Please update your flash player...

Interview with Shawn Slovo

Muhammad and cop

HBO

Where did the idea for integrating archival footage into the story come from?

SHAWN SLOVO

From our earliest script discussions, the producers and I agreed that we would not try and create an Ali character, for a couple of reasons: the first is that it would have been hard to integrate Ali in the time period of the film. But the main reason was that the archival footage was just so extraordinary. I thought: Ali tells his own story so well that it was a no-brainer really.

HBO

How important was the source book to the development of the script?

SHAWN SLOVO

Well, the book, "Muhammad Alis Greatest Fight" by Howard Bingham and Max Wallace, for the most part, charts Alis boxing career and then his legal battles from the early sixties. The last chapter of the book describes what happened with the case when it reached the Supreme Court in 1971. But it doesnt go into it in great detail. They write about how the case finally reached the Supreme Court for the second time, and then the case was heard in the Supreme Court, and then the Justices voted, and voted not to overturn the conviction. And then one of the Justices, John Harlan, whos played by Christopher Plummer, he changed his mind. There were no reasons why he changed his mind or what influenced him, but I just thought: theres a story there. Then of course I had to set about finding out who these Justices were, and what exactly happened.

HBO

How much were you able to research and how much did you have to invent?

SHAWN SLOVO

Well, the Supreme Court is a highly secretive organization. And there is very little written about the individual justices. So there wasnt an enormous amount out there to research. I read everything available on the case. But it was a challenge because there was so little that you had to extrapolate from what you learned about the characters relationships, about the case, and then to construct a drama based on that.

HBO are absolute sticklers for historical accuracy. So you cant make up things about the characters just to serve the drama. They check it meticulously. But I find those kinds of boundaries helpful. Having to keep true to the course of events, true to the character, actually gave me enough creative freedom to construct the drama. An example is Justice Harlan, played by Christopher Plummer: his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimers around this time, and he also was diagnosed with a terminal illness. So, you have enough on which to hook the drama - about a man who knows hes dying, whos having to deal with the sadness of a wife that hes losing, and at the same time, has this extraordinary change of mind.

"Frears is that kind of a director who asks all kinds of questions .... and its your job as the writer to find the solutions."

HBO

What was it like working with director Stephen Frears?

SHAWN SLOVO

Well, you develop the script until youre ready for it to be shown to a director, which is what we did on Ali. And then once Stephen read the script, there begins a whole other process, which is exactly what you hope for as a writer. Because its a collaborative process, you hope the director is going to come on and take it to another level. I mean, it doesnt always happen. Frears is that kind of a director who asks all kinds of questions. Hes not a writer, though he has huge respect for writers. But what he does is he asks questions, and its your job as the writer to find the solutions. So when Stephen came on board there was a whole new development process. In fact, when they were in pre-production, I was brought to New York for two weeks and, as it turned out, I stayed for the whole of the shoot. Because Stephen likes to have the writer on set and to be in on rehearsal, in the background; then hell come over and say, is that all right? And you give him your input, and he will take it or leave it as he sees fit. But its really quite a great process. I was on set every day. I felt very useful as a resource for the film, and I had a great time.

Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight

HBO Films