Tough Talk with Boxing Gym director Frederick Wiseman
Documentarian Frederick Wiseman has made a film almost every year since 1967, when his Titicut Follies gave viewers a harrowing look inside an institution for the criminally insane. His latest film, which opened at the new West End Cinema on Friday, is called Boxing Gym. It introduces us — without making a big deal about it — to the racially, economically, gender-and-age diverse patrons of Lord's Gym, an Austin, TX training facility founded by retired boxer Richard Lord. Here's a video containing the kind of direct-address first-person autobiography from Lord and others that Wiseman omits from his films.
I reached the 80-year-old Wiseman by phone on Friday afternoon to invite him to come by my boxing class — you can come, too, if you want! — and to discuss the picture.
This film reflects quite clearly what I gather is your characteristic style — I confess I’m at a disadvantage here, not having seen your other documentaries — but I know that you eschew a lot of traditional elements, like on-camera interviews and title cards giving us dates or identifying the people speaking; that kind of thing. You just drop us into the environment of this gym for 90 minutes. It’s immersive rather than narrative.
There is a narrative, but it’s a more abstract narrative. Everything in the film is carefully worked out from the beginning to end. It tells a story, but the story is told in more abstract terms. [The traditional documentary elements you mentioned] — that’s all very didactic and boring to me.
Well, since I can ask you now, what’s the period of time we’re in this gym? When were you there, and for how long?
I was there for six weeks in the spring of 2007.
What made you want to set a documentary in that environment?
I’m a boxing fan. At the same time, I’m interested in the various forms of expression of human violence. A lot of my movies are concerned in one way or another with violence. Titicut Follies, my first film, is about a prison for the criminally insane, with people who have committed the most violent acts imaginable. Law & Order is about the police in Kansas City controlling human violence. Juvenile Court is about punishing juveniles who’ve committed violent or antisocial acts. Domestic Violence is about violence between couples; between men and women. Manouvre and Basic Training are about the state having a monopoly on the use of violence to protect the state; Manouvre being about the launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles and Basic Training being a movie about basic training during the Vietnam War.
Okay. So where do you see Boxing Gym fitting into that continuum? Because boxing is a lot more civilized than any the forms of violence you’ve just described.
It is more civilized. It’s a form of ritualized violence, wherein people are taught to control their violent impulses for a specific goal, whether that be exercise or fighting matches. Boxing Gym is also related to the two dance movies I did, La Danse and Ballet, because boxing requires the same control over the human body that ballet does, even though the result is different. I shot this movie before I shot [the 2009 ballet documentary] La Danse, and I was struck by the similarity in the intensity of the training.
I wondered if that was a point you were trying to make. You spend a lot of time showing us closeups of boxers’ footwork. There are also a lot of scenes of people shadowboxing, perfecting their form and rhythm and balance. We really get a good, long look how elegant and precise their movements are. Those scenes far outnumber the scenes where we see boxers sparring.
Well, they didn’t do much sparring in the gym. They only sparred one morning per week.
You were there Monday to Friday?
Monday to Sunday. Every day of the week for six weeks.
And, again, you never interview your subjects on camera. Does that approach to documentary seem false to you somehow?
No. Some people do that very successfully, but it’s not an approach that appeals to me. There are some terrific documentaries based on interviews, like the films of Marcel Ophuls or some of the shorter films of Errol Morris. It’s a trade off: You get one kind of information by asking people questions, but you get other kinds of things by not asking them questions but just following what they’re doing. It’s a question of personal preference.
So in keeping with that, we eavesdrop on the conversations people have in the gym, and some of those discussions address violence. We hear guys respond to the Virginia Tech shooting spree — which occurred in April of 2007, so that would’ve been a fresh news event — and we hear from a guy in the Army who is about to start Ranger training and expects to be deployed soon after, who actually says he joined in the hope of seeing combat. But as far as the violence of the sport itself, if that was the link you saw to your prior body of work, I wonder if you considered documenting training in mixed martial arts or Ultimate Fighting instead? Those sports have drawn larger audiences than boxing in the last decade or so, and — there’s some debate about this — but I think they’re much more violent and dangerous than traditional boxing.
