The story is fiction, but the bruises are real.
Boston filmmaker and Emerson College professor Amy DePaola is wrapping up production on a feature-length movie based loosely on her own story of redemption in the boxing ring.
Her yet-to-be-released independent film, titled “Laila B.,” follows a woman who, after surviving an assault, trains as a boxer.
DePaola is the writer, the director and the star. But she doesn’t reply on stunt doubles and fancy camera work for the film’s challenging physical shots. She endured the herculean regimen it takes to become a boxer.
“I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I wrote this narrative script and all the training stuff was real?’” the 31-year-old said. “And what better way to make it even more real than to actually sign up for a fight?”
Throughout the summer of 2015, she filmed “Laila B.” at the gritty and celebrated Peter Welch’s Gym in South Boston, documenting her training process for a match with Haymakers for Hope, a charity that raises funds for cancer research by pitting first-time boxers against one another.
A small camera crew captured her training in real time, filming as she jogged on treadmills, taped up her knuckles and took her first swing at the heavy bags, then at real opponents.
As DePaola’s skills improved, she said, so did her character’s.
Like the main character Laila, DePaola, also lived through a violent attack.
In October of 2013, she said, a man grabbed her from behind and hurled her down the concrete steps of her South End apartment, badly injuring her before taking off with her backpack.
Her recovery was long, she recalled. She was tormented by fear, she said, and she still gets twinges of pain in her spine. But she credits the incident with connecting her to boxing, a sport she now loves.
“One might say I had PTSD after I was attacked,” said DePaola. “I like to call it PTG: personal traumatic growth.”
In her real-life boxing match, DePaola lost. She wouldn’t say whether that fact changes in the movie version, but said it’s not a critical part of the film.
“The training is the best part,” she said, referring to her own process as a fighter. “The fight is over and done with in minutes.”
But the training wasn’t easy.
DePaola spent three hours a day, six days a week intensely workingout.
“I cried a lot during the training, I’ll be honest,” she said. “I would find ways to dip into the locker room and have a moment away from the cameras. Once or twice, we caught it” on film.
The movie is full of real moments such as those. She didn’t have to act exhausted and frustrated, because she really was.
As her understanding of boxing evolved, so did her script. It changed “tremendously” by the time she’d spent months enmeshed in that world, she said.
And she repeated what any boxer will tell you: Everything you thought you knew about fighting changes when you take your first punch in the face.
“She gets what it takes,” said Andrea Gurecki, an accomplished amateur boxer who trained with the filmmaker and plays a small role in the movie. “She definitely saw how much heartache you can get, how mentally it can really screw you sometimes.”
DePaola said she thought a lot about quitting, but she didn’t. Now she “craves” training.
Her experience is similar to that of other first-time fighters who compete with Haymakers for Hope, the nonprofit’s co-founder Andrew Myerson said.
“It becomes part of your lifestyle.”
Even though she shot it like a documentary, DePaola said she never wanted to make a fully factual autobiography. She felt more comfortable telling her story with a layer of distance.
“I think, for me, if I did a documentary, I’d be living so much in this place of the past, and this awful thing that happened to me,” DePaola explained. “It’s just a representation of how I dealt with that situation, and how I’m trying to inspire others to look at the pitfalls in their life.”