At first, director Mat Whitecross may seem like a surprising choice for a project like Showtime’s The Kings.
Whitecross admits that he is at best a casual sports fan who has never paid close attention to boxing. His “outsider” status, however, was invaluable in creating one of the finest sports documentary series in recent years.
Whitecross began his career in 2006 as the co-director (with Michael Winterbottom) of the excellent film The Road to Guantanamo, which mixes documentary footage with dramatizations of the experience suffered by three British Muslim prisoners held at the infamous prison for more than two years without charge.
Since then, Whitecross has gone back and forth between drama (“Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” and “Ashes”) and documentary work—often working with musical artists.
Whitecross made the seminal Oasis documentary “Supersonic” in 2016, and has worked regularly with Coldplay, directing music videos and their 2018 documentary “A Head Full of Dreams.” Nothing in his resume would seem to suggest that this Briton (by way of Argentina) would be a natural to cover the peak years of Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, and Duran, but conventional wisdom isn’t always wise.
In the case of The Kings, the kaleidoscopic view that Whitecross takes elevates the series above simple sport, showcasing the fighters who defined an era and transcended their vocation. In our conversation, Mat and I discuss how he came to the project, the decision to mix sports and politics, and what it’s like to immerse yourself into deep and unknown waters to create a work of art.
David Phillips: So, here’s what interested me when I was doing my research on you in terms of your background in boxing, which is minimal. What’s a fellow like you doing in a place like this?
Mat Whitecross: I definitely felt early on like I might be the best or the worst person on the planet to try to do this, in the sense that I’m definitely approaching it from an outsider’s perspective—and that can be good or it can be a disaster depending on the project and depending on how much homework you’ve done. [Producer] James Gay-Rees and I worked together on Supersonic, and we hit it off so well that in the end of that process James came back to me a few times about other projects. His company was moving more into sports—they did Diego Maradona and Drive to Survive, and a bunch of other stuff. You’re right, my background is not sports. I casually watch sports from time to time but it’s definitely not in my DNA. I love film, politics, music, books, and that’s pretty much it. Especially in this country [England]—and it must be the same in the US—if you are not a football fan, people look at you like there’s something wrong, like you were dropped as a kid. (Laughs).
DP: How did you connect to The Kings so personally, then?
MW: They kept coming to me with these sports projects and for me it’s the same with the music films—no matter how good the music is, there’s got to be a compelling story behind it. If you’re going into a project, you’ve got to know: what’s the story? We were trying to make a film about Brian Epstein and The Beatles. At first, we had the money but no cast, then we got the cast that justified the budget, but then the money went away. James came back and sent a very funny passive-aggressive email saying, “Well, I know you don’t want to work with us. I know you’re not into sports, but we’re sitting on this great boxing story. Everyone’s told the Ali story, everyone’s told the Tyson story, but there’s something in between those two eras that’s just as interesting and no-one’s told it properly and we want to do it and we can do it with Showtime.”
And then he added this caveat and was like, “And anyway it’s not just about boxing. It’s really about that political era and it’s looking at the 80s through the prism of these four guys.” Immediately I started to go through it and I was like yeah, this is kind of ringing a bell. You can’t not know at least a little bit about these guys, especially Leonard.
I said I really don’t know too much about it and I was thinking, is that grounds to be excited about it or to walk away? The more I started reading what they sent me, I thought this is incredible and if they and Showtime stick to their guns and they are happy for us to take this approach, then it’s going to be phenomenal. I’ve never had this experience before and I don’t know if I’ll ever get it again… they were like, “You guys are grown ups. We like what you make. You go off and do it. We’re here to facilitate connection with some of the boxers and some of the people in the background. Other than that we’ll just leave you to it. We trust you.” They stayed true to that.
DP: There’s so much material to cover, even with having four hours to work with. What was it like picking and choosing what to use?
