24 April 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Terry McMahon discusses his new feature doc The Prizefighter
11 Oct 2019 : Nathan Griffin
Paschal ‘ Packie’ Collins & Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan in The Prizefighter.
IFTN caught up with director Terry McMahon ahead of the world premiere of his new feature documentary, The Prizefighter, which debuts at the 20th Kerry International Film Festival (KIFF).

Documenting the journey of Irish boxing star Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan and his trainer Paschal ‘Packie’ Collins, as they embark on a three-fight deal that catapults them onto the world stage, The Prizefighter marks McMahon’s first foray into feature documentary making.

The Prizefighter is directed by Terry McMahon (Patrick’s Day, Charlie Casanova) and produced by Tim Palmer (Into the West, Patrick’s Day) & John Norton (Fade Street). The film was edited by Maurice O’Carroll, sound design by Nikki Moss and cinematography by Terry McMahon, Linda Curtin, and Richard Finlay.

McMahon’s last feature film Patrick’s Day, starring Moe Dunford and Catherine Walker, received critical acclaim, winning the Audience Award at the Cork International Film Festival, Best Irish Feature Film at the Galway Film Fleadh, and picked up several IFTAs including an award for Best Script.

The Prizefighter will make its world premiere at KIFF on Friday, October 18th at 8:30pm in Killarney Cinema followed by a Q&A with Spike O’Sullivan, Paschal Collins and director Terry McMahon.

IFTN caught up with Terry to find out about how the collaboration came about, making the transition from feature film to feature documentary and the art of invisibility.

How did you first get involved with the project?

“Legendary producer Tim Palmer was sitting in a sauna in some hotel when this iconic looking dude with a balls-out moustache strolled in and, amid all that heat and steam and semi-naked manliness, they began a tentative conversation. Being a producer, Tim had a powerful threshold for pain but the mercurial dude in the moustache was a boxer and that meant that he too was no stranger to transcending fear. Tim found out the boxer had just signed a three-fight deal that would lead him to fight for the Undisputed Championship of the World. They clicked. Two semi-naked men in a sauna. Two deadbeat dreamers. Two beautiful bastards.”

“Tim phoned me from the dressing room later and talked about the meeting with the strange man in the sauna and asked if I was interested in making a boxing picture. For no money! After laughing for five minutes at the homoerotic absurdity of how they met, and cursing Tim for the usual lack of cash, I was dumb enough to say yes. The problem was Tim had no idea who the boxer was. He knew he heard a strong Cork accent so he Googled him and found out the boxer was Spike O'Sullivan. Tim ran to the front desk and asked for "Spike's room." The staff behind the counter checked the guest list and insisted there was nobody by the name of Spike in the hotel. Spike had been using a different name. Tim beseeched them to put him through ‘to the boxer's room.’ The staff probably should have called the cops but instead, they made a discreet call. Spike O'Sullivan answered the phone and Tim explained he was the bloke that Spike had just met in the sauna and no he wasn't a weirdo, and no he wasn't gay - not that there'd be anything wrong if he was - but did Spike want to have a cup of coffee to discuss the possibility of documenting Spike's upcoming journey?”

“Spike hesitated, considered going back to bed, but, being almost as dumb as me, he too said yes.”

“A few days later I met that boxer with the bizarre moustache, Spike O'Sullivan, and his iconic trainer and manager, Packie Collins. They had both been down this road before. Ponces who pretend to work in film and television often make promises but deliver nothing. For all Spike and Packie knew, I was just another one of those fly-by-night fantasists who claim to be filmmakers.”

The Prizefighter marks your first endeavour into sports documentary filmmaking. How did you find making your first feature doc? 

“The principles of how stories are constructed often don't change between narrative features and documentaries. Your responsibility is to stimulate and provoke the audience into confronting their presumptions and prejudices. There was no budget for this film (so much for the fallacy about privileged white males effortlessly getting movies made). But the trust and faith shown to us by Spike, Packie, and that entire community of boxers was astonishing. We had to get to LA for that first all-important fight or the film was dead before it started. Cue legendary producer David Collins. He stepped up for us when nobody else would. A gem of a man. That's when we got to spend some real-time with Spike and Packie and their crew and I fell in love with the beautiful bastards.”

How did your approach change from feature filmmaking to documentary filmmaking?

