On The RopesDirector: Nanette Burstein, Brett Morgen, Harry Keitt, Randy Little
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The dreams and struggles of three aspiring boxers and the trainer who works with them (at the same Bed-Stuy gym where Mike Tyson used to work out) form the basis of On The Ropes, a documentary that debuted at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. Noel Santiago, a one-time gang member, has the skills to be a good boxer, but lacks the conviction to work through the struggles involved. George Walton, a Golden Gloves champ, had his shot at a professional career but lost it at the hands of a crooked manager and is looking for a second chance. Tyrene Manson, a fiercely determined female boxer, sees fighting as her best chance to escape poverty until she's arrested during a drug raid on her uncle's home. And trainer Harry Keitt, a former fighter himself who once sparred with Muhammad Ali, tries to live down a history of alcoholism and a stretch in prison as he walks a fine line between nurturing the talents of the young people he cares for and trying a grab a percentage of the money they could earn as champions.
Oscar Contenders Weigh In on Their Knockout Documentary, On the Ropes
When filmmaker Nanette Burstein first walked into trainer Harry Keitt's Brooklyn gym, she was looking for someone to teach her how to box. Little did she know that Keitt and three of his trainees would inspire her to make a movie chronicling their lives, in and out of the ring. Burstein teamed up with fellow NYU film school graduate Brett Morgen to make On the Ropes, a remarkable documentary that follows aspiring boxers George Walton, Noel Santiago, and Tyrene Manson as they train for the Golden Gloves tournament. Dramatic and inspirational in the tradition of classic boxing movies like Body and Soul and Rocky, On the Ropes wowed critics and audiences, garnering an Oscar nomination and prizes at Sundance and Cannes. Burstein and Morgen talked with Barnes & Noble.com about their winning cinematic strategy.
Barnes & Noble.com: What attracted you to the characters in On the Ropes?
Nanette Burstein: Each person was going through conflict. It was clear that there was going to be narrative structure to their experiences, and we followed them on the journey.
Brett Morgen: Nanette and I don't approach nonfiction film as journalists. We approach it from a filmmaking viewpoint. We wanted to do a nonfiction film that felt like a three-act, dramatic narrative, with a clear dramatic arc. On the Ropes tells you something about the society we live in, but it also entertains and emotionally moves an audience.
B&N.com: What else does a documentary need to succeed as a dramatic narrative?
NB: Universal themes. On the Ropes, for example, deals with redemption and loyalty and the underdog searching for dignity. Just like in the best fiction films you need stories that transcend the plot line.
BM: With George, it's not like "Is he going to make it the pros?" but "How does he get to the pros?" and "Will he remain loyal to Harry?" Those were the underlying questions.
NB: Also, you need strong characters that you can empathize with and that are interested in doing the documentary and willing to make themselves vulnerable for the better good of the film by showing all sides of themselves.
B&N.com: What kinds of stylistic choices did you make before you started shooting?
NB: In a lot of documentaries, when something important happens in a subject's life, you hear about it in an on-camera interview after the fact. We decided that we would be there all the time with the camera to capture it so that the viewer has the same experience as the person in the movie.
B&N.com: How did that affect your relationship with the people in the film?
BM: Ultimately, a nonfiction film is a collaboration between the subjects and the filmmakers, and we can only tell the story they will allow us to tell. Since Nanette and I essentially work as a two-person crew -- I do camera and she does sound -- and we were really tight with all the subjects of the film, we never encountered a scene in which the people in the room weren't comfortable with us being present and shooting.
NB: We were totally involved in their lives with no qualms. If there was a problem, we would put down the camera and deal with it. For example, when Harry goes to Noel's house to convince him not to quit boxing and to stick to something, that had repercussions on his entire life. Harry wasn't getting through to him, and finally we were so frustrated, we put the camera down and talked to Noel about it, and I think we finally got through to him.
B&N.com: What challenges did you face in the editing room ?
BM: We knew, before we got to the editing room, the narrative of each subject. What we didn't know was how to interweave them.
NB: Each of their stories complemented each other, but when you cross-cut them they have to complement each other at that particular point in time. That became the challenge.
B&N.com: What films, particularly documentaries, inspired you as filmmakers?
NB: Brett and I come from fiction originally. We went to film school and made short films. While I was making fiction films, I would watch documentaries that had a three-act story, like Brother's Keeper, or Hoop Dreams, or Unzipped, and I found them even more powerful than fiction films.
BM: Films like Nanook of the North, Brother's Keeper, Harlan County, USA and American Dream also really resonated with me because they told these real-life stories and presented them in a fairly dramatic structure. But the French New Wave probably had the biggest impact, because it showed me another way of making movies. Up to that point, all I had known was what Hollywood had presented to me. When I first saw the work of Godard and Truffaut, it made me realize film could be anything.
NB: When you do nonfiction films in the way we have chosen, you're dealing with real people's lives. You feel a responsibility to people you're filming. It's a whole different way of living. I think the thing about documentaries that is so exciting is that you're dealing with real people. You wake up every day and you just go explore, and you never know what's going to happen.
B&N.com: You two were just at the Oscars, with On the Ropes nominated for Best Documentary. What was that like?
NB: The Learning Channel flew out all the boxers, and it was just incredibly exciting to go with them. They all got dressed up in tuxes, and we had limousines, and they were so excited, and of course, we were as well. And when you get to the red carpet -- it was just overwhelming!
BM:Someone asked me, "Were you nervous?" I answered, "I had the biggest smile on my face I've ever had." I couldn't believe we had taken this little, tiny, student film project to the top. I said to the boxers as we were walking in: "Very few people get to that mountain top, and we made it to the title bout. And whether we win or lose, we were able to get to a plateau that only four other documentaries will reach this year."
July 11, 2000
- Release Date:
- Original Release:
- Fox Lorber
- Region Code:
- [Full Frame]
Cast & Crew
|Jonathan Cohen||Executive Producer|
|Web Davis||Score Composer|
|Jennifer Fox||Executive Producer|
|Juan Carlos Martinez||Sound/Sound Designer|
|Jesse Moss||Associate Producer|
|Theodore Shapiro||Score Composer|
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