Relentlessly pursuing your goals and never giving up on your determination to attain the success you’ve always dreamed of achieving can be a physically and emotionally daunting task. While ultimately obtaining your objective can be rewarding, that perseverance you fiercely held onto during your journey to get there can detrimental to your relationships and personal life at times. The disheartening descent into the downfalls of your rising success is captivatingly showcased in the new boxing action drama, ‘The Challenger.’ The independent movie, which is set to be released tomorrow in a limited theatrical release at Regal Cinemas, marks the feature film directorial debut of its writer, actor and producer, Kent Moran. The New York filmmaker relied on his own personal experience and love of boxing to accomplish his goal of helming a feature film that in part emphasizes the struggles of his community.

‘The Challenger’ follows Jaden Miller (Moran), a Bronx auto mechanic who’s struggling to make ends meet. When he and his mom, Jada (S. Epatha Merkerson), are then evicted, it seems as though Jaden won’t be able to care for them. So when he meets legendary boxing trainer Duane Taylor (the late Michael Clarke Duncan), Jaden sees the opportunity as a way to keep himself and his mom off the streets. Duane conversely views Jaden an untrained fighter, but he has the heart and desire to become a serious boxer. But the trainer wants to keep himself out of the spotlight during the process, however, and only focus on building Jaden’s talent, as he embarrassing lost his reputation over a past fight that he fixed.

Jada doesn’t want her son to enter the ring, as fighting was the reason he lost his scholarship to a prestigious school. So Jaden lies to her and continues to train with Duane, as the up-and-coming fighter is finding his purpose as he wins back-to-back competitions. As his name grows in recognition, Jaden begins to receive such rewarding opportunities as a reality-show. He’s also offered a chance to fight the welter-weight world champion for his title, for which he would receive a substantial cash if he wins the crown. Jada ultimately discovers her son’s deception, as secrets are revealed from their pasts. They must also struggle with making the decision that would give them true purpose and transform their futures.

Moran generously took the time recently to talk about writing, directing, producing and starring in ‘The Challenger’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he decided to pen the script for the drama after being inspired by boxing as kid, and once he started working on the process, he also became influenced to chronicle the economic pressures in his neighborhood in The Bronx that were caused by the 2008 recession; how penning and helming the film influenced his acting in ways, as his behind-the-camera duties enabled him to really understand Jadan’s backstory; and how he wanted to cast every character, no matter how minor the role was, with the right actor, but didn’t have much rehearsal time with the cast before they began filming, because he wanted to make the scenes as authentic as possible.

ShockYa (SY): You wrote the script for the new action drama, ‘The Challenger,’ which follows struggling Bronx auto mechanic Jaden Miller, who will do everything in his power to save himself and his mother from living on the streets. What was your inspiration in penning the screenplay for the film, and what was your research process during the writing process?

Kent Moran (KM): Well, I came up with the idea quite a while ago. Growing up, I had heard a lot of stories about my great uncle, who was actually a boxer, and he actually had the chance to fight in Madison Square Garden. So that was always interesting and inspirational to me. I was also athletic as a kid. I really love the first ‘Rocky’ and other boxing movies, and they inspired me to get into a work out routine.

But when I actually wrote the script for the film, we were getting into the recession. So I wanted to tell a story about a kid who was feeling the pressures of that situation, and how he used boxing to build a better life for himself and his mother.

SY: Besides penning the script, you also made your feature film directorial debut, after helming the shorts ‘Down on the Ground’ and ‘Without Jill.’ Why did you also decide to direct the drama? How did writing the screenplay help you in your directorial duties?

KM: Well, the first movie that I wrote was ‘Listen to Your Heart,’ which we were able to put into production. On that film, I really learned how important the director is. I was able to second-unit direct that film, so I was able to gain some experience in directing.

So I decided to direct ‘The Challenger’ because it was a personal thing that I wanted to try and do, and I also wanted to tell the story in the way I had envisioned it. I’m really glad that I was able to direct it, and I learned so much while making the film.

