Michael Mann On Muhammad Ali, Will Smith, And His New Cut Of ‘Ali’
by Mike Fleming Jr
January 17, 2017
Some 15 years after its release and a half year after the death of its subject, a new version of the Michael Mann film Ali is today being re-released on DVD. With a career performance by Will Smith as iconic fighter and Civil Rights era catalyst Muhammad Ali, Ali is slightly different than the version widely seen in late 2001. Mann added footage to existing scenes, and excised a ring sequence where an in-his- prime Ali dominated journeyman heavyweight opponent Cleveland Williams to keep it at a comparable length. Mann strengthening the political elements and the depiction of covert government surveillance on a fighter who challenged the status quo when he embraced the Nation of Islam, changed his “slave name” Cassius Clay and refused on religious grounds to be drafted into the army during Vietnam. The latter move got him banned from the ring and cost him his prime years. I met Mann in his Forward Pass offices. He’s made memorable movies including Heat, Collateral, The Insider, The Last of the Mohicans and others, but his office is dominated by memorabilia from Ali. Every item had a backstory. There is the photo from the airport recreated in Zaire, when it was designed one that scared pilots for whom the large red “Kinshasa” sign brought back ominous memories of a time when it was not a desirable place to land. There’s a photo of Sugar Ray Robinson embracing Ali, years after Robinson (and Joe Louis) rejected the upstart fighter. Ali, of course, was gracious.
DEADLINE: What made you go back in and change the film, 15 years later?
MICHAEL MANN: With the hindsight of history, I felt the drama didn’t get all the way there. It wasn’t as strong as it should have been. I don’t think I changed anything on a movie like Heat [rereleased in 2015 after 20 years], but here, the proportion and how it made you feel, wasn’t quite right. I always knew how I wanted you to feel but I wasn’t sure that you were actually getting it. And then it occurred to me, what to do to make it be there.
DEADLINE: How much of this was related to Ali’s death?
MANN: Some of it. It made me think about what he meant, who he was. And, what is his story? It’s the story of defiance, a guy who says, ‘I get to be who I want to be, not who you want me to be. As the heavyweight champion of the world, I’m going to represent something, and I know it’s going to be motivational to my people, those rising up from below, all over the world.’ And so he was going to craft himself and his representation into that motivational persona. It was a very political act, an evolution that culminates for me in the [George] Foreman fight. By design or by accident, it polarized the world. The ‘60s were over. It’s 1974 in Kinshasa. The forces of the status quo were polarized around Foreman. The forces of hope, the aspirations of people rising up from below in anti-colonial struggles, poor people living in the outskirts of Mozambique, or the Congo, Ali personified that sense of aspiration. It really divided the world. It was the first world heavyweight championship fight like that in the world. It was also only televised in one house in Zaire and it was Mobutu’s.
DEADLINE: The dictator who ruled Zaire at the time.
MANN: He showed it at dinner, Idi Amin. You can’t make this stuff up. I wanted to strengthen the struggle, meaning make more tangible the adversarial forces that were adversarial, against a meaning, FBI Cointelpro, the CIA operations in the Third World, particularly countering national racial front movements. There’s a time compression. We specifically identified the man who’s killed by the firing squad as Patrice Lumumba, who in fact was killed in ’61 when Mobutu takes power. The infiltration to the Nation of Islam…all of those tracks are stronger now.
DEADLINE: What does that do to a film about a man primarily known as the greatest fighter?
MANN: When you increase the adversarial opposition to Ali, the forces of oppression, a number of things happen. One, you really get a better sense of how much he’s giving up to take the position that he takes against the war, when he loses the best years of his boxing career. And then the pressures of the forces arrayed against him, impacting and imploding into his romantic life which is tumultuous to begin with. What he stands for means so much more, and the imperative to defeat George Foreman means so much more. And the lack of faith about the outcome from Belinda is that much more poignant.
