[Interview by Pattee Mak – November 23, 2015]. Sometimes in life we come across that hidden treasure that we all can appreciate. This leads me to my interview with film director Gaylen Ross. She is working on the boxing documentary entitled, “Titleshot”. The film dates back to scenes in 1995-97, some 20 years ago about professional boxer Godfrey Nyakana (31-4-1, 19 Ko’s) from Uganda, fighting in the United States for his title shot. The scenes were shot in different locations, one being the famous Gleason’s Gym. Through crowd funding and individual contributors, and with the help of new technology this film can finally become a reality.
Pattee Mak: WOW…. There are so many questions I have to ask you concerning this film and I don’t know where to start. First tell how this film resurrected back to life?
Ross: We filmed TitleShot over 2 years between 1995-1997 and it was shot entirely on 16mm film, the old fashioned away, and how I always envisioned boxing should be captured, on film. Hand held and up close.
One of the cinematographers is my longtime collaborator Bob Richman who has since filmed some of the most important cinema verite documentaries of our generation (Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, The September Issue, Paradise Lost). As well another amazing DP, Paul Gibson, who filmed scenes from our Los Angeles journey where we followed Godfrey Nyakana from New York to his fight at the Great Western Forum. At the time we had just enough money for the filming itself and to process the negative, but in those days to actually begin to edit the film meant many other steps, creating a work print, transferring sound to mag, synching the sound to picture, all technical processes that sound so old fashioned and archaic now. But then, 20 years ago, that’s how you worked on film. And it was very expensive and very time consuming.
So I stored the film in a cold storage vault, just until we could raise the funds to complete it. But that didn't happen. For one thing Godfrey lost his title bout (we filmed 4 fights and the last was his title shot) and people wanted to back a winner in a film. Then boxing took a popularity nosedive, it seemed out of fashion, there was a backlash to its violence, and there were fewer fights and fewer gyms. Ironically extreme fighting and World Wrestling seemed to take the stage, and boxing was on a back burner.
And other documentary projects took precedent for me, some very timely like the story of Switzerland and Holocaust restitution, or Russian mail order brides, and one on a daring rescue during the Holocaust, titled Killing Kasztner: The Jew who dealt with Nazis, and more.
Our goal when we launched the crowd-funding campaign of Indiegogo (now ended) was to raise the funds to transfer the thousands of feet of film and sound digitally, so we can finally view and show to broadcasters and producers this amazing boxing footage, and the powerful and unique scenes we captured.
Pattee Mak: I’ve always said if you want to know what is really going on in the boxing world go to a boxing gym. Was the majority of the film based out of the gym? And besides the boxing gym what other locations were used?
Ross: I was introduced to boxing really through the gym, and fortunately for me, one of the most famous in the world, Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. I had just completed a film on New York’s 47th Street diamond world and the community of international gem dealers. They were an extraordinary group. Embodying history, tradition, discipline, and humor. Walking into Gleason’s the camaraderie felt very similar. Of course what was different was the passion and rigorous training and singular goals of these fighters working with the trainers. Like most films I do, I sort of ‘hang out’ before we pick up the camera. So I would just come down and spend time. Talking to Bruce Silverglade, and meeting “Irish” Bobby Cassidy who at the time was training both Godfrey and Lonnie Bradley. Godfrey’s story was of interest both as a young fighter who had an immigrant story and who had a lot of hopes pinned on him. He came with a strong reputation. He had won the gold medal for Uganda in the International Commonwealth Games, and fought as both an amateur and professional in Europe bringing him to the attention of Tom Loeffler’s professional management team, then Mouthpiece Productions, which gave Godfrey the opportunities of a trainer, and living in New York, albeit frugally. Godfrey certainly was seen as a fighter with great potential and it seemed the natural story to follow. As well Godfrey wrote poetry, he spoke four languages (at least) a very talented man besides being a terrific fighter.
Initially we filmed a significant amount at Gleason’s, and then began to follow Godfrey outside the gym, and to cover the background and preparation for four of his fights, and the fights themselves. A big part of our filming was in Los Angeles with Godfrey, including a stopover at an LA gym prior to his fight where he sparred with a young Shane Mosley.
But the upside of filming then, and waiting all this time to complete the documentary, is that we now have a time capsule, a piece of boxing history so to speak, and especially at Gleason’s. About TitleShot, Bruce Silverglade has said, “The film takes place at a very exciting time in Gleason's Gym when the place was filled with World Champions and contenders. New York City and Madison Square Garden were still major factors in boxing.”
Pattee Mak: The documentary details the life, struggles and the realness of professional boxer Godfrey Nyakana (31-4-1, 19 Ko’s) of Uganda. His pro debut was on 4-21-1990 against Tony Martel (6-1-1) and he was victorious by KO in the 3rd round. The last time he stepped in the ring was on 12-13-2003 against Maneno Oswald (18-8-1) and Nyakana lost by KO in the 7th. What were his thoughts when he was notified about this documentary being completed?
Ross: Godfrey has been in touch and excited about the prospect of the film being finished. One of the goals we hope to achieve is to follow up where these boxers are now after 20 years. Godfrey has been a political figure in Uganda, a regional Mayor of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. As well he’s been a businessman and involved in the boxing community of his country. Of course Shane Mosley is having his own comeback as a fighter, working again with his father as he was when we were filming him. And Kevin Kelley is very much on the boxing scene too. Unfortunately many of those we filmed are no longer with us. The great cut man Al Gavin, promoter Cedric Kushner, and trainer Angelo Dundee.
Pattee Mak: Were the individuals in the boxing community that you approached willing and excited to be a part of this project?
