Mat Whitecross: “I felt there was something new to be said.”
By Chris Akers
There have been many articles written, interviews recorded, and words spoken about the significance of the group of boxers known as the Four Kings – ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns, and the Hands of Stone Roberto Duran.
Considering the amount of literature and film that has focused on these fighters, what new insights could a new documentary exploring these four men explore that has not been said before.
Mat Whitecross, director of the documentary series The Kings, realised that they had not been explored as a band of fighters, with interconnectivity that is unique to other rivalries in the sport.
“There’s been a lot written about these guys in the past and talking about them collectively,” explains Whitecross. “But there hasn’t been that much done about them in terms of a documentary as a group. Even though there was a Duran documentary that came out a couple of years ago, which was good, but I’d never seen anything that looked at them as a whole. And there was something unique about the way they complimented each other. The fact they went into the ring nine times together I loved, and I felt there was something new to be said there.”
The genesis of the docuseries indirectly began with a band from the era of Britpop.
“How it came together was that I made a documentary a few years ago about the band Oasis called Supersonic with James Gay-Rees and Asif Kapadia’s company. They came back to us a few times. It was a really good experience for us. They kept on coming back with different proposals. Each time the timing was bad or it just wasn’t right for me. They knew I had to hold my hands up and say that I’m not a massive sports fan. I’d kind of watched big games and I’d watched big fights. But I don’t know that world that well. So I kept excusing myself and saying ‘I can see these stories are fascinating but I don’t think I’m the right person to tell them.’ “
If the names James Gay-Rees and Asif Kapadia sound familiar, it is because they have worked on some of the most illuminating documentary films of the past decade, such as Senna and the Oscar-winning Amy. One of their most recent documentaries has a link to one of the main players in The Kings, which will later be explained.
Returning to the beginnings of this docuseries, despite being in his own words ‘not a sports geek,’ after Gay-Rees send Whitecross emails a couple of years later about the aforementioned boxers, his interest was piqued.
“As soon as I started reading about the four boxers, I knew they were vaguely in the back of my head. Somewhere I must have known who they were, but it was all fresh to me. Watching the fights, I’d seen a couple of fights maybe, but I didn’t know them that well. I said to James I’m either the best or worst person to make this because I don’t feel invested in the same way someone else might.
“But I can see their lives are fascinating, their achievements are incredible. And James and Paul, who’s the other executive producer, said ‘We pitched it to Showtime as the idea that it would be a statement about that decade,’ which was so crucial in the US. A transitional period from the end of the 70s into the 80s. Things were changing in the ring, they were changing in sports but they were changing socially and politically. And we want to try and address these things in the show. So that was very intriguing to me.
“We started talking about it and I started doing the research and we went to go and see Showtime in the US. They were lovely. They said that they liked what we made, we’re going to leave you alone and we trust you guys to get on with it. We went back to the UK and started ringing everyone. We had a team of researchers, archive researchers but also a researcher who was ringing potential contributors. And then gradually we flew out to the US and started interviewing people.”
Whitecross began by spending four months on his own trying to figure out what the story could be. At the same time, he was collecting archives, thinking about what the story could be and whether it was possible to try and tell the story that he wanted to tell.
“It took about two years from beginning to end. That was definitely not deliberate. I was imagining the whole process would take six or seven years, what we had on Supersonic. But firstly, the way that James and Paul tend to work and the way that James had worked with Asif in the past, is that they would have a long period of research going into it, and I’d never really had that before on any project that I’d worked on.
“It was amazing. Even at a certain point, I’d forgotten what I’d learned at the beginning so I had to try and get some of it down. I wrote a very long document of what we were trying to put together, saying that this scene leads to this scene leads to this scene. Then I started editing it. Before the other editors came on board, I started putting it together in broad chunks and going ‘Ok so what’s the style going to be?’ to help me make all these different stories and strands go into one story.
“When Billy and Steven came over after a few months, we’d only really just started with the editors, but they wanted to have a look. We had at that stage a two-hour cut of episode one. There were supposed to be three episodes. They didn’t even have enough time to sit down and watch the whole episode. We got about an hour into the first episode. We stopped it and they said ‘We love it. It’s great. You can tell how it’s coming together.
