Ben Younger is not only a film director, he's an all round action man

Former yeshivah student turned film director Ben Younger is also a chef, a pilot and a motorcyclist


With just three films on his CV, American writer-director Ben Younger is hardly what you'd call prolific. His last outing, Prime, was released back in 2005 - a romantic comedy about a young Jewish painter who becomes embroiled with an older non-Jewish woman played by Uma Thurman. When we meet at London's Shoreditch House, I'm half-expecting to see a man burnt out and embittered by a notoriously difficult industry. Soft-spoken but spirited, he's anything but.

"Those ten years didn't go to waste," he promises, perched on the edge of a sofa. Already an enthusiastic motorcycle racer ("for pleasure and plaques" as he puts it), in the period away from directing, he also acquired his pilot's licence. "I fly all over now," he beams. And, what's more, he became a chef in Costa Rica after a friend who owned a restaurant there "had some issues with drug and alcohol abuse". Younger stepped in, working the job for a season.

Now 44, Younger is one of those rare people you meet who can turn his hand to anything. Perhaps that's the jack of all trades nature of directing films. His return to the big screen is Bleed For This, a true-life boxing movie about former World Champion fighter Vinny Pazienza. "I'm not a boxing aficionado," he shrugs, but the story of Vinny Paz as he now calls himself - often dubbed the greatest comeback in sporting history - was too juicy to turn down.

Only the second boxer in history to win both lightweight and junior middleweight world championships, Pazienza was heading for a glittering career when a brutal car crash left him seriously injured back in 1991. "I didn't embellish that," Younger says. "He broke his neck in two f***ing places. I saw the x-ray." The doctors told Pazienza he might never walk again, let alone get back in the ring, but he was determined to defy them.

Wearing a metal brace called a "halo" screwed into his skull, Pazienza - played in the film by Whiplash star Miles Teller - began his painstaking six-month recuperation by working out in his parents' basement without their knowledge. "That's why I think it's valuable as a film," says Younger. "I'm a Jewish kid from New York - if two doctors tell me I have to get spinal fusion, I'll get spinal fusion. OK, I won't box - I'll be an accountant!"

The script was written in cooperation with 53 year-old Pazienza, who seemingly loves the movie. "He still is that person. Really intense. Really motivated. Still works out. It's who he is," Younger says. "Amazingly, for a guy who fought that long with that many fights, he hasn't lost any mental acuity, which is really something considering how many fights he fought. I know guys who fought half the career he had, and they are vegetables."

While the film features some exhilarating boxing scenes, Younger sees the story more about Pazienza's unquenchable desire to fight again. "It's all about the return. Of all the things that Vinny did…accepting the 'halo' was one thing, coming back and fighting was another. But training with that 'halo' on was probably the most dangerous thing he did. More so than going back into the ring. Those are the moments, early days, where his spinal cord could've severed."

It's this madness/obsession that drives Bleed For This, as Pazienza strives to get back to his fighting form. "I don't have anything in my life I feel quite that strongly about, so that was a really attractive idea to me," Younger says. "I was lacking in it. If someone said to you, 'If you do the thing you love the most you may die', you would choose life over that thing – unless you were a child. So that's really fascinating to me."

Even so, Younger related to the nature of Pazienza's remarkable comeback. "Obviously, I didn't break my neck, but when you don't make a movie for ten, eleven years, you might as well have. It's hard to come back." He admits he got "pretty lucky" in the earlier part of his career. "Now, there's something about admitting this is the one thing you want to do. Kinda like Vinny a little bit. If you say this is everything and you don't get it, this can be rough."

Aaron Eckhart, who plays Pazienza's boozy trainer Kevin Rooney, backs this up.

"You can tell by a director's eyes, on a daily basis, about where this movie is going and his expectations for the movie," he says. "And Ben has got that look in his eyes: he's always on the edge of falling off the cliff. That's the look in his eyes at all times; enjoying it in a masochistic way. But always thinking his dream couldn't come true."

Born in Brooklyn, Younger was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household in Staten Island, attending a yeshivah before he studied political science at Queens College. Setting his sights on a career in politics, he became a policy analyst for the New York City controller's office - and later a campaign manager - but when his father died of cancer, it set Younger, then 20, on a different path. "When he passed, I just thought, 'I've got to do something else.'"

While he'd briefly been a stand-up comedy performer in his college days, his love of the arts went further. He'd always enjoyed movies but hadn't been to film school and had no contacts in the industry. "I had no idea who made movies," he says. " Hadn't even considered it as a career. When you grow up Orthodox Jewish…I understand it's different now but when I grew up, there's not a huge emphasis put on the arts. It's not a career. It's about professional careers - keep your head down, learn a profession."

Younger simply wanted to be a lighting technician - or "grip" as they're called. He started to work on commercials and music videos, "I loved those years; they were good years to me," he reminisces. But the work was up and down. One winter, he went for an interview at a less-than-respectable brokerage house on Long Island. "As soon as I saw what was going on there, that cured me of wanting to work there - and it also made me realise that was going to be my first film."

The result was Boiler Room, a muscular tale set in a suburban investment firm starring Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi and Ben Affleck. Grossing around $28 million - some four times its budget - it placated his family, proving he had what it takes to be a director. "Ultimately, the one thing that means more than religion in Judaism is actual success!" he says, "So I think it was a huge question mark when I quit to become a grip, but when Boiler Room got made, everyone was like, 'OK, it's OK!'"

After he made Prime, a film very much inspired by his own upbringing, Younger became fixated on making a film about motorcycle racing - specifically, the infamous Isle of Man TT Race. "When I finished the script, nobody wanted to make it," he sighs. He blames Ron Howard's Rush, the story of F1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. It took $90 million at the global box office - good but not good enough. "Rush ruined anyone's chances of making another Formula 1 movie - it didn't perform."

He now hopes to make his TT Race drama next March - set on one of the world's most dangerous circuits. While he's raced all around the US, Younger says he'd never race there. "It would be madness," he admits. "I've crashed at 180 kilometres [an hour], and just slid on my suit and gotten up. But if you crash at 20 miles an hour on the Isle of Man, you hit a curb with your leg, you're going to shatter your femur. And no-one crashes at 20 - you crash at 180 - which is why when you crash there, you're probably going to die."

From his racing to his flying, it's little wonder that Younger understood Pazienza's unshakeable desire to win. "For me, it's about mastery - the piloting, the racing," he says. "It's about learning a skill set that's hard to come by and you can't acquire with any ease. That's what makes me happy. It's not the thrill aspect. Otherwise I would be a skydiver. I would never jump out of a plane - there's no skill set. It's simulated death. You think you're going to die and you don't, and there's a rush. I'm not interested in that."

With his TT Race film on the cards, Younger is desperate for ensure there are "no more gaps" like the one between Prime and Bleed For This. "I am re-invigorated," he says. "I think there's a level of gratitude that was maybe lacking earlier in my career." Already, he has a prison movie and a western script in development. "I don't want to stop anymore. Every year-and-a-half, two years, I want to be having this conversation." With this sort of attitude, you can believe he will be.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive