Writer David Phillips has made no secret of his admiration for the film-work of Mat Whitecross, who directed “The Kings,” a four-part documentary series running on Showtime.
The effort is not merely a ‘deep dive’ into the golden age of boxing when Roberto Duran, Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns staked out turf with Hall of Fame arsenals of skill, will and fighting spirits. Showtime gave the film-maker the space to follow his instincts, and unconditional encouragement, it sounds like, to turn in his vision.
Phillips, in a comprehensive Q n A with Whitecross, received insights into the process, how the artist decided to make a boxing film, even though he was nothing resembling a pugilism die-hard, how he decided to whittle down so much rich material, and more. You can read Part 1 here, and look at Phillips’ reviews from each portion of the doc, as well.
David Phillips: The politics of the time were fascinating. The transition from the Carter era—when we had a president who asked us to be more responsible—to Reagan, who was putting on this cheerful show, using Leonard, Hagler, and Hearns as props, while destroying the communities that all three of them came from.
Mat Whitecross: That was an experiment and I’m glad that they said we could stick with telling the story that way. You don’t want to shortchange the boxers, but on the other hand there is a significance to them culturally, politically, socially that isn’t just explained by having two people beat the shit out of each other in the ring. There’s more to it than that. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about it all these decades later. For me, like you say, Carter symbolized something from his era which was kind of straight-talking; he was very forward thinking. He had solar panels on top of the White House.
DP: Right. The solar panels Reagan got rid of when he moved in.
MW: You can argue whether it was a bad series of events around Carter or whether he mismanaged his presidency. He was ahead of his time in many ways, and a good person clearly. There’s a warning in his case to anyone after Carter: you don’t win elections by telling the truth. Same with Ali—I think Carter was a warning to these guys. Don’t stick your neck out too far. You can probably do charity events, but don’t take a political stand because they’ll destroy you. With Leonard, you are right: he used to practice his interviews before he became a celebrity. He would sit there and read the dictionary and try to teach himself words because he wanted to become a polished spokesperson—not to any kind of purpose other than to be famous and to be rich. That’s the difference between the seventies and the eighties: there was no greater purpose in terms of social cohesion or progression in society. It was just more about like, if you stick your face out there you can get money. Eventually what you do whether you’re a boxer or a comedian or a juggler it doesn’t really matter, because it’s just about endorsing products, and getting more money in the bank.
DP: And of course, Duran hated the USA, because of American involvement with the Panama Canal, and the invasion.
MW: Duran very much symbolized Panama and Latin America. My family is Argentinian, so I connected to him in that way. Whenever any big empire does a bit of soul searching—and this could be the British Empire, we’re doing a little bit of that right now with statues coming down and the same with the U.S.—then we have this moment of “why does everyone hate us?” And anyone outside those empires says, well, look at history. Look at what you’ve done to us. After 9/11, there was a lot of similar soul searching. I remember watching CNN and them saying why does everyone hate America? But again, look at history. I have a kind of love/hate relationship with America and what it symbolizes. I would say the majority of my favorite music and films and literature is all from the States, but there are a lot of problems there, too. I think that’s what makes it so interesting to start to dig into it dramatically and break down what’s made America. Obviously there’s a limit to what you can do in four hours, and that’s why we kind of had to take a stance and not make a kind of neutral version of this. Steve Farhood said, “boxing provides heroes and god knows, politics doesn’t.” Bang. I put my political cards on the table. I grew up with a family that hated Reagan and Thatcher and we talked politics around the dinner table every night.
My parents were political refugees from Argentina and they’d been imprisoned there and we saw what happened in Chile, and Argentina, and all the different dictatorships around Latin America, many of which were fueled by American involvement. You throw it back another hundred years and you can say all the same things about England, so this isn’t an anti-American diatribe, but that’s what people like Duran were fueled by—not only their country but all the countries around them. They saw the involvement of America and they were like you’ve criticized us for being backward but you’ve destroyed our country.
DP: I’m with you on Reagan. I think we are still suffering in this country from a false belief that “trickle down” economics actually works. He really hurt communities of color.