I feel like you write a movie three times-when you actually write it, and then when you direct and edit it. So it seemed like a seamless process to write the script and then carry out those ideas as the director.

On the set, were were also able to improvise a bit. As the writer, I was all for that process. Once we did the takes the way they were written on the page, I left it up to the actors to experiment with what they were feeling in the moment. A lot of that actually made it into the final movie.

SY: In addition to writing and directing ‘The Challenger,’ you also portrayed Jaden in the movie. What was your inspiration in also starring as the lead character? How did penning and helming the film influence your acting approach before, and while, you were shooting?

KM: Yes, writing and directing the film definitely did influence my acting in ways. I knew so much about the character from writing the script, which enabled me to really understand the character’s backstory.

But in terms of both acting in, and directing, the movie, that was definitely a challenge. So pre-planning, and knowing everything about my character before we started filming, was really important for that process. So that way, once when we arrived on the set, it was all about becoming the character and having fun as I was interacting with everyone else. So everything did go hand-in-hand.

SY: What was the process of choreographing, and carrying out, the boxing sequences for the action drama, as both the director and lead actor?

KM: That process was pretty amazing for me. I wanted to approach boxing a little differently from the way film audiences have seen it before. I really wanted to show what it means to be a boxer, and that boxing is a real sport.

A lot of times, I referred to it as a dance in the movie, so I wanted to capture that, especially in the final fight. When you have great boxers who are doing the fight right, it’s like they’re doing a choreographed dance. So during the fights, I would just let the music play to the motion of the boxers. There’s something beautiful about watching that process. So I didn’t want to make those scenes bloody or too physically violent, in an effort to show an appreciation of the sport itself.

SY: ‘The Challenger’ also stars S. Epatha Merkerson as Jaden’s mother, Jada, as well as Michael Clarke Duncan as the boxer’s legendary trainer, Duane Taylor, in his last full length theatrical film. As the film’s director, what was the casting process like for them, as well as the rest of the supporting cast?

KM: It was pretty interesting how I found the other actors. I actually met with Michael Clarke Duncan’s agent, who was considering me as an actor at the time. It just so happened that we started talking about the project I was doing, and he brought up Michael. It seemed like a perfect fit, so I sent him the script, and Michael loved it.

Then with Justin Hartley, who played the other boxer (James), he worked out at the same gym that I did at the time. As I was casting the role, I had never met Justin before, but he was actually at the top of my list of who I was looking for to play the character. But I was too nervous to approach him when I first saw him, and thought going up to him might be weird.

So I went to the gym the next day at the same time, and did approach him. I said, “I’ve got this movie I’d love for you to read. I think you’d be great for this role.” So he read it and we had lunch. He loved it, and wanted to play the character.

Epatha, who plays my (character’s) mother in the movie, was always my first choice. I loved her on ‘Law & Order,’ and growing up in New York (where the drama series was set and filmed), I always thought she was a great actress. It was fantastic to get all of them.

SY: Once the rest of the actors were cast, were you able to have any rehearsal time together before you began filming, to help build the characters’ relationships and motivations? Do you feel that allowing the other actors to improvise was beneficial to the story?

KM: I was involved in making sure even the smallest of roles was cast with the right person. So we spent a long time casting the roles. But we were able to rehearse with the main three actors, as well as with the rest of the cast. With the main actors, including Justin and Epatha, we spoke over the phone and in person. Then the entire cast had rehearsal days together.

We did a lot of talking about the character, but I don’t like to rehearse the scenes too much before we actually film them. We usually did one rehearsal before we film the scene on the set. Once I was happy with what we got in the script, I would leave it open so that the actors could improvise. A lot of times, we would would find great moments when we let the actors play around with the material.

SY: Besides writing, directing and starring in ‘The Challenger,’ you also served as a producer through your production company, Wishing Well Pictures. Why do you feel it’s beneficial to also produce the films you write, direct and act in? How do all of your duties influence each other not only on the set, but also during pre- and post-production?

