Behind ‘The Fighter’ With Filmmaker Keith Dorrington

Keith Dorrington left a lucrative career to pursue his love of film. His documentary about a local boxer’s comeback inspired the award-winning feature film The Fighter.

Lowell, Massachusetts, native Dicky Eklund’s unlikely boxing career—culminating in a fight with Sugar Ray Leonard—was nothing short of remarkable. His downfall was just as swift. A crack addiction, a stint in prison, and a starring role in the HBO documentary High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell left his life in shambles.

“Irish” Micky Ward, Dicky Eklund’s younger half brother, had been a promising boxer himself, but he cut his career short in the early ’90s after a series of losses.

Upon his release from prison, Dicky, with a newfound motivation to turn his life around, decided to train Micky, who was planning a comeback.

Keith Dorrington, from neighboring Billerica, gave up a lucrative career to pursue his love of film. He chronicled Micky’s comeback in the documentary Not Over Till the Count of 10, which eventually turned into The Fighter, a feature film starring Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward and Christian Bale as Dick Eklund.

Dorrington spoke to GMPM recently to discuss his relationship with the brothers, his 10-year project—from its infancy up until the December 2010 release of The Fighter—and what he’s learned along the way.

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You filmed the documentary Not Over Till the Count of 10, which acted as a launching pad for The Fighter. How did you get involved in that project?

I lived in Billerica, the next town over from Micky and Dick, knew those guys growing up, and so we used to roughhouse and go to different bars in Lowell when I was 17, 18.

Dicky was my brother Mike’s age, and those two formed a relationship growing up. When Dicky was released from prison, my brother was helping him along with his AA sponsor, to keep him on the path to sobriety.

My dad also ran a few halfway houses, and was sober himself for a number of years, so I was always around addicts, or people who were recovering alcoholics. I had a soft spot for that—people trying to change themselves and turn their lives around.

So my brother said, around February ’99, “I know you’re into this film stuff, and Dick wants to meet with you. He’s going to train Micky for a comeback. They’re gonna be at the gym tomorrow.”

Micky hadn’t fought in a while, he was 33, but I decided to give it a shot.

The next day we had a foot and a half of snow, and so I didn’t think they were gonna be there, but my brother said, “Oh, they’re there, they’re waitin’ for you.”

I hopped in the car, got down there, and sure enough, there they were, bangin’ the pads away. It was just me, Dick, Mick, and my brother. I had my camera with me, and so I just started rolling it, to capture the moment. I could just see the intensity in their eyes, and I thought, You know what? These guys look pretty good.

Did Dicky have any reservations about the comeback?

Well I filmed their whole first training session, and at the end of it all I said, “Dick, what’s motivating you?”

He said, “I threw my life away to drugs and alcohol, and I want to give Micky one last shot with the dreams I threw away.”

But he was concerned that the city wouldn’t be behind him.

I said, “What makes you think Lowell won’t get behind you?”

He explained that the last time anybody saw him was the [HBO documentary] High on Crack Street, and he was ashamed of it, and thought that at Micky’s first fight he’d get booed.

I said, “Dick, why don’t I film you training his comeback, and we’ll use that as the motivating factor—which it is for you—and let’s show the world Dick Eklund today.”

When did you realize you had something good here?

Before the Roxy nightclub [Micky's first tuneup fight], which was on St. Patrick’s Day, there were three screens that were set up over the ring. I said, “Listen, before they come out, let’s play our video—I want to show the crowd who this guy is now.”

It was a short, four-minute piece at that time, so we showed it before Micky came out, and the crowd went wild—chanting Dicky, Dicky—and he had tears coming out of his eyes.

After the fight ended—Micky had won—I thought, right after that moment, we might have a good story here.

I was involved with them—their daily lives, dealing with [their mom,] Alice, Dick, Mick, the day-to-day struggles—for about a year.

Let’s go back to High on Crack Street, which came out in 1995—what was your reaction to that documentary?

I was bummed by it—devastated, to be honest with you. It kind of knocked the wind out of people. I always try to look at the best qualities in people, and try to focus on that. The story seemed to focus only on the drug use.