Ross: Everyone was enormously open and uncensored in their response to our filming, and it comes through in the scenes. There was no agenda or promotion of a certain fighter or network. We were able to be flies on the wall, whether in very sensitive scenes between trainer Bobby Cassidy and Manager talking about Godfrey’s future prospects following his humiliating defeat at the Great Western Forum, or in a hotel room as everyone hung out watching fights of Godfrey’s opponent in preparation for his bout. There were so many scenes that stick with me. Godfrey’s Ugandan roommate who after losing his fight faces the end of his dream and returns to Uganda. Or a particularly unique trip to South Central Los Angeles for a haircut with Godfrey and a young heavyweight from urban Detroit. Though they shared the bond of boxing, they couldn’t have been further apart in the way they grew up and came to fighting. It’s a fascinating dialogue of experience and views of the world from two young boxers trying to make it.
Pattee Mak: Everyone who is involved in the sport loves to watch old boxing footage. Without giving any footage away, what moved you in this film?
Ross: I think there are two aspects of the film. First, the actual boxing matches, and they have an inherent drama that you can’t add to or detract from. They are what they are, and it is of course what makes watching boxing so compelling. And why writers and filmmakers have been focused on the ring and what transpires inside those four corners for decades.
The other is what is behind the matches, the context and the connections we have with those who people this world: the fighters, trainers, promoters, corner men, and managers. In many ways, and it has been said of the film, that Godfrey embodies every fighter. Everyone always talks about how boxers have ‘heart’ and of course, that means you get your heart broken. It's the narrative of probably every boxing film, and why the comeback and victory become so important. But that’s not the end story of TitleShot. In this film there is no “happy ending”. Jerry Izenberg called my film the “funeral of a dream” not just for Godfrey’s loss of his titleshot, but for the hopes and promises Bobby Cassidy’s pinned on his fighter. And TItleShot is more the story of boxing than the “Rocky” kind of fairy tale ending. Most boxers don’t end up with fame, and money, and belts. Most have their hearts broken trying, and ours as we watch it happen. I just received a note from a boxer on a Facebook post who I think said it best “I was an amateur boxer myself, who missed winning an Olympic medal in 2000... a passport delay... the boxer who went in my place won the bronze medal... I use to beat him up in sparring! Such is life... Your film reaches my heart... For I am amongst the desperate... forgotten... one time hopefuls of this domain (earth) who participated with great dreams in the pugilist art! … I have been desperate for a film like yours to come out. When I used to explain to associates the tragedies of this sport, they never fully understood nor do the general public. ..So much hope can end up as washed up dreams... It is scary and often … to the point of tragedy. We lived the dream. .. like a speeding caravan broken … heading for the final demise at the bottom of the hill.”
Pattee Mak: Is this your first boxing documentary that you directed?
Pattee Mak: Being that the film was shot back in the 90’s were you able to use all the footage or was some of the footage lost or destroyed?
Ross: All of our footage has been safely stored, so it’s all there just unable to be seen until we transfer it to a digital platform and synch the sound to picture. It’s still a big job, though made easier in this digital world. However, there is no avoiding the lab costs necessary to complete the technical part. The editing of course is a different matter. Though we will have access to everything we filmed, only a small part of the many many hours of filming will end up in the completed documentary. But the way editing works is that we take from everything so we have to see all of what we filmed in order to create and build the story. It’s why many say documentaries are made in the editing room.
Pattee Mak: You were originally are using indiegogo which is a crowd-funding site to complete this film. I’m sure there are many people out there that are unfamiliar on the expenses, time, energy and other incidentals that goes into film making. Budgets are always in place and the amount of money can either make or break the final piece. How much money are you looking to raise for this film? And can you explain in your own words what goes into such a film of this quality since it was originally shot on 16mm film. Also if someone wanted to donate money where can they go to?
Ross: The immediate goal in our Indiegogo campaign of $25,000.00 is to transfer all the filmed material and sound recordings (some of it on the really old-fashioned ¼” sound rolls) so that we can make available to potential broadcasters and funders what we’ve filmed. Once we complete this step, then we can secure the finishing funds for the final edit, and all the post- production work involved. As well we’d like to do follow up filming with “where they are now” i.e. Godfrey in Uganda, Shane Mosley, and more. But none of that can hap
Pattee Mak: How much have your raised thus far and if anyone wanted to donate are there any incentives?
Ross: Twenty years ago we raised the money as I said to film the arc of this fighter, and to process the negative. Now we need to get the film out of the vault.
We raised a part of the funds with our crowd-funding Indiegogo campaign, but not all. Backers of the film can still contribute on our website http://www.titleshotfilm.com and also benefit from a tax deductible contribution, through our fiscal sponsor Human Arts Association (also linked to our website.)
Pattee Mak: What sets this documentary apart from other boxing documentaries?
Ross: Again, this film has no agenda, no ‘promo’ hype to position a fighter or the professional boxing world in a particular light. We had unfettered access, and it’s an opportunity to see the business from the inside, a view few are privy to.
Pattee Mak: Will you eventually be showing “TitleShot” at the film festivals?
Ross: The hope is that TitleShot will be completed as a feature documentary and shown in film festivals worldwide, and broadcast, as have my other films. Those who support the film now in its early stages will be able to have a front row seat to its progress and be part of its success. That’s exciting!
Pattee Mak: Well I’m definitely excited for you and the film. You are going to have to keep me posted.
Pattee Mak: Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview.
Ross: Thank you. It’s been terrific to talk about the film and in such a special way with you.
For more information visit www.titleshotfilm.com.
Photo Credits: Chris Cassidy/Mark Wexler/GR Films