randomly saw Justin there. I had never met him before or seen him at the gym, so I thought this must mean I'm supposed to cast him. I was literally just looking up his rep's contact info before coming. I, of course, thought it would be awkward to go up to him in the gym, but I also know it's sometimes easier to cast someone if I don't have to go through the hurdles of their representation. So I said to myself, if I come back tomorrow at the same time and he's here again, I'll say something. Sure enough, he was there again the next day, so I did in fact, awkwardly go up to him and introduce myself. I told him about the project I was doing and that there was a role that I was thinking about him for. He seemed receptive and told me to send him the script. So I did. He read it and really liked it. We had lunch a couple days later to discuss the project and he officially came on board soon after."
"Epatha was always my first choice for her role. I have always thought she was a great actor. So I simply contacted her reps with our offer. They were great to work with. She read the script and got back to us pretty quickly. She ended up being a dream to work with."
Hollywoodflip: I understand that you're also a singer. Which came first, the singing, acting, producing films? Which is more challenging, and your priority?
Kent Moran: "Well I've been acting and singing since I was a kid. I did my first professional musical at 13 years old. So I've always been very interested in both. After college, I started in the industry thinking I would be mainly a singer/songwriter, but I quickly found that although I loved music, my main passion was for acting. Acting is still my priority. Each of the hats I wear now has its own unique challenges and rewards. Producing is probably my least favorite and most challenging overall, but it also helps me to be able to do what I love."
Hollywoodflip: What was the motivation for you doing this film? It is usually hard to direct and act at the same time. Did you ever think of just hiring a director and concentrated in acting in the film?
Kent Moran: "The Challenger" was the first film I wrote about 8 years ago. It was an idea that I was so passionate about I felt I had to write it, even though I knew very little about screenwriting at the time and thought there was no way I could produce it without a studio budget. I have since re-written the script many times. My motivation mainly came from movies that inspired me growing up. Rocky was one of my favorites. I wanted to create a movie that brought that could bring kind of inspiration to others that Rocky had on me. I also grew up hearing stories about my great uncle Frank Carbone, who was a professional boxer and boxed in Madison Square Garden against all of these legendary early boxers. So doing a boxing movie has always been a goal of mine. In terms of why I directed this one ... I had a hand in the filmmaking of my first movie "Listen to Your Heart," that was sort of my film school. I fell in love with filmmaking on that movie and always love challenging myself. I learned how important choosing the right director for a film is. With "The Challenger," and the budget we had to work with, I didn't feel confident that we could afford a director that could accomplish what we needed to for this budget. And I wanted to make sure it was done right. At least if I directed it, I would only have myself to blame."
Hollywoodflip: How long did it take you to finish the script before doing the actual production? How many days you shot the film?
Kent Moran: "If you count the first draft, quite a while. But once I knew this was the movie I would make next, it only took me a few months to rewrite the script to what we ended up shooting. We shot for 24 shooting days and then had some B unit days as well."
Hollywoodflip: What is the most difficult part or the most challenging part in creating this film?
Kent Moran: "I never thought we could do this film right without a studio involved or a large indie budget. But when I was forced to work with what we had, I think it actually helped in forcing me to be creative with our solutions. The most challenging part was creating large production value with the resources we had to work with and that meant, most importantly, preparation. When you're doing a movie that has fight scenes in a large arena in front of thousands of fans, being as prepared as possible is vitally important. We didn't have time for second and third chances, so our rehearsals with the cast and crew for the big fight scenes and all of the orchestration that those scenes took were probably the most challenging. They were also the most rewarding."
Hollywoodflip: What have you learned in doing this film? Was there anything you would have changed or not do after reviewing the finished product?
Kent Moran: "I love mistakes because they are what help you grow. The mistakes we made on "Listen to Your Heart" helped grow for "The Challenger," and hopefully the lessons I learned on "The Challenger" will help me grow for my next project. Here is some of what I've learned:
- Preparation is key and gives you the freedom to "play" on set, which is the whole point after all.
- It's far easier (and cheaper) to change something in the script before shooting than having to try and fix it in the editing room later, so the tighter the script the better.
- Deadlines are important. People don't work as well without them.
- When you're editing the film, don't be too stuck to the script if things aren't working. It's your opportunity to "re-write" the script one last time."
Hollywoodflip: What preparation did you do, physically and mentally before doing this film? Were you a boxing fan? Did you have any boxing training prior to doing this film?
Kent Moran: "I trained with a boxing trainer at Freddie Roach's Wild Card boxing gym in LA for 7 months and then with another boxing trainer in NY doing pre-production for another couple of months. I kept training during the shoot itself too. Prior to that though, I had no boxing experience. I am a boxing fan, but don't follow it religiously. I grew up loving some of the great heavyweight fights of the time with Tyson, Holyfield, Forman, Lewis, etc. And I was always a fan of boxing movies. There's something special about boxing, as opposed to other sports, that really lends itself well to storytelling. I think it's because it's just one person versus another in a ring. Because that concept is so simple it helps you get behind whatever character you're rooting for."
Hollywoodflip: When and where were you when you learned about Michael Clarke Duncan's passing?
Kent Moran: "That was a devastating day. It was labor day, 2012. I was taking a break from the movie for the weekend and went to Lake Arrowhead with my girlfriend and some friends. We were having a great, relaxing weekend when my good friend called me up to let me know the news. I was shocked. I knew he was in the hospital after having a heart attack, but I had been told that he was recovering well as far as people knew. We had just been working with him a few months prior and he seemed in great health. As soon as I heard that he had passed, I couldn't hold it in and I just broke down crying. I don't think I stopped for a good 10 minutes. We had worked together for just a little over two weeks, but when you're working together for 12 hours a day for two weeks, you get pretty close pretty quickly. I looked at him as a friend and a mentor. And I spent the next 8 months slowly getting over his passing while having to edit him in the movie every day. It was definitely a difficult time. His passing also put a lot more pressure on me to make the movie as good as it could be. And I hope it's now something he would have been proud of."
Hollywoodflip: Did you watch the recent Pacquiao-Mayweather fight? Are you a fan of Pacquiao or Mayweather? Do you think there should be a rematch, and why?
Kent Moran: "I did watch the fight. I am definitely a Pacquiao fan, especially since I trained at his gym for this movie. I interacted with Freddie Roach almost every day at the gym and he seems like such a genuine guy. He'd be there behind the counter every day greeting the boxers as they come in and working the front desk. I found that so impressive. Here's a guy who definitely doesn't need to do this for the money, but he's here anyway, as much as he can be, simply because this is what he loves. I never met Pacquiao, but he also seems like a good guy. Like most people, I found the fight disappointing. I would only want to see a rematch if I thought Mayweather wouldn't fight so defensively. Since I don't think that's going to happen, I don't think I need to see a rematch."
Hollywoodflip: How is the domestic and international distribution plan for this film?
Kent Moran: "Right now Worldwide Rights are still available. We have been exploring our options and meeting with several studios that have expressed interested. Nothing concrete to report yet, but we're taking meetings."