BIG READ: Behind the scenes of 'I am Duran'
Director Mat Hodgson takes Paul Zanon behind the scenes of his acclaimed documentary 'I am Duran' as he talks drinking rum with Roberto Duran, visiting General Noriega in prison and interviewing a who's who of the boxing world...
With 119 fights to his name, 103 wins and 70 knockouts, in the words of Larry Merchant in the new blockbuster film focused on the Panamanian four-weight world champion, “In a Roberto Duran fight, you felt, something’s - going - to - happen.”
Boxing Monthly was fortunate to be able to sit down with Mat Hodgson, director of ‘I am Duran,’ to shine a torch onto the movie.
Firstly, Hodgson explained how the production came about. “First and foremost, it’s nothing to do with the autobiography. We were working on this long before the book was being worked on and it’s unfortunate the name, ‘I am Duran,’ is the same [for the film and book]. The concept of the film was presented to the Durans in May 2014. I’d met Roberto when I was filming the Ricky Hatton Documentary up in Manchester [Night of the Fight: Hatton’s Last Stand, 2013] and he aroused my interest in him as a character.
“I went on to meet a girl who was half Panamanian, half American, who’s now my wife, and was having a very casual conversation, talking about Roberto Duran and my experience of him and she started to engage in this conversation, because her family knew of him. It turned out that everyone from Panama City knows of him.
“The film idea had started to surface a little bit more by this stage and I now wanted to know more about the country’s history. When I started to do that research, that’s when the birth of the documentary happened, because I could see a parallel between the ups and downs of Duran’s career and the country’s rollercoaster also.
"I couldn’t believe what I was hearing about the story of his country, the politics, the complications, the triumph and the suffering. I kind of felt it hadn’t been represented by popular culture, but was an untapped resource of great drama. From then on I started to put the two story lines together, went over to Panama, did lots of research, spoke to lots of people and felt there was a genuinely interesting film to be made here.”
Hodgson then explained how the seedling idea came to fruition and how Duran himself bought into his vision. “Sometimes, you might have the greatest idea in the world, but you have to make it happen. From creativity to reality, that’s the jump, isn’t it? He didn’t speak great English and I don’t speak great Spanish, so we had to have a lot of go-betweens.
“We went out to Panama and met Roberto in May 2014 in his bar. We thrashed out the vision and the deal itself. Roberto was in the midst of finishing the 'Hands of Stone' movie [released in 2016 and featuring Robert De Niro] and was a bit nervous about repeating the same narrative.
"I had to convince him we would be taking a very different approach. I’m not so sure that he was bothered particularly about the vision being grandiose and bigger than his career, I think he wanted to make sure there wasn’t too much repetition, which I thought was him doing due diligence if I’m honest. I liked that. I reassured him again that we’d be taking a different approach.
“When we started to talk he was prickly at first and I don’t blame him. I was an outsider and you have to earn someone’s trust, especially when you are going to tell someone’s story, which is a really privileged position to be in. You can’t show any arrogance. It’s all about saying thank you for letting you into their house, so to speak. His reservation you sensed was, do I know these guys well enough to tell them my life story? You’d be unwise not to have that approach going into something like this.
“After a bit, he softened and went from quite cold to very warm quite quickly, and all of a sudden it was arms around me, laughing, showing me photos in his wallet and phone. Not to show off, but to share. He’s proud and knew he had artefacts of interest which he wanted to show me.
"Then we had a couple of drinks together, I think it was his own brand of rum, Ron Duran. He kept pouring them. It was nice, although there wasn’t much Cola going in there! After a few drinks, he got on the bongos and he was in full flow. This was mid-afternoon and the bar was shut. He was gregarious, animated and larger than life. It’s all about respect and I’d earned his by this stage.”
The list of people involved in the film who have contributed to the documentary are without a doubt elite. You could argue some of the best of the best to have graced a cinema screen regarding boxing and some of the best pound for pound legends in the ring.
But how difficult was it to get a hold of them?
“It wasn't not easy, " Hodgson admitted. "I’m not going to pretend, but I’m not also going to sit here and say it was terribly difficult. It’s somewhere in the middle and here’s why: the length of time this project took, enabled us to get them. If you rush something, you have a smaller time frame to get people. You can’t say to Stallone and De Niro, 'We’ve got six months. We’re coming over, how does that fit into your schedule?' Sugar Ray Leonard took two years to get, but thank God we waited. He’s fantastic and the dynamic between him and Duran was so important to get into the film.
