When Derik Murray optioned Stephen Brunt’s book Facing Ali in early 2006 he took it straight to the market to see if others would find it compelling or if it was just his pet project. He found an enthusiastic response and none as enthusiastic as Peter McCormack, who he knew as a great doc director and a huge boxing fan.
‘His interest was overwhelming,’ says Murray of McCormack’s passion for the project from the beginning. Talking to both of the filmmakers about their new doc, Facing Ali, their love for the project is hard to miss.
For two boxing fans this project was a bit of a dream come true, after all. The doc tells the story of Muhammad Ali through interviews with 10 of his previous opponents whom McCormack and Murray spent upwards of three hours with each, discussing their careers, the career of Ali, and how the intersection of both affected each of them in the long run.
The intention from the outset was to avoid using narration by using the former boxers’ words to tell the story of Ali and his opponents. The two Georges, Chuvalo and Foreman, in particular, share vivid memories and, as McCormack adds, he knew early on that Chuvalo would be ‘vital for the film’ and a key to the history. In the film Chuvalo puts Ali’s legacy into the context of the civil rights movement and the nation of Islam. ‘It’s amazing that a Croatian immigrant, or the son of Croatian immigrants, from Toronto helped us with US social history,’ says McCormack.
In order to round out the doc, which also features interviews with Sir Henry Cooper, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Ernie Terrell and Leon Spinks, the filmmakers needed to weed through an overwhelming amount of stock footage to encapsulate Ali’s 20-year career. Murray says it took the head researcher on the project over one year to compile a list of all the footage that was available and it took the editors ‘months and months’ to put that footage to use.
‘A lot of time went into making the archival footage have a painterly-like [effect],’ says Murray. He credits their post production facility Digital Central with taking on this doc as a special project in order to breathe life into the footage, most of which was over 30-years-old.
Facing Ali will be released theatrically in New York and Los Angeles in July through Lionsgate.