Director Bert Marcus and subject Mike Tyson tell Jeremy Kay about how their boxing documentary, Champs, transcends the world of sports.
For the last few years Bert Marcus has been making a name for himself getting behind a certain type of documentary.
The Los Angeles-based head of Bert Marcus Productions - and former radio producer and correspondent - produced Teenage Paparazzo and How To Make Money Selling Drugs.
Champs, which The Works is selling here at AFM, marks his directorial debut and casts a spotlight on three of the most acclaimed US boxers of the last century - Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins.
Yet this is not primarily a film about pugilism. “We tried to create a story that transcends sport and touches on some of the subjects that [elicit emotions] we can all relate to,” says Marcus ahead of AFM.
“Broken homes, poverty, lack of formal education, abuse and yet [these people] have the resources to be successful.
“The irony is these guys sought out one of the most violent sports to get away from violence. But there’s this cycle that gets them back to that.
These guys are prepared to be champions inside the ring but not outside.
“We as a society turn a blind eye to it. These guys are humans, people who have been through major, major life struggles. They’re three of the most revered guys, but there’s something about their lives you will be able to relate to and that’s why they were encouraged to be a part of this.”
All three of the subjects in Champs have been world champions. Tyson and Holyfield ruled the heavyweight divisions, while Hopkins fought predominantly as a middleweight.
Remarkably the latter is the reigning IBF and WBA light-heavyweight champion and at the age of 49 is due to defend his titles this weekend.
Rise to the challenge
Marcus shot the film on and off for two years, visiting the men at their homes in Las Vegas (Tyson), Atlanta (Holyfield) and Philadelphia (Hopkins).
He had known Tyson for a while and the boxer introduced the film-maker to the other two fighters.
‘What people don’t understand about this game is that it’s a lonely sport. You’re in your head most of your career’
What unifies the three men is that each was raised by his mother and has experienced challenges, either due to poor choices in early life or difficulties that manifested themselves outside the ring later in their careers.
“They’re being proactive about making changes in the sport, so all three of them are involved in working with amateur boxers and grooming them not just in the ring, but outside by surrounding them with lawyers and accountants and doctors,” Marcus notes.
“One of the things we get into in the film is the lack of proper support.”
Hopkins, who found boxing while in prison, is an executive at Golden Boy, a promotional company for young boxers.
“The idea now is to educate the younger fighters,” says the director. “Mike and Evander are also doing this kind of work and they’re helping get the sport back to where it was. This used to be the sport of kings.”
Champs is also the first film produced by Tyson, who made a few calls and leveraged his standing in the boxing world after the “very persuasive” Marcus asked for help.
“What people don’t understand about this game is that it’s a lonely sport,” Tyson tells Screen. “You’re in your head most of your career. When you’re finished, you have to work on getting out of your head and live in the present.”
He prefers to praise his co-stars rather than dwell on his own accomplishments. “I’m always happy to see him,” Tyson says of Holyfield, a famous old adversary with whom he now enjoys a genuine rapport.
“Bernard Hopkins is a very interesting guy,” he says. “He’s lived his whole life in such a unique way… He was a champion of the whole prison system and that’s just amazing. That’s real warrior school.”
The film, financed by a fund Marcus set up as well as returning investors from his previous documentaries, will open theatrically and on digital in the US in 2015 through Amplify and Starz.
What Marcus calls “a supporting cast” of celebrated fans including Ron Howard, Mark Wahlberg, Mary J Blige and Denzel Washington provides insight and commentary throughout the film.
Now the goal is to make fans out of AFM buyers. “It delivers an extraordinary story about the incarceration of American youth,” says The Works CEO Laurence Gornall, who came on board in Toronto.