A Fighting Chance

Rick Schroder's character takes a hell of a pounding in his new movie. In his role as the film's writer, director and producer, Schroder had to roll with the punches as well.

Black Cloud started to form four years ago when Schroder -- the kid from Silver Spoons, and now a Scottsdale resident -- read an article about a Navajo boxing coach in northern Arizona. A recovering alcoholic, the coach was steering boys and girls toward the ring -- and away from substance abuse and gang violence. After spinning the story into a script, Schroder faced getting his project financed. Though his 25-year acting résumé includes 40-some films and 200 TV episodes -- most recently, three seasons on NYPD Blue -- Schroder had no directorial experience, and Black Cloud was, by industry standards, "not commercial enough."

"My agents make more money off of me when I act than if I start a new career as a writer/director," Schroder explains, "so they've got a financial incentive to see me fail."

So Schroder took his cause across the country, showing his screenplay to more than 20 Native American tribal councils -- and was repeatedly turned away.

"It was a long time," he says, "probably about six months, before I got my first partner."

That partner -- a tribe in Oklahoma -- called Schroder and said, "'We read this script, and we like what it says about our Indian people.'"

"They like it because it's truthful," Schroder explains. "It doesn't portray Native people as the noble red man. And it doesn't portray them as degenerate alcoholics. It shows their people as they are today. That there's social problems, there are cultural problems . . . this story is universal."

Other tribes followed, getting on board -- and making history. "Multiple tribes had never come together to fund a film," Schroder says. "We have three tribal governments and about 10 individual Indian investors."

Once Schroder had the money, he had no problem getting the names. He cast Russell Means -- star of Last of the Mohicans and, according to the L.A. Times, "the most famous American Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse" -- as the boxing coach. Schroder then recruited veteran boxing choreographer Jimmy Gambina, who trained Stallone for Rocky, De Niro for Raging Bull, and Jon Voight for The Champ -- which was 8-year-old Schroder's film debut.

Eddie Spears, a Lakota Sioux from South Dakota, plays the title character, a young boxer battling his own demons. Between the bouts come revelations. Angst. Substance abuse. And cue the journey of self-discovery.

"It is the new Rocky," Schroder says. "It is about the new underdog that overcomes."

Filmmakers, too, must overcome. When an actor froze, Schroder stepped in "two hours before the cameras rolled" to play a sleazy rodeo cowboy.

The crew shot for three weeks in Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly -- sites sacred to the Navajo -- and at the National Golden Gloves Tourney in Vegas.

The movie debuted at this spring's Phoenix Film Festival, where it scored the audience choice award, as well as honors for cinematography and ensemble cast.

This Monday, September 27, the Valley's first world premiére promises to deliver some serious star power. "We're gonna throw a premiére like Arizona hasn't really had," Schroder says. The screening is open to VIPs only, but autograph seekers are welcome to watch the red carpet arrivals at Harkins Cine Capri, where the Hollywood-style hoopla is set to include a boxing ring, Native dancers and movie merchandise.

In addition to the film's stars -- including Schroder, Wayne Knight (Seinfeld's "Newman"), and country music stud Tim McGraw -- the guest list includes Kevin Costner, Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite himself), Mike Tyson, Oscar de la Hoya, Jenna Jameson, Wayne Gretzky, and Native American tribal leaders.

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Jill Koch
Contact: Jill Koch