KM: Well, with as small of a budget that we had to make the film, me also working as a producer was a necessity. It’s probably my least favorite hat to wear, but I had a lot of other great producers who helped on this project.

So my duties as a producer on the film came more out of necessity than the work of some of the other producers, like Adam Hawkey, who did an incredible job. He was able to help me make great connections. It was a really great learning experience overall, as I was able to see how all the facets of filmmaking work.

SY: Speaking of shooting the action drama independently, how did that process influence your creative processes as both a filmmaker and actor?

KM: I think the budget constraints were scary at first. I was wondering how we were even going to accomplish making this film on the budget that we had. But it ended up being a blessing in disguise in many ways. It forced us to come up with creative solutions.

Like for the film’s final fight, we piggy-backed on the fight of an actual heavyweight fight event. We incorporated the fans who were already there into the film, and we were able to shoot in this amazing arena with those fans. So we actually filmed it like it was a real event. We had everything choreographed, including the walk-ins to the fight. So we just ran through it like it was an actual event. We only had four hours to shoot the scene, so it as rushed, but we made it as good as we could.

SY: Why was it important to you to set the film in the Bronx, and incorporate New York City into the story as a character? What was the process of finding the locations you wanted to use in ‘The Challenger?’

KM: One of the things that was important to me was to show my character struggling, and making it, through adversity. At the time of the recession, one of the places that was struggling was the South Bronx. Growing up in New York, I intimately knew about the borough’s neighborhoods. The Bronx is an area that has a deep root in boxing. Other than ‘Raging Bull,’ I haven’t seen many films exploring those roots. ‘Rocky’ is set in Philly, so I really wanted to set this film in The Bronx.

So during the location scouting, we found some great local places, like John’s Boxing Gym, which has been there for 35 years. It’s a beautiful locations, and once I found it, I thought, this is definitely the place. We also had a lot of great support from the gym, as well as the local boxing community in general. So we wanted to make it appear as realistic as possible.

SY: The film has played at, and garnered several accolades at, several film festivals, including winning the Audience Award at the Gasparilla International Film Festival, the Palm Beach International Film Festival, the Dances with Films Festival and the Nashville Film Festival. What was your experience of bringing ‘The Challenger’ on the festival circuit? What does it mean to you that it has received praise from audiences?

KM: That was definitely a rewarding process for everybody. Seeing the reception at the festivals, and winning some cool awards, was a great experience. Luckily, it was well-received at the great festivals we were accepted into.

After we worked so hard on the movie, it was a nice experience to see every audience have a different reaction. We heard people laugh at certain points we didn’t think would get a laugh. A lot of the audiences began cheering by the end of the film. That was the kind of reaction I was looking for when I was making the project.

SY: ‘The Challenger’ will be released in a limited theatrical release date (beginning tomorrow), after you made a deal with Regal Cinemas. What was the process of securing the distribution deal with Regal? With so many independent films being released on VOD, why do you think it’s important for them to be shown in a national theatrical release?

KM: We were receiving a lot of great distribution interest. A theatrical release can be very hard for independent films to get these days. But a lot of the audiences at the festivals thought we should receive a theatrical release for the film.

So we contacted Regal Cinemas directly, and they loved the trailer and movie, so they wanted to give it a shot. We were very fortunate that we were able to partner up with them. We’re starting out with about 30 theaters in 10 of the top 20 markets in the United States. When we see how the film does in those markets, we may be able to expand from there. We’re very excited about the partnership, and think it can do nothing but help raise awareness for the movie.

SY: Besides ‘The Challenger,’ do you have any other films lined up, whether writing, directing and/or acting, that you can discuss?

KM: I recently finished writing the script for one of my next projects. I also have a couple other ones that I’m pitching around. I have received a lot of interest for my latest script, which is a love story. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get the money together for that soon.

Interview: Kent Moran Talks The Challenger (Exclusive)

Written by: Karen Benardello

By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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