Diana Guzman is a fighter. At school, she spends her senior year picking fights, defending her only friend Marisol against slights she hardly notices. At home, Diana protects her brother Tiny from their father Sandro and his harsh expectations of what it takes to be a man. For Diana, life doesn't seem to offer her many choices, and she lashes out at every opportunity.
Sent on an errand for her father, Diana goes to the local athletic club, where her scrawny brother is reluctantly training as a boxer. The gym is a dark, glamourless room with a ring, a few punching bags and a bucket of water. But to Diana, it feels like home. Transfixed by the secret world of boxers in training, she spots Tiny sparring with Ray, a jerk who takes cheap shots. When they get out of the ring, Diana decks Ray, barefisted. The men take a step back. Diana has finally found a place where she truly belongs.
As soon as Diana and Tiny leave the gym, Diana begins scheming. Getting Hector, the trainer, to take her on as a student will not be easy, but if she can find the money he won't refuse. Over dinner, Diana asks her father for an allowance to match the money he puts up for Tiny's training. Her brother, an artist, doesn't even want to box, she reasons. Sandro flatly refuses, and instead cruelly insults her - as a daughter and a woman.
Defiantly, Diana steals money from her father's wallet and pawns a cherished family locket. She begins training in secret. Not secret enough. Tiny is humiliated by his sister's appearance at the gym, and gives her the cold shoulder.
Diana quickly learns that boxing doesn't give her the immediate satisfaction of a quick scuffle in the school corridor. She learns that balance, control and endurance are far more important than power. They require determination, discipline ... and a lot of work. Frustrated and sore. Diana stubbornly continues her training with Hector, who slowly warms up to her sheer tenacity, offering words of encouragement when he witnesses her natural- though unrefined- ability.
One night Hector brings Diana to a professional boxing match. "Maybe you'll learn something," he teases. The skilled boxers competing in front of the pumped-up crowd brings on the rarest of sights - Diana Guzman smiles.
Hector is not the only one who notices Diana's talent. As Tiny watches her dedicate herself to training, he begins to understand her passion for boxing. Unable to stay mad at each other for very long, the two make up. Tiny hands over the money their father gives to him for the gym, unable to see the point of continuing when Diana clearly wants it more. "I'm a geek," he explains. "I'll find something constructive to do with my time."
At school, Diana's friend Mansol has noticed a change in her as well. Diana is more relaxed and self-assured than she's ever been; she actually seems happy. Marisol assumes there is a boy at the heart of the matter. Diana confides in her friend, telling her about her secret life at the Brooklyn Athletic Club. Marisol is surprised, but delighted. Diana then proceeds to tell her about Adrian, an attractive male featherweight boxer
Adrian works out with a rival trainer at the gym and is preparing for a life as a Professional fighter. He and Diana have an easygoing attraction, sparring gently with words and swapping jokes about living in the projects while secretly fearing they may never get out. As she continues to build physical strength, Diana becomes more confident and playful, even softer. Their friendship blossoms into a sweet, tentative romance and despite herself, Diana Guzman is slowly becoming a mature young woman.
Watching Diana's progress as a boxer, Hector begins to think that women in the ring might not be such a bad idea. He develops a theory that in fact, a woman might be "a different kind of fighter" than a man, given her lower center of gravity. To test his theory, he proposes gender-blind matches to the owner of the gym, a sure revenue booster if not for the novelty, then for the increased number of bouts on the schedule. Also, there's a shortage of male boxers in the featherweight division, Diana's weight class.
Diana begins making her way toward the featherweight finals. One night, Sandro, unsuspecting, stops by to catch the fight. When he realizes who's in the ring, he storms out. Diana wins the match when her opponent disqualifies himself with a cheap shot
When Diana and Tiny get home, Sandro is waiting. He and Diana get into an argument which quickly becomes violent. This time, however, Diana is prepared. "Everything I learned about losing, I learned from you!" she tells her father. Years of hostility are unleashed, and Diana confronts her father with their mother's suicide, for which she holds him responsible. In a blind fury, she is on the verge of destroying what is left of their family when Tiny convinces her to stop.
Diana begins spending more time at Hector's house, choosing the serenity of his home over the turbulence of her own. To Diana, Hector has become more than a trainer; he has become a friend, and the gentle, loving father she never had.
Winning another match by decision, Diana advances to the finals. The gender-blind program has proven to be a success, and Diana learns who her opponent is for the championship: Adrian.
Through her physical training, Diana has become confident enough to allow herself to become emotionally vulnerable. The burden of this weighs on her heavily as she prepares for the most important fight of her life. In the end she must decide what matters most: winning on her own terms or sacrificing everything she has worked for to avoid a different kind of loss - being alone.
