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Director Gast Goes the Distance

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 2, 1997

At the New York premiere of "When We Were Kings," the Academy Award-nominated documentary about Muhammad Ali, director Leon Gast figured the time was right to approach the boxing legend. It had been more than two decades since he had met Ali. He had spent two months filming him in Zaire at his 1974 heavyweight fight with George Foreman. He had talked to him on the phone in the years since. But he wasn't sure if he had ever thanked him, not the way he wanted to. Now was the time.

"You're making me famous, Ali," Gast said, and grabbed Ali's hand.

Ali gripped back firmly. Slowed nearly to a stop by Parkinson's disease, the former heavyweight champion's speech is barely audible now. At this moment, Ali, 55, offered no clever couplet or roaring braggadocio. He just smiled.

Gast felt as if he might cry from the power and sentimentality of the moment, but also because it marked the end of his long, twisting journey -- a 23-year filmmaking odyssey, which has been as punishing as a 15-round title bout.

"When We Were Kings," which opened Friday in Washington, was never even meant to be about boxing. It was originally conceived as a film about a three-day musical festival that was part of the spectacle surrounding the Ali-Foreman fight. It was scheduled for a 1976 release, but a legal struggle over the footage and a lack of money to finish the project delayed the film's opening until this year.

Which, thanks to Ali's recent reemergence and the increased exposure of documentary films, has turned out to be the perfect time. Instead of the concert, the film now focuses on the fight -- considered one of the greatest ever -- and celebrates Ali's grandeur as a boxer and a personality within the racial and cultural context of the times. Its wide acclaim has catapulted Gast, 60, from being a guy who directed Preparation H commercials and a couple of unremarkable documentaries into the spotlight as an Oscar front-runner. Now he has to buy a tux for the ceremony later this month, something he put off until the nominations came out in February.

"There were all these post-Christmas tuxedo sales, and my friends said, `Now's the time to do it, you'll need it for the Oscars,' " Gast said, laughing. "I said, `No way. If I do that, it'll jinx the whole thing.' "

If Gast wins an Oscar, one person he can thank is boxing promoter Don King. King persuaded Zaire's dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, to stage the fight in his country and put up the $10 million purse by telling him the televised fight would put his country in the world spotlight. King hired Gast to travel with King's party to Zaire and film the concert, which featured James Brown, B.B. King and other black musicians. But everything changed at a Foreman sparring match days before the fight, which Ali had poetically dubbed "the Rumble in the Jungle."

In the ring, the fearsome Foreman was turning yet another sparring partner into hamburger while Gast was filming. (Some may have forgotten that today's Buddha-like Foreman was, in 1974, scarier than Mike Tyson is now.) It was Foreman's third round of sparring that day and his third opponent, since none could withstand the boxer's thunderous blows for more than a round. His overmatched foe was backing into the ropes, shielding his head with his hands. He suddenly, reflexively threw up an elbow in defense and caught the hard-charging Foreman above an eye, opening a cut. Blood gushed. The training stopped. Alarm spread like a grassland fire -- would the fight go on? Yes, it was decided, but not for six weeks, not until the cut healed.

Gast knew an opportunity when he saw it.

He loosed his 11 teams of cameramen and sound men on Ali and Foreman and followed them around the Zairian countryside and the capital city of Kinshasa, which was hosting the fight. Initially, Gast had a near-rebellion from the black members of his crew when they landed -- they complained that a white man could not make a film about black fighters. King quickly mediated the dispute.

In front of the cameras, Foreman was sullen, reclusive. But the publicity-savvy Ali gave Gast total access, and his crews trailed Ali everywhere he went, shooting mile after mile of raw footage: Ali in his villa, rhyming and free-associating with reporters. Ali training in the gym. Ali being swarmed by adoring Zairians, chanting, "Ali, bomaye!" which means "Ali, kill him!" For the Zairians, Ali was more than a boxer: He was a black man who, by converting to Islam and refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, had stood up to white America. Most Zairians didn't know who Foreman was; many of them thought he was white. To make matters worse, when Foreman landed in Zaire, he got off the plane leading a German shepherd, the same breed of dog colonial policemen used when Zaire was the Congo and belonged to Belgium. With one wordless gesture, Foreman instantly alienated much of Zaire.

Gast was blessed with an amazing resource, the thing most directors can only dream about: a leading character who not only understood the power of the image but filled the screen as few film stars have. His was the ideal combination of physical beauty, drama and personality.

"Ali was totally aware of the camera," Gast said. "There were times when Ali would say things like, `If you want to get a great scene, you can set up your camera so that when I'm running at 5:30 in the morning, the sun is coming up behind me.' And it would be an incredible shot. He just had some kind of cinematic sense. You always hear about people `projecting on film.' Ali projects even better on film than in real life, if that's possible."

In the film, Ali's genius as a fighter is showcased through Gast's amazing, exhaustive footage. After the first round, Ali realized he couldn't go toe-to-toe against the larger, stronger Foreman. So, as he stood in his corner waiting for the bell to start the second round, Ali invented the only way he could win, which he later called the "rope-a-dope." For the next five rounds, Ali leaned way back into the ropes, almost out of Foreman's reach, covering up and absorbing the lesser energy of his extended punches. In the sixth round, Foreman began tiring. Ali came off the ropes. Two rounds later, after a fusillade of Ali's lightning punches, Foreman was on the canvas.

