Vocal filmmaker Spike Lee was outraged to learn that Columbia Pictures (and star Will Smith) had selected Michael Mann to helm its Muhammad Ali biopic; Lee thought it was a story only a black director could tell. And at first glance, Mann does seem an odd choice to immortalize the erstwhile Cassius Clay, with a résumé that includes a ”Silence of the Lambs” prequel (”Manhunter,” 1986), a neon-sunset-drug fantasy (TV’s ”Miami Vice”), and a Native American love story (”The Last of the Mohicans,” 1992). But Mann’s Oscar-nominated ”The Insider” (1999) proved the 58-year-old Chicago native’s ability to use compelling visuals to tell a complex story. At an advance screening of ”Ali” (which opens Dec. 25) at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Mann (who also cowrote the script) spoke about avoiding boxing clichés, meeting the Champ, and more.
There are so many iconic American boxing films. How did you avoid the clichés?
First of all, Will became a fighter. He boxed every Thursday, and worked out six hours a day five days a week. He actually trained with [Ali trainer] Angelo Dundee. So Will hit and got hit. There was choreography where we knew certain things were coming, certain historical events that we knew we had to include, but in between it was all improvised sparring. In fact, everybody who plays a boxer in the film IS a boxer. We didn’t use stunt coordinators or stuntmen. Michael Bentt, who plays Sonny Liston, was a WBO heavyweight world champion. James Toney plays Frasier. Charles Shufford [who plays George Foreman] fought [Wladimir] Klitschko on HBO, like, two months ago.
The fight sequences are pretty vivid. How did you film them?
We used a Steadicam, but then to get even closer, we used a high-def cam from medical technology. But the most effective tool was something we made up, a low-res VHS camera about the size of a matchbook that simultaneously shot both the left and right sides of the action. Instead of running around the ring trying not to get hit, we mounted these things on the actors either at eye level or at waist level. Plus, we experimented with a bunch of ridiculous cameras that we attached to helmets, boxing gloves, wrists, elbows, even hair. It all looked stupid; we didn’t use any of it.
The depictions of racism in the South are pretty tame. How conscious was that decision?
The racism that Ali experienced growing up in Louisville was subtle. Things there were polite, but you couldn’t drink from the water fountain. What I wanted were the things that would reside in Ali’s memory. Certainly the image of his father painting a blond, blue-eyed Jesus in church, for example. I didn’t want to show the typical scene of Ali walking into a restaurant in Rome after winning the Olympic gold medal and they won’t serve him. That’s real movie-of-the-week, made-up stuff and I don’t find it potent.