"I've always been interested in the classic story of a nobody who becomes a somebody," says writer/director Karyn Kusama, whose debut feature about Diana Guzman, a fierce young woman who takes up boxing, took home the Best Direction and (shared) Grand Jury Prize at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.
"The idea of a personal growth through physical transformation fascinated me, and I thought it would make an even more interesting story if the main character was a woman," says Kusama.
Yet it's not the physical aspect of boxing that is the heart of "Girlfight." Notes Kusama, "Girlfight is about more than boxing in the same way that Saturday Night Fever (1977) is about more than disco."
The teenage Diana Guzman feels trapped - there seems to be no escape from her battles at school, her dismissive father or her own self-destructive anger. That is, until she discovers an outlet that not only makes her feel at home, it allows her to become someone - and something - else. Diana's discovery of the boxing world facilitates her maturity as an athlete, an adult, and most importantly, as a woman. In finding a place to channel her natural aggression, she tackles the most formidable of human endeavors - change.
Boxing is Brain over Brawn
Kusama chose the world of boxing as the metaphor for her powerful, award-winning story, based on personal experience. A fan, Kusama started boxing in her early twenties and found it fascinating on many levels. The solitude of training in contrast with the immediacy of confronting an opponent in the ring, the physicality of the sport compared to the intense concentration and focus required- all of these things inspired Kusama to explore the sport in her first feature.
In writing the script, Kusama focused on the dramatic nature of fighting in the ring. Says Kusama, "Boxing is very intimate. It's strangely moving to see two people agree to be in a ring together to fight each other, yet it's necessarily tragic - somebody loses and somebody wins. I find it one of the purest sports, a very, powerful confrontation between you and your opponent."
However, adds Kusama, "In boxing, as in any sport, you are confronting yourself."
Kusama found boxing a rich backdrop against which to explore a specific time in eveyone's life fraught with confusion and misdirected energy: adolescence.
"Adolescence is so chaotic," explains Kusama. "Your hormones are on overdrive, and life is such a rollercoaster of feeling. It can be such a creative time -- if all that energy is harnessed. But most kids don't find an outlet where they can shape and focus all that energy. In boxing, one can focus and channel not just the physical energy but the
creative energy, too."
When you're not training, someone else is training to kick your ass
The physicality of boxing and its wordless form of confrontation also seemed remarkably appropriate for adolescence. Kusama notes, "I am very conscious of a cultural trend in depicting teenagers as hyper-verbal, hyper-aware people who are very self-involved. In reality, teenagers are probably the most subverbal, inarticulate, untogether people. They can't help it; they're growing at such a rapid rate their bones are aching." Adds Kusama, "We tend to want to gloss over the messiness of adolescence and daily life. I definitely wanted to try to avoid that in the script."
Instead, Diana's evolution is seen mainly through her progress at the gym. Her growing self-confidence is evident in the increasingly relaxed way she carries herself, looking less like she is coiled and ready to strike as she walks down the hallways of the high school.
Kusama was interested in exploring this conversion. "The progression of layperson into athlete is a fascinating transformation," she notes.
Part of Diana's newfound confidence comes from letting go of her father's low expectations and moving beyond them into her own expectations for herself. And she finds something she's really good at. Impressed by her ability and tenacity, her brother Tiny begins giving the money his father spends on his own boxing lessons to Diana for hers, realizing that he, too, will never be what his father wants.
Notes Kusama, "It's a common story that we are most angry and most difficult when we're boxed in by expectations - either of ourselves, our family or society at large. I think men and women alike feel that pressure to be somebody other than who they are."
Champions are made, not born
In writing "Girlfight," Kusama draws a parallel between life in the ring and the ongoing struggle to become fully involved in one's life outside of the ring.
"If you're not engaged in the ring, you die," she says. "In a funny way, in life, it's similar, it's just a slower death. More than anything, the story is about the struggle to grow and survive."
However, Diana's boxing triumphs in the ring are not simplified to total knock outs; she triumphs not through flamboyance but through sheer tenacity and endurance, winning by decision by fighting a good, clean fight. Likewise, she begins to communicate her feelings with words, instead of violent outbursts, in her relationship with fellow boxer Adrian (Santiago Douglas), demonstrating a vulnerability that hints at an even deeper strength.
Indeed, when Hector asks Diana at the crucial moment of competition, "Inside - you know yourself?." she answers calmly and confidently, "I do."
It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog
Kusama continues, "I didn't plan to make any grand statements with the script, but I think organically something did emerge which was true for the character. The more self-respect and strength she gained, the more she felt in control, the softer and more open to vulnerability she could be. I hope there's something true about life in that."
Upon completing the script, Kusama began working with first-time producer Martha Griffin to secure financing. Griffin and Kusama had wanted to make a movie together for some time. The two had met when Kusama filled Griffin's position as the assistant to writer/director John Sayles, when Griffin began working more heavily on the production end of his films.
