Though Raging Bull is a movie about a boxer, it isn't a boxing movie. Considered by many to be Martin Scorsese's best film - and one of the best films of all time - Raging Bull has won multiple Academy Awards for relaying the story of boxer Jake LaMotta. Many years of hard work went into finding the heart of his story, and some believe the film manages to create empathy for a man whose life was full of anger and malice - even outside of the ring.
The film's behind-the-scenes stories are as turbulent as LaMotta's moods, with several different writers drafting rejected scripts and contending with Scorsese's years-long disinterest in the project. In fact, the director only understood how to turn LaMotta's story into an interesting and compelling film after a nearly life-ending experience. Thanks to Robert De Niro's devotion to the art of acting - and his role as an unlikable sports figure - the film became a great contribution to cinema. The film's boxing rings may be covered in blood and sweat, but stories from behind the scenes prove just as much turmoil occurred off the screen.
After finishing Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese began drinking heavily and ingesting both Quaaludes and coke to further fuel his creativity - he wanted to feel "like [he] could make five films at once." He became so dependent on these substances, he once stopped an interview at the Cannes Film Festival because he was out of coke.
This lifestyle - in addition to a lifelong problem with severe asthma and its negative interaction with his substance dependency - finally took its toll on Scorsese - he collapsed in 1978, suffering from severe internal bleeding. He recalled, "I was kept in a hospital for 10 days and nights, and they took care of me, these doctors, and I became aware of not wanting to [pass] and not wasting [my life]."
Robert De Niro visited Scorsese during his hospital stay and took the opportunity to pitch Raging Bull to the director again. After years of insisting he didn't understand the story's appeal and refusing to work on the project, Scorsese at last connected to Jake LaMotta's resilience through his harrowing incident. He explained, "I went through that rough period of my own. I came out the other side and woke up one day alive... still breathing."
Known for taking his roles seriously, method actor Robert De Niro trained with the real Jake LaMotta to appear and move like a real boxer. He remembered, "I sparred with people with gear on, but we were careful. We weren't looking to [end] anyone." De Niro took his new skills even further by agreeing to anonymously take part in three professional matches set up by LaMotta, of which the actor won two.
After the scenes of LaMotta as a young fighter wrapped filming in Los Angeles, De Niro put the production on hold for four months to gain the weight needed to portray LaMotta as an older, out-of-shape man realistically. He flew to Italy - where he had previously filmed the movie 1900 - and visited all of his favorite pasta restaurants. He then spent four months binging carbs to gain 60 pounds for the role. Doctors were worried about his newly belabored breathing, but De Niro wanted to make his transformation genuine. He noted, "I knew I couldn't do it past that age - I was 34, 35. That was my one chance."
Martin Scorsese worked with producer Irwin Winkler, who assisted the director in getting Raging Bull off the ground. Though he doubted the film, Winkler wanted to support Scorsese and ultimately used his influence with United Artists to help him.
Winkler's production company had recently finished Rocky - a massive hit - and the studio wanted them to create a sequel. By stalling and playing hardball with Rocky II, Winkler bought time to pitch Raging Bull to United Artists. Luckily, the studio was swayed and considered putting another boxing movie into production.
Involved with the film from the beginning, Jake LaMotta helped train Robert De Niro in the art of boxing after being turned down to portray himself in the movie. Despite playing such an integral role behind the scenes, when he saw the finished film, LaMotta found it difficult to watch. The cruelty - especially his anger towards his wives - disturbed him, despite the film being a biopic of his own life.
During a screening, LaMotta asked his wife if his behavior in the film was accurate, to which she replied, "You were worse."
He said afterward, "For the first time I thought, my God, was I [physically antagonizing] my brother and doing all that kinda stuff? It was worse."