Everyone loves a good boxing film, and The Challenger does not disappoint. Featuring S. Epatha Merkerson and the legendary Michael Clarke Duncan in his final film, The Challenger tells the story of down-and-out mechanic Jaden Miller’s (Kent Moran) path to stardom as the Bronx’s premier boxer. The film begins with Jaden and his mother (Merkerson) being evicted from their Bronx apartment. Desperate for money and the chance to prove himself, Jaden begins training secretly with disgraced trainer Duane Taylor (Duncan). Despite his mother’s fears for his safety, Jaden pushes himself to a meteoric rise through the boxing ranks, resulting in the match of a lifetime. 

We at RIIFF had the chance to conduct an e-mail interview with Kent Moran, writer, director, and star of the film. Read the conversation below:

RIIFF: This is the second film you have made in which you perform multiple roles as writer, actor, and director. How challenging was it to juggle so many hats at once? What is it about this kind of multi-tasking that you enjoy?

Kent Moran: Yes I definitely wore a bunch of hats on both movies. This one is technically my directorial debut as my brother Luke and I were the “2nd Unit Directors” on Listen to Your Heart. It is definitely challenging to juggle so many different tasks on one film, but I also find that challenge exciting. There’s never a dull moment and I’m constantly learning. My reason for wearing so many hats has often been a result of my trying to keep the budget down. With both films though, I have found wearing all of those hats has been rewarding. Each position has helped me learn a new side of the storytelling process and ultimately helped my directing. I think it’s important for a director to have some experience with these positions. It’s given me a better understanding of what I am looking for from each position. In the future, I definitely hope to wear fewer hats, but I am grateful for the experience thus far.

RIIFF: Your great-great uncle was a professional boxer; this must have been influential in garnering your interest in the sport. Aside from the family connection, what draws you to boxing? Why do you think it is such an oft-returned to topic in filmmaking?

KM: My great-great uncle was certainly one influence. I grew up hearing stories about his fights, some of which were even in Madison Square Garden, which I thought was so cool. Another influence was definitely the first Rocky film. I was very athletic growing up, and in addition to my love for film, I loved sports. So naturally I gravitated toward some sports movies. Rocky (and other boxing movies) really motivated me as a kid. I learned a lot from these films. The power of will and determination, the hard work it often takes to accomplish your goals, and that even after all of your hard work, you may still not succeed, but you just have to get back up and try again. I brought those concepts, subconsciously or not, to my sports and my life. When I became a filmmaker, I was motivated to make a movie that could deliver some of those same messages to a new generation.

I think we see boxing movies come back so often because they lend themselves so well to the journey of a character. Unlike other sports, boxing is one-on-one. When your lead character is in the ring, it’s hard not to get behind him or her. And the bout can play well as a metaphor for the struggle the character is going through in life. Everyone has felt like they were up against the ropes at some point in their lives and if you can get the audience to relate to your protagonist, I think the physical struggle in the ring just enhances our connection to the character’s struggle in the movie.

RIIFF: You have extensive music experience, and it shows in this film—the first time Duane tells Jaden to “dance” is the moment I really started connecting with Michael Clarke Duncan’s character (due in part to Duncan’s fantastic performance in the scene). How does musicality factor into your roles as director and actor? Did you find yourself filming sequences like fight scenes or training montages with a heavier eye towards their musicality than you might have otherwise?

KM: I’m glad you noticed this. I definitely made a lot of distinct music and sound choices. I think music and sound in general are so important to filmmaking. Audio is half the movie. You can completely change a mood or tone to the same exact visuals by just changing the music or sound design. Having a musical background, I always look for ways to enhance the storytelling with sound and music. It was definitely a huge help to have a great composer in Pinar Toprak. Several times in the movie when I want you to feel more intimate with Jaden’s character, I will bring down the background noise and let the score take over. One thing I do in this movie that I’m not sure has been done before in a boxing movie is in one part in the final fight. I take out all sounds besides the two boxers’ breaths and efforts. To me, this really helps gives the audience the feeling like they are right there in the ring with them.

I don’t think that my ideas on the sound and music changed the way I filmed the movie. I would say it might have been the other way around, that my shot choices and editing choices influenced the way I chose to incorporate the music.

RIIFF: Setting is incredibly important in this film—I got the same feeling from The Challenger about New York as I get about Boston when watching Ben Affleck’s early directorial work. How did you go about giving the city itself such a tangible presence in the film? Was that important to you from early on in the production process, or did it come about later?

