Interview: Director Bert Marcus talks ‘Champs’

The main purpose of a documentary is a two-pronged one: to educate and to entertain. With the new boxing doc Champs, the viewer definitely gets the full filmed treatment. Filmmaker Bert Marcus’ mission (with all of his films) is to raise awareness about important sociological issues. In Champs, he certainly accomplishes this mission and then some. I recently had the great privilege of interviewing Bert about this new documentary. Here’s how that match went down.

Champs was amazing. I loved it. Fascinating, really interesting topic, I love the way it was handled. What is it about boxing that fascinates you?

You know, I think boxing in general really is, as you know, known as the poor man’s sport and really given kids from America especially, and roughly the same around the world, an escape. But, you know, the irony and the interest of this sport was really much more than just…its impact on sports, it is really an opportunity for people to escape violence with violence, which is the ultimate irony in life, and that was something that intrigued me to write about this sport, you know. It’s been well-documented in the past, but we tried to take a real unique perspective and show it from hopefully a really unique perspective. The fact that people are, men and women are taking an established profession to escape violence that they would otherwise face in the streets, and we as a society play a large role in that. And so I think it’s a much larger conversation and something I wanted to bring to the forefront so that, you know, through the plights of these men, especially these iconic figures who were gracious enough to share their stories, we as audience members could reflect and learn and inspire to conquer our own struggles and stereotypes and failures. The goal is really through the introspection and knowledge, aided by the film and these guys, that we as a society and audience members can hopefully resolve to overcome the most daunting of circumstances and discern for ourselves what it means to be a champion. Not just inside the ring, but outside the ring in life.

So you did a lot of research in terms of the psychology that goes on within a boxer’s head?

Correct, yeah, that was key for us.

What kind of research?

Well, obviously speaking to the fighters. We spoke to so many sociologists and doctors and people who have studied the impact of the brain and people who have studied for years, the individuals over the last century who have entered the sport and kind of seen those waves of people, whether it be the old Jewish boxers to the African-American boxers to the Latino-Mexican boxers. There has been a very common trend to it, and it’s fascinating to kind of sit with people who you wouldn’t necessarily expect to know about boxing but who have studied the psychology of what the sport is, and to me, it was always fascinating that you have the most brutal sport in the world that happens to be the only sport that isn’t federally regulated whatsoever. And it has no, you know, there’s nothing set in place for these guys to be successful outside of the ring or post-career. No one’s really looking out for their well-being, and they do have, in my opinion, a much microcosm of a much bigger problem in our country.

And that could be a lot more harmful than the physicality of the sport itself.

Absolutely.

Did you consider focusing on any other boxers other than Tyson, Holyfield, and Hopkins, or were those three in your mind all along?

You know, we definitely considered along the way, but these three guys just happened to have very different backgrounds. All their careers at some point kind of intersected because they come from the same, they’re pretty much the same age and come from kind of the same generation but have such diverse and different personalities that we found it really interesting to kind of intersect their stories because they couldn’t be more different, the three guys. But yet, they could be, they have so many similarities, and these three guys stuck out to me, to be honest, because for audience members that maybe aren’t so in tune with boxing or even care about the sport for that matter, I found that these guys, just the way in which they were able to open up and share their lives and their stories that are still relatable to people. Especially for iconic figures, it’s really hard to find people who can relate to the average person, people who are going through their own struggles, they are like, “Wow, I can really relate to this guy,” and I feel like these three guys are really relatable. They have gone through so many things and are willing to share their stories with people to hopefully create a positive change and difference and hopefully that change in the sport and how these guys are viewed.

Right, and speaking to that change, do you feel that Champ is a wake-up call to troubled youth?

I hope so. I definitely hope so. I hope it’s a wake-up call, not just for troubled youth but anyone who watches it. The idea is, we try not to preach, and our documentarians are really geared towards allowing people to come to their own conclusions and feelings on the subject matter. That hopefully it allows people to take a step back and reflect differently on their own life and how they partake in different aspects of this in society and hopefully try to make a wake-up call for not just the sport but for just society in general.

Speaking to that, what do you look for when choosing subjects for a documentary?

