April 21 (UPI) -- His spinal column was literally deteriorating as he thought about all he had lost.
Sam Upton sat in a hospital bed following a nine-hour surgery. He was no longer that star jock, excelling at every sport he put his mind to. His athletic 'career' had effectively ended.
But he didn't sink down in a slumbered sorrow thinking about what could have been. While doctors injected six titanium screws and two medal rods in his back, Upton extracted motivation for the movie he now considers his third child.
He wrote, directed, and stars in the new boxing film Gun.
"To this day, I think back to that day when I didn't make it as an athlete," Upton said. "And it drives me like a voracious rat with rabies, everyday. I am so thankful for that moment, because it could have collapsed my whole life. At the time itself I thought it was going to, but then I realized, your pain is your gold."
"You can use those things to drive you. So I'm getting older now. I realize, man...thank God for that moment because it made me who I am today."
The movie headlines the April 26 Beverly Hills Film Festival at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
"This movie is everything to me," Upton said. "I have two kids and now I feel like I have three children. To make a movie like this it's all hands on deck. You have to die for a movie like this. This is super gritty, down and dirty, cinéma vérité. It's like Rocky meets The Wrestler."
Gun sold out its 6:15 p.m. PDT spot at the festival. The movie stars Mark Boone Junior from Sons of Anarchy, Muhammad Ali's daughter Laila Ali, Kate Vernon Battlestar Galactica, and a slew of actual fighters. MMA star Jared Abrahamson [Netflix's Travelers] and Chicago Golden Glove boxing champ Derek Zugic also take the ring in the movie.
The film follows ex-prizefighter Joe Romano [Upton] along a comeback effort after his son Tommy "Gun" Romano [Abrahamson] is wrongfully blinded during a fight. Romano is an alcoholic bum before beginning a transformation to turn around his life and avenge his son's halted career.
Gun is a redemption story that parallels the trials Upton weathered in his own life. Upton was born with Spondylolisthesis, or a "sway back," as he says in layman's terms. He noticed the condition after his limbs started going limp and he experienced sciatic pain. He felt the symptoms later in life but didn't opt for surgery until six years ago.
"My spinal column was deteriorating, where all the sudden my foot went completely numb where I couldn't feel it or lift it," Upton said. "Three days later I had a nine hour spine surgery. I have six titanium screws and two medal rods put in my back."
"That was a big moment because I've always thought what would happen if you were a top level athlete and everything was taken away from you? I have a son of my own and I think about that," Upton said.
"He's gonna be somebody someday and I think, as a parent, what would happen. Here I am in the hospital room and I have to use a walker and I thought a lot about these things."
Upton said he thought about his idol, Bruce Lee. Lee suffered a bad back injury during training. He was later put in traction for six months. He used the down time to create Jeet Kune Do, the way of the intercepting fist.
"Here I am in the hospital room," Upton said. "I've got this movie idea foiling in my brain and the first thing they say in writing is write what you know. And I thought there it is. One of the characters loses something catastrophic to his life."
Upton's main character in the film is washed up and doesn't give up when confronted with adversity. Instead he uses the pain to push himself to greatness and a new chapter of life. Upton's real-life son is also featured in the movie, while his father Brad Upton composed Gun's musical score.
But this isn't just your average fight flick.
The film features authentic punches thrown by those actual fighters. You won't see camera tricks or phony stunts meant to fool the viewer's eye. In fact, those punches are so real that one of them forced Upton to suffer a "minor concussion." He managed to stay on set that day to direct the rest of the scenes.
"There are actually shots I shot with a Phantom Flex camera when my character fights," Upton said. "The phantom flex is this incredible camera where you can slow things down and shoot at an incredibly slow rate of speed, like 2500 frames per second. For those shots I literally took full on shots to the face so that ramped down at slow motion, on the big screen you see my entire face bend and it's so [expletive] sick. When you see this, it's [expletive] rad....I took real shots."
Before those shots, Upton took his biggest haymaker at age 19.
He dropped out of school, packing up his 1998 silver Acura Integra with $500 and a drum set to stared his career waiting tables and working as a doorman in Los Angeles. He parlayed the hard work into acting roles alongside superstars like Christopher Walken, Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, and Amanda Seyfried.
In 2009 he wrote 20 pages of what would become his silver screen kin. After the ink dried on Oct. 20, 2009, he would write two "really bad movies." It was during that process that he truly found Gun. He raced back to his computer and reread his old words. He wrote the script, using his wife as an editor.
"So I gave her those 95 pages and she basically tore them apart and then I began the process of getting that version right," Upton said. "There is an old saying in Hollywood and it's so true: If it ain't on the page it ain't on the stage."
Upton said he came to Los Angeles like every kid who is inspired by Sylvester Stallone and Rocky in 1976. But he waited like a "prizefighter who hasn't gotten his title shot."
Like Billy Bob Thornton, Ed Burns, Clint Eastwood, and Jon Favreau, he is now among the Hollywood stars who have written and directed their own films. It took 10 versions of his script and the help of producer Mary Ann Tanedo and others who believed in his vision.
"After so many incredible people giving me notes, which are hard to take by the way....It's like you gotta kill your babies. We finally got it to a spot that I thought was really jamming."
Gun also features Upton's best friend Robert Jekabson, a three-time golden glove champion. The fighters rehearsed at Freddie Roach's famous gym Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood.
"So as I was looking forward to playing this part I really, really wanted to have a fighter whether he be an ex-prizefighter or not," Upton said. "There is a swagger, an energy, before we even talk about the technicality of being a real boxer. Fighters have a swagger to them. Everybody wants to be around them. It's just gospel. When you are around them, there is an essence to these guys. You can feel it. You can sense it. Even though my character in the film has completely lost his way, there is still that inside somebody."
Upton studied and trained like a legitimate boxer for three years with Jekabson and fellow fighter Lloyd Weaver. Weaver's brother Mike Weaver was the heavyweight champion of the world from 1980 to 1982.
After making the film, Upton describes Gun as a story of perseverance and self confidence.
"At the root of the movie, it's about regret and overcoming regret," Upton said. "It's about alcoholism and overcoming alcoholism. It's really about believing in yourself no matter what. I know that always seems to be a through line in boxing films, but this is again trying to tip my hat to The Champ with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight..."
"I'm really trying to draw on people's heart strings, between the relationship of fathers and sons and how a choice in your life can either make you or break you and it's up to you to really figure out who you are and what you are going to do with your life."