MW: Showtime came over once quite early on, and I’d been cutting with just one editor for a few months, and we had a two hour cut of the first episode and it was supposed to be, at that point, three one-hour episodes. They had a watch and they were like, “It’s great, we love it—but we’re a bit confused. How are you going to preserve all these little detours and the political backdrop and all these asides?” We had even more originally. We dipped into the mafia corruption and Ray Arcel being attacked and his life being destroyed, walking away from boxing, and then coming back to Duran. To be honest, I didn’t know how we would preserve it. We had to cut something and we couldn’t cut the boxing. They said, “OK, well you obviously need more screen time and money so we’ll go away and have a think.” They went away with Fiona (Neilson), my producer, and a couple of weeks later said OK you can have a fourth episode—which was amazing. I’ve never had that before. That kind of threw me into a spin as well. I had been very careful and meticulous and wrote a very long document which outlined every single scene more or less in the show. Trying to figure out screen time was difficult. At one point, we realized we lost Duran for twenty minutes, and we needed to bring him back in. That sort of thing. You’ve got four stories, the subsidiary stories, all the backdrop plus the social and political elements. So, it was complicated. When we got an extra hour it was obviously like a dream.
But now all our cliffhangers are in the wrong places, and you’ve got nine fights that were going to be split over three episodes—but if you’ve suddenly got four, then now what?
DP: It had to be very challenging.
MW: What we were attempting to do is approach this like a Victorian novel—you have all these different characters intersecting, and, at certain points you hop into the bigger picture and try to explain what it means for that era. Originally, we were going to finish episode one with Leonard/Hearns, but Fiona said, wouldn’t it be more interesting to start with Leonard, really go to town with him as the hero, and then have him defeated (by Duran) at the end of the first episode?—that’s a cliffhanger.
DP: With mixing the political and sports and their backstories did you ever think “we bit off a lot”?
MW: Yeah, all the time. About halfway through the process, the sales agents wanted to have a look just to get their team excited about it and we thought, why don’t we go watch it on a big screen? We previewed it, and it definitely felt like two different shows. I’m sure there are people who argue it still is. I think everyone was feeling like we’re switching channels at certain points. That was the bit that was hardest and the bit that we worked on most. I definitely didn’t think it was too much of a reach. There’s a danger that if you open it up like we did in Supersonic and try to tell the story of an era, you might end up making something that’s richer and brings everyone to the table, or, it might just piss off everyone because people who don’t like the music aren’t going to like the music and people who are into the music are like why do you keep on talking about the bigger picture? It’s the same thing with boxing. I try not to look too much online, but every so often you see a lot of people are frustrated and like why the hell have you put Reagan and Carter in that.
DP: The Kings also doesn’t look away from the physical toll the sport takes on the fighters.
MW: When I met Teddy and Bonnie Greer and a few other people, the first question I asked everyone sitting down at the table was, “Boxing has been written about more poetically and more beautifully than any other sport—it attracts some of the greatest writers—and there must be a reason. On the other hand, it’s very destructive. There’s probably more people that end up being hurt by boxing either physically or mentally or financially than those who end up better for it. It’s complicated. It’s damaging and maybe brutalizes us as bystanders as viewers and as fans, so can we talk about that?” I love the way that immediately all of them warmed to that theme. They were very honest. They were all very conflicted about it, even if they had dedicated their lives to it. One of the first things Teddy said was, “Boxing is a metaphor for life. You have two people going into the ring, you’re on your own, it tells you the truth about yourself, it’s the express train.” All these amazing quotes he came out with—and so it didn’t feel to me like we were reaching. It felt like, more than any other sport, it does lend itself to connecting to the outer world.
DP: Not having a background in the sport, did you worry that you might be recycling things people already were familiar with?
MW: Because I’m less familiar with this world, I wasn’t really sure what people would remember. When we were approached to do Supersonic, I grew up in this era, so I thought, is everyone going to be thinking yeah we know they were a successful band, who cares? You’ve got an “in” because you know the music, but hopefully you are going to learn something else on the way. I think maybe it’s the same for another generation with these four boxers. Everyone knows Ali: he’s become this myth and even though he was a very complex character, he’s had all the edges shaved off and he’s now in a way a martyr.
Tyson’s been pushed the other way where people don’t really see him as a person. He’s been slightly more rehabilitated more recently, but generally speaking people kind of saw him as this thing, this monster and this thug. Neither of those things were true of either of those boxers. I think with these four guys, you do your homework up front: I read all the books and spoke to the contributors before we sat down to actually do the interviews (with the fighters) properly. I felt like I had gone to school and I felt like I knew a lot about them. They’ve actually been very honest about a lot of stuff in the past. If you read Duran’s autobiography, which I don’t know if he’s ever read (Laughs) and Leonard’s autobiography, they are both excellent books. They’re brutally honest with themselves, which is surprising. Going into the interviews, it was like, where do we portion out these bits of information, assuming that even people who are knowledgeable with this material and with the fights might not know about their personal lives. And even if they do know about their personal lives, hopefully if the story is compelling enough it doesn’t matter. And you do kind of forget along the way. Even the results of some of these fights, I think there’s part of your brain that somehow is enabled to fly back in time and forget the results.