The two months in Africa turned out to be the easy part, compared with getting the film made. First the undeveloped footage was tied up in a legal dispute with the government of Liberia, which the King had used to finance the project, then with King himself.

Gast finally wrested control, but then faced a "Now what?" proposition. With no money to print the film, the 280,000 feet of undeveloped 16mm stock (a two-hour movie is about 10,800 feet) sat coiled in canisters, running along three walls in stacks from the floor to the nine-foot ceiling of his apartment on 86th Street in New York.

Slowly, on a pay-as-you-go pace, Gast developed the filmmaking money by hiring himself out as a freelance film editor and by doing other documentaries. His friend and former lawyer, David Sonenberg, a music industry manager, put more than $1 million of his own money into the film. Among the other projects Gast did was "The Dead," about the Grateful Dead. In the process, he met band leader Jerry Garcia, who gave Gast money to start a documentary about the Hell's Angels, which turned into a fiscal, and fistic, nightmare.

"The Angels learned the [filmmaking] process and learned if there was something they didn't like, they could make an edit," Gast said of "Hell's Angels Forever," which, though it was taken over by a director the Angels hired, still bears Gast's name. "I had put some stuff in they didn't want in, and I got thumped two times. The second time, they came to my apartment. I opened the door and they popped me. They never really beat me up, though. They took off their brass knuckles."

The '70s turned into the '80s. Gast developed more of the Ali film and transferred it onto videotape, so he could start piecing it together. At one point, as he was loading the aging film into a projector, it started to disintegrate. As he went along, he would send cuts of the film to Ali.

"One time, I got a call from Ali," Gast said, "and he said, `You know who this is?' and I said, `Of course! Do you remember me, Ali?' and he said, `You were the skinny, ugly guy running around with the camera.' " Sometimes, Ali's family would call Gast to tell him how much the former champ, now deteriorating, enjoyed watching the footage of himself in his prime.

Finally, once Gast had it cut down to a two-hour movie, he could find no film distributors to buy it. In the late '80s, the stricken Ali was being referred to in the press, if at all, as a pathetic figure, who was most recently known not for boxing greatness or loquacious oratory but for embarrassing TV commercials for D-Con roach killer. Moreover, film producers knew that documentaries didn't make money.

But Gast never swerved. His love of Ali wouldn't let him.

"Ali had a purity about him that no other human being that I've come close to in my life had," said Gast, who boxed a little as a youth growing up in New Jersey and sneaked across the river alone to watch fights in Madison Square Garden as a teen. "I've seen these hard-ass boxing guys telling some story about some kindness Ali had done for them, and tears would be rolling down their cheeks."

Eventually, things started to change. Documentaries such as "The Thin Blue Line" and "Hoop Dreams" began to use the dramatic and narrative techniques of feature films to make their work more accessible and exciting, much as writers in the '60s, such as Tom Wolfe, used the tools of novelists to write nonfiction.

In 1994, UFA Films optioned the rights to Gast's film and brought in director Taylor Hackford, who directed "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Dolores Claiborne," among other films. He suggested adding interviews with writers, such as George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, who were at the Zaire fight; Ali autobiographer Thomas Hauser and filmmaker Spike Lee, who explains in the film that there is an entire generation of young black Americans who have no idea who Ali was and know nothing about his heroic welcome by Africans.

After UFA didn't renew its option in January 1995, Gast took his film to that year's Sundance Film Festival, where it was a smash hit. The director was delighted to see young filmgoers, many of whom were not born in 1974, entranced by Ali's magic. The offers for distribution came flooding in and Gast eventually chose Gramercy Pictures, which was going to open the film in 20 theaters nationwide but has since bumped up that number following the Oscar nomination.

Ali's emotional, trembling appearance at last summer's Olympics in Atlanta, where he lighted the Olympic torch and received a commemorative gold medal, framed the former fighter as an almost holy figure, no longer pitiable but somehow heroic and certainly beloved. The Parkinson's disease has turned his smiling, scowling, bragging puss into a silent, beatific mask. The white rage and fear directed at him for joining the Black Muslims and refusing to fight in the '60s has faded. Ali has been vindicated by history and has become a transcendent sports hero in an age when many professional athletes seem to care more about sneaker contracts than causes.

Who was like unto Ali? No one. One could make the argument that Michael Jordan is as good at basketball as Ali was at boxing. But Jordan barely extends into the other landscapes that Ali dominated: political activism, civil rights, sheer star power. People watch Jordan and admire his feats. But people love Ali.

On film, Ali is such an overwhelming presence that it's sometimes hard, when watching "When We Were Kings," to remember that it's the product of a filmmaker. Gast, who says he would have paid to film Ali, takes such comments as the supreme compliment.

"That's like saying you don't notice a good referee in a fight," he said. "That's how it should be."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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