Filmmaker David McMahon on "Muhammad Ali"
On Sunday, September 19, the first episode of the long-awaited documentary Muhammad Ali premiered on PBS. This film by Ken Burns was co-written, co-directed, and co-produced by Burns’ son-in-law, David McMahon.
WHRV’s Gina Gambony spoke with McMahon about making documentaries -- and what makes this one special. Listen here, or read the conversation below.
Gina Gambony: David, “Muhammad Ali” is not the first documentary you've worked on with Ken Burns. You were also the writer for "The Tenth Inning," and wrote and co-directed the "Central Park Five" and "Jackie Robinson." You also recently directed and created “East Lake Meadows” that was produced by Ken Burns. And right now as I understand it, you are working on Leonardo da Vinci. Now, I read that you had something like 500 hours of archival material to work with for Muhammed Ali, including some material even his family had never seen before. How do you manage all that kind of material when you're making a documentary?
David McMahon: Well, we work with a small staff. And because it's a PBS project, we have the luxury of a long timeline. And so when we get the notion that we want to make a film about a subject, we begin reading everything that we can get our hands on. And we form a kind of archival team and create a kind of archival library. And over the five years that we were really in production on this, we did pull in 500 hours of footage. And it's a tremendous effort, we have to track where everything came from, we have to know exactly how to get back to where we found it so that we can get a master - everything we initially get as a screener. And so we have a small team, we tend to work with the same people. And they do an extraordinary job of turning over every rock and finding every scrap of footage.
For a subject like Muhammad Ali, there's a lot of stuff out there that people are familiar with, and so it's incumbent on us to find stuff that people were not familiar with. And so our team did a great job. The archival team was led by our producer Stephanie Jenkins and our co Producer Tim McAleer, who, who found over 15,000 photographs, but made 15,000 available for the editors to possibly put in the movie. And with every one of those, you need a description of what it is, and some kind of trail back to the source. And so you look at the end credits of this, and you'll see many, many, many archives represented. And we work with a lot of these archives, we find new ones, but we really couldn't do that these projects without them.
Gina Gambony: Now obviously, with Leonardo da Vinci that you're working on right now, you don't have that kind of material. And I'm just curious about the process. The process of working with Ken Burns the the process of making a documentary in general. And the difference between making a documentary like "Muhammad Ali," you know, he is in modern media, versus something like Da Vinci.
David McMahon: Well, Muhammad Ali may be the most well documented figure of the 20th century. And there is an extraordinary amount of material, he never shied away from the cameras, he was always willing to tell you how he felt about something and he was a born showman. He was a great promoter, the promoters would always say "he does our job better than we do it." There are no photographs of Leonardo da Vinci there is no footage of Leonardo da Vinci, there are some portraits that people believe are of him, but we're not 100% certain. So we're really starting with zero imagery of Leonardo. He did leave behind 1000s of pages of notebook entries, with sketches that bring to light what it is he was working on or studying. We think of Leonardo as a painter. He did maybe between 15 and 20 paintings, we don't know exactly what the number is. Some of them are the most famous works of art known to humankind. But he was interested in so many more things. And we're just beginning to learn about this. And so we can take advantage of the notebook pages that he left, the sketches that are on there, they show the work that he did in his studies in human anatomy, in the natural world, in the manmade world and engineering. He did a lot of stuff for the stage. He was was on the sports court in Milan. And he staged various productions for the Duke there. And so he had a lot of things that he was interested in, in math and science and in the natural world. And so there may not be a real record of his personal life--there's an incredible record of his creative and sort of intellectual life. And so we will try to bring that part of his life to the screen through these notebook pages and through the works. And then we will lean on our an esteemed set of on camera interviewees who will help us try to understand his personal story and his personal journey.
Gina Gambony: So, with Leonardo da Vinci, you're really having to be more creative, literally creating from raw material, the story. Whereas with Muhammad Ali, it's like there's so much stuff that is there already. And you have to weave it into the story that you're trying to tell.
David McMahon: Yes. And we could look to Muhammad Ali and the material that he left behind the on camera stuff to help us understand how he was thinking and feeling and he could actually communicate him it himself. Often in the Ken Burns project, we're relying on an actor to read, to serve as a first person voice and read the writings that the, you know, Ben Franklin or Abraham Lincoln or Jackie Robinson left behind. In the case of Leonardo da Vinci, those notebook pages are full of things that he jotted down, his observations, things that he learned about painting. And so we can also look to Leonardo to sort of take us by the hand and lead us through his life. It just happens that it will be largely about his creative process. Whereas with Muhammad, because we have people who knew him, and they can offer testimony about what he was like and what their experiences were with him. And because there's so much on camera material, that we can get a sense of what he was thinking and feeling about things. So it'll be more difficult with Leonardo, but his voice will still be at the center of our film.
Gina Gambony: Right. Now, the Muhammad Ali documentary, it was initially slated for six hours, three, two-hour segments. But it was expanded at some point to eight hours: four two-hour segments. Now, I'm a journalist and an editor, and in my experience, you have to be really convincing to get extra length on a production. That may not be the case for Ken Burns, and you and Sarah [Burns]. But what was the argument for extending the length of Muhammad Ali?
