By Sonya Vartabedian
Newburyport Daily News
July 03, 2009
It was the start of a comeback for Lowell boxer “Irish” Micky Ward. But you could also say it was the start of a whole new path for Keith Dorrington.
Ward, a former Golden Gloves champ whose career had plummeted, was returning to the ring in the late 1990s with his older half-brother, Dick Ecklund, a one-time contender just released from prison on drug-related crimes, as his trainer. Around the same time, Dorrington was looking to leave behind a life on the road as head of international sales for FedEx, a job that saw him traveling the world. A closet filmmaker since he was a kid, Dorrington would spend his nights in hotel rooms writing screenplays and yearning to break into Hollywood.
When Dorrington learned that Ward, under Ecklund’s watchful eye and direction, was preparing to fight again, he saw the makings of a great story.
Dorrington began filming in 1999. He initially focused on Ecklund, a former opponent of Sugar Ray Leonard who became the subject of the HBO documentary “High on Crack Street” in 1995, and the fallen fighter’s efforts to rebuild his life.
The story quickly grew into one of two working-class brothers with prize-fighting dreams.
Dorrington, who runs the production company Edgartown Ventures with his partner and girlfriend, Leslie Varrelman, out of her Newburyport home, crafted a documentary about the boxing brothers, “Not Over Till The Count of 10.” From there, he turned it into a short film.
Now, that short has become the basis for the feature-length film, “The Fighter,” which starts shooting this month in Lowell starring Mark Wahlberg (“The Departed”) as Ward, Christian Bale (“The Dark Knight”) as Ecklund and Melissa Leo (“Frozen River”) as their mother.
When the film, which is slated for release in 2011 (although there’s talk it’ll be out sooner), hits the screen, Dorrington will get the “Story By” credit, and he and Varrelman will be listed as executive producers.
“I just knew, I had the feeling inside,” Dorrington said of his initial hopes for the film. “Here (Ecklund) was training his brother for a dream he threw away.
“… There are so many layers to these guys, and they’re so interesting. So many people can relate to them. There are so many family dynamics.”
The road to major motion picture was not without its hurdles. Before “The Fighter” was bought by Paramount Pictures, which has since sold the production rights to Relativity Media, Dorrington and Varrelman shopped it around as an independent film, working with Scout Productions.
Among the first people they marketed the film to back in 2004 were Boston brothers Mark and Donnie Wahlberg. Varrelman said the Wahlbergs wanted to make the film for HBO, but the project quickly mushroomed from a $5 million independent to a $100 million feature film and garnered interest from the major production houses.
From the get-go, Dorrington saw Mark Wahlberg in the role of Ward.
“He’s been living this role for 40 years,” Dorrington said. “I think he sees this as his Oscar winner. He’s had as much tenacity for getting this made as Micky had in the ring.” Dorrington said his own upbringing — he grew up in Billerica and knew Ward and Ecklund through his own older brother — gave him an insider’s perspective on the boxers and allowed him to get at the heart of the story, which at times delves into the “shady side of the boxing world.”
“There’s a real code of ethics in these towns like Lowell and Billerica,” he said. “If you haven’t grown up in it, you wouldn’t be able to work with them.”
Dorrington did all the filming, directing and producing himself and oversaw the editing. He followed Ward and Ecklund through training sessions — sitting on a spit bucket with wheels to film their every move in the ring and following them in his car on training runs. He trekked to the gym around midnight to film a dream sequence using an old industrial light.
He researched their childhood, spending time with their mother and got to see how a young Ward looked up to his older brother and essentially lost his way, giving up fighting after Ecklund went to prison. He studied old films of the brothers’ past fights, incorporating them into his own project.
And his camera rolled as Ward won his first six fights back in the ring by knockout, setting the stage for him to later capture the WBU Light Welterweight title and take on Arturo Gatti in a trilogy of fights starting in 2002 that is considered the best boxing series of the century.
“The whole thing appealed to the studios not just as a sports story, but as a comeback, redemption story of these poor Irish guys who come from nothing,” said Varrelman, who left her job in private investment firms for the entertainment industry to launch Edgartown Ventures in 2004. “It’s got everything Hollywood likes.”
In selling the story to Paramount, Dorrington said he wasn’t just handing it off to the highest bidder. He wanted to ensure not only Ward and Ecklund were rewarded financially down the road, but that he would stay involved in the final product.
He hopes the movie succeeds in showing the “likable side” of Ward and Ecklund.
“The film deals with what motivates them, what’s behind them,” he said.
Dorrington said while he is hesitant to spend time on the set this summer watching the filming, he is confident the right team has been assembled to turn what he started into something even better. He’s anxious to see the final cut.
“They’ll fictionalize it,” he said. “It’s going to be real raw and gritty, good and bad. It’s not going to be this fluff.”
One-Two Punch Fundraiser
Keith Dorrington’s 2001 documentary on Lowell boxer “Irish” Micky Ward and his half-brother and trainer Dick Ecklund that is the basis for soon-to-be-filmed feature film “The Fighter” will be screened Thursday, July 16, at the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport’s Market Square.
The screening is a fundraiser for the 2009 Newburyport Documentary Film Festival. The award-winning “Elegy for the Elswick Envoy” will also be shown.
Dorrington and his Edgartown Ventures partner Leslie Varrelman will participate in a question-and-answer session following the screening. The night will end with a private reception with complimentary pizza at Not Your Average Joe’s at the Firehouse.
The fundraiser starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call the Firehouse at 978-462-7336 or visit www.firehouse.org. For more on the Documentary Film Festival, visit www.newburyportfilmfestival.org.