But I’m sure it did work on some level. You can watch it—like looking at yourself in the mirror—and then say, “I want to make a change.” It could have been a small motivator for Dicky.

What were you doing before you started working full time with Micky and Dicky?

I had worked in real estate, and the real estate market crashed in ’87, so I looked for something new to do. I had heard that international shipping companies paid well, and so I literally went to Logan Airport and banged on the door, looking for a job. And the guy found that commendable, asked me to come in, and he ended up hiring me. I then worked my way up, and changed companies a couple of times.

But I had also always had this passion for film. My dad and I used to watch old movies together, and it was something I had always enjoyed since I was a kid. So I ended up taking some writing classes at night school—adult-education classes at Emerson College.

For my job I was always traveling, and so on the plane, I’d write a lot and work on scripts.

Then my employer, Tower Group, was about to merge with FedEx, and I found myself in this corporate rat race. It was then that I thought I should try to pursue writing and send out some of these scripts.

That must have been a huge risk at the time.

I really left a lucrative career to do this—I had a house up on the hill on the golf course, and I was also going through a divorce at the time. So I moved from my dream house that I had built to living in a one-bedroom basement apartment at my brother’s house.

I did start doing some real estate again, but I had enough confidence in myself to really go after writing, and ended up putting in a lot of hours.

What struck you most about the relationship between Micky and Dicky?

Mainly their love for each other. No matter what happened day to day, no matter what happened with mom [Alice] getting involved, and whatever daily squabble occurred, in the end [Dicky] would always be there, putting the pads on and training with Micky, making sure he did the right thing. He’d always be in his corner.

In The Fighter, the loyalty and love are pretty apparent.

I can look at it through the lens of my relationship with my brothers—we fight each other during the day, but, you know, if I ever picked up the phone, was in trouble or in a fight, they’d be there in two seconds. We always have each other’s back.

It’s the same with Dick, the same with Mick—it’s how they operate.

And then there’s this idea of being loyal to a fault.

Like all of us, right? If you’re truly loyal, you’re going to be loyal to a fault.

Can you ever be too loyal?

No, not even when you’re doing time—certainly not when it’s for a close friend or brother.

What’s Lowell like today?

It’s still a typical blue-collar town. There’s also been a lot of revitalization downtown, improving the infrastructure, and a lot of white-collar jobs have come with that. I think the revitalization makes it a great city to live in.

Most of the movie was shot there, right? As opposed to a Hollywood set?

Yeah, The Fighter was predominately shot in Lowell. They used the same gym, Ramahlo’s, that the two trained at, and a lot of the characters, like [trainer] Mickey O’Keefe, played themselves. This was phenomenal, when you got a good mix of real actors and real characters, because it’s hard to replicate those guys—they have so much charisma.

There have been a lot of movies recently set in Irish working-class neighborhoods in Boston—Mystic River, The Departed, The Town, Gone, Baby, Gone, and now The Fighter. Why now?

I think the economy is one reason—people want uplifting stories. They want stories about the average person, and their daily struggles to survive. These neighborhoods, this city, can represent that. They want to relate to characters who are struggling just like themselves.

After you finished up your documentary, how did Mark Wahlberg get involved?

Mark got involved in 2003 after we met up with [his brother] Donnie, and Mark then got interested in potentially developing the documentary and the story into a feature film.

Paramount then bought the story and the documentary, and presented the role of Micky to Mark, who accepted and came on board officially at that point.

How did he prepare for the role?

He totally immersed himself—spent a lot of time with Micky—and he trained for probably four or five years. He had the body type down, the mannerisms, moved into Micky’s house for several weeks, trained with him, and got in phenomenal shape.

When did Christian Bale come on board?

Christian came on board in 2008, 2009. He was really able to nail that character, especially considering he has a British accent. To become this nasal, Irish kid from Lowell, it’s not easy to pull off, but on set sometimes, Dicky and Christian would both be there, and you’d turn around thinking Christian was talking to you, and Dicky would be there. It was that good. Or we’d be eating lunch, and you’d swear Dicky was next to you, but it’d be Christian. He stayed in his character off the set, too.

