Thrilla in Manila is a new documentary covering the legendary 1975 bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. John Dower has directed documentaries on everything from Britpop and Kurt Cobain to NYC soccer team the Cosmos, who signed Pelé late in his career. He explored the fight, cited as one of the greatest and most brutal of the 20th century, from Frazier’s perspective, and thus breathed new life into a subject which can feel a little shopworn due to the pervasiveness of the Ali myth.
The talking heads are of an exceptional standard: Imelda Marcos, Ali’s doctor Ferdie Pacheco, and Joe Frazier, who looms as noble and tragic figure throughout. Dower was a fine, eloquent speaker, and is clearly exactly the kind of man you want helming a documentary of this nature. He does a great job of placing the fight in its historical context, at the centre of a battle for the soul of black America, and the political and social ferment which fed into it. All this made the Thrilla seem like so much more than just a boxing match.
D: I wanted to start by asking you what compelled you to become a documentary maker?
J: I guess I kind of like real stories. It’s as simple as that. I think documentaries, factual stories can give you an element of story telling and drama that you don’t really find in actual movies these days. It’s just largely special effects driven and contrived… not all of them but I think when a documentary clicks, you can’t beat real life.
D: The film I’m wanting to talk about is Thrilla in Manila. What attracted you to that as a subject?
J: I was quite fortunate with that film. I had made some other feature documentaries, I’d made another sports feature documentary about a football team in America in the ’70s called The New York Cosmos and normally what happens is when you have ideas, you kind of tout them around the British broadcasters and drop down on your knees and beg to be let into the channel and if you’re let into the channel, you might get a hearing on your idea, but with this film, I was actually approached by a Commissioning Editor at a British channel, who I’d made some other films for, who had always wanted to make this film, and he knew that I was a big sports nut and fortunately he asked me to make it. So it was a bit of a rarity, it kind of dropped on my lap, which doesn’t happen often.
D: As an aside, if you’re a sports nut, there have been some fantastic sports documentaries over the years. What are some of your favorites?
J: I still think the best sports documentary is When We Were Kings, ironically. The film about Muhammad Ali. There aren’t that many of them to be honest because sports documentaries I think are very difficult to make because firstly, you can’t beat the drama of the actual sporting event and also sportsmen are quite dull, really. They’re trained not to have another life, especially these days, they’re marketed certainly not to have an interesting life. So it’s unusual to come across very good sports characters but When We Were Kings and Hoop Dreams, I guess. There aren’t many. It’s difficult to pull off.
D: One thing I really admired about Thrilla was the ability of it to give a dissenting voice to the whole Ali mythos, to present him and Frazier as equals rather than Frazier as almost a bit player in the whole Ali drama. Was that something you intended to do from the start or was it something which welled up in the story?
J: No, it was always deliberate from the beginning. We deliberately said it unashamedly. There’s this idea that documentary makers are somehow purveyors of objective truth, which in my mind is absolute bullshit. Every filmmaker has a point of view and an agenda in some way. It’s unavoidable as soon as you put the camera on someone, something changes, so let’s not pretend that you’re capturing their life exactly as it happens. We set out to make a film from Joe’s point of view unashamedly. We didn’t set out to trash Muhammad Ali. As I’ve said to you, one of my favourite ever films was When We Were Kings, but there was a side to Ali I think that didn’t quite fit the myth that’s in that film and gets kind of brushed under the carpet and we were very keen to re-address that.
D: Did you read Norman Mailer’s The Fight in your prep to the film?
J: Well I’d read it years ago. We had this dilemma about whether to have Mailer in the film or not. We approached him, he agreed to an interview. We were always slightly concerned about the associations it would have with When We Were Kings, which features him prominently. At the same time, he was an extraordinary character and I wanted to know what his take on the Manila fight was. But sadly, our schedule moved, mainly because of Imelda Marcos actually, who pushed us by a couple of months. By the time I came back to do Norman Mailer, he was very, very ill and shortly afterwards died. That decision was made for us.
D: It must have been incredible to film Imelda Marcos, she’s got to be right up there as a ‘get’?