It varies. I try to find something that I would want to watch, to be honest with myself. I try to not just limit it to the subject matter per se but similar to what we’ve done with Champ to the idea, whether if it was our previous films Teenage Paparazzo or How to Make Money Selling Drugs, and the goal is always to, and I think in any documentary, you want to open up the conversation and bring people in, but we also want to make films that aren’t just are for the people that are into those types of films. Which I think a lot of documentaries do. So the goal for us is really when we come up with the subject matter is to, how do we look at the subject matter from a completely new, fresh perspective.

What was it like getting so many notable celebrities to give interviews, and which was the most difficult to get?

That’s been a part of our first two films and now this, the film that we’re finishing up now. It’s definitely an important aspect of the film that we make. You know, looking at Teenage Paparazzo and How to Make Money Selling Drugs, you look at the cast, same thing with Champ, it is to really bring in notable, iconic figures who can open up about a subject matter and aspect of their life in a way they haven’t done before, to hopefully have the audience relate to them in very unique ways. You know, people like Mary J. Blige and 50 Cent, the list goes on, Denzel Washington, it is that these guys have been impacted by the subject matter, by these fighters, the men and women who have taken these risks to get in the ring, and they come from very similar backgrounds as these people. We never just put celebrities in the film to put them in. The idea is to find which people really relate to whatever we’re talking about, that their lives have been dramatically impacted by it. Everyone in this film had either an aspect of their life or career been dramatically affected by not just the sport but the men and women and their respect for the men and women in the ring because an aspect of their life is very similar to them, to their upbringing. So that was really why we put these people in the film, and I think it’s a great way in which to captivate the audience, to have them not just hear the things that these guys have said before but really very unique and new ways to relate to these guys on a real human level. And that’s what is so great about everyone who has been in our films is that they have really been vulnerable and wanting to connect and help people, especially audience members who I said might be going through their own struggles in life, and they’re like, “Wow, I can relate to some of these people in a way I never knew was possible, and they have hope and have encouragement and have ways in which to deal with some of the most daunting circumstances in their life.” Which was the most difficult? I don’t know, they’re all difficult to get to open up like this. We really try to find what really speaks to them and get people who are really engaged and passionate about what it is we’re talking about. So the goal is not really to have it be so hard to get them, it’s really to have them open up on levels and ways in which you haven’t seen before.

When it comes to documentaries, editing is key. What was your relationship like with Derek Boonstra and Davon Ramos?

Well, Derek Boonstra was our main editor, but Derek was a phenomenal editor, super-super talented young guy with just, I mean he’s easy to work with, the relationship between any director and editor is paramount. I have nothing but great things to say about him, and the editing process for a documentary is very arduous process and it’s something that’s very different that a narrative feature, something like that because there’s so many ways in which the film changes within the edit. But that being said, it was a great relationship, and working with him was a lot of fun, and nothing but great things to say.

Have you thought about doing a narrative feature?

Yeah, we actually, so we will be continuing our slate of documentaries. We’re going to continue making documentaries. The reason we started with documentaries is because we wanted to make films that have the creative leeway to make changes, that speak to people in different ways. Make films that, like I think I mentioned, that we want to see, and we hope to do that as well as we transition into funding, producing, and directing narrative films as well, and we’re hoping to begin that as early as this year. So we’ve been putting together a film fund as we speak. We already have one for documentaries, and we’re hoping to have that done and get our first feature hopefully by the end of the year.

What’s next for BMP?

We have a documentary right now. It is, I can’t really announce what it is, but it’s on music, and it will be kind of a music film that we will be announcing pretty soon. We’re almost done with shooting, and we’re already beginning the edits. That will be the next documentary, and then we have a couple others in the pipeline, and then like I mentioned, there’s the film fund so that we can begin, you know, we’ve been optioning scripts, looking for great material for quite some time, so we’re hoping to begin that new chapter as we continue documentaries, hopefully in the next few months.

You mentioned music. The soundtrack in Champs is great. Do you play a major role in picking the songs?

