I have to hand it to director Pete McCormack - he’s made one of the most original and touching documentaries about Muhammad Ali. FACING ALI features untold stories from opponents who faced Ali in some of his most famous boxing matches. I spoke with Pete during the holidays about the process of the film. Unfortunately, technology was against me that day, as the last 10 minutes of the interview got completely skewed, but I did manage to salvage a few of the questions. Take a few minutes to read this interview - Pete’s an interesting person and you can tell in his answers to my questions that he’s purely in this for the love of the job.
GATW: My first question, which is probably the one you’ve gotten the most, is how did you get all these fighters wrangled up and involved with this documentary?
Pete McCormack: The first thing to do was to pick the fighters. For some reason it was really clear to me what ten boxers we needed. I just knew the ones that made the difference in [Muhammad] Ali’s life, not just that Ali affected but that affected Ali as well, either for political reasons or because of transitional fights in his career or because he lost to them or because like with [boxer George] Foreman he was mythologized for beating him and then of course the downfall towards the end. So I knew the first eight or nine [boxers] and I knew exactly who I wanted, [but] around ten it was questionable. But the ten I wanted I was really clear about and then we went for it and Derik [Murray, Producer] got all ten, and I have to take my hat off to that guy because we really fought hard for it and once in a while he would come up to me and say something like “Do we really need that guy?” and I’d say “Yeah, we really need that guy.” So it was really great. But I tell you, we were already editing the film and we still didn’t have interviews with Foreman and [boxer Joe] Frazier yet. So that was interesting, we knew that we had to get them and we were still trying to, as you used the term, “wrangle” them in. But I think, it always takes a lot of diligence whenever I made films, whether I got the people myself or whether someone else was getting them for interviews it takes a lot of repeated planning and work. So you can multiply that by saying we’re doing that with a bunch of boxers, you know?
GATW: One thing I noticed, you shot a good amount [of the film] on handheld [camera] style, what made you want to add that your film? I’m curious as to why you chose to do that.
PM: Well when you say handheld, we only shot with handheld [cameras] when we got [the boxers] on their feet. So in the interview themselves, generally speaking, it was filmed with a jib arm and it followed the guy doing his thing and that was to give a certain dynamic nature to the interview. But getting them on their feet was really important. I really wanted to do that. Two things mattered: I wanted to make sure we shifted the film a lot so it wasn’t a bunch of talking heads, you know what I mean? Secondly, I really thought that boxers on their feet feel more natural and when I asked them about the punching and so on, their muscle memory would all come back [laughs] right away and believe me when a boxer’s muscle memory comes back they can punch still. So I really wanted to get that extra style, just to show the color and the movement of the film because it gave it a lot of push, and it’s really where they feel comfortable. I really wanted these older guys, no longer champions of the world, between the ages of early 60s [to] mid 70s, to still see what they’ve got and I actually told them “Listen, when you punch you can’t punch half-speed here. If you punch half-speed it’s going to look really lame on camera.” [laughs] But that’s a good thing to say to a boxer, it’s good to get to a boxer’s ego right away. So they gave it all they had. And you know, George Frazier had a back injury, and Ken Norton had a car accident and George Chuvalo had a sore shoulder, but it brought them to life to get them on their feet. And I was very specific, I didn’t get them on their feet to say “Hey let’s practice, shadowboxing” I got them on their feet to say, “When Ali was doing this, what did you do?” or “How did you do this when he did this?” and I’d give them scenarios. So it made them feel unselfconscious, I think, up there. But that was a really fun thing to do by the way, except the cameraman had to hold the camera for hours. I punished the poor guy [laughs].
GATW: When you’re interviewing [George] Chuvalo he tells the story about his sons and his wife passing on, and he says that he rarely speaks about that. How did you get him to open up and gain your trust?
PM: That’s a great question. The way my technique was, one, to be very honoring on one level, just being happy to be there and giving them lots of affection. And the second thing was to let them know that I really, really knew their story and the boxing situation inside out so they felt very respected. I remember one time, Joe Frazier said to me “Hey do you know what happened just before I hit Ali with that left hook?” and he was testing me, right? And I was like “I don’t know what he’s trying to ask me here, but I think he’s just saying what was going on in the fight” so I said “Yeah, you hit him with a left hook to the body.” And he goes “Yeah. That’s right” [laughs]. So at that moment Joe was in, you know what I mean? And so with the boxers I think that I brought as much information as I could and stayed as firm and solid as I could and I pushed them in certain areas that they weren’t used to hearing about things. With George [Chuvalo] and that situation, you know, I’ve written a lot about the War on Drugs, my father works in a methadone clinic and my brother is a Doctor of Pharmacy, so I told him that it’s such a powerful anti-drug statement that [he] tells and that it won’t be sensationalized in any way, it will be used in the courage that you [Chuvalo] had to tell it. It actually took about five or six minutes of just sitting there before he talked about it. I actually said to him “George, you know, we don’t have to do this, we don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.” And he said no and then he did it. So it was really a moving moment and I just love the guy and I love the honesty he gave us. I can’t say enough about George Chuvalo and you can put that in there. He was a massive part of making the film.
FACING ALI is now available to rent (Blockbuster, Netflix, Redbox) or buy on DVD (Amazing, Best Buy, FacingAli.com).