'A love letter to boxing': Paddy Considine interview
Luke G. Williams
Photos: Dean Rogers
Paddy Considine - lead actor, writer and director of 'Journeyman' - speaks to Luke G. Williams about the film, his love of the ‘Sweet Science’ and his longstanding devotion to Boxing Monthly magazine!
As well as being an award-winning actor, writer and director, Burton-born and raised Paddy Considine is also a self-confessed boxing fanatic.
With his new film ‘Journeyman’ now on general release in the UK, the 44-year-old kindly took the time to speak to Boxing Monthly by telephone earlier this week.
The film tells the story of Matty Burton, played by Considine himself, a middleweight world champion who suffers a brain injury and then faces the challenge of piecing his life back together, while suffering an altered personality and memory loss.
Despite being in the midst of a gruelling promotional schedule, there was no hint of weariness in Considine’s responses, which were also refreshingly free of any semblance of media trained, pre-rehearsed patter.
Instead Considine’s voice, with its rich Staffordshire tone, positively sung with enthusiasm, passion and energy as he talked about 'Journeyman' and the sport of boxing itself in a thoughtful, honest and reflective manner.
It soon became clear that Considine is a man with a deep and abiding passion for boxing, who harbours the utmost respect for any pugilist who steps through the ropes and into the unforgiving confines of the prize ring.
By his own admission, ‘Journeyman’ - despite focusing on the challenges faced by a boxer who has suffered a brain injury - is his love letter to the bravery of the boxers he so admires, as well as their families and support networks. It is, in short, a tribute to the sport that we - and he - loves unconditionally.
BM: Could you explain the genesis of 'Journeyman'?
PC: It started really because I’ve pretty much been a lifelong boxing fan. I’ve been a big fan of boxing since I was a kid. When I was a photographer I was always photographing boxing, that’s what got me into photography really. It [boxing] kept me in college, it kept me interested. When I was younger I’d get pictures published in 'Boxing News' and things like that. So when I became a filmmaker it was always in the back of my mind that I was going to do a boxing film one day. I just wasn’t sure if it would be as an actor in someone’s else’s project or if I was going to make one of my own. I remember when I was making my first short film 'Dog Altogether' , I started writing 'Journeyman' in a café in Glasgow all those years ago. In my head I thought: so many boxing stories have been told, there’s very little new ground in that respect. We’ve all seen the story of a fighter being redeemed through a tough fight, for example. So I thought, if I’m going to do this, how do I avoid the clichés? What do I do? Then I was writing the first 20 pages and I wrote the line: 'after he returned from a fight, Matty – although he had a different name then – collapses into the table'. That was the tipping point for me. I thought, if I’m going down this route, I have to do it properly and as respectfully as I possibly can. That became the area of interest to me, the fight that happens when the doors close, the private moments that we don’t get to see when the fights are over. What we normally don’t get to see. That was the motivation to make the film.
BM: I understand you did a lot of research into brain injuries while writing and preparing the film?
PC: I did. As you’ll know as well as me, there’s been some high profile cases of brain injuries in the boxing ring and some not so high profile. I thought if I’m going to do it justice then I need to research it properly. To tell a story beyond a boxing story, I had to speak to people from all different walks of life who have experienced brain injuries. So I went to [brain injury association] Headway and I met Peter McCabe there, who isn't a big fan of boxing as you probably know! In fact, he's the go-to guy whenever a tragedy happens, he's the one they get on the television. He spoke with me and he was great. He was very much in favour of the film being made. I also sat with brain injury patients there, just spoke to people. I tried to avoid basing Matty on any living fighter that had gone through this experience. I wanted it to be a universal story. I also researched case studies of families who talked mainly about how the changes in their loved ones after brain injuries had impacted their lives and altered their [loved ones'] personalities and the challenges of that. From my point of view, the story is the thing. I don't think anyone had ever taken a figure like Matty Burton, who's a world champion and gone over this sort of terrain. It’s the story of a fighter, an athlete, who's very much towards the end of his career but is still fighting and looking good. I didn’t want to make it a story about someone who didn’t have anything to lose. It’s not a rags to riches story, or about someone who's down on his luck and gets injured. I wanted it to be about how a champion falls from that mantle.
BM: Did you always have it in mind that you would play the lead role? And what were the challenges of writing, directing and acting?
PC: I didn't. As a writer you do all your research, you create your story. That was a process I was familiar with and I'd directed a feature film by then, but I had no plans to direct myself in it. I didn't really want to play the part because I find directing far more liberating than I do acting. But it became more and more apparent that I'd written it for myself really. I knew Matty's heart at the end of the day. I realised the original reason I wasn't willing to play the part was just fear. I was terrified of failing, of getting it wrong. But it worked out really well and it was quite beneficial being inside the story of the character as I was moving it along. It was just those reservations that people have - those doubts and fears that you have to smash in order to move on.
BM: 'Journeyman' is very different to any boxing film that has gone before it, but I wondered if there are any particular films in the cinematic canon of boxing movies that you admire.