KM: I’m so glad that you felt that. It was definitely a very conscious choice from the beginning. I always knew I wanted the Bronx to be a character in this movie. Being originally from New York and having spent so much time there, I really wanted to capture what the city “feels” like in this movie. In real life, New York feels “alive” all the time. They say New York never sleeps and part of that is because there is never a silent moment. There is constant noise everywhere: trucks, cabs, subways, beeps, sirens, people talking, etc. There are so many people in New York that there is this constant energy all around you. I personally find it to be a beautiful and inspiring thing. I wanted to capture this energy as truly as I could and that meant everything from the location choices, to the production design, the color correction, and the sound design. I had such a talented team in each of those departments that really helped to deliver the Bronx as I wanted to feel it.
RIIFF: Let’s talk about genre. The boxing/fighting film is a well established genre that includes film classics from the Rocky films to Million Dollar Baby. How did you go about putting your own spin on the genre? Was it intimidating to confront such a hallowed body of work?

KM: It was very intimidating at first. Not only has there been so many boxing movies, but there have been so many great boxing movies that I myself am a huge fan of. So there was a lot of pressure to deliver something fresh and new.

I tried to accomplish this in a few ways. Boxing has changed quite a bit since a lot of those popular movies were made. With the exception of a few very heavily promoted fights, boxing is just not getting the viewership it used to. At the same time, reality shows have really taken over a lot of TV. So with all this in mind, I thought a realistic way that a relatively new boxer could get a shot at the light-heavyweight title would be if a network took notice and decided to do a TV show on him. The show would not only stand alone as a show, but would help establish a fan base for the fight.

When I wrote this project, we were also heavy into the recession. That same underdog feeling I got from Rocky, I felt like we all were living through. We were all underdogs. So through this reality show, I wanted Jaden to represent the underdog that people felt they were. He could be someone that people could get behind as they watch him fight for a better life.

Another way I wanted to separate this movie was by introducing a family dynamic that we don’t see much on screen. I wanted to challenge our concept of what family means. Family doesn’t have to just mean sharing the same blood or even the same race.

RIIFF: Continuing on the topic of genre: The most intriguing aspect of the film for me is the way it deals entirely in adoptive instead of blood families. Many boxing/fighting movies—Warrior and The Fighter come to mind—locate their emotional center in the duty to blood relations. The Challenger very consciously avoids that. Similarly, unlike many of this genre’s films, romance doesn’t factor into Jaden’s arc at all. How do you think these shifts affect the message of the film? Did these choices evolve organically as you developed the story, or were they conscious decisions made later?
KM: I’m glad you noticed these things. As I touched on in my last answer, I wanted to play with the way we’re used to viewing a traditional family. When Jada is introduced as Jaden’s mother, we just enter into the scene and watch them interact. I purposeful don’t explain how or why she is African American and he is Caucasian and how she could still be his mother. I wanted the audience to get invested in their relationship first. I wanted them to just accept them as mother and son and discover the missing pieces naturally as the movie progresses.

In terms of a love interest for Jaden, I actually had written one into the script originally, but it just never felt right. I rewrote it many times, but I felt that it actually took power away from the other family relationships that were so different and interesting to me. I felt that these relationships were strong enough on their own so I decided not to include a love interest.

RIIFF: To me, this film feels like a love letter to three things: adoptive families, New York City, and, above all, Michael Clarke Duncan. In my opinion, it succeeds as a beautiful tribute to all three. Obviously, you could not know that Duncan would pass away so soon after filming; but did you go into production intending to honor found families and the city? Or do you feel like the heart of the film lies elsewhere?

KM: Thank you very much. And yes, those are definitely three main things I really wanted to highlight in this movie. Another message I wanted to convey is, “Fight for who you are.” This is a message that Duane tries to instill in Jaden many times in the movie. The ideas of believing in yourself, being proud of who you are and where you’re from. Jaden struggles with believing in himself and finding his path in life for much of the movie. He is pushed by Duane, his mother and his friends to follow certain paths, but it’s not until he believes in himself and makes his own choices that he can actually grow.

RIIFF: The end of the film is especially powerful in light of Michael Clarke Duncan’s passing. How did Duncan’s death affect the final film? Do you feel like The Challenger is a fitting tribute to Duncan’s life and career?

KM: Michael’s passing had a big impact on myself and the movie. It was devastating for the whole cast and crew and really put the whole movie in a new light for me, for better or for worse. The responsibility of having his last movie pushed me even harder to make the movie itself as good as it could be.

Michael really believed in this project. He came on as an executive producer in addition to acting in it. Working so closely with him on set, we became close quickly. Michael was such a great actor and man that it was important to me that we honored his memory with this film. I hope it is something he would have been proud of. Michael was so good in this role and it fit him so well that I do feel like it is a fitting tribute. I know we did our best to make it that and I hope audiences agree.