“The other thing that really helped was Roberto Duran’s name itself. Everyone wanted to do something for Roberto. Mike Tyson, really wanted to do it, Don King, [Bob] Arum, they all wanted to do it. In fact, let’s go through them, because I don’t want to isolate one over the other.
"Let’s start with Hatton. He went through another level of articulation when it came to talking about Roberto Duran. He came out with philosophies and viewpoints, almost like a spirituality that I’ve never heard from him before. I was wowed by his interview. He was passionate and free-flowing like I’d never seen before. For me, it felt like Ricky and Roberto were cut from the same cloth. Also, it was great having that British voice in there, as a British filmmaker.
“Let’s move onto Lennox Lewis. He walked into the room and said, ‘What are we talking about here chaps?’ and we said, “Roberto Duran.” He said, “Ah man. I love that guy. He’s completely different from me, we’re polar opposites, but what a fighter and what a guy.”
“With each person we’d approach them with a different angle. With Lennox we asked him about loss and regaining, because that’s something Lennox, like Roberto could relate to. He came out with some killer lines like, “You don’t know how good you are until you fail.” There were some wonderful parallels there.
“I didn’t do the interview with Ken Buchanan, but I sent up a producer and director from my company. The guys went up to Edinburgh to see him and he gladly and willingly gave up his time. He said, “Take as long as you need. All afternoon if you want.” I thought he was going to come across as quite bitter, but he’s really not. Like all of them in them in this film, they were very respectful. Ken Buchanan has an argument to feel a little bit aggrieved still, given how that fight ended, but he wasn’t on that day.
“[Oscar] De La Hoya. We were set up in a back room not expecting to speak to anyone that day. We caught him on a press trip and didn’t have a huge amount of time with him, but what I will say is this: it was at the Park Plaza hotel on the river near Vauxhall for the Canelo versus Amir Khan press conference. Oscar came in and said, “I shouldn’t be here, but I’m going to do this. I’m going to get ripped apart for stepping away from the press conference, but I’ve got to give you five minutes for Roberto Duran.” It was more than five minutes in the end and that says a lot bearing in mind how busy his schedule was.
“Mike Tyson was a brilliant one. He was one of the first big interviews we got for the film. We flew to Vegas and Mike was on his way back from China. We went to his house in Vegas, with a full crew, set up and sat there waiting. His wife kept popping downstairs and saying, 'Mike’s a bit delayed. I’m really sorry.'
"It got to about 6pm and we’d spent all day at Mike Tyson’s house without him there. We were just wandering around making cups of tea at this point, exploring every nook and cranny of Mike’s house.
"Then his wife said, 'It looks like his flight has been delayed. Is there any way we can do this another time?' We said, 'Probably not because we’ve got the full crew here and we need to go to LA tomorrow for another interview.'
"We then said, 'We can make some calls to move the interview for tomorrow,' but in the back of our heads thought, 'He’s not going to turn up. Something else is going to crop up. He’ll be delayed or won’t turn up.'
“So, we went out and had a massive night out in Vegas. We were kind of drowning our sorrows. We hadn’t got the interview with Tyson and were gutted. We staggered in about 6am and at 7am we got a call from Mike’s wife. 'Mike’s definitely coming back. He’s got the flight. Can you make it today?' We were like, 'Oh shit!' We replied, 'How long?' and she said, 'Can you be here in an hour and a half?'
“We all stuffed down some burgers for breakfast and ended up getting to Tyson’s house for about 9.30am. We were really excited sitting there saying, 'We’re going to get Tyson,' as the clocks started ticking again. His wife kept saying, 'He’s definitely coming over, I promise you.' Then around 3.30pm he turned up, by which time we’d all sobered up thankfully!
“So there we are, after this mad 36 hours in Mike Tyson’s house, 33 of them without him being there. He walked in and was very apologetic and then we started. As the interview went on, he got really emotional, which I think you can see in bits in the film. He really got touched by some of the memories he had of Roberto and significance of Roberto in his career. There’s that wonderful line from him when he said, after the Sugar Ray Leonard versus Roberto Duran first fight, 'That’s when I knew this is what I wanted to do.'
"That’s quite a powerful statement if you think about it, given his career and his progression. There’s kind of a fighting on the inside dynamic they both shared in the ring and outside. Then you fast forward to the influence Roberto had on his life, which I won’t go into too much detail because it’s in Mike’s book, but a couple of moments happened in Mike’s life and Roberto was there for him as a friend.
"Forget the fighter or boxer, there as a friend and Mike really wells up when he talks about Roberto, because of the inspiration he was and the friendship he gave him, which was both emotional and supportive.
