Interview: Derik Murray (producer, FACING ALI)

Chase Whale

by: Chase Whale
January 8th, 2010

Facing Ali

A few days ago, I posted an interview I did with director Pete McCormack for his documentary, FACING ALI. On that same day, I spoke with FACING ALI's producer, Derik Murray. Like Pete, producer Derik Murray is very passionate about his involvement in filmmaking. Also like Pete, technology was unfortunately against me when speaking to Derik, so I lost a lot of really hard-hitting questions, but what was saved can be read after the jump. This is a pretty cool interview, as this is the first time GATW has interviewed a producer. Enjoy!

GATW: Can you talk about how you got involved as a producer for the film?

Derik Murray: I had been involved in producing and directing documentary series and specials focused on athletes and musicians, but mostly athletes, and a big part of my work, my signature, was basically letting athletes tell their own stories. So effectively, a know-all history of either the game, the sport, the athlete themselves or all of those things combined. So I did a lot of that and Muhammad Ali has always been an iconic individual that I’ve admired, and I actually worked with Ali and his family on a publishing project probably about ten or twelve years ago, so I’ve very much admired the man. And a friend of mine, Stephen Brunt, who’s a writer with the Globe and Mail, a very wonderful sports writer, had a book out with Random House called “Facing Ali”. So I read the book, and it really hit me when I read the book that there was a real opportunity here to create a film really based on the fact that, at this point in time, Ali is not really able to tell his own story, to the way that, you know, we know Ali has told his story before and would like to tell his story. So I just really felt that there was real opportunity here to take a group of boxers, a group of champions who had stepped into the ring and let them tell from their perspective what it was like to go face to face with Muhammad Ali. And at the same time give us that opportunity to go inside, not just inside the ring but inside their lives and understand where they were from. You know, what were their beginnings? How did Ali affect them? How did they potentially affect Ali? And ultimately where they are today? And that was my inspiration, so I put that into play. I optioned a book with Random House. I put together a creative pitch about how I saw the project coming together and how I felt it would look visually. Basically all the elements of what I felt was going to make an outstanding film. Then I, you know, as one does as a producer, you jump on an airplane or jump into your car and go visit the studio or distributors and potential broadcasters, which is what I did, and I got tremendous response, there was a lot of people that were really supportive of the property. But Lionsgate from the very first meeting were right there. They got it right away. Kevin Biggs, President of Television, absolutely loved it. I think we literally met on a Wednesday and by Monday we had a handshake, and that got us off and running.

GATW: Were you on set while shooting with the fighters was taking place?

DM: Oh yeah. I traveled with the whole project. My trademark is the visual side of the film so the setups and the lighting and the way it looks, so that gave Pete the opportunity to really focus on his strengths, which is research and interviewing and directing the story once we got back into the edit suite. We really worked as a team and he’s just done a spectacular job. The film in so many different ways has really come together because right from day one everybody that I brought onto this project, that I hand picked, came to this project and really felt that this is a special project and that they wanted to make this project, let’s just say, a showcase of their work and they really took the responsibility of telling this story and they really took it seriously. Everybody came to the table and it was just a fantastic crew and just one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

GATW: You said that the past documentaries that you have done, they’ve been about sports figures and musicians. What about these two different cultures draws you to want to make documentaries about them?

DM: I think I’ve really just been fascinated with individuals that are able to follow their passions and follow their dreams, and really nurture that from being children right through to the point where they are iconic athletes in their sport and have accomplished basically everything they can possibly accomplish in that sport. It’s always fascinated me as to what’s inside these people that makes them able to do that. What’s really interesting, and what has fueled that interest, is that they weren’t all gifted naturally at the beginning. As children they weren’t all picked that they would be a superstar, they weren’t all ambitious or “go get ‘em” guys, some were more reserved or laid back. [But] they all had incredible challenges that they had to meet, whether that was in their career as a youth or whether that was during their career itself or near the end, they all had to face these challenges to and work through them to excel. So I’ve been interested in what makes these people tick and I’m interested in them as human beings. I find it inspirational, I find it fascinating. I find that in many of these circumstances, if not all, that I learn a lot about us as human beings from these individuals. So that’s what always been fascinating to me. Obviously sports accomplishments [are] important, but I’m not much of a statistician and I’m not much of a guy that knows every sport intimately, I just really respect and appreciate the sport and the skill level, but the individuals have always fascinated me.

GATW: For the people who should see this film, what do you want them to know that separates FACING ALI [from] the other films that have [come] out about him?

DM: I think what’s key here is that we are shining a light on Ali’s story in a very different way than what’s been done in the past. And I think that was our challenge because there’s been so much that’s done in and around Ali. But I think when it comes down to it we didn’t rely on third parties, we didn’t really on journalists, we didn’t rely on trainers, we didn’t rely on historians, we went right to the core. Who stepped into the ring with Ali and what happened? How did it make them feel? How did they accomplish what they accomplished? I think that’s the key. This is all about somebody who’s stepped in the ring with Ali and from the beginning of the film to the end those are the ten people that tell the story exclusively. As you noted, [there is] no narration, no journalist, historians or people in the ring. Just ten boxers pure and simple.

FACING ALI is now available to rent (Blockbuster, Netflix, Redbox) or buy on DVD (Amazing, Best Buy,

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