MW: You can kind of paper over the cracks with someone like Reagan who invites black celebrities into the White House. You’ve got the endorsement there. You saw it later on with the second election where you had Ali and the heavyweights all coming out to endorse Reagan. I remember when we met Tommy Hearns and spent time with him and Jackie Kallen; they were incredibly generous. Then that evening they said there’s a friend who owns a restaurant and we all went out and had a delicious meal. We were sitting there afterwards and I started talking, and we weren’t even straying onto Trump or any of that stuff—we were just talking about politics in general, and the restaurant owner said, “I need to warn you in advance that we are all Trump voters here.” This is just my point of view, but I think it’s important to take a stand sometimes. There’s this idea in the UK that you should have unbiased neutral observations and that you shouldn’t take a stand. But the films I loved growing up always had a point of view. You can present everything, but ultimately you have to have a take on it, otherwise why are you telling it?
DP: Of the four kings, Tommy’s speech clearly deteriorated the most. I found it useful to have the subtitles on when he spoke. Did you have any concerns about his voice-overs?
MW: It was tricky. As a young kid he had a bit of a drawl, and he was very shy and he kind of swallowed his words. So he was quite hard to understand sometimes in the very early days before he’d become a champion. Then he goes through a period where he’s very polished—we had a lot of footage in there where he’s on Letterman and he’s on Carson and he’s fantastic. He’s a great raconteur. He’s much better than Leonard for my money—he’s not fake, he’s just funny, he’s just very relaxed. I wish we could have kept some more of that stuff in. It was just the timing constraints. In the run-up to Leonard/Hearns One he’s hilarious. Then he very clearly starts to fall apart as he gets on and in the final few fights. It’s like Jackie said, Tommy is in complete denial about it and says, look, there’s nothing wrong with my speech. But he is very hard to understand, yeah. But, as Jackie pointed out, there’s nothing wrong with his head. I think she’s right. He seems very smart. We spoke for a long time—he’s got answers to everything but he struggles to get the words out. That’s clearly a boxing thing. If you look at other fighters they have taken far more blows, hit the canvas far more times than Tommy, and yet they seem to be less damaged by it physically. Sometimes you’re just unlucky, but that’s the nature of it. Then you can get into the whole argument of comparing it to American football. There’s damage in a lot of different sports. There’s no doubt that you go in the ring, and, as skillful as you might be, and as athletically trained as you are, you are trying to inflict damage on the opponent. That’s the purpose. You might not be trying to inflict brain damage, but that’s a possibility.
DP: I know it took you two years to complete this project. In that time, Hagler died. What impact did that have on you and the show?
MW: At the time we had finished everything, but we were in the post phase of tidying up all the sound and the images. I heard about it and I was shocked, because aside from the fact that he was obviously a great person, he was young and he seemed to be looking after himself. If you’re thinking about the four kings, you wouldn’t have imagined anything like that would happen to him. There were all these strange rumors saying it was COVID-related, but it was just very sad. We were literally at the point of sending it off to Showtime to broadcast. Then we heard the terrible news and we added the card at the end, but that was the only thing that we changed. When we looked back on the whole thing, I thought is there anything in there that we feel is insensitive now that we should have said differently, and I felt like we had done him justice. So, I didn’t feel like we had to change anything other than to acknowledge the fact that he had passed away.
DP: There is this perception of Hagler as a mean/tough guy, but I think the show really humanizes him. From his desire not to get hurt emotionally, to his willingness to walk away from huge paydays after fighting Leonard, there was so much about him that was unique that I think people missed during that era.
