By Kirk Lang – West Hartford, CT – Five Penske Truck Rental vehicles could be seen parked in front of 146 and 150 Raymond Road this past week. However, it wasn’t a case of anyone moving in or out, but rather, moving on up.
That’s because legendary 1940s era featherweight champion Willie Pep, who was born in Middletown and grew up in Hartford, will see his story immortalized on the big screen. The rental trucks housed, among other items, wardrobes, lighting equipment, and various period props. The interiors of the two West Hartford residences served as the Pep home and Willie’s sister’s home as scenes with actors were overseen by director Robert Kolodny.
It’s been nearly 80 years since Pep won his first world title and most everyone that saw him perform in his prime has passed on. However, writer/producer Steve Loff and actor/producer James Madio want to make sure Pep, one of the greatest featherweights of all time, and arguably the greatest defensive fighter that ever lived, is given his just due. If fighters of lesser skill and legend can see their stories turned into movies, then Pep surely deserves a film.
Pep was the youngest to win the featherweight title (20 years old), was the first boxer to regain the title and at one point boasted a record of 135-1-1. Even after fighting on into his 40s, he retired with a ledger of 229-11-1.
James Madio, perhaps best known for a co-starring role in The Basketball Diaries with a young Leonardo DiCaprio, and as a key cast member of the HBO series Band of Brothers, was told by his boxing fan father years ago that he looked like Pep and that portraying the legend was a role he was born to play. When Loff linked up with Madio in 2008 in Los Angeles, he noticed a picture of Pep on his bulletin board. After Madio gave him the backstory, Loff said he’d be glad to help make the Pep project a reality. Thirteen-and-a-half years later, after a revised script that now focuses on one period of Pep’s life – his 1960s comeback – it’s finally happening.
“We never gave up,” said Loff. “Willie always signed, ‘Keep punching.’ So that was something that always kept Jim and I going. I never felt even years ago when I had the draft that wasn’t getting traction, before I wrote the new draft, I never felt we were dead. I always felt like, for some reason, I always felt like, if we just keep going, it’s not a matter of if we’ll make this movie. It’s just a matter of when. I’m proud that we stayed with it for all this time.”
And as for Madio, he said he’s “dedicated to bringing Willie’s story to audiences and to cement Willie’s legacy in cinematic history.”
And Madio is not above pitching in wherever he’s needed. Shortly after he arrived on location – before he was in wardrobe – he was outside with crew members. When one individual who was helping hold the roof-area aluminum framework of a canopy tent amid strong rains and wind got called away, Madio immediately raised his arm to grip a portion of the framework. Another crew member told him he didn’t have to do that and took over for him, but his quick assist showed his humbleness and that no task is beneath him, though he’s the star of the movie.
Madio said his grandfather (James Madio Sr.) was a “knockaround clubfighter from New York in the late 1930s.”
“No record or serious bouts but he fought for watches and jewelry,” he said. Madio’s father turned him into a boxing fan.
After not getting any support for a Pep movie for some time, Loff revised the original 240-page script from a cradle to grave tale into a faux documentary script focusing on Willie’s comeback in the 1960s.
“It was like a bible, a little too long,” said Loff. “About five to six years ago, I came up with this idea, when our project was floundering, and it was too big a budget, I said what if we had found some documentary footage in the days and weeks leading up to Willie’s comeback. What if I wrote that story and made that the script? And when I did that, that changed everything.
Loff added, “That’s when we really started to get interest. Appian Way, Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company partnered with us on this. It opened everything. I think it was just a more inspired way to tell the story so that reflected on the page. There’s heart and soul in the way this story’s being told now and I was just really excited about that approach, and it afforded me an intimacy with the characters that I wasn’t getting as this objective observer and trying to tell the story of all the facets and pieces of Willie’s life.”
Rain made Friday’s filming more challenging, but it didn’t throw the shoot off schedule, although movie cameras are so sensitive, the sound of torrential rain outside could possibly be picked up and interfere with dialogue. Friday represented day 10 of a scheduled 18-day shoot and the fifth and final day of interior scenes at the Raymond Road residences.
Scenes shot involved Pep, Pep’s son Billy, played by Keir Gilchrist, and Willie’s sister Fran, played by Shari Albert. Cast and crew was scheduled to move on to exterior scenes in the south end of Hartford, where Pep grew up.
And for prop master Diego Quecano, that meant overseeing everything from period cars to car keychains to re-creating license plates, including Pep’s “W*Pep” plate.” The movie takes place in the 1960s but there are various flashbacks to the 1940s, Quecano said. The crew had its work cut out for it when it had to re-create a fight at Madison Square Garden at a local boxing gym. There will be no digital effects for the Garden scene, yet Quecano promises, “It’s really beautiful. You’re going to see it in the film.” Quecano secured 1940s era pencils and pads for the actors playing judges, among other things, from local antique shops.
For scenes at the Pep home, Quecano was responsible for cooking all the Italian food that will be on camera. “And because this is the 1960s, we have a Jello mold,” said Quecano. It’s all about the details. Even a watch Madio will wear has an engraving on the back that says, “For the Champ – It was a pleasure watching you fight.”
The film is being made on a budget of roughly 1.5 million dollars. More often, films are being shot here in the Nutmeg State, in part because of an enticing tax credit not seen in New York City and other locales.
Loff explained Connecticut allows a 30 percent tax credit on all monies, “whether it’s above the line talent like cast and directors or producers or below the line expenses, all of it qualifies for 30 percent tax credit.”
He added, “So if we spent a million in theory, we get $300,000 back. There’s always a loss. You assume a 5 or 10 percent loss. On $1 million, you’re probably going to get $250,000 let’s say. You’re going to lose a little bit, but what we did here is we used that credit, and I’m still working through this process, we’re using the tax credit to take a loan up front.”
Big budget films sometimes get five to six weeks’ worth of shoot time. Blockbuster movies may even get 12 weeks at times.
“We’ve got 18 days,” said Loff. “It’s really tight. $1.5 million is really tight. You can’t pay people what they deserve to get paid for their services. You’re getting a much younger crew, so it’s important that you have good management at the top. We have a few veterans. You sprinkle in a few veterans. We have a great DP, a director that works fast, so despite the fact that we have a young crew, despite the fact we have a short schedule of 18 days and not a lot of money to work with, we’re doing our best to maximize all that and we are on schedule and on budget as of today.”
For many, seemingly random occurrences or run-ins are not so random, and Madio ran into Loff in Los Angeles back in 2008 mere days after his dad told him he looked like Willie Pep.
“That’s when I told [Loff] the Willie story and we immediately started the development process. Over a decade later here we are. Unreal. A dream come true.”
The film’s working title is Pep and is slated for a late 2022 or early 2023 release, according to Loff.