Says Griffin, "Girlfight" is a story about the ability to change, the ability to - no matter where you're at, even if you're troubled - change, if you put your mind to it and work hard."
Of the first time director, Griffin says, "Karyn is one of the few young people I have met who knows exactly what it means to be a writer/director and can do that job. She brings a professionalism to her work, and she's truly a visionary. She has a brilliant mind - her mind is what drives this movie- and she has an incredible heart to go with that."
While shopping the script around, Kusama and Griffin showed it to their former boss and current associate. John Sayles became a champion of the project, signing on as an executive producer.
Says Sayles, "I really liked the story...In talking to Karyn about her ideas on how to make the movie; I really got the sense that she had her act together, that she would be a good director. I was impressed by her story-telling ability in the screenplay, and then in her ability to express herself about how she would shoot the movie and cast it."
He adds, "It was like a dehydrated film. You just add money, and you get a movie."
Through Griffin and Sayles, the production gained producers Sarah Green and Maggie Renzi, the producing team of Green/Renzi. Green/Renzi had produced a number of pictures for Sayles, including Secret of Roan Inish, the (1994) Passion Fish (1992) and City of Hope (1991) In fact, Renzi had worked on Sayles first feature as an actor, unit production manager and assistant editor.
Says producer Sarah Green, "Martha brought me the script. It's a great script -- a classic teenage love story. It's so simply written, so beautifully set up, that the boxing becomes just another of the background pieces that make it the special world within the urban contemporary world that it is."
Green continues, "To me it's a love story about a troubled kid trying to find her way in the world. Her world is so violent that it's natural she chooses the realm of professional fighting to find another way. She transforms what's inside her, what she's grown up in, what she's taken from the world, and finds a way to channel it in a way that's safe, powerful and deeply empowering. I realized what a strong message it was sending to girls about empowerment, and I had to do it."
Says Griffin of the production team, "It's a big John Sayles family in a lot of ways. The editor Plummy Tucker has been John's associate editor and assistant editor on his past several movies. Patrick Cady, the DP, was an office intern years ago. We liked him so much we brought him down to Louisiana when we made Passion Fish (1992) as a camera P.A., and now he's a DP - he's already shot a feature."
There were a few newcomers to the team, however, including the Independent Film Channel Production's President Jonathan Sehring and Vice President of Production & Development Caroline Kaplan, who became executive producers on the film. Sehring and Kaplan are quickly building a name for themselves as champions of breakthrough independent films, executive producing for the IFC on such films as last year's phenomenal [Boys Don’t Cry (1999)]
In addition, the production team added a few new family members in production designer Stephen Beatrice and costume designers Luca Mosca and Marco Cattoretti, all referred to Griffin through other New York-based producers.
Casting the Characters
With casting directors Maria E. Nelson and Ellyn Long Marshall of the Orpheus group, the filmmakers began the arduous process of assembling the fight actors to bring the script to life. Based on the strength of the script, the filmmakers were able to find the perfect cast, with actors ranging from film veterans such as Jaime Tirelli and Paul Calderon to flesh talent like Santiago Douglas.
For the role of Hector, the world-weary trainer who comes to life guiding Diana to the championship, the filmmakers selected Jaime Tirelli, a veteran of the stage as well as the screen. Tirelli had appeared in Sayles' City of Hope (1991) and Brother From Another Planet, the (1984) in which he also played a character named Hector.
Versatile actor Paul Calderon was cast as Diana's father Sandro, a flawed man struggling to raise his children in the shadow of their mother's suicide. Calderon has worked extensively in films, including such titles as Out of Sight (1998) Cop land (1997) Pulp Fiction (1994) and Addiction, the (1995)
For the role of boxer Adrian, the filmmakers found the perfect combination of toughness and sensitivity in actor Santiago Douglas. Douglas has appeared on HBO's hit series "The Sopranos" as well as "Law & Order." Having no previous experience at boxing, Douglas dieted for two months and trained for three, losing twenty pounds to play a boxer in the featherweight division.
Douglas explains what drew him to the project, "The script was beautifully written. Adrian and Diana are similar in many ways; they both box as a way of dealing with their personal problems. Adrian sees a lot of himself in Diana. It is a love story about two people faced with making decisions about their futures and each other."
The Search for Diana
Casting the other roles turned out to be fairly straightforward compared to the extensive search the filmmakers launched to find the perfect Diana Guzman. First, the filmmakers set out to find an actress in the fight age group who would agree to rigorous training as a boxer for the role. Then they looked at actors who were older but could play that age. Then they looked at actors in Los Angeles. They auditioned many great actors, but they wanted to find someone as raw and unpolished as the role required.