DEADLINE: She was his second wife, frustrated her husband was continually exploited by the Nation of Islam, and fearful Foreman was going to hurt him, after he had just knocked Joe Frazier around the ring like a rag doll…
MANN: It doesn’t justify what happens, but you come to understand his attraction to Veronica Porche.
DEADLINE: He met her there when she was a journalist covering the fight in Zaire, and she became the third of his four wives.
MANN: The extra scenes impact everything. I think I told a better story here.
DEADLINE: How much longer is the movie than the original film?
MANN: I don’t know that it is any longer, because I took out Ali’s fight against Cleveland Williams, which is maybe where you saw the prime that Ali lost when he was banned from boxing. I took it out because it felt like it was getting episodic.
DEADLINE: You said that Ali told the world he wasn’t going to be the champ others wanted him to be, but then you show him becoming exactly who Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad needed him to be. He turned his back on his friend Malcolm X when he fell into disfavor with the Nation of Islam. It was a terrible moment that left Malcolm X vulnerable, and he was murdered shortly after. Between that, and the infidelities, you show a lot of moments in Ali’s life he wasn’t proud of. What was it like, confronting the actual man, at a time he was universally beloved, with those lowlights?
MANN: That was very important to him. We met about it in a meeting in Las Vegas, which was hilarious for some other reasons. It was myself, Ali and Howard Bingham.
DEADLINE: The photographer who was Ali’s constant companion, played by Jeffrey Wright.
MANN: He was Ali’s closest friend. Ali’s voice was very, very soft because of Parkinson’s. I have trouble hearing out of one ear. And Howard stutters. So, Ali would say something in a whisper I couldn’t hear. And then Howard would translate it for me with a stutter. Then I’d get it then, and I’d ask Ali a question and it started all over again. This cracked up the three of us, but one of the really important things to Ali that came through there was…because Ali had a one-time approval of the script…and he said the thing that was really important to him was he didn’t want hagiography. He didn’t want idolatry or any kind of sugarcoating. Imagine the amount of flattery that he received through the years. I understood that but I also wanted to know why. He said something really profound: that he was proud of the mistakes he made. He thought he had recognized not all of them but some of them and that he’d fixed some of them and had come to peace with them. And he just walked through life with a sense of, I am who I am and you’re diminishing me if you sugarcoat or fictionalize it. I asked him, ‘What was the one that you regret the most?’ And it was Malcolm X, not having healed the fissure between the two of them that he created when he rejected Malcolm. He loved Malcolm. When we were shooting in Miami, I had working with us Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm’s daughter. She looked very much like Malcolm, the light complexion, the reddish hair. Ali had never met her, and I introduced the two of them. He told her how much he loved her father and how much regret he had that he had never had a chance to make it right with him.
DEADLINE: With the Nation of Islam, it sure comes off like he was pretty well…
DEADLINE: Manipulated. And when he was banned from boxing, the Nation of Islam rejected him, only to come back when he was fighting again. How did he feel about that?
MANN: At the end of the day he embraced Sunni Islam. It’s portrayed accurately in the film, as Belinda says, “They’re around you when you got it and they fall off you when you don’t.” She was the daughter of a very important figure in the Nation of Islam.
DEADLINE: Ang Lee wants to make Thrilla In Manila, a film about the Ali-Frazier fight, shot in 120 frames a minute with 40K resolution and 3D so you can feel what it was like to be Ali in that ring taking devastating punches from Frazier. That seems very much the vantage point of Ali, where the audience feels all this tumultuous stuff coming at him, and Ali reacting. That includes devastating punches from Sonny Liston, Frazier and Foreman.
MANN: Oh, yeah. I wanted you to feel like you were in the ring, mixing it up. I wanted it to be the best boxing and to feel authentic. What is to be Ali, to listen to the echoes in that ring? We did a couple of things to get there and one of the main things was working with Will Smith. Nobody could have had an actor as courageous and dedicated as he was, as we both were, probably out of fear.
DEADLINE: Why fear?
