A new documentary, "Cradle of Champions," captures real-life boxing with a cinematic flair that viewers have never seen before.
The film screened for the second time ever this week at the 14th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where it won the best feature competition.
Director Bartle B. Bull and a crew of award-winning cinematographers tracked three fighters in the renowned New York Daily News Golden Gloves. During a title fight at New York's Barclays Center, they shot with as many as seven cameras, filming the adrenaline-rush action from multiple angles and recording the between-road coaching in the corners, an unprecedented feat for a documentary, Bull said.
The journalist and author called it "Hollywood-style nonfiction."
"I wanted it to look and feel like a beautiful, big piece of Hollywood storytelling," he said.
The Daily News Golden Gloves, which marked its 90th anniversary this year, draws hundreds of amateur competitors in 10 weight classes and has produced more professional world champions than the Olympics.
The characters are Titus Williams, a champion in the 132-pound class who experienced an upset the prior year; and James Wilkins, a champion in a lighter weight class who moves up to face Williams.
Bull adheres to the writing adage, "show, don't tell," using very few seated interviews and no voice-over narration. Instead, viewers witness scenes from their working-class family lives, hear their aspirations for professional success and sit in on training with coaches. (Williams' coach, Joe Higgins, a 9/11 firefighter who works at a police athletic league gym, could be the subject a book or movie himself.)
While those two fighters work their way through preliminary rounds, Bull and company introduce a third thread with Nisa Rodriguez. A single mother who works at private character school, Rodriguez seeks a record sixth Golden Gloves title.
At the beginning of the shoot, Bull said they filmed a number of fighters before zeroing in on these three.
"There's something extraordinarily special about each of our three main characters. They have a charisma, and a way about them, and everyone else in those rooms was always aware of them," he said.
Bull took heed of advice he was given by George Butler, the legendary vérité film director.
"He said be careful doing a tournament movie, because you might get the wrong guys. Keep your eyes open and cover your bases," Bull said.
Bull is a former foreign editor of Prospect magazine and provided political analysis and reporting from Iraq for many major news outlets.
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He boxed in college, although never competitively, but has been frequenting gyms for the past quarter-century. In part, he wanted to give something back to the boxing world, which he described as a place of "hard work, integrity, aspiration, self-reliance, respect, old-fashioned values."
Despite any popular misconceptions about the sport, he said the film will "let people know that these heroes are in our midst, and this culture is beautiful and worthy of our love and respect."
And its preservation. Without dwelling or lecturing audiences, the film notes the closures of the police athletic league gyms. Officers who helped found or run them note how boxing helped – and does help kids – stay off the streets, learn discipline and self-respect.
Bull compared the style of the film to literary nonfiction, citing the way Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe commingled literary techniques with extensive reporting. In short, he wanted the beauty of a Hollywood film applied to real events.
To achieve that look, the first-time director recruited an enviable team of collaborators.
"You've never seen this beautifully balletic, savagely violent sport filmed by Oscar-worthy artists," he said.
Director of photography Tom Hurwitz is "an acknowledged dean of his world," Bull said. One of their cinematographers, Kristen Johnson, shared an Oscar for the Edward Snowden documentary "CitizenFour." Her own film, "Cameraperson," was nominated for a number of awards. Another, Matt Porwoll, worked on "Cartel Land," which was nominated for an Oscar.
Bull, who was new to the documentary world, was effusive about the abilities of the camera crew in capturing images in real time. He said their work is as visually rich as anything done on a Hollywood set without the benefits of any staging. They must have the "emotional intelligence" to read a subject's mood or a situation as it unfolds, he said, while hoisting a large piece of equipment.
Editor Michael Levine ("Restrepo," "The Last War,") provides a brisk, rhythmic pace that belies the hundreds of hours of footage he was given.
"Vérité editors are the highest life form in the world of movie editing," Bull said. They can take footage that might not have been interesting on its own and cut into a scene like a movie, with set-up, action and closure, he said.
While the full-time, two-year process for the film has just finished, Bull said he would love to make another documentary. He feels spoiled that he had such rich subject matter and collaborators on his first film, and with their help achieved an ambitious goal.
"We were trying to do something new in the highest form of the art," he said, "And we did."