I took me a long time to persuade Joe to watch the Manila fight. I was amazed when I heard he'd never seen it since the day he stepped out of the ring.
It's said that history is written by the winners, not the losers. But with this film you flip that paradigm.
It's true. We all know that Muhammed Ali over the course of three fights with Joe Frazier, technically, came out the winner. He lost the first one. He won the second one in rather controversial circumstances, and then won the third in even more controversial circumstances. So telling Joe Frazier's story from his point of view was, as you say in America, a no-brainer.
When we first approached him with the idea, we didn't really know what Joe was up to. So I went to Philly and spent some time hanging out with him. The first time I met him I was pretty nervous. He's an extraordinary character. At times he was infuriating to film. But those are often the best characters. He's an iconic figure, a good, old fashioned, stand up American kind of hero.
He shuffled out of the back room of his gym, all resplendent. He likes his suits and hats and he kind of looked like a sort of black Jay Gatsby; just immaculate. And his opening gambit to me was, where have you been? And I said, well, what do you mean? He said, I've been here since 1964. What took you so long? It was a great opening line, because it's true: he has been around that long. I felt slightly embarrassed, but I'm like, well, I'm here now. And over the course of several months we just started filming.
I took me a long time to persuade Joe to watch the Manila fight. I was amazed when I heard he'd never seen it since the day he stepped out of the ring. It took me several months to persuade him, and I'm so glad I did because it adds an extra layer of drama to the film. He doesn't really have to say anything. You just look into his eyes. It's all there.
Boxing is an extraordinary sport. I mean, arguably, is it a sport? Is it something beyond that? In many ways it's the purest contest of will.
What other things about Joe stuck you when you first started filming?
Sometimes I'd just film him sitting in silence, not talking about it. I mean, he's got the most extraordinary face, like something out of Mount Rushmore. It's so full of character. And we just decided to put those shots in. It's a terrible cliche that a picture speaks louder than words. But I think in Joe's case, it really did.
In many ways Frazier comes off looking classier than Ali, which is kind of a reversal of the perception most people have of him.
I think Muhammed Ali was, and probably always will be, the greatest sportsman of all time. But we do show that who he was is not quite as straightforward as is often portrayed. It was slightly more complicated and manipulated than that. He's a contradictory and complex character. And I think part of the fascination of this film is people get to see a side to Ali that really does exist. It's not like we sensationalized it. It's there. And it's been a bit of a redress
What did you discover about the nature of these fighters who are willing to risk their lives for the sport?
I'm aware that to just make a film about boxing is not enough. It's bigger than the subjects in this film. Boxing is an extraordinary sport. I mean, arguably, is it a sport? Is it something beyond that? In many ways it's the purest contest of will.
There's a great quote from a boxer who was one of Ali's early victims who also got taunted quite heavily by him. And he said after one of their grueling fights, there's so much contempt and hate in the world and within man. And men hire prize fighters to smash the hate out of each other. And for a boxer it was quite a profound statement.
I believe there's darkness in all of us and I think you get that in boxing. And it's what makes it compelling. I find it hard to watch some of those final rounds in Manila. And yet you kind of keep wanting to. It's that perverse kind of thing.
And the irony is that in actuality the fighters are working in the most controlled and disciplined way. It's not like a brawl. It's not like a street fight. It's the contradiction of boxing. It can be extraordinarily elegant and beautiful, even balletic at times. It's that combination of violence and beauty that makes it an extraordinary and unique sport when it is being completed by two fighters at the top of their game.
For the fighters it's about winning, isn't it? It's about being the best. And there's no purer test than going head to head with somebody over a series of rounds in the ring. It's an incredibly compelling spectacle.