MANN: Because of the audacity of thinking we could…for Will to think, OK, I’m going to become Muhammad Ali, one of the most iconic people in the 20th century. And for my part, it was trying to get this right, and have you see the world through Ali’s eyes and walk in his shoes and be inside of his skin. Early on when we were working together, there was the physical challenge: how do you become Muhammad Ali? If you’re Will Smith, you dedicate a good chunk of time. In terms of the boxing, we came to the conclusion fairly early on, you’re just going to have to become a boxer. Boxers take punches. Become a boxer, take a punch and that’s what we did. We had tried previously some spring-loaded gloves and cushion this and cushion that. None of that stuff worked.
DEADLINE: Why not?
MANN: It all looked phony, and mechanical. And so we did an elaborate system in which I would break down rounds of the Sonny Liston fight for the choreography and in there find the story points we would faithfully re-create. In between we had improvisational sparring in boxing. Take the first round. It has a story. Liston steps through the ropes, assuming he’s going to kill him. Ali happened to be perfectly proportioned so if he’s 100 feet away you can’t tell if he’s 5’10 or 6’6. So when he’s close to Liston you realize how big he is. He only weighed eight or nine pounds less then Liston. You could see from the fight films of that round that by the end, Liston walks into a left jab to the forehead. Ali is planted and you see Liston’s head rock back and all of a sudden he realizes this guy is as fast as a middleweight who hits like a heavyweight. You see that realization dawn. And that became the story we needed to show. So then it became a training regimen literally every day for about three or four hours where Will boxed in a gym we built. We had various trainers. Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer, was spectacular and around all the time. We had Angelo’s instructions and a physiologist from UCLA who created a loop that Will would look at just before he went to sleep. It was Ali’s head and shoulder feints. They were so blindingly fast, it was very difficult to acquire that. After about a week and a half, it started coming to Will. There was advanced science on the one end and then Angelo Dundee in the ring saying, “No, no, no. You’ve got zig then zag.” Now I don’t know what zig and zag meant but Will learned to. It became like the spirit of Ali was infused in him.
DEADLINE: How long did that take for Will to feel confident in the ring?
MANN: Will got to the point of being that boxer after nine or 10 months.
DEADLINE: Ali had script approval. What were some of the suggestions he made that surprised you?
MANN: A level of trust had been established and me and Eric Roth were spending as much time with Ali as we could. He couldn’t fly to Africa but everything shot here, he was around. And it was a thrill for me because I can only imagine what it was to have a specific memory of a piece of time and place that was meaningful to him. Like the 5th Street Gym, and this bus he loved to drive from Miami to New York, and all over. That 5th Street gym in Miami, we were able to build an exact replica, and were able to bring him into a world from his past. The house he was in, in Chicago, where he sees Foreman beat up Joe Frazier on TV, was actually Herbert Muhammad’s real house.
DEADLINE: How did Will Smith’s physical preparation compare to what Daniel Day-Lewis put into Last Of The Mohicans? How do you convince an actor to do it?
MANN: Both were similar, to the extreme. It comes down to the actor, who has to want to be ambitious and want to take the artistic journey. That doesn’t mean that every single film should require what they went through. This is not what Russell Crowe did in The Insider, or Tom Cruise in Collateral. Those were different. But if you’re going to take on something that risky, to say, I’m going to try and portray Muhammad Ali and get it right, you’re down for the cause. It would be foolish to go near this, otherwise. That included one of the most difficult things to get with Ali, the speech patterns. Ali rotated among different regional accents, and sometimes in the same rap he would switch perspective. He would have a narrator voice, an Uncle Remus voice, and innocent voice and then come back right around again. Louisville is border south, a very confusing place. You had “colored only” drinking fountains when he’s growing up on one side of the river, and across the bridge there aren’t any. Will was determined to nail the nuance in the speech patterns and he did. Having Ali around gave us huge insights. He’d be lying down, and we noticed he would keep his hands together across his chest, his fingers poised delicately on his sternum. It clicked with us, one day, that he relates to his hands and his fingers like a pianist. These were his tools and he protects them and he puts them someplace safe. It told us how Ali sees himself, with delicacy. His strength was a given. He didn’t see himself that way; he was at that frontier between what he knows he really can’t do natively, which he doesn’t worry about, and the edge to where he’ll push himself to.
