IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Documentary Filmmaker Bert Marcus Talks ‘Champs’

Friday, 13 March 2015 12:56 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Documentary Filmmaker Bert Marcus Talks ‘Champs’

Arguably, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins are three of the greatest boxing champions of all time! Now their story can be seen in the brilliant new documentary Champs, which was directed by Bert Marcus and opens in theaters on March 13th.

The new documentary examines the rise, fall, and rise again of Tyson, Holyfield and Hopkins, and combines interviews with all three champions, old footage, and narrative footage used to represent their early lives. The film was produced by Marcus, Tyson, Tyson’s wife Lakiha Spicer, and actor Mario Lopez (TV’s Saved By The Bell), and also includes interviews with celebrity boxing fans like Mark Wahlberg (Broken City), Denzel Washington (Flight), Mary J. Blige (The Help), 50 Cent (Freelancers), Spike Lee (Oldboy), and Ron Howard (Cinderella Man).

The three champions share a lot in common having all rose to fame in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and overcoming childhoods in poor inner city neighborhoods. While Tyson and Holyfield will forever be linked in history by the infamous “biting incident,” they also both lost their fortunes after boxing, and Tyson and Hopkins have both served lengthy prison sentences. The documentary really uses boxing and the lives of these three champions as a way to examine bigger issues in our society like poverty, race, the American prison system, and economic inequality. 

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with director Bert Marcus about his work on Champs. The documentary filmmaker discussed his new movie, why he chose to look at the lives of Tyson, Holyfield and Hopkins, how he used the project as an opportunity to examine important social issues, the evolution of Mike Tyson, why Tyson and Evander Holyfield will forever be linked together in history, Bernard Hopkins incredible life story, what the World Boxing Association should do to prepare fighters for life outside of the ring, and the decision to include narrative footage in his documentary. 

Here is what director Bert Marcus had to say about Champs:

IAR: To begin with, can you discuss the choice to examine the lives and careers of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Bernard Hopkins with your new documentary Champs? You could have chosen a number of different former boxing champions to document in this film, why did you choose those three boxers in particular?

Bert Marcus: Definitely the connection with Mike and Evander is there, and Bernard happens to come from the same generation. They are all the same age roughly. The dichotomy between them is so interesting because they are such different guys. They come from the same generation and from similar tight backgrounds, yet their personalities and the way in which their careers went could not be more different. I felt like interweaving those types of stories would be really interesting. 

While the film focuses on these three former champions, you also used the project as an opportunity to examine important social issues like poverty, race, the American prison system, and economic inequality. Was that your ultimate goal with this documentary from the beginning?

Marcus: Absolutely. I think what we chose to do was really make a film that would showcase how those issues have occurred in recent years. The men and women choosing to partake in this type of savage sport that would otherwise be chased in the streets is to me the ultimate paradox. I felt like taking some of the most iconic figures of the sport and really humanizing them in a way where people could really relate to them as they never had before could be something that would be really inspiring. I wanted to take this journey with these guys and examine the struggles and unimaginable obstacles that they had gone through in their lives way outside of the sport. I wanted to examine the economic poverty, broken homes, inaccessible education, physical and sexual abuse, prison time, substance abuse, and financial ruin that they all went through. Through this, we as audience members can really reflect and learn to inspire our own struggles, stereotypes and failures. That was really the goal. That we as a society can understand these circumstances by watching some of the greatest warriors of all time, and how they got through their struggles.

I understand that Mike Tyson was a producer on the documentary, and obviously you spent a lot of time with him making this film. I actually had the pleasure of interviewing Tyson twice last year and I found him to be an incredibly sweet, surprisingly smart and absolutely hilarious person. Can you talk about the evolution of Mike Tyson and how he went from being a monster in the ring and an ex-convict, to a truly beloved figure in pop-culture?

Marcus: Mike is one of the most endearing and phenomenal people I’ve ever met. Mike is by far the easiest person who I’ve ever worked with. He’s a dear friend of mine and I have nothing but the deepest respect for him. To be one of the most iconic figures in the world, and not just in sports, and one of the most prolific athletes of our time, he’s been through everything like you mentioned. His evolution is that he is literally a guy who’s been through it all. He’s somebody that when you’re around him, you just want to soak him up because Mike’s a brilliant guy. That’s another thing people don’t know. Mike is extremely well read, very aware and brilliant. I think you see that in the film. He and his wife Lakiha Spicer actually were really great hands on producers. The film couldn’t have been made without them. I think Mike’s humility is something else that just makes him such an interesting and phenomenal person. He’s someone who achieved so much and then completely lost it all, but now he’s very humble at this point in his life. Like you experienced first hand, he has a phenomenal personality. He’s able to make fun of himself and make fun of dark situations that have happened to him. That’s what’s so cool about him is that he really wants his story to improve people’s lives. He’s vulnerable and has left himself open so that people can really relate and reflect on their own lives in order to make changes if needed. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Mike and I’m so appreciative that I was able to work with him so closely on this film. 