Yeah, music’s key. Oddly enough, we have a phenomenal music composer, but yes, music is kind of my background as well. I worked in radio for quite some time when I was a teenager, so music is a definite passion of mine. I think music kind of makes or breaks films. It’s so key and it’s an important aspect of the storytelling and the entertainment aspect, a way in which the audience can relate and connect and relate to certain moments. So yeah, I was heavily involved in every aspect including music, but we also had a phenomenal musical supervisor by the name of Tom Caffey who really created a great score for the film. We had a lot of the guys who worked on the Moneyball soundtrack in the orchestra who worked on our film. A lot of the same orchestra, a lot of great live strings, and we had a lot of great original score and then we were lucky enough to get music from everyone from the Black Keys and Public Enemy, so a lot of mainstream tracks in there as well, and then my brother-in-law actually, his name is Josh Siegel, and he was a huge part in helping us with the music. He’s got a great ear for it, oddly enough. He’s a lawyer in New York, and he was actually really, really key in collaborating with Tom and I on all the music development, so the three of us are really the music. But those two guys were huge.

Do you have any favorite film composers?

I mean, obviously I’m a fan of Hans Zimmer, and there’s Trent Reznor, he’s amazing. I’m a fan of a lot of, like I said, I think music really makes or breaks films, and it’s an underestimated thing, an underappreciated part of the filmmaking. It’s amazing what music does, and so yeah, music is such an important part to our process. Before we start filming, while we’re filming, and in the edit afterwards, one of the most ongoing conversations we have is making sure the music really fits and is something that is powerful. A scene can be completely different, you know, with different tracks, and it’s a hard thing to do. It’s really tough, so I have a great respect for people who do it, and I’m a fan obviously of those guys and the guys we worked with who have been phenomenal.

The way you inserted certain songs throughout the film, it actually feels like a boxing match because it is so eclectic and they’re just coming at you so randomly, like rapid-fire. So I just want to compliment you on that.

Oh, thank you so much. I mean, that was the hope, so if it worked, that was really nice of you to say, thanks.

Question, do you box yourself?

I don’t box. I definitely spar. I’ve gotten in, I’ve sparred with people before and broken some ribs. You know, I was a basketball player, but boxing, in my opinion, has become the sport that there is, period. Once you step in the ring and spar with somebody, I think you’ll have a whole new appreciation just by getting in and sparring as a workout for what these guys really do and what it actually takes to get in there. Just getting in the ring and holding up your arms for three minutes…

Yeah, I’ve never tried it. I might, I don’t know. It definitely seems very challenging.

It’s the best work-out there is, but I definitely recommend it. Before I wanted to film this, I definitely wanted to get in there and spar and see what it was like, and I can tell you one thing, there is nothing that can prepare you for coming in there and having someone want to tear your head off. Even when you’re sparring with headgear, you feel those punches, and it’s, there’s no words to explain how tough boxing is.

Are there any other sports you want to tackle in a documentary?

I don’t know. Right now, I think for sports, I mean, we’re open to it. I think sports speak to people on so many different levels. Obviously, they’re still relatable on a lot of levels. There have been so many sports documentaries, so it’s really whatever we think we can make that is really unique, that hasn’t been done before. I mean, that was the goal of this film. How do we bring a film that hasn’t been done before? There have been a thousand boxing films. For my drugs film, How to Make Money Selling Drugs, there have been a thousand War on Drugs films. How do we come up with a really unique way in which to tell the story? And from the subject matter to the way in which we shoot to the narrative to the way in which we present it, it has to be very unique, very fresh, and so I’m open to it. It would just have to be something really, really great, but I think sports tell phenomenal stories and people can relate to sports on a lot of different levels that make it great for storytelling.

Do you have any filmmakers out there that inspire you?

Yeah, I mean, there’s so many. So many just depends on what type of film. Different people in the narrative world, different people in the documentary world, yeah, there’s tons. A lot of films have inspired me and filmmakers and I just like, similar to them, our goal is to find our niche and find something where you can say, oh, I’ve seen this boxing film, but it’s not a boxing film. It really transcends the sport of boxing. It’s really a story that is told from a very unique and different perspective, a fresh perspective that hasn’t been done before. And that’s really the goal, is we want to make films…you know, people often ask me, “What film inspired you to make this film?” and it’s like, yeah, a lot of films inspire us, but I think one thing is that we’re making a film that hasn’t really been done before. So it’s hard to say that one certain film inspired this filmmaker, but I try to learn as much as I can being a young filmmaker from people I look up to and films I really respect and admire, and I try to take from all of them.

Out of all of your films, do you have a personal favorite?

