Had a great little chat to filmmaker Pete McCormack a while back. He’s the chap behind the wonderful “Facing Ali” – a terrifically poignant and welcomingly enriching documentary about boxing legend Muhammad Ali, or rather, the men that he’s faced over the years. Here’s the full unedited transcript.
Pete, great movie. We’ve seen many a documentary on Ali, but never one from the other side of the ring – so to speak. How’d it come about?
There’s actually a book called Facing Ali, and that’s where the inspiration comes from. We got the rights to the book. I then had to work out how to tell this story cinematically. We made some changes from the book – things that would push the narrative of the film forward.
Yeah, I noticed you used the stories of some different boxers. Speaking of, how hard did you want to push them to get their stories out? Did you ever feel you had to pull back?
I wouldn’t want anyone to suffer any emotional trauma or anything like that, but I just wanted to get inside their heads. I wanted to know their lives, and understand them. I wanted to give them respect and love but also push them in directions that would transcend the film and the sports genre. I wanted to take it to a more universal form, where people can relate to their stories and who they are.
And we certainly do feel and relate to them.
George [Chuvalo] when he talks about the situation with his kids? It took him a while to bring that up. I told him it was cool if he didn’t want to talk about it, but he wanted to. I think he’s wonderfully courageous and I think it’s a really moving story about getting through an incredible amount of pain and at the same time it’s a really magic drug telling a story. I think it’s worth it.
You’ve done quite a few doco’s….
Yeah, but this is a different style of documentary for me, but it was a great experience. Uganda Uprising was a far more political documentary, but ironically I really wanted Facing Ali to have a political underdone in the background too – or at least as much as possible. Everything from civil rights movements to freedom of speech to saying no to the war to subjects like incarceration, drug addiction, and simply surviving has a place in the film. Boxing in itself is a political thing because it’s such a compelling but often brutal sport. I wanted the film to have a sense of politics or sociology to it.
How did you get into the documentary film world?
I started in music actually. Then I wrote two novels. Then the novels got optioned for films. I wrote the screenplays for the films. Then I realized that writing wasn’t exactly what I wanted, so I started directing. I still love music, I still love writing – I love writing essays – but I love directing.
Many writers get into directing so they can control their material, don’t they?
Well, a screenplay is an unfinished bit of art. With a screenplay, it’s just a blueprint – obviously it’s a huge part of the film, it’s massively important, but it’s not a finished thing. It’s not done yet. And I like that film, unlike novel writing, is a very collaborative process.
Did you contribute to the â€˜’Facing Ali” Soundtrack?
I wrote the last song. I wanted the song to have a different feel to the other music in the film – all those great soul and funk songs – and so I wrote something.
I have to ask, did you ever consider bringing Ali in?
There was a brief conversation we had about that – but thing is, he can’t speak very well. And as you saw in the film, all the boxers have such an affection for Ali, that they were happy to speak for him. And it’s also not the Ali story, it’s the story of the ten guys that faced him.
What are you working on now?
I’d like to make my second novel, Understanding Ken, into a film. It’s been optioned a couple of times already. And I’m also developing two more documentaries right now that I think would be really interesting – one on the globalization of labour, and one about the war on drugs. Those two things are moving a lot. I’m trying to keep enough balls in the air, ya know?
Both good subjects too.
It’s funny, being a writer and a filmmaker, it’s not like I’m on the frontlines of brutal work, and I don’t do any drugs,
You don’t?! Hey we gotta get that in bold â€˜filmmaker doesn’t do drugs!’ Classic
[Laughs] I’ve never even smoked marijuana.
Good for you!
I should say, I have no problem with marijuana, I mean, smoking cigarettes does more harm – they kill more people.
Are you in L.A?
I’m in Canada actually. Are you?
I’m in L.A, but originally from Seattle.
Oh you’re from Seattle? How did you end up in L.A, Ashley?
Film – same old story
As a journalist, or an actress, or a writer?
Funny enough, I produce – that’s my main gig; I’m a producer.
Yeah, my main thing is producing features, shorts and docs.
How’s that going?
It’s good – but as you can probably attest to, it’s a tough business. But I just started my own production company, so we’ll see how things go.
What kind of things are you producing?
I’m on features now, but I started in the short film world – in an effort to build up credibility.
You understand this obviously, but many don’t, doing a feature is not that much more work than a short. If you can do â€˜half a movie’ you can do a â€˜full movie’ – it’s just more days.
And more money…
Indeed. What interested you about producing?
I love story. I love bringing people together. Since Childhood, I’ve been interested in the business – wanted to write, then I wanted to get into TV, then film school. And I enjoy going out and meeting people and bringing people together on things.
That’s great; that’s a great skill – one I lack.
Yes, but directing is no walk in the park either.
True. I can’t make a decision on my own though [Laughs] – should I wash these clothes? Should I start the car?
Ha! Tell us about â€˜’Understanding Ken”
It’s a book cum screenplay about a ten year-old who’s fanatical about the Montreal Canadiens, the hockey team. His parents are getting divorced, but he can’t seem to blame his parents for everything that’s going wrong in his life, so he blames the Montreal Canadiens. It’s a â€˜Wonder Years’ kind of thing. It’s about the pain of childhood, and the joy of it.
FACING ALI is now on DVD