MW: It was an incredible testament to his strength of character. There were some really lovely moments that Charles Farrell and Tony Petronelli told us about in the lead up to Leonard/Hagler. He was offered the chance to take far more money to ditch the Petronellis and he got really angry, and they said it was the worst they’d ever seen him. He was like OK, the fight’s off, I’m not doing this. Loyalty was key to him. When Hagler was talking about his relationship with the Petronellis and saying he didn’t want them to hurt him… it’s shocking for someone who is so strong to be speaking like a small child. It was very revealing. It’s the same way that Tommy speaks, especially when he’s around Jackie. He does speak like a little kid. Most people as adults… we’re only one step away from being that little kid again. You can be Jeff Bezos and walk into a situation where somebody says the wrong thing to you and suddenly you’re a five-year-old kid again who’s being bullied at school. In some ways it’s not unexpected, but it’s particularly notable with the fact that these guys are ferocious boxers. Could they ever be that vulnerable? They are, and you see it.
DP: You didn’t do the typical documentary thing by using “talking heads” in the series. What was behind that choice?
MW: That’s something we ended up doing on a few projects, partly for aesthetic and partly for pragmatic reasons. When I worked with Michael Winterbottom on Road to Guantanamo there’s an element of trust we were trying to develop with the subjects. I think people assume documentary filmmaking is this invisible presence of filmmakers just turning up and somehow magically capturing everything without influencing the people they’re filming, but the opposite is true.
Similarly, in the edit you have “a take” on this material, whatever the material is. At the moment we’re doing a show about the Paralympics, and as soon as you introduce a camera into the room the atmosphere changes. Some people clam up, some people start performing, but no one stays the same. In the past I used to do an interview with audio only and then come back and do talking heads as required. So, on Road to Guantanamo I spent about three weeks living with the real guys that we filmed and just taping them, and every day I would sit down for two or three hours and leave a tape recorder running, or sometimes a camera, and and say look, this isn’t going to be in the film, let’s just talk, this is just research. That has worked really well. I always have that strange feeling with talking heads like, where are we? When you’re in front of this weird abstract background, or you’re in a car park, or you’re in a hotel room—it’s like, why are you in this hotel room? It can be very good for emotion, and connecting with people, that’s the only thing. But we knew we weren’t going to be getting interviews like that on The Kings, and so, if the archive is strong enough, I feel like well, let’s not bother shooting talking heads. It is good to have the option in your back pocket if you feel you might need it, but I thought, if we can, let’s try to do it all as audio.
DP: Teddy Atlas has worked so many fights as a commentator, and when he does, he’s performing. What you got out of him was this level of real eloquence, this poetry about what boxing does to people, and his almost morose love of the sport. I think he may have been the strongest off-camera presence.
MW: 100%. As much as directors want to blow their own trumpets and tell you what geniuses they are in terms of extracting performances from actors or from contributors in documentaries, in my experience, you can try to create an atmosphere that’s conducive to having an honest conversation or allowing an actor to deliver a performance, but if it’s not there, you’re not going to pull it out of someone who can’t do it. There’s a certain amount you can do in the edit, so what I’ve found more and more is when I’ve been shooting dramas in the more documentary style you can keep on playing around with the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle—you can use tricks. In the case of Teddy, someone Tweeted me recently saying, “who wrote the script, they’re a genius” and I said that’s all Teddy. Again, I’m not from the boxing world, I don’t know very much about sport and I came in with my hands up, saying, look I’m an outsider, I hope that’s okay. To be honest that’s how I’ve approached most of the documentaries I’ve ever worked on. It’s rare that I know a huge amount about a subject and then go to town on it. Hopefully that’s a good standpoint rather than thinking, “oh, I know it all” and then missing all of the most important bits.
