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‘The Way Back’ director Gavin O’Connor explains how ‘verisimilitude is everything’ when making a legit MMA movie

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2011 Variety Screening Series: “Warrior” Photo by Jesse Grant/WireImage

Director Gavin O’Connor had to deal with a lot more than just basketball when making his latest film “The Way Back,” which stars Oscar winner Ben Affleck in the lead role.

The movie centers on a former high school basketball star struggling with alcoholism, who is given a second chance when he’s asked to coach the team at his former alma mater. While “The Way Back” spends a lot of time on the basketball court, O’Connor says he never intended for it to be viewed as purely a sports movie.

“I never really thought of the movie as a film about basketball,” O’Connor explained when speaking to MMA Fighting. “I always thought of it as a story about the human condition and Ben’s character is just taking center stage as a man imprisoned by alcoholism and how does he break the chains of that. Then basketball becomes a vehicle for that.

“This is a guy who was a basketball junkie, had a love affair with basketball and that allows him to redeem himself as a man. Because he also gets to become a parent again. When you coach high school basketball or anything in high school, you’re really a parent. You’re parenting. That was an important element for me to dramatize that and find opportunities for him to parent.”

Back in 2011, O’Connor took a similar approach to a film titled “Warrior” that he wrote and directed. Set in the world of mixed martial arts, “Warrior” focused on two brothers, each competing for vastly different reasons, who ended up involved in the same tournament where the winner would take home a $5 million prize.

“Warrior” ended up receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews and actor Nick Nolte was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film.

While boxing movies such as “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” have become a beloved part of cinema history, mixed martial arts has rarely found the same kind of success with critics or audiences. Even famous filmmakers such as David Mamet have taken a stab at MMA in movies like “Redbelt” but the reception has been lukewarm at best.

With “Warrior,” O’Connor seemed to strike the perfect balance between realism inside the cage and a compelling enough story to keep moviegoers engaged for over two hours. To date, “Warrior” has still received the highest aggregate rating on the review site Rotten Tomatoes with an 83 percent approval with critics and a 92 percent score with audiences.

“Verisimilitude is everything,” O’Connor said when asked about making a compelling film set in the world of MMA. “You could just smell it. I grew up playing sports my whole life so I can smell something that doesn’t feel real or honest.

“To me, I wanted to make my own love letter to the sport [of MMA] because I love it so much. I was just hoping that I didn’t fail everyday.”

O’Connor also explained that like almost every successful movie, story ends up being the greatest factor in a film turning into a hit or a miss with audiences. Add to that, O’Connor was able to put together an enthusiastic cast that included future “Venom” star Tom Hardy, who remains a huge fan of MMA to this day.

“If you made a movie and you cast an MMA fighter, you’re probably going to get the MMA part of it right but those movies don’t work if you just get the fighting right,” O’Connor explained. “You have to get the story right, the performances right outside the cage, outside the ring. It requires actors who can deliver a performance outside the cage and then deliver the right performance inside the cage.

“With “Warrior” it was just a lot of work. A lot of work with those guys, getting them ready for the fighting stuff. They really had to commit themselves.”

Finding the right cast along with the perfect story resulted in O’Connor making the best movie possible and he hopes to do the same with “The Way Back.”

“If the story doesn’t work and basketball in this movie especially was just a vehicle,” O’Connor said. “I never viewed it as a basketball movie.

“Warrior,” I always called it an intervention in a cage. One brother was going to beat the sh*t out of the other brother because he loves him. It sounds crazy but that’s what I was going for. He had to save his brother’s life by beating the sh*t out of him.”