HOW did your book on the making of Raging Bull come about?
I met up with Robert De Niro, or Bob as he likes to be called, at the end of last year to present him with a copy of One Shot: The Making of The Deer Hunter, which was a book that we collaborated on together. He asked me what was next, and as a huge film fan, Raging Bull was what immediately sprang to my mind, especially as last year was the 40th anniversary of the film’s release.
What makes the film so special, in your opinion?
If you ask any historian to cite the best performances on film, Bob’s performance as Jake LaMotta will be one of them. To me, growing up and seeing that character transformation was just mind-blowing. He went from being as fit as a butcher’s dog when playing Jake in his prime, to putting on 60 pounds in order to portray Jake in later life. I’d never heard of an actor doing that before. There was no fat suit or skilful camera angles. They closed the film down for three-and-a-half months so Bob could go to France, eat the rich French food and put on the weight for real. He had doctors monitoring him throughout the process.
Bob spent hours and hours interviewing Jake and recording his voice – he even studied his breathing pattern. He picked up all of Jake’s subtle traits from spending so much time with him. And the make-up artists even took a cast of Jake’s nose, which is what was used when Bob portrayed Jake in later life. In the book, you can see photographs of these make-up tests. There’s also some great rare photos of Bob in the gym, training with Jake, Jake’s brother Joey, and Jake’s friend Pete Savage. Pete helped Jake write his memoir – Raging Bull: My Story – which was what the screenplay was adapted from. The two of them got into a fair few scrapes together.
Why did the character of LaMotta appeal to De Niro so much?
I asked Bob this question actually. He said that, like any young guy, he always wanted to play a fighter. There hadn’t really been many convincing boxing films at that point, so he wanted to show the gritty reality of the sport. The yin and yang of Jake’s life was another thing that appealed to him. Initially, the film was going to centre on Jake’s early life on the streets. That part of the story was of interest to Bob – how a young street kid turned himself into the middleweight champion of the world. There was also Jake’s anger outside the ring. He had a lot of misguided anger sadly – the way he treated friends, family and loved ones. That was an interesting aspect to his character.
The film was a passion project for Bob, but it took him almost five years to break down Martin Scorsese and get him on board as the director. At first, Scorsese had no interest in it whatsoever, as he wasn’t a fan of sports at all. But when he did finally decide to make the film, he made a great decision to lengthen and widen the ring, which created a big canvas to shoot on. Previously, boxing films had generally been shot from outside of the ring, which meant that the audience were a bit disconnected from it. But Scorsese took the camera inside the ring so that everything was seen from Jake’s point of view. And, off camera, Bob had a punch bag in the ring the whole time, so in between takes he’d hit the bag, then come back into frame with his muscles glistening with sweat.
Did De Niro and LaMotta form a friendship after spending so much time together throughout the making of the film?
They formed a good friendship. They were friends right up until Jake’s passing in 2017. Bob said that Jake was a complicated character – he was very street. But it’s like anybody really. Whatever dark side somebody has got, there’s always a light side too. Bob found that light side of Jake. It was a part of his job to do that really. Otherwise, as a viewer, you’d be watching a two-hour film and you’d have no affinity to Jake whatsoever, which just wouldn’t hold your interest.
What are De Niro’s memories of sparring with LaMotta in preparation for the role?
There’s a few tales in the book about Bob sparring with Jake. One thing that Jake said was that Bob split his lip and broke his tooth, which cost $7,000 to fix. Bob told me that isn’t true. It was just Jake being Jake, trying to sell some copies! Bob said that he was actually frightened of hitting Jake, who was close to 60 years old at the time. What with his famed toughness and hard skull, Jake could’ve still taken it, but Bob said that, as a guy in his thirties, it just didn’t feel right hitting him.
Another rumour came from Pete Savage, who said that Bob knocked out a Golden Gloves boxer in sparring. But, once again, Bob said that didn’t actually happen. There was a young guy who used to sweep the floor of the gym, and one day he got in the ring with Bob, just so Jake and Pete could watch on and orchestrate the moves. These sessions were videotaped and sent to Scorsese, who used them to storyboard the bouts. Bob said that the young guy just slipped when they were sparring – he didn’t knock him out! Jake always said that Bob could’ve become a professional boxer, but Bob refuted that!
The Making of Raging Bull is available to purchase from www.coattail-publications.com