DEADLINE: You grew up admiring Ali; what was most surprising about getting to actually know him?
MANN: The strength of his spirit. Many people have Parkinson’s. Because they can’t articulate, people start relating to them as if they’re children. The person suffering from Parkinson’s, there’s no mental effect, but there’s a kind of an acculturated reaction and many Parkinson’s suffers slip into a kind of simpleton persona, in a way, when people speak to them and over enunciate. They have no trouble hearing or understanding. That never happened to Ali. If you looked at any of his clips later on…they’re on a Blu-ray, he says some very, very funny stuff. I mean he’s sharp, mentally acute, and he wasn’t going to let the Parkinson’s in any way diminish his spirit.
DEADLINE: Joe Frazier was very kind to Ali during his ban, giving him a title shot. Ali was unkind in the names he called Frazier leading up to the fight. Many said he never forgave Ali. What was his perception of that?
MANN: Pretty much what you just said. I mean it falls in the category of was Ali overly abusive about Frazier? Yeah, probably. But don’t forget, Ali wanted to get the other guy angry. He told me that if you get angry, you just lost the fight. He was constantly strategic to the most extreme detail. I was never a boxing expert but for that brief period of time in which I was making this film I became something of a boxing expert. The training that he did for the Foreman fight a lot of it had to with sloughing off punches, meaning that if something is coming in he would just duck his head a certain way and maybe 15% of the impact would land. That conflicts with the statements he’s made elsewhere, that he decided at the end of round one or round two to do the rope-a-dope.
DEADLINE: That was where he deliberately absorbed Foreman’s punches so the opponent would tire himself out. It was a dangerous strategy.
MANN: There’s a line in there that he told me, and it’s in the former of inner monologue when he gets hit and almost knocked out. He probably got concussed two or three times and was almost unconscious or unconscious briefly standing, and he said, “I told myself get out of that green room.” I said, “What green room?” He said, “That’s the room you go into.” When he became nearly unconscious he would find himself sitting in a green room, this whole imaginary place where there’s alligators playing musical instruments and stuff.
DEADLINE: Sounds like a dangerous place to be…
MANN: I said at the beginning of this that if there’s a theme to the movie, it’s defiance. Ali defied that, along with every expectation about him. To come from the 1950s and the early ’60s, what America was like. Coming from Jim Crow Louisville, all the expectations of what being well behaved is supposed to mean. That’s kind of very much what the front of the film was about. The kind of cultural imperialism imposed by white America on black America, to be in that world and then imagine what he wants to make himself into. It was such a radical movement. It takes me back to this thing that Malcolm X said and Ali would say it. We’d all been brainwashed. We see white with blonde hair, blue eyes. We look at all the angels, they’re all white. Angel food cake is good, and white. Devil’s food cake is black. White Rain shampoo. Everything positive is white. He was talking about a certain kind of value system, in 1964, when he is going to make himself as a heavyweight champion of the world. He’s going to become a motivational personification of something totally different, a black man in his own culture with his own pride. That is why people identify with and worship Ali, because he represented the enormous possibility the poetics of actual self-determination. He does it. We can do it. That’s what he stood for. To do that, he had to defy not just the establishment and not just white America and not just people who were feared militancy but also the NAACP, Joe Louis, you name it. Everybody who was centrist and had an interest in maintaining the status quo. We are still talking identity politics in 2017; try understanding that perspective in 1963-64.
DEADLINE: We might be headed into a strange place in the world right now, but there was no precedent for his journey then, was there?
MANN: There was no precedent. Then there was Malcolm X. Ali is a hero, somebody who committed to something outside the interests of the self-interested circumscribed “I.” He did it at great cost to himself. The cost was the best years of every heavyweight were the ones where he was suspended and could never fight, and everything he went through including the possibility of going to prison and cross the board condemnation. We may be heading into another repressive regime. And where is the Muhammad Ali now?