J: She’s pretty out there, I have to say. She’s as mad as a bag of frogs. There’s no two ways about that. She’s one of those rough old characters, but it was good to get her. Again, that’s part of the thrill for me for making docs, trying to find everyone, to track down all the characters that were there. It’s the thrill of the chase.
D: When you’re trying to get someone like Imelda Marcos, how do you even go about making an approach? There would be so many layers to peel away that it would be very difficult to get there.
J: I think I was quite lucky in that respect. I knew somebody that had made a film in the Philippines and had a fixer that I think had known Marcos and it just kind of works like that, you just keep going until you get the definitive no and then you really get a kind of ‘Fuck off’ no or you get them. Imelda was relatively easy to get.
D: One thing which I found completely shocking was to see where Frazier lived. Such an iconic sporting figure to live, not in squalor, but it’s very modest circumstances.
J: Yep, well it may surprise you, but there are some rather unscrupulous people involved in boxing and I think they sadly took advantage of Joe. It happens in boxing. It’s the cliché that’s in Million Dollar Baby, the guy living out in the back room. It was the case with Joe and, having said that, Joe is very happy where he is. I can’t help thinking that even if he had all the money in the world, he might still live in that room.
D: Well you do get that impression. He’s not a guy who wants for much, he just wants to be around fighters. So what is that area of Philly like? Obviously there are some scenes there but you don’t really get a sense of an area without actually being there. Is it as run down and dangerous as it looks?
J: I have to say I was shocked. I’ve done a lot of filming in America, but to go to an area like that, it’s like ‘Fuck me, this is America?’. I guess it was sort of unfettered capitalism in all it’s glory. That’s what happens with the bottom. It’s just a destroyed place. It was not a good place.
D: You said you’re a big admirer of When We Were Kings. The other big Muhammad Ali movie of the last little while was obviously Michael Mann’s Ali. What were your impressions of that?
J: They’re very difficult to pull off, those biographies, I think. I actually think Will Smith did a great job of playing Ali, I thought he was the best thing in it. Like any other Michael Mann movie, it was beautifully and stylishly made. The problem was, and I think this was it’s mistake, was it tried to cover everything and as a result it kind of didn’t say much. It was quite boring, which is always the worst crime of a film, and rather tellingly, like all the other Ali films, it ended at the Rumble in the Jungle. It didn’t go near the Thrilla in Manila. I think they are difficult to pull off, those real life biographies. I think the Johnny Cash film did it well, but then they didn’t try and include absolutely everything in the story, which I always think is a mistake. Just to throw in the kitchen sink.
D: I read that it was quite hard for you to get Joe Frazier to watch footage of the fight. Was that the case?
J: Yeah, it took me months. To watch the Thrilla, it took me absolutely months to get him to see it. I don’t know why. Apparently Ali’s never watched that fight again and a writer once tried to get him to watch it and he said ‘Why would I want to look at hell again?’. I also think Joe’s an incredibly proud guy and he’s certainly watched the first fight a few times.
D: In the process of making the film, you said it was unashamedly a partisan effort in some respect. Did it change the way that you felt about Muhammad Ali?
J: Not really, no. I still think he is and always will be the greatest sportsman ever. We do suggest in the film that his reasons for going to Vietnam were not quite as straightforward as they’re always portrayed, but yet he still didn’t go and it was an immense, terrible sacrifice. You can’t imagine someone like David Beckham saying ‘I’m going to forego three years of my salary because I don’t agree with the war in Iraq’. But I always felt, coming into this film, that Muhammad Ali had been turned into a kind of woolly saint and all the interesting, dark edges had been taken off him. So we’re kind of doing him a service in some way to restore that more complicated picture.
D: You say that David Beckham wouldn’t trade three years of his salary, and I totally agree, but why is it that sportsmen nowadays, with a few obvious exceptions, lack for the passions and the character that you seemed to get in sportsmen of years gone by?