Regarding Teddy, I told the researcher that I was working with at the beginning that I wanted to get into old school mafia corruption and then the white collar corruption of boxing now. He said Teddy is one of the few people I’ve found who is honest and will call out the corruption in the system. It was quite a big section of the original cut, but we didn’t have time to get that far into the details on it. Originally there was a whole chunk with Ray Arcel in the beginning of episodes one and two with Freddie Brown, and how he’d been affected by mafia corruption and had been almost killed in an attack because he wasn’t willing to play the game. That’s why I went to Teddy in the first place. Teddy turned up on day one—I think he was the second person I met—I met Jackie, and then Teddy came in. And it was the day after Teddy’s granddaughter had been born, so he came in and said, look, I’ve really only got an hour. He came in, and we were just there to talk about corruption and to talk about trainers. And just at the end of the hour I asked him casually, “can you just give me your take on boxing as somebody who has dedicated his life to it.” And suddenly he came alive and there was this amazing explosion of words and that whole section is now the opening of episode three. At the end of the session I asked him, Teddy, is there any chance I could do another session with you? He did agree to do one more short session, and I think in his mind he thought we would just have a couple of quick questions. He said, just come over to my house with a soundman, it will be easier that way. And I ended up staying for seven hours. (Laughs). And bless him, after every two hours we’d take a break and I’d say look, Teddy, kick me out whenever. I’m going to keep asking questions until you drop. And he said, no no, you’ve got to get it, you’ve gotta get your thing. The only reason we stopped was because of our sound man—he hadn’t told me, but it was his girlfriend’s birthday. So basically he ends up blowing out his date and getting dumped on the same night. Otherwise, Teddy would probably still be going today because of his generosity.
I had four editors when I got back to the UK fighting tooth and claw over Teddy’s dialogue—“No, I want it! I want it!” In the end, I said, well maybe Teddy in some ways is a kind of unofficial narrator, and then you can all have him.
DP: I watched an interview you did with a radio talk show host, and he was very fascinated with Roberto Duran’s extracurricular activities. Especially the orgies.
MW: (Laughs). Everyone is.
DP: What got me though was by quitting in the second Leonard fight, he almost couldn’t go home. His own countrymen turned on him. When he left his house, he brought his pet lion with him for safety.
MW: It was the ‘80s, right? (Laughs). It’s that kind of Scarface thing where everyone had to have a more outlandish thing than the next guy. We had Duran for two days, which was great, but he’s someone once he starts speaking, he’ll talk as if he’s holding court in a bar, and you can’t really cut him off. When we started talking about the animals it was a 40-minute tangent. I was thinking, great, we just lost about an hour of my precious ten hours just talking about animals. I said, “I think we’ve got enough about the animals,” and he would say no, no, let me tell you what happened then! He went through every single animal he’s ever owned. There was either a circus or a zoo that went bust, and he managed to get the lion cub and he raised it, and yeah, he absolutely used to wander around with it as a form of protection. Tommy was inspired by him so he got a panther, and then Tyson bought a tiger. There’s a whole lineage of people being inspired by each other, and Duran is Tyson’s favorite fighter. There’s a similar type of thing on a smaller scale with Hearns and Detroit—having the support and love of a city can lift you up, but it can also destroy you in the end. You can see it in that penultimate fight: Hearns saying I’m going to do one more, one more for you, even when every single person on the planet is saying just leave it, what are you doing? I think similarly with Duran he was the idol of Latin America, he was the idol of Panama, he was the idol of a lot of people in the US as well when he fought in New york. That’s great, but the flip side is when things start going wrong people are incredibly unforgiving, and have very short memories.
DP: You spent two years of your life on The Kings and it’s been so well received. How does it feel to have it out in the world?
MW: I think anyone who does anything vaguely creative is vulnerable to criticism—and you only believe the bad stuff. My wife’s a psychiatrist, and I have lots of friends who are actors, and she (also applying this to me) says we are “fragile narcissists.” (Laughs). I don’t know if that’s a technical term or if she just made it up, but it’s true. You put something out in the world and you want everyone to love it, but then you fall apart as soon as anyone pokes holes in it. Normally, it’s because the holes are justified. If you work on anything for that length of time, you are more aware than anyone else on the planet of all its inconsistencies and flaws. That’s just nature. The problem now is that for the last four or five projects, I’ve been asked very specifically to go and champion things online. You’re supposed to be on Instagram and Twitter, especially for small projects. You’re supposed to go out there and bang the drum for it and get people to pay attention. It’s tricky. I’ve ended up reading more reviews in recent years because you’re trying to get the word out. It’s a little bit like leaving your kids at school on the first day of term… I’m aware that this might not be perfect, but please be nice to my children.