DEADLINE: Much was made at the time you made this movie, of the $108 million budget. When you were going back, and making changes to the cut, were you glad you stuck to your guns? And why did it require that high a budget to make the movie your way?
MANN: People talk about budgets as if they’re flexible and negotiable. Certainly peoples’ above line fees sometimes are, but a lot of it is fixed costs. You want to go to Africa or not? You want to shoot Chicago, in Chicago? You do all the smart things you can. The house on the river in Kinshasa [where Ali lived while training for the Foreman fight] was actually done in Miami but if you are going to really do the Foreman fight, you got to do the Foreman fight. What is the training? What is the preparation? It all relates to content. Do you want this piece of content, or not? If you do, it cost x. And that added up to more than the very generous budget that Sony was authorized to spend. And so then it became about being lucky like I was, and having the best partner anybody could have on the planet, which is Will. Will and I we wrote checks going in.
DEADLINE: What does that mean?
MANN: We wrote checks. We wrote checks for some of the financing of the movie. I’m not going to say how much, but we wrote checks and financed part of the movie ourselves, to make it possible. We were committed, and that was it. Ali was one year older than I am. What enraged him, the Birmingham bombings, the news from Vietnam on the 6 o’clock news in 1967, enraged me and my generation. I knew those days and those years and he was an icon to me.
DEADLINE: Meaning you were not going to half-ass it to make some bean counter comfortable?
MANN: To give them credit, they were generous with where they elected to go. But to really be able to go to Africa and do this, to go to Accra and to also go to Maputo, Mozambique.
DEADLINE: Did you think about faking Africa?
MANN: No. You saw it…does Africa feel like Africa in that movie? You bet your ass it feels like Africa in the movie because it was Africa. I’m not going to fake it.
DEADLINE: I recall you put yourself on the hook for overages…
MANN: It was beyond that. We knew going in that they could put up X amount of money and that we needed X millions more. Will and I committed to that; we would put the rest of that up, and that’s in preproduction. That’s not about, well, if you go over budget it’s on you. There’s no if about it. We knew we had a budget that was in excess of what Sony could finance. And what Amy Pascal could approve back then was a lot of money, a hell of a lot of money.
DEADLINE: Filmmakers are constantly faced with budget battles and compromise now. Looking back on it now, how does it feel to have not compromised?
MANN: I can’t even think about this film without thinking about that. The whole time, every time I spend a production dollar, I’m spending some of my money and I’m spending some of Will’s, and I never had one question ever. I had the complete faith and trust from Will and [his Overbrook partner] James Lassiter. Never a question. Do we really need that? Does that…? Nothing.
DEADLINE: After you do that, it’s inevitable financiers on the next one say, hey you took a haircut on Ali and guaranteed overages, so how about making our movie like that? Did you ever feel as staked in a movie after that, where you were willing to put yourself on the hook financially and write checks as you said?
MANN: Sure. But the particular need wasn’t there. All directors have these clauses in our contracts. There is some penalty or another. I’ve had them as well and I’ve also shot going up against the actors frankly, like on Public Enemies… or trying to figure out the hell to shoot around three hurricanes in Miami on Miami Vice, Rita, Katrina and one other while me and a whole crew were in the Dominican Republic and heading to Paraguay and Brazil. You always run into those things like that, but [Ali] was different. Going in, we knew that we had to do this.
DEADLINE: Could you get this movie made the way you shot it in today’s Hollywood?
MANN: I really don’t know. They spend a lot more than we spent on Ali, every day of the week because it fits into the perception of what’s going to work. Nobody is better at that than Disney, where there is no hesitation on pulling the trigger on 150, 175 million dollars, whatever the hell it is. They take big swings and Bob Iger and Alan Horn hit a lot of balls out of the park.
DEADLINE: On high concepts and branded visual effects extravaganzas. A deeply personal biopic?
MANN: I know. It’s a deeply personal bio but it’s also a very political film.