You know, I don’t. It’s like each film is so different and done in a different time in your life. You know, I feel like our films too have really important messaging and causes that are all really, really important, not just to make a film to entertain people for an hour and a half and people leave but hopefully the goal is to make films that people can really think about and really have them think about far after seeing the movie and you know, get conversations going that make positive changes in the world and in people’s lives. I think all the films that are really important to me have been things that I personally relate to and that I think a lot of people can relate to and take something from. It’s hard to ever say that. I only make films that I love and that I’m all in on.

What was the biggest challenge in shooting Champs?

The biggest challenge in shooting Champs was probably…you know, documentaries are a challenge in themselves. I think just, you know, getting…it’s all challenging. It’s hard to pinpoint one thing. Documentaries are challenging, getting people to really know where you’re coming from when you begin filming so it’s just really getting people to open up in a way so that they know they’re in good hands and that’s why we try to create a track record for ourselves in filmmaking in documentaries. So now that’s become less of an issue than on previous films because I think people can see, oh, this is your body of work and I see how it’s going to be portrayed, and the people we work with have been so great, so gracious, and just really passionate, so it’s made my job a lot easier. But filmmaking is tough. Everything is tough, from the pre-production, production, post, to getting your film out there and finding the right distributors to work with and getting the film to the broadest audience. As you know, docs don’t usually get a lot of publicity and a lot of attention, and that’s why we’re hoping to change that because documentary storytelling is so important in making changes, positive changes in people’s lives and the world, and we’re trying to do it in entertaining ways, so we can reach as broad an audience as we can.

I’m just curious, at what age did you have this spirit of wanting to help people and cause positive change? It seems very deeply ingrained in you.

I think I’ve always wanted to. I think that comes from family, my upbringing, coming from a family that’s just charitable and, you know, what’s the importance in life if you’re not making the world a better place when you can? Obviously, there’s a million ways to do that and you know, I try to do that in many different aspects of my own life, but through my profession, one way that I felt would be a lot of fun way to do it and an entertaining way to do it. It is something that inspired me to wake up in the morning and really get super passionate, it was through film, and I always think film is very powerful, and I think the way in which films can reach people, I think the way in which films can bring people together from all over the world is just very, very powerful. And I think documentaries are a great way of doing that, but, you know, we’re trying to create a different type of documentary, where the production value is…the subject matter is just the subject we have in the film, to really make them commercial and something that can be a spring point for, you know, real positive change.

I also wanted to mention that the flashback sequences and the reenactments were really done very well. What was it like filming those?

You know, we worked with some great, we had a great team. We really did. We had a great team that, a lot of those moments in films tend to be kind of on the cheesy side or take you out of the scene, and so the goal for us because there wasn’t, a lot of these guys don’t have certain footage covering certain things, we wanted to do it in a really artful way and really be selective and tasteful with how we did it and portray exactly what happened to these guys and have it be real. You know, a lot of reenactment stuff tends to be fake and take you out of it, and we really tried to do our due diligence.

Did you consider any other titles for the film other than Champs or was that always the title?

Obviously when you’re shooting a film, you’re always kind of second-guessing. Your mind is always on what is the best title to reflect the work and connect the audience to whatever it is that you’re trying to get across, but I think really Champs is the symbol and that’s what it is. To me, the whole idea of the film is what it takes to be a champion in the ring, outside the ring and otherwise, so Champs really was, we wanted to come up with something real simple and to the point but that spoke to people on many different levels. I think once you’ve watched the film, it really fit the film best, so it was definitely the title that we thought fit the film best.

I mentioned this earlier, but what other subjects would you like to make a documentary about?

I mean, it really depends on what is going on at the time. We try to come up with subjects that are relevant and real timely. I mean, timeliness is everything, so it really depends what is going on in the world at that time and what we think can really be an entertaining vehicle to tell a unique story, so it just depends, I think. Sometimes, stories catch me completely off-guard and I’ll be involved in something I never thought I would.

What do you want audiences to take away from Champs?

I mean, the take-away from Champs is really, hopefully the audience members can reflect, learn, and inspire to conquer their own struggles, stereotypes, and failures. You know, the goal is to collectively through the introspection and knowledge availed by the film, we as a society and audience members can resolve to overcome circumstances and concern ourselves with what it truly means to be a champion not just inside the ring but outside as well.

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