Obviously, Tyson and Holyfield will forever be connected in history by the “biting incident.” But the two heavyweights were really linked to each other from the moment they began boxing professionally. Can you talk about Tyson and Holyfield’s unusual place in boxing history together?

Marcus: You’re correct! These guys have been linked together since they were very young. A lot of people don’t realize that these guys have known each other since they were young teenagers, competing as amateur boxers and training for the Olympics. They’ve known each other now for 35 years so their history goes way back. They couldn’t be more different individuals, and they were such phenomenal athletes. The truth of the matter is that it’s unfair in my opinion, with everything that these guys have accomplished in their lives and careers, that they are continually marginalized by the “biting incident.” That is something that did happen and I think Mike has been able to really have fun with it over the years. Like I said he doesn’t take himself too seriously. It’s something in my opinion that’s really refreshing. But they’re definitely linked, and it was a special aspect of the project that for the first time ever they appeared on screen together. 

Before watching the documentary, I knew a lot about Tyson and Holyfield, but not so much about Bernard Hopkins’ life and career. He has had a truly amazing life and you could have probably made an entire documentary just about him. Why did you decide to include Hopkins’ story in this project?

Marcus: Bernard is such a unique individual and the way in which his career started is the opposite from Evander. Tyson and Holyfield were the two biggest athletes in the world during the time that Bernard was behind bars, getting out of jail, and trying to start his life over. What’s happened in turn is that Evander and Mike had really difficult obstacles in their lives and they didn’t have the proper tools to survive after they hit the top. Bernard steadily made himself into someone who wasn’t just a fighter, but someone who was a major executive at Golden Boy Promotions. He has a significant role in shaping young men’s lives and changing policies in boxing. He’s really helping young men shape their lives in a positive way. He is pretty phenomenal, and Mike and Evander are trying to do that as well now with their own initiatives and companies. What’s so cool about all three of them is that they’ve really dedicated themselves to not just changing the sport, but changing people’s perspective of it and the real microcosm of society. 

The film also looks at the economics of boxing and how many fighters, including Tyson and Holyfield, have lost their fortunes. What do you think the World Boxing Association should do in the future to protect their fighters and prepare them for life outside of the ring?

Marcus: They’re not protected at all and that’s a problem. Pretty much every sport that we have is federally regulated and is looking out for people’s safety. Also, there are programs in place that make it accessible to get the proper financial advisors, lawyers and accountants. But in boxing these guys come from nothing so they don’t know better. Then the sport is kind of preying upon them in a way because there aren’t any of these programs put in place. That’s something Bernard has taken an active role in, as well as Mike and Evander with their promotional companies. They’re really trying to get young boxers the proper people on their team to be around them and help protect them from losing what Mike and Evander lost, which is around 400 million dollars. I don’t know all of their financial situations now, but I just know that Bernard never lost everything. 

Finally, as a documentary filmmaker, can you talk about the choice to direct narrative sequences for the film of the three champion’s childhoods, and cast actors to portray them at an early age?

Marcus: It was tough. It was a really interesting way in which to understand better and give the audience a real feeling of what it was like to be there at that time. It really took us doing our due diligence in making sure that we were doing everything humanly possible to give great detail to the fighters’ lives and make sure that we were on point. We felt the narrative footage really gave us a cinematic way in which to help further along the story and help the audience get connected to these guys as they were growing up because footage of that time period was not available. There are pictures that we have in the film to illustrate that time period and we have definitely have some phenomenal old footage, but for some of the story that we wanted to tell, there wasn’t any footage of it.        

Champs opens in theaters on March 13th.

To read about the recently announced Mike Tyson biopic from director Martin Scorsese starring Jamie Foxx, please click here

To watch our exclusive video interview with Mike Tyson and Jim Rash about Mike Tyson Mysteries, please click on the video player below. 

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