J: I think it comes down to money and marketing. I just think you can’t say anything controversial because you’re so heavily managed, which is what’s interesting about Joe because Joe genuinely doesn’t care. I can’t imagine anyone being able to control him, if Nike or Adidas were in charge of him. Can you imagine the marketing team that would descend on him after he made that comment about pushing Ali in the Olympic flame? They’d be like ‘You can’t say this kind of stuff!’ But I think Joe’s a real human being in that respect, he’s still upset by it. In some respects, why shouldn’t he be?
D: What was it about the fight which aroused such monumental passions you see played out in the film and you see still echoing now, over 30 years after the fact?
J: I just think sporting contests of that magnitude are rare. It takes a lot of factors. Like the Ashes in 2005, it was a combination of two quite closely matched teams, some great bowling, which was lacking in the most recent Ashes, and they just clicked at the right time and it produced the most extraordinary cricket series, for instance. I think it was the same with Ali and Frazier. They were two very different boxers of two very different styles and they brought out the best in each other. I think, as I say in the film, Frazier was the one fighter that Ali truly feared, especially as he was the first fighter to ever beat him and knock him down. I think that’s why those fights had so much riding on them and it was all to play for in the final one.
D: Just on that subject, the 2005 Ashes kind of cries out to be documented. Is that a project which might interest you?
J: No, really, because I just don’t think there’s enough to hang on it. I do believe that any good film, whether it’s a sports film or not, without sounding like too much of a wanker, needs to be layered. It needs to have these other elements that make it more intriguing. With this, you had the backdrop of ’70s racial politics. You had a blood feud between two characters. You could forget the boxing and say this is a story about betrayal. It has those other elements, and while the Ashes was an incredible sporting event, there’s not really much else there for a film. I’d quite happily watch the box set of the actual matches again, but there’s not enough, I think, around it to make it a bigger film. I don’t think there’s much more than the actual action.
D: Returning to Thrilla in Manila. You got a really good array of people who were close to it, from a small level, up to Marcos and Frazier. Was it tough to track them down and were any reticent about participating?
J: This is one of those great films in which people were very forthcoming. Once you found them, for instance, the corner man, who’s the last surviving corner man in Joe’s corner, everyone said ‘Don’t bother with him. He’s shot, his mind’s gone’. Which only made me even keener to find him, and we found him and he was a bit confused and he was mixing up fights and jumbling them up, and we thought we’d give it a go and we went along and I took my computer and I had a copy of the fight on it and started showing it to him and the light bulb went off in his head and it was like he was transported back there, which was, again it’s what makes doing these films so great.
D: Was there a moment when you were filming it when you realised this was all going to work out pretty well for you?
J: Yeah… It’s unusual to have, there were a lot of interviews, Joe took a lot of time to warm up in some respects. He was very wary of us. There were a few interviews in the beginning that didn’t really yield very much. But I think it’s the test of a good documentary maker or a good film is just the patience. If you think the story’s there, you wait on it. I always thought Joe was a great character and I thought it was a great story.
D: Ali’s doctor Ferdie Pacheco, to me, comes off as the least sympathetic guy in the film. There’s almost a cruelty about him towards Frazier, which is kind of distasteful at this distance.
J: Yeah, but he’s a great character, you kind of need those people to make these films. We’d have one person in the film that would take Ali’s view and he was a great one because he was not beholden to Muhammad Ali anymore and yet he’s just a great character. When you walk into a room and you’re going to do a series of interviews with someone like him, you rub your hands with glee.
D: Boxing in general seems to be the sport which has translated best to filming and has an inordinate amount of celluloid devoted to it. Why do you think that is?
J: It goes beyond sport. It’s like the purest contest of will. It’s man against man and nothing else and we’re intrigued by what it requires to do that. It’s got this kind of violence to it and films like violence. But there’s also this strange beauty to it and you’ve also got to be some kind of character to do that, which lends itself to good fictional characters.
D: Before you go, I was just wondering what projects you’re working on now?
J: I’ve literally just finished a drama documentary about two politicians in our country, so a very, very different film. It’s more comedy than anything else.
D: Which politicians?
J: David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
D: Boris Johnson’s a hell of a character.
J: Yes, he certainly is
Here’s the trailer. Thrilla in Manila is available now on DVD through Shock. I highly recommend it.