“You have to be invisible. And humble. Real humility, none of that faux nonsense people keep pulling these days. You have to earn trust. You can't peacock around thinking you're something special just because it might say 'Director' in the credits. Any moron can claim to be a director. But that won't wash with these warriors. Fighters and managers and their crews make real things happen every day. There are real-world consequences to what they do. The boxing community might be the most refined lie detector known to humankind. If you try to bullshit them, they'll smell your flatulent belches a mile away.”

With documentary filmmaking, your control over the narrative is far more limited. How did you cope with forfeiting that control?

“I have rarely been interested in anybody who tries to "control" anything. That's not my kind of filmmaker. Movies should be about discoverable moments that survive production and post-production, yet still, somehow have the power to impact a stranger in the darkness of the theatre or in their sitting room or even on their mobile phone. For that to happen, a director has to be wide open to every possibility. For example, on The PRIZEFIGHTER we had a little known, but wonderful cinematographer Linda Curtin. Linda filmed the first leg of the journey in LA. She did a magnificent job. I was second unit but I deferred to her constantly, insisting that she stop asking my permission to shoot and to simply follow her instinct. Then the tiny bit of seed money that we had was gone. And so was Linda. She has rent to pay. And she may even occasionally like a meal a few times a week.”

“Spike's major fight in Vegas was coming up and yet again cash was a major issue. Nothing will break the spirit of a working-class father of four quicker than trying to make a film with no money, but I knew we had the first act of something potentially beautiful, if only we could get a crew to Vegas. Out of nowhere the great producer John Norton stepped up and he got Virgin Media involved. It was only an ‘acquisition’, but it bought him enough breathing space to put my skinny Irish ass on a plane to Vegas. No crew; nobody else but me. I arrived with a broken camera that I had no idea how to use, two dodgy batteries that took hours to charge for minutes of power, a Canon lens for a Sony body, and a stick-on microphone. That was a painful lesson in accelerated learning. But, once again, it was the patience, kindness and fantastic sense of humour of that boxing community that dragged me out of all that doubt into their type of fearlessness.”

What was your day-to-day routine like while filming the documentary?

“As I said, Linda Curtin did a great job in LA. We also shot in Mayo and cinematographer Richard Findlay was equally superb there. Richard and Linda know what they are doing. They are professionals. I was an idiot who didn't know how to focus or even knew where the record button was. I was the entire crew in Vegas. Yet, somehow, the Gods let the camera find magic. Same with Boston. The only reason I could make that third American fight in Boston at all was due to the remarkable kindness of a mate of Spike and Packie's, Mike McCormack. He took care of the flight and the lads put me up. It's embarrassing to think that it was these men rather than the funding bodies set upon to support the film that took me on board, but that's the reality of how little support there is for filmmaking that doesn't fit neatly into the new political formulas that are being pushed every day.”

What was it like trying to capture the energy and atmosphere of the fights themselves?

“The first fight in LA, I was Linda Curtin's second so there wasn't as much pressure. Plus she gave me a camera that had auto-focus on it. That camera was virtually idiot-proof. By the time it came to the fights in Vegas and Boston, I was the only crew and the camera had no autofocus. I nearly shit myself. But once the fights begin your sole focus is on the fighter. I had come to love Spike, Packie and the rest of their crew at this stage and to witness the lethal sound of a punch hitting someone you love is kind of sickening. And, frankly, kind of thrilling too.” 

“But it's also imperative that we draw attention to the editor and the sound designer. Maurice O'Carroll took all that insane footage and crafted something remarkable from it. The man's a true artist. Same with our sound designer, Nikki Moss. Combined they viscerally recaptured the intensity of what Spike and Packie were doing.”

The film will make its World Premiere at the 20th Kerry International Film Festival later this month. Why KIFF?

“When I was a teenager, I thumbed around Ireland. I was homeless so it made perfect sense to keep moving. I had a dodgy second-hand tent that I barely knew how to erect and a raggedy old sleeping bag. Thumbing a lift was not frowned upon then as it is now. I'd stick my thumb out and whatever the destination of the driver was, that's where I went. Some of them were wackos and some of them were wonderful, but among the multiple places I ended up in, one was Kerry. I pitched the tent on the edge of a cliff. It was so beautiful I swore that some better day in the future I'd return. Then a couple of weeks ago a guardian angel phoned to spread a little Killarney love and make a little movie magic. I might still be as broke as I was all those years ago, but if that teenager sitting on top of that cliff thought for a second that his return trip to Kerry in the future would be with a movie, he'd have danced all through the night.”  

The Prizefighter makes its world premiere at KIFF on Friday, October 18th.

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