DP: That’s a good point about memory. I thought “No mas” for some reason happened in the third round, but it was later in the fight.
MW: I was listening to a podcast last week and someone was talking about this. I think it was Edgar Wright. He was talking about some film and he was saying he watches it and each time he’s hoping for a different ending; each time he thinks it’s going to go a different way because you just feel like it has to. That’s the mark of a great story. I feel the same with these guys—that even if you’re familiar with the story and these people, hopefully along the way, you’ll kind of forget and just be engrossed in it. In terms of the amount of information that we had, I think a lot of it is out there. Duran is “no holds barred.” He’s very happy to talk about anything. He can somehow hold completely contradictory thoughts in his head almost simultaneously. He’ll say, “Oh it was all a fix,” and five seconds later he’ll go, “Well, I wasn’t ready and I didn’t perform well” and then two seconds after that he’ll say, “They ripped me off,” and then everything’s about Don King.
So there’s that element of trying to pry the truth out of people who sometimes have just forgotten.
I think Duran just lives in the moment. He doesn’t remember what happened yesterday; he has no idea what’s happening tomorrow. He’s very much just present. He doesn’t think about the consequences of things. I’m sure that goes some way to explaining “No mas.” I think what I loved about sitting down with them was that there is an honesty to the four of them. Then the question for us as filmmakers is how to tell the story in as dramatic a way as possible—all of us in life are heroes and villains, and we’re all vulnerable and complex.
There’s the Jean Renoir quote: “Everyone has their reasons.” I feel like this is true of the four kings. Leonard is a hero but he also screwed up. He did bad things but he also had reasons. He had terrible things happen to him. The question is, in which order do you tell those things to the audience? Do you think like “I love him, he’s my hero, but hang on he’s actually pretty cheesy, and I think he’s a little bit fake, but no, he actually had to do that to survive.” He was like Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan, and then you excuse him. You think he’s a kind of celebrity and he’s not a real fighter. Then you see him in Leonard/Hearns One and you think, this guy’s the greatest of all of them. Then you see him schmoozing with Reagan and you go off him a bit, and then you find out what happened in his family life, and the drugs, and you see what he did to Hagler publicly and you go off him again. Then, as we try to dig beneath the surface, maybe we hold back on some of these childhood revelations till the end. That was the process. We have all this information, but we don’t want to give it away too soon.
DP: Of the four guys, Leonard was always my least favorite. I often thought he was the most talented and charismatic, but I never liked the way he played “the game,” even though he was good at it. However, The Kings made me reconsider those feelings.
MW: That’s absolutely right. You could say the same kinds of things about a lot of other successful sports stars and celebrities. If you’re going to make it to the top you’re not always going to be a nice person. You watch “The Last Dance” and think that of Jordan. And Ali behaved so incredibly in certain aspects of his life that a lot has been forgiven—but he was pretty cruel to people as well. I liked the ability to have enough space where you could try to show people as much as possible and realize that they all had their peaks and troughs. If you think Leonard is your favorite, maybe by episode four you’ve switched around.
I remember Soderbergh talking about “Traffic” and he said one of the reasons he thought he had made a film he was proud of was that he would show it to a group of his friends that were all kind of pro-prohibition and anti-drugs, and they would see this film that shows that they are right, and then he’d show it to his friends that were pro-legalization and they would see a film that confirmed their beliefs. Hopefully, with The Kings you come out of it and you might be a Hagler fan at the end or you might be a Leonard fan. You see them growing old over the decade. It was certainly something that Leonard mentioned in that final fight with Duran, and that Teddy talked about, and Duran mentioned briefly, that their final fight was a gift of sorts to Duran. You can say that’s sentimental, but it was something that Duran said to Leonard just before one of these press conferences, which may be why it’s such a damn squib of a fight, he said “Thank you my friend.” It’s fascinating, and I think boxing lends itself to that kind of operatic intensity in a way that some other sports don’t.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2