Well, I didn’t do a personal survey to figure out what sport best expressed contemporary views about violence. I’m a boxing fan, and have been for a long time. The idea of making a movie about a boxing gym appealed to me. I know next to nothing about mixed martial arts, but I’m sorry to hear it’s eclipsing boxing.
I am, too. Who were the boxers who got you interested in the sport?
Well, this is an indication of how old I am, but Joe Louis was my favorite fighter when I was about six or seven years old. I saw his fights on newsreels when I went to the movies on Saturday afternoons. He was a great champion. As television became available, I watched Floyd Patterson and Billy Conn, the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fights. The Boston Garden, in the 70s before fights were solely on cable, used to show all the big fights on an enormous four-sided screen that was better than being at the fight. I used to take my sons to watch the fights at the Garden. I’m no expert on boxing, but I’ve always enjoyed it as a sport.
Did you consider making a documentary about professional fighters?
No. What interested me was how the sport attracted "ordinary people," as Obama would say. I wasn’t interested in stars. Though there was one world champion who occasionally worked out there, at Lord’s Gym, but he was hurt, so he didn’t work out very much while I was there.
Who was that?
Jesus Chavez. But I was more interested in people who just like to box, who like to train.
That’s something that does come across strongly in the film. We see a real ethnic, gender, and age mix among the people in the gym, and lots of different physical types, too: stout people and slender, wiry people, 16-year-olds, 60-year-olds. Was that variety something that surprised you?
It was a discovery. I hadn’t spent much time in gyms before I made the movie. I heard about that gym, and I went to visit Richard Lord. I liked him a lot, and I liked the look of the gym. That gym would be a $3 million set in a feature film.
Yeah. I was in Los Angeles over the summer, and I had heard about Freddie Roach’s gym in Hollywood, Wild Card Boxing Club. I’d read that Manny Pacquiano trained there, so I went down just to poke my head in, and I ended up staying to work out, which anyone who has five bucks can do. It was a very egalitarian environment.
That was one of the things that interested me about [Lord’s Gym]. There are people from all walks of life there: Upper class, middle class, lower class — whatever those terms mean. Illegal immigrants. There was one judge who worked out there who told me he’d met at least 15 people he sent to prison working out there. Everybody got along. One guy told me, “We all help each other. Boxing is a violent sport, but while we’re here, we all help each other.”
That’s great. Does it bother you that as a consequence of the way you work — no interviews — you can hear something like what that judge told you and not have it in your movie?
No. You lose that sort of thing in the technique I use, but you gain other things. If he had said it to somebody in the course of a conversation I was shooting, I would’ve used it. But I’m certainly not going to ask him to repeat it.
How’d you hear about Lord’s Gym?
Well, I go down to Austin a lot. A friend of mine told me about it. I only spent one day in the gym before I started shooting the movie. I talked to Richard, told him what I was interested in doing, and he agreed right away. I have a great admiration for him. He’s very tuned in to people. He treats everyone equally, and he’s very sensitive to the differences between people. He’s a very good teacher.
So you shot 42 days. How long did it take to edit the film?
About nine months. I usually end up using only about two or three percent of the material I shoot.
I wonder if it was easier than usual to get your subjects to ignore the camera, as they might be used to seeing cameras around the gym just as training tools.
No, it was no different than on any other film I’ve made. It’s very rare that anyone objects [to being filmed]. I don’t know what the explanation is, but I’ve been doing this for 44 years. It’s not a problem.
Really? Even when you started, long before we were accustomed to the idea of everyone walking around with a camera all the time, on their phone or whatever, people weren’t self-conscious when you filmed them?
I started doing this in 1966. There is absolutely no difference between the way people behave then and now. I think people just like the idea that someone is sufficiently interested to make a movie about them. Most people don’t have the capacity to change their behavior. If someone doesn’t want to be photographed, they can just walk away or say “no,” but it happens so rarely, it’s never a problem.
Boxing Gym is at the West End Cinema now. And again, if you want to dip a toe in the waters of the Sweet Science your own self, please come check out my boxing class Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. at Results, 1101 Connecticut Ave. NW. But it's an hour, not 45 minutes like that dumb website says.