DEADLINE: I wonder how many studio heads not named Amy Pascal would have backed this, and she’s no longer in that post.
MANN: Well, the landscape is always changing. I mean take a look at the television that’s getting done. This stuff is spectacular, evolving to where you wonder where movies end and television begins. It is becoming a hybrid. So it’s a luxurious time to be making movies because there’s so many different platforms and modes of presentation so that you can do the strongest possible thing to make something work and let the narrative itself dictate what’s the best way to present this.
DEADLINE: You have developed films on Enzo Ferrari and the war photographer Robert Capa. What’s ahead for Michael Mann?
MANN: There are two things I want to do. I’ve got a Western that Eric Roth wrote called Comanche, and I’ve got a science fiction thing I want to do.
DEADLINE: That’s one you and Roth have talked about for a decade that is as epic in scale as The Revenant. You are finally going to get to make that?
MANN: We’ll see. The sci-fi I can’t talk about. I’m sworn to secrecy.
I mean if the right thing presents itself and we’re working on a slate of four different things in television. If the right thing presents itself and the right opportunities. I also like the fact you can do eight hours, 10 hours. It’s completely flexible.
DEADLINE: What about doing any of these for TV?
MANN: If it is the right thing…It’s different when we were doing those shows, shooting Miami Vice episodes in seven days, doing 22 of them a year. By the end, talk about the walking dead. That was us.
DEADLINE: In a year that saw so many iconic personalities pass away, did you go to Ali’s funeral? What was it like?
MANN: Man, last year was unbelievable. There were so many people who were too young to go. Howard Bingham, a very close friend of mine, died in London. Ali with Parkinson’s, OK, he was in decline. But his funeral was amazing because he designed it himself.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
MANN: He stipulated who he wanted up on that stage. He had his Imam, and two rabbis, two evangelical ministers, two rabbis. He had Oren Lyons who I used as a technical advisor on The Last Of The Mohicans, who’s Mohawk. He had two Buddhists. He was celebrating variety. I don’t want to say diversity because that sounds like an obligation. It’s just the wonderful variety that’s there in life with humor and a kind of charismatic aggression. I feel like I don’t know how to put it. Will was a pallbearer.
The thing about Ali is, his whole life was out there. It was all expressed. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to get into a ring with him if you’re a boxer. That shuffle wasn’t just a dance for cameras; its purpose was to confuse his opponent. If his left foot forward, he’s coming with a left lead, right foot forward, it’s a right lead? What’s going to come at me, out of that shuffle? And then he’s ducking and feigning; it’s like fighting a lightweight. He had speed but he hits like a heavyweight. I can’t imagine what it must have been like in there. All of it was a life filled with powerful, powerful emotions. And so smart.
DEADLINE: You played up a moment where he enlisted his old friend Howard Cosell to interview him while he was sidelined, where he campaigned to get back in the ring against Frazier. What did he accomplish there?
MANN: It provoked. People wanted to see the fight. He entertains. He makes you laugh. He paints this dramatic picture and then tells you, you can’t see it. And then the phones start ringing and the demand for that fight escalates. He says, “I don’t know about Frazier, or this guy. I got bigger opponents, the whole U.S. government.” That’s who he was fighting. He was fighting the whole U.S. government. He was provoking a mass audience response, because they wanted to see this guy fight. But don’t forget, these are those years when Malcolm X starts to talk to Martin Luther King and suddenly Malcolm X is getting very dangerous. In fact when Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers in Chicago started to talk to Hispanics, poor whites, Appalachian whites and the anti-war movement. You start getting that lateral class consciousness and that’s dangerous. So Fred Hampton gets murdered. Malcolm X gets murdered. That was the world. It’s not insult television from 2016 with bubbleheaded blonds. It was serious stuff. I wanted to make that more tangible, the surveillance operations that were going against Ali. At the time, you might have thought you were being paranoid. We now realize we were underestimating. I just wanted to get it right…get it more right. This experience stays with you, forever.