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The evolution of Bruised, Halle Berry’s UFC fight film: An interview with writer Michelle Rosenfarb

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From the producers of John Wick, Bruised is the first movie to work this closely with the UFC—and the first to focus the narrative on a female fighter.

The Bruised team, including Halle Berry and screenwriter Michelle Rosenfarb.

Writing and fighting have more in common than people might expect. As a profession, it is more a calling than a job. It requires incredible resilience, the willingness to get up and go again, even after disheartening setbacks. It takes a lifetime to become an overnight success. And while sometimes failure happens in private, it can also make for a public spectacle. Screenwriter Michelle Rosenfarb is not a fighter, but when she started writing the script that would become Bruised nearly ten years ago, she already had some traits in common with Jackie, the hero of her story.

At the time, Rosenfarb had just graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. The fighter she first envisioned was a disgraced Bronx boxer of Irish descent. The character was 23 and had a son, “a baby with a baby,” as Rosenfarb says. The plot revolved around the drama of the protagonist trying to get her child back, while also getting back into the ring after derailing her budding career. Although the story has evolved substantially, the heart of the tale has never changed. “It is a love story between a mother and her son,” she says.

Since that first draft, boxing turned into MMA, Irish changed to black, and the protagonist went from a green prospect to a veteran of the sport looking for a comeback. When asked how many revisions Rosenfarb has put into the script she can only say, “countless.” After years of work, the screenplay was ready to be seen by the outside world.

Once upon a time, Hollywood was in the business of buying speculatively written screenplays. The screenwriter would come up with an original idea, write the script, polish it to a high shine, and then the script would go out to production companies. Sometimes a bidding war would commence. Millions were paid for the scripts that would go on to become movies like Basic Instinct.

These days the spec market is a shadow of its former self, with the Los Angeles Times even going so far as to pronounce the spec market dead. This isn’t wholly true, as evidenced by the numbers. Still, in 1995 there were 173 screenplays purchased. In 2015, only 55—a significant drop.

Roughly two years ago, Bruised found its way to Thunder Road Films, the company responsible for John Wick. Thunder Road has an excellent track record with movies involving action and allowing artists to make their best work. To Rosenfarb’s delight, Bruised became one of the select few spec screenplays to find a home with Thunder Road.

Special Screening Of Lionsgate’s “John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum” - Arrivals Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

Halle Berry, coming off John Wick 3, was attached to star in the film. When Rosenfarb met Berry it was magic. “I had goosebumps,” she says. “And not only because she’s an Academy Award winner and icon. It was because as soon as I met her I knew this was the woman I’d been writing this role for all these years.” It was vitally important to both Berry and Rosenfarb that Jackie “Justice” feel as real as possible, and as a team they tackled yet more revisions. Research into Jackie’s backstory was key, as was understanding the world of MMA, specifically the UFC.

Rosenfarb’s father dabbled in boxing. She grew up with an understanding of fighters, and during her years of revision she trained as a boxer as well, to better know the character she was writing. While this background was crucial in the creation of an authentic protagonist, getting the details of a career in the UFC right required hands on research. Therefore, Berry and Rosenfarb traveled to Las Vegas, getting up close and personal with Dana White, the UFC training facility, and perhaps most importantly, several female fighters. There was one thing they all had in common—hardship. These women had come to fighting professionally after a lifetime of fighting for their own survival, safety, and respect. Rosenfarb, who has also overcome a lot of her own adversity, was inspired by the fighters she interviewed and the character of Jackie deepened.

As Berry continued to work on developing the screenplay with Rosenfarb, it became clear to all involved that Berry’s dedication and ownership of the project necessitated she also direct. While this will be her directorial debut, Rosenfarb makes it clear that, “Halle is a natural born director.” When asked as to whether the sweet-natured Berry makes a convincing fighter, Rosenfarb laughs. “Just you wait,” she says.

Conveniently, the stunt team behind John Wick will also be coordinating Bruised, allowing Berry’s preparation for John Wick 3 to easily roll over into this new project. She has been training hard, even as she begins the time intensive pre-production work of location scouting and casting. Shooting is set to begin this November.

In an industry where the writer is often dismissed and replaced, and rarely allowed on set, Rosenfarb’s experience with Thunder Road and Berry continues to defy the norm—seeing up close her project of ten years come to life. She has nothing but praise for the team behind Bruised, but also notes, “I’ve fought for this story for a long, long time. The writing process is like the preparation before the fight. Revision is like cutting weight. Everything that’s not supposed to be there falls away.” Indeed, Rosenfarb’s work is about to enter the ring.

While movies such as Warrior (2011) have been set in the world of MMA, this will be the first such film with a female protagonist, and the first to be made in such close association with the UFC—setting it apart from other fight films. The fact it is about not just a female fighter, but a woman trying to get her son back makes it even more unique. When asked if this story about motherhood was inspired by her own experience as a mother, Rosenfarb says, “No, I’m not a mother. Hopefully that’s the next chapter.”