Some of the real life characters had less than flattering portrayals in the film. Do you have any insight into how people such as their mom, Alice, felt when seeing themselves on screen?

I don’t know how they felt, to be honest with you. I know Micky had said recently he was happy with the final product, but who knows—it’s always a difficult thing if you’re family’s up on the screen.

What are Micky and Dicky up to these days?

Well we’re trying to put together a speaking tour, but they both live in Lowell, continue to run the gym; Dick’s now training his nephew Sean Ecklund—a great, great kid. The two also train other fighters and boxers throughout the day.

What’s been your biggest mistake or regret?

When I was in my early 30s, I lost both my parents to cancer. During that time I was climbing the corporate ladder, and I was traveling, and I didn’t really realize that they were actually going to die; I didn’t really believe that could happen. So I think my biggest mistake was that I didn’t spend enough time with them during those final months.

What was your relationship like with your dad when you were growing up?

We had a great relationship—you know, he’s my hero. We grew up in the Arlington projects, and he had been a great athlete, a great student, but had thrown it all away to booze. One day, he told my mother he was going to give up drinking, and he never picked up a drink ever again. After that, he was able to remake himself as a successful real estate agent.

Who’s the best man you know, and how did he earn that distinction?

My older brother Brian is the best guy I know; he’s a guy of reason, he always has your back, and he’s a great father, a great husband—a real stand-up guy. Anybody will tell you that.

We were really close in age—he’s one and a half years older—so we played all sports together: baseball, football, you name it.

When was the last time you cried?

A few minutes ago, when you asked me about my biggest mistake. I guess I’ve always just tried to block it out, but I seriously regret not being there for them during my early 30s. I was trying to please a company, please corporate America, rather than acknowledge that my parents were really dying and only had weeks to live.

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—photo credit: Eric Levin

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About Nick Lehr

Boston native Nick Lehr is a recent graduate of Stanford University, where he earned a degree in American Studies, with a minor Creative Writing. While his fellow students concerned themselves with theses and campus activities, Nick concentrated on his one true passion: Guitar Hero. The hard work paid off; in February 2007, he was crowned campus-wide champion, winning a $100 Amazon.com gift certificate.

Comments

  1. Natasha Barton says:

    Hmmmm. What about his long suffering wife, eh? I wanna see The Film where she wins. from London. X

  2. Tom Matlack says:

    Nick what an amazing piece. Thank you. It hits home on so many levels for me. I just saw the film with my wife and son Seamus (it was his third time, he got thrown out a couple times as well with his buddies because they tried to sneak into the R rated film). I love the back story being really about the hand of AA and addicts being a big part of how this film even got made and the way it was Keith’s endurance and courage along with Micky and Dicky’s that brought forth such a powerful statement about how redemption and fundamental change is possible for us as men. The most powerful scene in the movie, to me, was when Dicky had to watch the coke HBO special in prison and it gets to the point where he sees himself, really sees it, for the first time. He tries to shut the TV off and gets in a fight with the other inmates. He leaves the room and walks out to a dark hall and falls to his knees in the pain of realization. I have been there. It’s a bitch. But it’s also the moment where everything changes. It’s the moment of hope as well as anguish. If that hadn’t happened in real life, Micky wouldn’t have won the championship and there would have never been such an amazing film.

  3. I went to high school with Keith Dorrington. The entire town of Billerica is extremely happy for, and proud of, him. The Fighter is a story that needed to be told and Keith was it’s driving force. Congratulations Keith!

  4. chills. there’s so much here. from the balls it took for Keith to go the non-safe rout, to Dickey’s redemption, to the love between Dickey and Micky, to the “hollywood ending.”

    great questions. great answers. great story. great interview.

    well done, indeed.

  5. I went to college with Keith. Great to hear he is doing so well. Great story Keithy

  6. Love the interview, very insightful and revealing about the sacrafices that were made regarding not only the film, but the passion that was behind it.

    KUDO’S to Keith to a job very well done!

    We can’t wait that long for your next project, so when and what is it??????

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