“But we don’t really understand all these amazing detours that we were able to do, which are quite novelistic, where you could side-track to the trainers or you follow a theme where you’re getting into the backdrop of Newark. You don’t really have the screen time to be able to do that, as once you cut it in half and divide it into three episodes, then it’s not going to work.’ I didn’t have an answer to that so they said ‘Well why don’t we go away and see if we can get you some more time and money,’ which is amazing. And they did it, which I’d never heard of on any other project.
“It meant that the post-production just expanded, and we kept on interviewing people. And there was the usual song and dance to get people to contribute to a project when they don’t know you from anyone else. It’s a UK team, it’s a US project. Why would they talk to you when they haven’t spoken to other people? There’s a bit of that which goes on, a bit of negotiation. But it took about two years from start to finish.”
One of the more recent documentaries this group has produced was about the Argentine football great Diego Maradona, a maverick who was also friends with another sporting maverick, Roberto Duran. Indeed, some of the funniest moments of the series are when Duran discusses some of the events he was involved in outside the ring. And that’s the mild way of putting it! Having been involved in documentaries for several years and doing his research on Duran, the exploits he discusses do not surprise Whitecross in the least.
“Generally speaking I found that I wasn’t that surprised by things, because you’ve done due diligence going into it, you have read as much background information as you can get. What I find is when I sit down for two days with someone like Roberto is, here are the different points I need to get out of him. He’s mentioned this in an interview or he’s written it in his autobiography but never said it on tape or he’s said this in one way but we need it presented a slightly different way. Normally it’s not so much the events that they are describing to you that you’ve never heard about, as hopefully, you’ve heard about everything. It’s more to do with how they deliver it and what you need for your show.
“For example, I’d seen an interview a long time ago where he talks about his experiences during the invasion of Panama by the US. He does a version that is funny and a version that is serious, and we needed it told a certain way.
“Sometimes it was the other way round, where they had forgotten about instances that happened in their lives. In the case of Tommy, I would say an incident and he might have switched the dates in his mind. At one point I was talking to him and he was saying that he fought Ray a couple of years later (from their first fight) and I said to him ‘It was eight years later.’ You’re trying to prod them a little bit, not to put words in their mouth, but trying to take them back to that time. Show them footage and photos that might prompt memories.
Something that the documentary does excellently is interweaving the fistic arena with the political and social arenas of the 1980s. The transition of the American presidency from Jimmy Carter to Roland Regan to the excess of that Regan era beautifully meld into a tapestry of how the fights and lives these fighters lived could be connected to the decade they all fought each other in.
“For me, that was part of the attraction, as James and Showtime, their original take on it was that they wanted to look at the bigger picture, the backdrop. And for me, it’s interesting, as politics is something I’ve always been interested in. I grew up in that period but I was too young to appreciate what was going on. It was always a plan to feature it, but the question was how to feature it and make it reflective of what’s going on in the ring and how do you make it all one story.
“It wasn’t until we spend time with Teddy Atlas and Bonnie Greer, and they kept on describing boxing as a metaphor for life and a metaphor for struggle. That definitely rang true for me. This idea that uniquely amongst sports, when you’re going into the ring you’re completely on your own, it can be life and death, the situations you’re going in there to try and combat have a resonate for the rest of us with everything that’s going on and they do connect politically, particularly at that time. They were fighters and fights that stopped the world. At that moment everyone was watching what was going on.”
Bonnie Greer in particular adds powerful narration to all four episodes of the series, describing the political climate of the time they fought and at the time of the fighters’ upbringing. It adds to the feeling that the four boxers are equidistant between the end of Ali’s career and the animal magnetism of the peak of Mike Tyson’s career and that as a group, they had elements of both of those fighters
“It felt to me ‘Let’s look at this backdrop, let’s see how it might be expressed in these four boxers lives.’ You have Ali who has become a symbol of the civil rights struggle. After that, you have Tyson who’s become a symbol of the excess of the 80s. So what comes in between and these guys were the top fighters of that time. So that became interesting to me, is there a way of expressing some of the issues of that time through their eyes. We don’t live any of our lives in a bubble.
“We’re seeing now in the last year and a half more and more how our lives are connected to politics. Especially in this country a lot of people probably thought that politics doesn’t affect them and they’re all the same as each other. But politics does connect with our lives and I think the same way during that period. It’s kind of impossible to do justice to the lives and impact of these four people without looking at the bigger picture.”