PC: It's funny because I'm not a really big fan of boxing films per se. I don't rush out to see boxing movies, even though I'm a boxing fan. But 'Rocky' was the game changer for me when I was a kid. A life changing thing. Watching those films so early on, the first couple in particular were very brilliantly written and crafted pieces of cinema. There are some fantastic scenes in the first 'Rocky' film. It really did capture that idea of a fight and all the drama of a fight. It was a very dramatic experience watching that. I also love 'Raging Bull', I think that's an incredible study of a man's psychology, you know. I think [director Martin] Scorsese handled so many things so brilliantly on so many different levels. I think it was probably beneficial him not being a boxing fan. There was no kind of reverence for the sport. I think that I felt making 'Journeyman' that I had to have some sort of reverence and respect for the subject matter, because it was such a precarious area to navigate, but I don't think Scorsese had any regard for that, he just made this brutal, brutal film about a man's psyche. I also like 'Fat City' the John Huston film, I love it for its opening. So there's boxing films out there I'll watch more than others. But 'Rocky' was the one really. It made me want to become something you know, I think it had that effect on a lot of people. The films got slightly diluted as they went along but there's moments in all of them that are brilliant. But the first one I think is a very classic film with some great scenes in it.
BM: How hard was it as a boxing fan making a film that focused on an area of the sport that some might interpret as negative, namely brain injury?
PC: [Spoiler alert in this response] Well, I knew what I was making. I knew that I wanted to make a love letter to boxing. I think the story is testament to the character of fighters. I never felt like I was making an anti-boxing film at all. It's not a cautionary tale. The reality is far more harsh, if the sight of Michael Watson or Gerald McClellan doesn't turn people away from boxing then 'Journeyman' isn't going to. At the end of the film the character says: 'I don't blame boxing, boxing has been good to me'. It's actually his character as a fighter and his attitude towards training that redeems him when he dips to his lowest point in the film and it's his cornermen that come to his rescue and rebuild him to go on to the next part of his life. So I think it is more celebratory more than anything else. Nobody knows the dangers of boxing more than the fighters themselves - obviously they have to bury that deep into their psyche to do what they do. I always felt [the film] was a testament to fighters and the spirit of fighters more so than a cautionary tale which says 'boxing is bad'. I still subscribe to boxing on every level I possibly can. I'm a fan.
BM: What is it about the sport you find so compelling? So magical?
PC: I just think to me, these guys are like monuments. I grew up, probably like you did, in the age before social media. You couldn't just tweet Marvin Hagler and get a reply out of him or a rise out of him. You couldn't do that in those days, you couldn't abuse Mike Tyson on Twitter. They were unreachable to me, they were like supermen almost, to the point where I watched them and I couldn't really equate their pain as anything real, because they just looked like supermen to me. You forget sometimes when you're watching them that they're human beings in there putting everything on the line for you. There's just something about the spirit of fighters, and the attitude of fighters and the psychology of boxing that has helped me in my life too. Even though I'm not a fighter, I apply that spirit to myself and the things that I do. So boxing has given me a lot of fantastic lessons as I go about shaping my life. I've seen people transformed through boxing. You know, it's given them a focus and helped kids with their character and things of that nature. And of course, the narrative of it all, the characters, the competition - all of those things that thrill us about the best fighting the best. It's just an exciting sport for me and it always will be and I think - I've said this before - in this social media age where people are so reachable we have got to be careful that we don't de-humanise these guys and that we respect what it is that they do and we're a little less liberal with words like 'quitter' and things like that. It's an incredibly dangerous sport and I think a little bit more respect is needed.
BM: I understand that you've got quite a longstanding relationship with Boxing Monthly magazine?
PC: I bought the very first issue of Boxing Monthly, yeah. I have them going all the way back. I still have one of the early issues where there's a free key-ring with Lennox Lewis on the cover - I still have it taped to the front cover of the magazine! I have all of them. That was our thing at school - my oldest pal Matt Gaylor, who was a pro [boxer] as well, when we were at school we'd sit with my cousin Neil at the back of the class and we'd just talk about boxing, so every month it would be Boxing Monthly, The Ring, KO, Boxing Illustrated... Boxing Monthly I've followed for years and years, and I still have all those copies in a big old sealed box in the loft!
BM: Finally, I wondered how you feel about the reception 'Journeyman' has had from the boxing community. Our own Paul Zanon reviewed it and loved it, for example. How heartened have you been by the reaction to the film?
PC: [Mild spoiler alert in this response] I've been really blown away by it. I showed a cut of this film to a lot of people involved in it from the boxing world about a year ago and they did what they were gonna do - they picked holes in it and told me what I'd got wrong and what would happen and what wouldn't happen! That threw me off my stride a bit. One of the comments was: his corner wouldn't leave him, people wouldn't leave him like that. I was a bit like, well it's a story and in order to tell a story I have to stretch the parameters of what is real a little bit! So I think I was scared of how it was going to be received more than anything else. So the reception has been fantastic - [former WBO middleweight champion] Andy Lee saw it and he had a really great response to it. I also think the story isn't just specific to boxing, it talks a lot about the fragility of human life and how, in anyone's life, on any given day, at any time, something life changing can happen. I think it's life affirming in that way, in that we have to learn to be a bit more respectful to each other and cherish our loved ones a little more because we are pretty frail here. Our existence is pretty fragile. So I've been overwhelmed with the reaction - it's been mostly positive and I'm really happy with that. All I wanted to do was tell a story and it was important to me what boxing people thought about it as I was really respectful of them, I think, when I made the film.
'Journeyman' is now on general release. For more information visit: http://www.journeymanfilm.co.uk