By Matthew Nadu
It’s 7 a.m. on the weekend, and former United States Army E-4 Ammunition Specialist John Jillard, Sr. is 100 pounds overweight, shaggy beyond recognition and going to town on a speed bag.
As the sun begins to break through the window pane, sweat beads on his forehead and a camera crew, gaffers and craft services start setting up around him. He pauses for a moment, leans against the ropes, and downs a cold bottle of water. The look of determination never leaves his face.
Jillard is tired of his post-service life, and he’s doing something about it: He’s making the next great boxing movie.
In the tradition of Rocky, the local filmmaker is out to prove that the boxing heroics of Philadelphia are far from being over-documented, and he couldn’t have picked a better time to make his point.
The 7th Annual Philadelphia Film Festival kicked off on Thursday, and there’s been plenty of buzz surrounding this evening’s 8 p.m. viewing at Ritz East A in Old City of Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner, aka The Real Rocky. The heavyweight and New Jersey native once went fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali and was apparently the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s legendary boxing champ.
Both Wepner and former heavyweight champ Joe Frazier, who is also a Philly native, have films in the festival and are participating in Q & A’s with the public. But don’t count Jillard out of that crowd in the future.
Battle – The Film follows a homeless vet who’s lost everything: his job, his family and his will to live.
“He gave up on life,” explains Jillard.
When all seems lost, a local gym owner gives the vet a janitorial job where he’s befriended by an old-timer boxer and begins to turn his once meaningless life into something worthwhile.
“The story is actually about myself and the battles of life,” admits Jillard. “Not to make excuses, but a couple injuries I had in the service led to me not being able to stay in shape, and I gained a lot of weight.”
If you look around the set at Warrior Boxing Gym in South Philly, you’ll notice some familiar faces eager to get the project underway. There’s Brian Anthony Wilson, who recently starred in Limitless with Robert De Niro, and Philly native Bradley Cooper, who’s getting a quick jabbing lesson from local actor and fighter Tom Walton and director Vaughn Goland. There’s former Fox 29 sports anchor Billy Vargus, and legendary YouTube sensation fighter Adam “Speed Bag Scissorhands” Salomon, who are deep in conversation. And both look away enviously every so often at Jillard, who continues to pound the bag alone in a corner.
“After the service, I wrote this movie to motivate myself to get back to the physical shape that I used to be,” Jillard says.
Dedicated to close friend U.S. Marines Capt. Ryan Iannelli, who recently passed away in Afghanistan, Jillard’s film is trying to make a statement for both vets and local filmmakers: Never give up on what you believe in.
As he sweats off another three pounds, Jillard resembles a competitor on The Biggest Loser, but he’s out to prove that he’s a winner. And if you watch him, you get the feeling he will. At a hefty 271 pounds, Jillard looks to drop down to 171 pounds by the end of shooting, sometime in April 2012.
Following in the footsteps of Stallone, Jillard is writing, executive producing and starring in the film.
“The idea of creating a boxing film is an old idea, but I never looked at it as me being the lead in this,” says Jillard. “Yet, being an actor in Philadelphia, the ability to showcase your talent is rare, so I’m not waiting for my opportunity. I’m making it happen.”
Jillard looks to enter Battle – The Film in next year’s Philly Film Fest and prove—once and for all—that a big budget and a studio don’t make a great film, that passion makes the movie.
So, the former fighter walks out of the gym, soaking wet after day one of filming, as the tempting aroma of Pat’s cheesesteaks lurks in the air like the call of the Sirens. Then he pauses a moment, drops his head, and jogs away down the road less taken.
Follow Matthew Nadu on Twitter @matthewnadu.