“The Fighter,” a novel written by longtime Columbus resident Michael Farris Smith, is set to become a movie that will begin filming next month. Its big screen title will be “Rumble through the Dark”. Courtesy photo
“(Jack Boucher) drove north and the earth flattened and the night opened its wide, welcoming mouth and picked him up. Stay awake, he thought. Stay hot. Rumble through the darkness with devotion. “
These words appear towards the end of Chapter 2 of Michael Farris Smith’s 2018 novel, The Fighter. The final phrase – “rumbling through the darkness with devotion” – became one of Smith’s favorite lines throughout the book.
It turns out he’s not alone. The brothers Graham and Parker Phillips became interested in directing a film adaptation of the novel two years ago. They loved the line too.
“We knew shortly after we met that we had to change the title (to make it a movie),” said Smith.
“They said, ‘You write down four or five ideas for a new title, and we write down four or five ideas for a new title. Then we compare lists, ‘”he recalled. “I came back with ‘Rumble through the Dark’ based on that line and they said, ‘You’re kidding … that’s on our list too. We love that phrase. ‘”
“Then I knew … these are the right people for the job.”
Smith, Phillips and Phillips – the “right guys for the job” – will begin shooting the film in Mississippi next month.
“We’ll be shooting with Natchez as our home base,” said Smith. “We work with Crooked Letter Picture Company and Tate Taylor. But some scenes are filmed in and around Clarksdale. “
A sense of place
The place is known to Smith, who grew up in McComb. He lived in Columbus for 10 years before moving to Oxford in 2017, where he currently resides. Many of his novels are set in Mississippi.
The fact that the Phillips brothers picked a project in the south is no accident, said Graham Phillips.
“My brother and I read a lot,” said Graham. “And we knew after our last project that we wanted to adapt a book, especially something Southern Gothic.
“There’s just something about the way the landscape projects that is going on in the character’s mind,” he added. “It is really beautiful.”
So two years ago the brothers started reading southern Gothic literature to find their next film. They knew they could have a winner when they saw the cover of “The Fighter”.
“The cover of the book shows a burning field. That ’80s iconography caught our eye immediately, ”said Graham. “My brother read it first and told me to read it. (In the novel) Jack’s memory is shaken. As a child he was abandoned. And you can feel that in the attitude.
“I was only 50 pages when we emailed Michael to ask if anyone had the rights to the book (to turn it into a movie),” he added.
In fact, someone owned the book. That person was Cassian Elwes, British film producer and brother of “Princess Bride” lead actor Cary Elwes.
“We contacted Cassian and his team and shared our ideas with them,” said Graham. “They replied, ‘That sounds good, but we don’t know who you guys are,'” he laughed.
Graham and Parker sent Elwes evidence of their previous work. They also sent their ideas for “The Fighter” in the form of a “Pitch Deck”, a presentation that summarized their ideas for the project.
“You reacted really well,” Graham recalled.
By the time Elwes had blessed the project, Smith had already written the script for it. It was his first.
“Turning a 300-page novel into a 110-page screenplay takes a lot of work,” said Smith. “You learn to trust that at the other end there is a director who is very visual … (the director) makes it possible to turn two pages of a novel into two lines of script.”
Jack Boucher comes to life
And of course a film has to show a character’s inner conflicts, memories and thoughts – instead of narrating. To achieve this requires not only the talent of the director, but also that of an actor.
The book and film focus on Jack Boucher, the adult foster son of a woman named Maryann. Jack is a part-time fighter and gamer and a full-time pill addict.
He owes thousands to a woman named Big Mama Sweet who puts a bounty on his head to get her money. However, Boucher is on a mission to make amends for the mistakes of his past and to tear Maryann’s land and home from the jaws of foreclosure.
Bringing the title character to life is now the job of Aaron Eckhart, perhaps best known for playing Two-Face in 2008’s The Dark Knight.
The Phillips brothers are confident that Eckhart will do the job well.
“(Eckhart) can play vulnerability, but he also has this guarded thing,” said Graham. “He also came to Mississippi a month and a half early to immerse himself in the area: the accent, the pace of life, everything.”
Significantly, Smith is equally confident.
“I firmly believe Eckhart brings Jack’s story to life,” he said.
This belief is not easy to win. Of all the characters in Smith’s six novels, Jack is the one he feels closest to.
“I felt more emotionally attached to Jack Boucher than any other character I’ve written,” said Smith. “All of my characters are like family, but there’s just something about Jack. It was there from day one when he came to the site. “