Hodgson continued to reel off the fistic A-list. “[Marvin] Hagler! Everyone told us, “You’ll never get Marvin Hagler,” but we did. We ended up going over to Milan and he turned up, in his suit and trainers. He was really bouncy, laughed a lot and made jokes, for someone who had an angry reputation in the ring and around boxing. Also, Marvin really knew his stuff and had a great memory for detail.”
From ring greats to big-screen legends. “Stallone and De Niro. They’re both different. What astonished us about Stallone was how articulate, poetic and erudite he was. We could have used everything that Stallone said. There wasn’t any waffle. A few people could have said, 'You’ve got Stallone in there for a bit of star dust, but what’s his real boxing relevance?'
"Well, he knows Roberto, because Roberto was in Rocky II and stayed in touch with him ever since. But first and foremost, he really knows his boxing, both from a historical and statistical perspective. He was one of the standouts in the film I’d say.
“De Niro. Not only was he in the 'Hands of Stone' film, where he played the legendary trainer of Roberto, Ray Arcel, he also knew Roberto. Roberto worked with De Niro when he made Raging Bull [the life story of Jake LaMotta, 1980] and they would hang out a lot. He was kind of body coaching De Niro a little bit. They got to know each other on a personal level and got to hang out with each other in New York during that time. Then, they kind of reunited again when 'Hands of Stone' was made. He sees Duran as one of the most interesting characters he’s encountered and that’s why I think he was happy to talk about him on screen.”
With almost three centuries of wisdom and knowledge behind them, the film was graced with Don King, Bob Arum and Larry Merchant. Heavyweights in their own right. Hodgson explained what stood out about them. “You’re going to laugh, but their humility and how down to earth they were.
"Those are certainly not words you’d associate with Don King. Larry was very humbling and welcoming and got what we were trying to do and didn’t want to sugarcoat anything. Bob Arum turned up on his own at this hotel in LA, walked into the room and said, 'Hi, I’m Bob,' in a very down-to-earth manner.
"You could see Bob’s eyes light up during those moments in the 80s and similarly with King. It was one of my favourite parts in the film when we play those two off in the edit and take a little detour from Duran’s story. It was magical that we got them both.”
One of the biggest eye raisers comes towards the end of the film when none other than General Manuel Noriega suddenly pops up. The Panamanian dictator died in May 2017, which left the question hovering - did Mat and his crew use previous footage of Noriega or actually conduct primary research with the illusive military officer?
“We got to speak to him face to face. Our story is complicated in many ways because you’ve got Panama versus USA, then Noriega suddenly appears. It was a triangle. It’s Duran and Panama, USA, then Noriega. We’d been building up to this moment in the film in our narrative, as Noriega became more and more relevant, because of what he brought to the country and how he brought it down again.
"I was desperate to get him in the film, but when I floated the idea of 'Let’s try and get General Noriega into the film,' who hadn’t done an interview for 25 years and who was locked in a prison cell in a jungle in Panama, I was laughed at and rightly so. But, we managed to pull a few strings in Panama and we got quite lucky, I’m not going to lie.
"We were working with a lawyer, who’d actually been tortured by Noriega believe it or not and he was trying to get Noriega out of prison and under house arrest for his last few months, because he had a brain tumour.
“Noriega trusted this lawyer and then we kind of got swept up into this much bigger issue shall we say. We flew out to Panama and went to the prison in October 2016 and they said, 'No. The general is sick today, you can’t go in.'
"We’d come all the way from London for this and left with our tails between our legs. Then, we got a call in December saying, 'Next week, we can do this.' There was me and Pat, the producer who spoke Spanish. The deal was, I’d shoot it and Pat did the interview. So off we jumped on a plane again, went back to the Renacer prison, went into the compound, guns everywhere and we arrived in this little hut and there he was, the general, waiting for us. We filmed the interview in prison, which was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
"When I did the premiere in Panama and Noriega came up on the big screen, the whole auditorium gasped. I got so many people coming up to after me saying, 'Thank you,' not so much for the story about Roberto, but for telling the story of their country.”
So, was it worth the five year journey to create the film? “Ah man. If it had gone on for another five years it still would have been worth it. Hopefully those who are not necessarily boxing fans can also enjoy the film as those who are. That then will show the film can resonate beyond. Boxing can do that. It’s bigger than just a sport alone.”
Dazzler Media presents I Am Duran on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital from 28 October
UK Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrXDxTegqJw