Derik Murray, an advertising photographer and TV commercial director, has created large-format pictorial books on topics like the Olympics, Arnold Palmer, Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky while also producing an award-winning television series called ”Legends of Hockey,” an oral history of the game from hockey hall of famers.
Q. How did the ‘Facing Ali’ project come about and what were the biggest challenges to completing this picture?
A. I did a book on Muhammad Ali in 1995 and was privileged to hear a lot of great stories first hand. Many times I wished I was rolling a camera. I had also read Stephen Brunt’s book (same title) and he told a popular story in a fresh and interesting way. I also knew Pete McCormack (the film’s director) who was also an Ali fanatic and had solid research and writing skills.
Challenges came right from the top as Stephen had 15 boxers, so we boiled it down to 10. Time and logistics were a constant challenge. Plus these were not brief interviews of 10 minutes or so, we needed 3-4 hours in front of the camera. That takes time, energy and persuasion. Some like Leon Spinks and Ernie Shavers were hard to locate — they were off the grid.
So assembling and scheduling was certainly a prominent issue in trying to get some sort of cohesive timetable together.
We began filming in April 2008 and finished in July.
Getting footage from 40 sources with some of it 40- 50 years old, we needed to give it almost a new dimension to give it a special appeal theatrically. A company in Vancouver, Digital Central, did an amazing job and the process is detailed in the DVD extras.
Q. Stylistically-speaking, why did you decide on no narrator?
A. At first we thought a narrator would be needed to fill in the gaps, including specific historical references. However Pete’s research and ability to get the boxers to talk about a lot more than what went on inside the ring and more about the times in general eliminated that need.
I came to believe it would better illuminate the varied personalities on display without a narrator. It would give us a better sense of who they are as people. Ten boxers as really distinct individuals.
Q. How fortunate were you with former heavyweight George Chuvalo and his articulate knowledge of the fight game? Did you know going in about the extent of his expertise?
A. We knew he was good but didn’t know he could “carry the ball” to the degree that he did.
George had the depth of knowledge and glib ability to help me tell the story beyond the ring as well — civil rights movement, Nation of Islam, drugs, Vietnam — without resorting to a narrator. Chuvalo also provided some keen insights to the personal changes of Ali over that period of time.
Ron Lyle was brilliant as well. His humor and intensity and concise insights were a great surprise to us.
Q. Despite his battle with Parkinson’s disease any thought to trying to get Ali to speak on camera on one of his good days?
A. We kept it alive for a longtime as a possibility, but decided it really wouldn’t move the story forward. Lyle really summed it up when he said of Ali, “he can’t speak for himself but we can speak for him.”
Q. What do you hope audiences come away with from seeing the film?
A. One of our aims was not to create a boxing film, but something that would shine a light on that moment in history. It would look at the broader aspects of what was going on socially and politically. The title subject truly transcended mere boxing.
I also love the fact these were individuals that didn’t have the easiest start in life, they told us what it was like to step out of those impoverished situations and effectively transform their lives.
I really think this is an inspirational film.