EXCLUSIVE: When Deadline first revealed the fact-based historical drama Harry Haft was being put together by BRON Studios and New Mandate Films with Barry Levinson directing and Ben Foster starring, the premise seemed impossible to imagine. Based on the Justine Juel Gillmer Black List script adaptation of the Alan Scott Haft novel Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano, the film tells the story of a boxer who survived Auschwitz by being forced to fight fellow prisoners in the concentration camps in ghoulish gladiatorial battles. If he won, he got fed and allowed to live long enough for the next bout, while the 76 opponents he beat were led to their deaths in the camps. Haunted by the memories and guilt over the price of survival, Haft attempts to use high-profile fights against boxing legends like Rocky Marciano as a way to rediscover a reason to live and to again find the woman he fell in love with before the war, who fueled his drive to survive the Nazis. Creative Wealth Media is financing the film.
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The film came together with Danny DeVito, Vicky Krieps, Billy Magnussen, Peter Sarsgaard, Saro Emirrze, Dar Zuzovsky and John Leguizamo. Pic is two thirds finished and Levinson, Foster and producers Aaron L. Gilbert and Matti Leshem came to Cannes with Endeavor Content Tuesday to show six minutes to buyers. The subject matter is tough, but it sounds like a film with awards season potential and particularly in Foster, who is always good in films from Hell Or High Water to Leave No Trace, but here lost 60 pounds for the boxing scenes in the concentration camps, and then gained it back to show Haft’s later life. The subject matter confronts issues like PTSD, the horror of the Holocaust and the human resolve to survive. For the director, it brought back memories of an incident from his childhood.
“When I read the script, I remembered when I was four years old, when my grandmother and grandfather lived with us and one day, her brother showed up at the door,” Levinson told Deadline after the buyer presentation. “I touched on it in Avalon. He stayed with us a few weeks, and they had him up in my bedroom. I used to wake up at night and I would hear him thrashing about in bed and speaking in languages I didn’t understand. Night after night, this was going on. I didn’t know what it was about. He moved out and got his own place and moved away. I didn’t find out until I was 16 or so what it was all about, that he had been in the camps. In talking to his kids much later, I found out he never ever discussed any of it with them. He lived with it and the periodic memories coming back. Then I began thinking about it, he was in the camp and people coming out of wars, and now we have defined this as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That was never mentioned then. It was like, okay, you’re out of the camps, the war is over, and you survived and all is good. But it’s not that way for all people.
“This film goes beyond dealing with the consequences of that alone,” Levinson said. “It is, trying to find a life in America, trying to find the girl that he was in love with and he wanted to marry and he’s not sure if she is alive or not. Ultimately, that romance that is tied to the story is, he fought in the camps and he ultimately turned pro and fought various up and coming fighters, Marciano being the most prominent among them. He did this because he was in search of the love of his life, that maybe she would read a paper and know that he was alive and that he’s in Brooklyn. The camps are a backdrop, where he came from, but the film isn’t about the Holocaust. There is romance through it and a man trying to find his way and his place as America continued to evolve, and the difficulties with relationships and with his children. And the survivor’s guilt that bubbles up during the film and what choices did you make and should you have done this or that.”
Foster said he’d done his first film with Levinson – Liberty Heights – and when the filmmaker sent him the script, he committed right after reading it.
“Harry Haft is someone who met incomprehensible challenges and horrors and made a choice, to survive,” Foster said. “What’s unique about this is, it’s not a Holocaust film, or a film just about boxing. It’s not just an epic romance that travels three decades and two continents and it’s not just a gladiatorial piece of survival. It’s a bit of all those things, but it’s about a history of violence that applies to today in a very fascinating way. We keep discovering the threads [of anti-Semitism] that are woven in today’s newspapers in a way where if the viewing public is open to this, I think it will take their breath away.
“It is also what happens to someone who has been used as a tool for either entertainment, war or function, and then thrown away like a broken mechanism,” Foster said. “War isn’t the only place where a trauma exists, we’ve all tasted it in varying degrees and Harry’s experience is unique in that regard.
“The subject matter as described could test an audience’s ability to comprehend such darkness, but one of the attractions of facing this material is Barry’s unique ability to find humor and the discord of humanity and people trying to connect, which grounds it,” Foster said. “This reality in other hands could turn into something maudlin for maudlin’s sake. I don’t believe that’s what we are doing at all. Every day is…jazz. Barry comes in and we approach the material as a living thing, an evolving piece. We’re constantly pushing the limits. It’s a tight wire act, but he’s one of the most generous and dangerous directors I’ve had the fortune of playing with. This is tough material, about a tough guy, but there’s so much humanity in such a difficult place and it’s based in love.”
They’ll head to Coney Island in Brooklyn and finish the film on the East Coast. Josh Sosnoff, Levinson and Scott Pardo produce with Leshem and Gilberg and Creative Wealth Media’s Jason Cloth is exec producer.