David McMahon: We imagined the film as a three part, six hour series. But when Sarah and I got to the end of writing the third part, it was only 1974. And he hadn't yet fought George Foreman. And so we had to keep going. There were still more than 40 years left of Muhammad's life, and I think, a stretch of it, the last three decades that weren't very well covered. And this was a time when he suffered from Parkinson's. And he had been silenced by that brutal disease. But he also had a kind of resurrection, at least here in the United States, when he emerged to light the torch at the '96 Atlanta games, and everybody was reminded what an important part of their lives he had played across the many decades.
Now overseas, and he continued to travel, he was still drawing crowds. He could bring a whole country in the Muslim world to a halt for a couple of days when he would visit there. And so we really wanted to get into that and explain what his life was like beyond the ring. And after the cameras had kind of turned away briefly. Again, working with public television, we have extended timelines to do all the archival research, to allow the film to need to be what it needs to be. When we finished writing, we had a script that actually ended up being what was a 12 hour documentary, and then we brought our editors in, and began whittling it down. And so at that point, it becomes a process of subtraction. And our three part, six hours became 12 hours when put up on our computer screens, and then was reduced to eight hours when it had pictures and music. And so we settled right where we needed to be.
Gina Gambony: This documentary isn't just a boxing film. And in another interview, you refer to Muhammad Ali's life as a spiritual journey. And for people who don't know much about Muhammad Ali beyond boxing, you know, who just kind of know that image of him as a boxer. What did you learn through this project about his spiritual struggles and victories?
David McMahon: Well, there are a lot of films and a lot of books that have been written and created about Muhammad Ali. And what we didn't see was something that kind of braided all these threads together, the spiritual journey, his life as an activist, his boxing career-- you could see a movie that was about a singular fight, but maybe not one that stitched them all together. So it is a boxing movie, but I discovered that about every aspect of his life was informed by his faith. And so as a teenager growing up in segregated Louisville, where he can look through the chain link fence and see why kids enjoy the rides and amusement park that he can access ... growing up in a household where his father is a frustrated painter who can't get the Commission's that other painters get because of the color of his skin, a Garveyight who tells his kids you will not have the same opportunities because you're a black ...
This weighs heavily on Muhammad. And so when he discovers the Nation of Islam, it really helps him make sense of the segregated world that he inhabits. And from there, his life is a spiritual journey. Now it takes twists and turns, but everything he does from that point is informed, informed by his faith. And so when he refuses induction and won't go to fight in Vietnam, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad who's the leader of the Nation of Islam, he refused induction during the Second World War and went to jail.
And that really, I think strengthens Muhammad's convictions. When he gets into the ring, he always prays at a time when he comes up on the other side, win or lose, he thanks Allah. Later, his spirituality would and his connection to Islam would move towards a more mainstream version of Islam. He would follow Elijah Muhammad's replacement [Warith] Muhammad, who would sort of remake the Nation of Islam into an organization that followed a more mainstream Islam. But across his retirement days, he is spreading the gospel about his religion.
And at the end of his life, he really seems to see his life and legacy through the lens of his faith. He talks about his regrets as he's thinking about the meaning of his life. He talks about having regrets about the way that he treated Joe Frazier, his archrival. He talks about how he left it with Malcolm X before he was assassinated. He talks about the way he treated the women in his life. There were a lot of infidelities there. And so that provides, the faith provides a kind of backbone. If you see his life as a spiritual journey, a lot of it makes sense and a lot of the pieces of it begin to feel connected.
Gina Gambony: Yeah, that's that's so interesting. He was no saint but--
David McMahon: None of us are.
Gina Gambony: None of us are.
David McMahon: We didn't want to do a portrait of Muhammad that was about a mythic version of him. We wanted to scrape off all the myth that attaches to famous people and see a flawed human being that we would recognize.
Gina Gambony: What is your favorite quote by Muhammad Ali?
David McMahon: Hmm, well, let me see if I can get this right. He said, "I'm so fast, I can cut the lights and be in bed before it gets dark." And we told that to our kids, when we first started studying Muhammad Ali, and watched them many times try to pull that off themselves. And so that has given us a lot of joy. There are so many of them.
Perhaps the most important one is the day after he defeated Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world at 22 years old--when he met the press, he said, "I'm free to be who I want to be and think what I want to think. I don't have to be who you want me to be." And that was a declaration of independence. And I think that he carried that conviction with him through the rest of his life. And many people have found inspiration in that. And I think that's the true meaning of Muhammad Ali. He tells you that it's okay to be who you are, and not to worry what other people think of you and to be an independent spirit. And I think that's been liberating for people across the globe.
Gina Gambony: David McMahon, thank you so much. And we look forward to watching Muhammad Ali and we also look forward to seeing Da Vinci. When is that going to come out?
David McMahon: We're aiming to have that completed and ready to premiere in the fall of 2024. But we'll see what life throws at us.
Gina Gambony: Well, thank you for taking this time.
David McMahon: Thank you for having me, Gina. This has been fun.
This transcript may contain errors.
Did you miss the first episode that aired on WHRO TV 15 on Sunday? You can catch up, and stream all four episodes, online.