British documentarian Clare Lewins would be the first to tell you she's an unlikely choice for a film about an American sports legend, but perhaps it's that outside perspective that makes her "I Am Ali," an examination of Muhammad Ali according to those closest to him, such an insight. But she still doesn't know much about boxing.
What was your approach to tackling Ali's story?
I keep being asked by people, "Were you intimidated given that there have been so many films?" But I didn't really think about it. I mean, it's only now in retrospect that I'm feeling nervous that I made a film about such a huge figure. I was interested myself in finding out about him. A couple of years ago I happened to see a photograph where Muhammad Ali was in a crowd and a woman was holding up her baby to him to be kissed, and I thought, 'Wow, she obviously thinks that baby would have a luckier life or would be blessed for that, and there are not many 20th century public figures — maybe Nelson Mandela, perhaps — to whom you would do that.' And I thought if I could find out what it is about him that would make a member of the public do that, we might have an interesting film.
It's an interesting take, given that you're not a sports scholar.
No, no. In fact, when I first met Mike Tyson I said, "Mr. Tyson, I have something awful to tell you — I don't know anything about boxing." And he said, "Oh, we'll be all right!" And so we did a really good, relaxed interview. I showed the rushes to somebody who knows boxing and they said they'd never seen him that relaxed before, and I think it's because I'm so non-threatening. You imagine you're going to be interviewed by some amazing sports journalist or something, and then this little English woman walks in.
Your film is framed around audio recordings Ali made of phone calls and the like. Did you ever find out why he recorded so much everyday material?
He loves history. He also must have had a sense of his own destiny to know that someday these would be valuable or interesting to people, but for the most part it was just that he loved recording his children. Another element about him is I think he's quite nosy, like when he listens in on his wife talking to her mother. (laughs) But he just loves people, just loves listening to things.
With his daughters, this is a great glimpse as well into what it's like to grow up with a father who is at this ridiculous level of celebrity.
If you happen to be a private person it would be exhausting, but he just seems to love people. He had so much time for everyone. What I hadn't realized is he really did travel with his family. In every single shot, you see his brother. I'm amazed. There, coming out of the coach in Zaire, is his mum and dad from Louisville, Kentucky. I mean, he'd traveled en masse with his family.
Do you think you're more of an expert in boxing now?
My knowledge of boxing, I think, could be written on the back of an envelope. If you wanted to challenge me on any of the Ali fights, I know about that. But yesterday I was asked questions about Mayweather and whether boxing has changed from what it was, and all I can say from just looking at the archives used in the film I've made is it seemed to be a different era of boxing. You know, when you get people like Frank Sinatra turning up for the fight of the century and Elizabeth Taylor and everyone's wearing jewels, it's that big sort of occasion. Maybe when you look back retrospectively it seemed more glamorous. And I'm sure corruption existed around it then, but it just seemed to be a different era. A match was more of an event in those days.