After exhausting all their other options, the filmmakers took the casting to an open call. Among the 350 actors who showed up was a young woman who had never acted before named Michelle Rodriguez. Prior to the casting call, Rodriguez had done some work as an extra but had no training as an actor. Kusama sums it up: "I needed Brando as a teenage girl and I found her. I really lucked out."
Says Rodriguez, "Around the time of the open call, I didn't have the enthusiasm to go audition for anything, because I'd never acted before, knew nothing about it and I knew people would criticize me and they wouldn't consider me for any role. But for some reason, I just decided other people have done it before, I might as well just give it a shot, so I went for the audition. It was pretty cool."
Kusama elaborates, "Once we put her on tape, despite what a wild card she was, it just didn't matter because she had that quality I'd been looking for- someone who burns up the screen, who holds the screen by sheer presence. There was something about Michelle that seemed like she might be very close to the character yet also one step ahead of her in terms of the discipline and focus. She seemed like she would be able to play both the loose cannon at the beginning and the more disciplined Diana at the end of film."
Once cast, Rodriguez trained for four and a half months to prepare for the role. Says Rodriguez of the boxing, "It was really hard. When you're getting punched in the face -when you're sparring with professional boxers and you can't defend yourself with your hands- you're prone to kicking! That's what I felt like doing, trying to protect myself from this glove that was constantly hitting me in the face ... all I felt like doing was kicking, not playing by the rules. I learned a lot of discipline."
Training for the film prepared her for the role in other ways, as well. Rodriguez explains, "I found myself actually wanting people to pick on me, just walking down the street in New York." She adds, "They wanted me to go pro at the gym. I had to quit after the shoot. I want to keep my teeth."
Kusama also had the distinct pleasure of directing her former boss, Sayles, in the film. The writer/director appeared in a cameo role as the science teacher who drones in the background as Diana and Marisol exchange notes. Of the experience, Kusama chuckles, "It was great, really fun. He came in super-prepared. He had been reading a textbook the night before and had memorized certain fundamentals of the chapters. John is very laid back, but he's got a pretty sly sense of humor. I would tell him something like, 'You've given this lecture five hundred times,' and he would say, 'Okay. You want me to be more boring, in other words.' It was great to have him on set. Whenever he was on set, everyone worked especially hard to impress him. We all worked efficiently in general, but on the days he was around, there was an extra kick."
The look (and feel) of Girlfight
At the same time that the cast was being assembled, Kusama worked very closely with director of photography Patrick Cady in creating the look for the film, storyboarding and choreographing shots in preparation for the shoot. Says Kusama, "Patrick has a zany enthusiasm to do everything he can to communicate the story. We worked for months and months before shooting to come up with every shot in the film. I wanted the film to look like it was from another time, a little bit older, but I wanted it to have a lot of richness in its color as well. It was a long and fruitful collaboration."
The film is economical in its images, each shot conveying a very specific aspect of the characters and the story through the combined elements of cinematography and production design. The colors are sharp and clear, the sets rough but uncluttered. Kusama worked closely with production designer Stephen Beatrice to balance the saturated palette of the film with the gritty texture of the production design. In the gym, vibrant colors and lighting contrast with the peeling walls, the cardboard signs with words of wisdom scrawled in marker. "Those boxing edicts are real," notes Kusama.
Says Kusama, "It was very important to me to make the film approachable and real to an audience but in its own craggy way beautiful to look at. We talked a lot about the concept of newness versus the decay of a leftover, forgotten world. In many ways, boxing is that world - it's an ancient sport." She chuckles, "The best gyms are dumps - there's no shower, there's just a bucket of water and a sink. There's no urge for progress, and I really appreciate that about the sport and the environment that houses it."
The Music of Girlfight
Similarly, the scoring of the film by Theodore Shapiro enhances the world created in "Girlfight," by contrasting old, classical sounds with very contemporary music, most notably during the fight sequences. The fight sequences are accompanied by flamenco-like classical guitar when the fighters retreat to their corners alternating with dreamy, ethereal synthesized music when they are actually fighting, complementing the boxers' internal states.
Says Kusama, "Teddy's really gifted. He has a fresh take on things. He can watch a movie, feel it and hear fresh sounds for it. He understood that I wanted the movie to have some classical background but then be brought into the modern world. Teddy is the kind of person who could listen to all the classical music I loved and all the jazz I loved then bring in classical guitar and update it with drums or spooky synthesizer sounds and marry the old world and then the modern world."
Kusama summarizes, "I was very, very lucky to have so many people around me who wanted to work in a very collaborative way."
"Girlfight" was shot on location in the spring of 1999, over the course of 26 days. The film was shot in Jersey City, Brooklyn, Yonkers and the lower east side of Manhattan, although the primary location was Jersey City, where the boxing gym and the main gym were built and the apartment scenes were shot.