“It really is a fairy tale, an Oldenburg fairy tale,” says Torsten Ruether about his new film Top cut“how this film came about feels magical somehow.”
Two years ago, Ruether was at Oldenburg, Germany’s most important indie film festival, where he presented his feature debut, Leberhakena low-budget boxing film with a distinct Million Dollar Baby atmosphere: Newcomer Luise Großmann stars as a promising young boxer who tries to convince a disillusioned trainer (Hardy Daniel Krueger) to take her on as an apprentice.
“We had the premiere, the opening night, and at the party afterwards some American producers came up to me and said, ‘This is the kind of story that Americans love. It’s been almost twenty years Million Dollar Baby. We want to do this again for the US'”
Promises made over a few gin and tonics at an international film festival party aren’t normally the kind you can take to the bank, but Ruether got to work on a script. He kept the basic plot, but moved the action from Berlin to New York, changed Luise Großmann’s character Toni (she reprises her Leberhaken role in Top cut) to a first-generation German immigrant, and made the trainer character an African American. The American version also included a second timeline: years later, we see Toni having become one of the few successful managers in professional boxing.
“So we can see it even if we compare the movie to Million Dollar Baby, ours ends up in a completely different corner,” says Ruether. “At first my American partners were very irritated because I took a completely different approach. Instead of making the racial and social conflict between this privileged white girl and this working-class African American man the center of the story, I wanted to create an integrative story where the main driving force is both sides’ curiosity about the other was. ”
The script was circulated and famed casting director Michelle Lewitt (Transformers, Angels and devils) organized a meeting to pitch a name for the role of Elliott Duffond, the African-American trainer.
“We were at Soho House and she said, ‘What do you think of Ving Rhames?’ remembers Ruther. “I started laughing. I told her I wanted a big name, but I wasn’t thinking about superstardom.”
A short conversation with his supporters – Top cutlike it Leberhakenwas funded entirely independently, with no pre-sales, grant funding or studio money involved – and Ruether had the Mission Impossible And Pulp Fiction stars in a pay-or-play deal for a nine-day shoot in LA
“We did all the scenes with Ving and Luise there, in an old warehouse in LA that we decorated as the gym in New York,” says Ruether. “Ving was nervous at first. After twenty years of shooting blockbusters, he was used to shooting two lines a day. Here we made eight pages a day. It was a monster. He stepped out of his comfort zone. And I think he liked it.”
Ruether set up two cameras, filmed dialogue in ‘theatre style’ and improvised elements such as the training sessions between Toni and Elliott. According to him, the chemistry between the two leads was immediate.
“There was a real curiosity between the two that transferred onto the screen,” he says, “during one take we were filming a boxing session with the heavy bag. I was going to do a 30-40 second take, but they were so into it, it was so fascinating that it took me 40 minutes to scream ‘cut’.
Ruether took the material from the first shoot back to Berlin for editing while preparing for the second American shoot, in the section, without Rhames, where Toni’s character is a successful boxing manager.
“There was so much material from the shoot with Ving and it was all so good,” says Ruether. “My editor, Nora Lüders, said, ‘I can make a whole movie out of this.’ That got me thinking: in music there is the idea of plugged and unplugged versions of a song. Why couldn’t we make plugged-in and unplugged versions of our film?”
That’s exactly what Ruether does. “We call them the silent and sparkling versions because MTV has the copyright on plug and unplugged,” he says, “but the version Nora made, the one premiering in Oldenburg, is the silent version. It’s a quieter, more dialogue-oriented arthouse film. With a score by Sting’s guitarist Dominic Miller.”
The “sparkling” version of Top cutwhich Ruether describes as “more mainstream, box office,” features co-stars Joanna Cassidy and Jordan E. Cooper, features a score by music collective Brass Against, and is edited by Savannah Bayse.
“She started from scratch with the same material as the still version, but without ever seeing it,” Ruether says. “And she didn’t choose any of the takes that were used in the first version. So I like to say that these films are not twins, but siblings.”
The American version of Top cut was shot in the middle of the twin strikes with an interim deal from SAG-AFTRA. “I’m so proud of that. We had someone from SAG on set every day and I think they did a fantastic job,” says Ruether. “And we are the kind of truly independent productions, without a studio, without big backers, that they want to support.”
Top cut, the sparkling version, will hit the festival circuit later this year. Ruether is currently purchasing both films from global sales companies.
“We don’t have pre-sales, we own it outright so we can do whatever we want,” he says. “I think this could be a really good place for independent films now because, at least by winter, there will be a gap in the market as fewer films are made and the blockbusters are pushed back to next year. People will miss movies.”