Director Richie Keen calls his debut film Fist Fight “a rated-R John Hughes film.”
The story of two teachers, played by Ice Cube and Charlie Day, who settle their differences in the schoolyard after the final bell is more rough ‘n’ tumble than anything the Sixteen Candles director ever attempted but Keen says he learned from Hughes’ habit of making sure the characters were true to themselves.
“John Hughes was one of my idols and he was so good at doing sweet moments. You’d see a movie and be laughing your ass off and then there’d be a real, sweet, great moment.
“I have my radar up that the heart, especially in this movie, comes from a very real character place. I feel like a very typical note that a director and writer might get is, ‘We need more heart.’ For me what they are really saying is that they are not connecting with the characters enough so I was very careful. It’s an R-rated comedy about two guys punching … each other a lot so I didn’t try and infuse false, sweet moments.”
Hughes’ influence dates back to childhood.
“I grew up in the ‘80s in suburban Chicago, in Highland Park, Illinois,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe they were making movies in and around my hometown. I was a little kid and John Hughes started coming into town. In Ferris Bueller there were some great scenes in my hometown. I would hop on my bike and I’d go watch them film. That’s how close it was happening. In high school it was Home Alone. I thought it was cool and this is going to sound strange but every time I was on or near a set I was like, ‘This is where I should be.’ It just lit me up in a way that other things didn’t.”
For years Keen made commercials, short films and was the house director on the hit TV comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia but says “I had no chance of getting this or any movie.”
After much cajoling he landed the Fist Fight gig, with just one proviso. He had to convince Ice Cube he was the man for the job. With just one day’s notice he flew to Atlanta to meet the Barbershop star.
“I had dressed in a nice outfit as my Jewish parents had taught me to do when you have a job interview,” he says. “I started drinking coffee and as time passed I started getting more jittery and more sweaty and by the time Ice Cube was waiting in the lobby I was in a T-shirt and sweaty.”
Intimidated by the rap legend — “The guy wrote No Vaseline,” he says. “It’s intimidating to meet him.” He pitched for 45 minutes, finally ending with, “‘Cube, are we doing this?’ Cube smiled and leaned back in his chair and thought for a second and said, ‘You know what? You flew out here at a moment’s notice. I love what you had to say. Let’s go make a movie motherBLEEPER.’”
The result is a raunchy movie with Ice Cube, some John Hughes-style heart and even some social commentary.
“I really wanted to shine a light on the public school system. Not to be heavy about it but I wanted to ground it in something.”