Asser continues rich cinema / boxing tradition

James Oddy
21/04/2017 1:46pm

Photo: Twitter @JonathanAsser

Very few sports have as rich a history on the big screen as boxing.

Raging Bull, Rocky, The Fighter, Fat City - to name just a few - were all major hits with both boxing aficionados and cinephiles alike.

Boxing has played a major role in the life of screenwriter Jonathan Asser - writer of the highly regarded 2013 film Starred Up which was set in a British prison - who has now penned an upcoming film entitled Pretty, which is centred around boxing.

Directed by award-wining Greek French helmer Romain Garvas, and with backing from the British Film Institute (BFI), I wondered what led Asser into writing Pretty and what his experiences were of the world of prizefighting.

Unsurprisingly for a writer of such intense and memorable drama, our interview was quite a journey in itself.

In Asser’s own words, he was “institutionalised” by the British public school system, which in turn has created a unique opportunity for self-exploration.

“When I came out of university, I was in therapy,” he told BM via telephone. “What came out were feelings of anger. My therapist said: 'what would happen if you felt that anger?' And I said: 'I’d get up and I’d kill you'.

"I didn’t have a way of connecting with that anger. I didn’t have a space to feel it or think it. I’m not from a violent background. I’m from a soft, middle-class public-school background. But, nevertheless, that’s how it felt to me.”

The outlet for that anger, as it is for so many people from so many different walks of life, was the boxing gym.

“I didn’t feel like I had a way to get into the volcanic rage…[then] one day I was in an aerobics class at a local sports centre. This guy came in and unhooked a heavy bag from the wall and started hitting it. I was really struck by the grace and the power and the focus in what he was doing.

"And I stayed behind and watched him. I said: 'I’d love to learn how to do that.' He said: 'why don’t you go to the All Stars gym on Harrow Road?' I said: 'I’d really like to do that. I’m not a boxer and I don’t think I’m capable of having a fight. But I’d love to learn the techniques.' I went along and loved it."

Asser's fistic education thus began at the All Stars gym with Isola Akay MBE, as well as taking in time with Keith Wilson at his basement gym in Albany Street, and Mark Burford at The Ring gym in south London.

“I found that it [the boxing ring] was a safe space for me to be able to connect with my inner anger, it was a way for me to explode that anger into the bags and pads. It wasn’t something I felt I could talk about. I had to become physical.

"From there I moved onto my prison work, which was another space for me to work on my volcanic, murderous rage.”

Asser's odyssey working inside the British prison system began as a volunteer therapist at HMP Wandsworth.

“I wasn’t working with your run-of-the-mill prisoners," he explains. "I was working with people at the top of the food chain, running the biggest prison in Western Europe. They controlled it via violence.

"People didn’t want to deal with them. They were locked away and isolated. I was bringing them out and bringing them together; things would escalate and get close to violence and we worked on ways of resolving the conflicts without bloodshed.

"People would ask if I was scared, but when I went down the corridors and locked all the gates behind me, and it was just them, and me, I wasn’t scared of myself any more. I couldn’t hurt anyone, because they could have destroyed me in half a second if they’d wanted to.

"Yes, indeed, the work was frightening. It was scary a lot of the time working with them. You’d have to be insane not to be frightened. It wouldn’t have been safe not to be frightened. But I knew my murderous volcanic rage had a place there. It helped me to empathise and to understand.

"So it was a safe place for me to explore that. I think they picked up on that and that I actually wanted to hang out with them. I wanted to be there. On one level, I didn’t have any agenda other than my own personal healing. So prison work took over from the boxercise classes…but I never ever forgot them.”

Although the importance of boxing and the environment of London gyms lessened whilst Asser was involved with the prison system, they created a lasting effect on him.

“Over ten years at the All Stars, I got to see the boxers leaving or coming in for their training. I got to know a few of them. I went along to some of the fights in support. I just kind of absorbed the atmosphere of the place, of that gym.

"When I was writing Starred Up, I thought, for my next film, I’m going to set it in the boxing world; I want to honour the world of boxing, and I want to honour that gym where I did that boxercise class. The atmosphere. It was only boxercise, but it was really important in my channelling that anger. So I can imagine for the real boxer that must also be a factor.

“So I really wanted to write a character that had anger and shame issues, because violence is all about shame and humiliation in my opinion.”

I asked Asser why he felt boxing attracted so many top talents in film making, be they screenwriters or directors.

“What I try to do is take a main character on a journey where they experience obstacles, setbacks, allies and enemies, and they are tested along the way. And hopefully at the end they triumph, and they finish the story with a special gift or insight they didn’t have. These are the stories I am drawn to writing, and the boxing world is absolutely perfect for that. What greater test can there be in a physical and emotional, and perhaps even spiritual way, than facing another fighter?

"You are on show, on display. You live or you die in a sense in relation to that gruelling hard training which got you there. In boxing you have a ready-made journey, the highs and the lows are all there. Of course, it’s very visual; it’s an extraordinary spectacle.”

Pretty, produced by Cowboy Films, sounds like it will build on the rich tradition of pugilistic drama mined from action both in and out of the ring.

The fact that Cowboy Films also brought hit Channel 4 series Top Boy to the screen suggests the creative team will provide something which gives a fresh insight into the 'sweet science'.

Asser, it certainly appears, has brought his intense brand of introspection to the screenplay.

“I really wanted to chart that journey of that main character channelling his aggression in an appropriate way, a main character who was lost and who then finds a sense of belonging with a coach and other fighters… I could see the gym was a type of family for people. It was a secure place where people could develop. That was the place I wanted to explore.”