Conventional wisdom says that you don’t make $100 million movies about American sports heroes, let alone controversial boxing figures.
“They may play in Peoria, but they don’t play overseas,” foreign distributors always moan in unison, “So please, don’t send us anymore, OK?”
And so Hollywood was understandably astounded when Columbia Pictures agreed to make Michael Mann’s “Ali,” at a whopping $105 million — a surprising amount for a biopic, even one that stars Will Smith.
But when you sit and talk with the men who wrote the story, Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele (co-writers of “Nixon”), they immediately disabuse you of the notion that the movie is specifically American, or even ultimately about sports.
“It’s such an enormous life,” explains Rivele. “It’s not a sports movie. It’s international, and it’s about a soul — Ali spent his life trying to find a purpose, struggling with understanding what God’s will was for him.”
Adds Wilkinson: “In the ’70s you could have gone into any mud hut in Botswana and asked anyone, ‘Who’s Jimmy Carter?’ and they’d look at you with blank faces. But mention Ali, and people would point to pictures of him on their walls.”
Muhammad Ali was never just a boxer. As much an icon as an iconoclast, Ali forced the white-majority U.S. to deal with uncomfortable issues, often simply because under the brilliant light of his loudmouthed celebrity those issues simply could not be ignored.
The hard part, then, is going about “selecting out all the incredible stuff to find what would best give you insight into his character,” Rivele says.
Depending on which angle you looked at him from, Ali could easily be a black Muslim separatist, an unpopular pacifist, a civil right activist or the greatest athlete of the 20th century. It’s a life affording any writer a staggering amount of material, and many contradictions.
To find the whole Ali for their screenplay, Rivele and Wilkinson say they started by researching Joe Frazier, the man who helped Ali define himself in the ring as a boxer, and Howard Cosell, the fiesty, nasal-voiced Jewish sportscaster who helped define the pugilist’s public persona.
“(Ali and Cossell) were the perfect verbal foils for each other,” says Wilkinson, adding, “And, they made each other.”
But despite all of Ali’s trademark boasting and often ferociously militant language, ironically enough, the single event that would come to define his life both screenwriters say, was silence.
“They offered him every conceivable deal to get before the draft board,” says Wilkinson. “Every form of deal for military service. He wouldn’t have to carry a gun. He could work as a medic. But he would not answer to the name Cassius Marcellus Clay.”
“His silence was like the silence of Sir Thomas Moore,” says Rivele. “You know? Where Cromwell says, ‘His silence is heard throughout the land.’ Ali’s silence (before the draft board) came to define attitudes all over the country about the war and about racism.”
“Yeah,” agrees Wilkinson, “It’s Shakespearean; it’s like the silence of Cordelia.”
Here Rivele stops: “And if all that doesn’t work, I’ve got two words for you: Will Smith.”