Big George Foreman – Interview with director George Tillman Jr.

Director George Tillman Jr. (Men of Honor; The Hate U Give) scores a knockout punch of a movie with ‘Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World’. He also delivers boxing’s ultimate comeback story, charting Foreman’s inspirational rise from poverty to Olympic and World Heavyweight champion, his decision to abandon the ring to become a preacher – and his ultimate return at the age of 45 to reclaim his title and become the oldest champion in the history of the sport. Starring Khris Davis (Judas and the Black Messiah) in the title role, the cast includes Jasmine Mathews (The Tomorrow War), Sonja Sohn (The Wire), Sullivan Jones (Harlem; as Muhammad Ali) and Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as Foreman’s coach, mentor and trusted friend, Charles “Doc” Broadus.

We spoke with George Tillman Jr. in Los Angeles about the making of the new film.

What was it that initially attracted you to George Foreman’s story?
George Tillman Jr.: Something that stuck with me when I first read [the script] was this idea of a man who starts off being angry, a man who uses his fists, and then you see this change within the character to a guy who becomes selfless, a guy who completely changes his life around. I thought there was something universal to that story and that’s what really connected with me.

Was making a film set in the world of boxing an equal draw?
GT: The boxing aspect was something I was familiar with. I’m a huge boxing fan. I remember my father’s stories, talking about the Foreman and Ali fight in Zaire (1974). It’s also something I’d watched many times over and over, just as a fan, and I really love that documentary that was made about that fight (When We Were Kings, 1996)… So the fighting was always there for me. But I always start with the character and the journey with the character, first.

What scared you the most about taking it on?
GT: I think the most daunting thing was just taking on a biopic in and of itself. How do you do a biopic where you can keep the momentum up with a narrative story intact? Some biopics only tell a certain amount of the story; a moment in someone’s life. For George Foreman, you needed the whole story. I needed to see the guy as a young kid, when he goes into a classroom in a new school and the teacher just completely dismisses him, just because of the way he dressed, to the man he becomes… I felt like I needed that whole journey, that whole story. So, that was very daunting to cover 55, close to 60 years, of someone’s life. How can you do that successfully and not make a movie that was three or four hours..? [But] those are the challenges that you love as a director.

What was it like meeting George Foreman himself?
GT: The first time I met him, he flew out from Houston to LA and we met on the Sony lot. He knew little of my movies. But his family, his kids, did. We started talking. And what we started talking about was family. That’s something that’s a theme that’s in my films. We didn’t really even talk about much of anything else. And I think that’s when he realized that that’s something that was very important in his story. I didn’t really solidify his trust in me though until I went to Houston to join him for a barbeque and he read [a revised] version of the script, where I really embraced some of the things that were important to him. That’s when our relationship really blossomed and he trusted me to do the film.

Tell me about working with Khris Davis and what he brought to the table?
GT: I was always worried: Where would I find the right person to play George Foreman? Not only did they need the acting chops, but they needed to have a certain physicality for the role; someone who could play the young George at 18, 17, George in his prime when he wins the heavyweight championship, and [then] gains the weight. I didn’t want to do any visual effects or deal with a fat suit – and Khris was just gung ho from the beginning. I knew little of his work, but I was excited when I found out he had played Jack Johnson on stage at the Lincoln Center in New York (The Royale; 2016). His audition was over Zoom, right in the middle of covid. When I finally got a chance to [meet] him late in 2020, I brought him and Sullivan Jones (playing Muhammad Ali) in, and we were doing chemistry tests. The first thing I thought: ‘Amazing actor.’ Second thing: “He’s huge.” He’s 6’4”(193cm). George was probably 6’2” (188cm) in his prime. I knew that this was something that I needed right from the beginning, and when I saw him live, in person, I thought this is the person who I want to play the character in this story…We worked very closely together on the material and in the movie he takes real punches from real boxers. And that’s what you want in an actor. Someone who can go all out.

I understand you shot the film in two blocks, working around Khris’ physical transformation for the shoot, filming scenes with the young George Foreman first, before giving Khris time to put on the weight to film Foreman’s comeback story?
GT: When I was working with Robert De Niro on Men of Honor (2000), he told me his stories about making Raging Bull. How he went away to Italy and just ate to gain the weight to play Jake LaMotta as an older man. And so I knew we had to do the same thing for this. I didn’t know how long the studio would give us to do that, but we settled on six weeks. Shooting the first half of the movie was the toughest, because we had more scenes with the younger George. The fights were more prominent and there were more of them in the first half… And we had to do it in like 30 days. So we were shooting a lot.

When we took our break it was a relief. You know, ‘the second half is going to be a lot easier.’ But it really wasn’t. Because Khris had put on the weight, how could he still train? How can he still do everything we needed but still maintain the weight where we needed to be, to be ‘Big George’? Still, filming in two blocks for me, was also very helpful, just to break up the journey of the character and the behavior of the character. It sort of worked out for us.

You mentioned Raging Bull. Were there any fight films that you looked at for reference?
GT: On my last film, The Hate U Give (2018), I stopped watching movies for reference. I wanted to go off instinct. So I pretty much stayed away from every boxing movie. That said, I was already a big fan of all of them before I even started. I think the films that really stood out for me though were Michael Mann’s Ali (2001), Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man (2005), and Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004). Those films felt more organic and more reality-based, where you felt like you were [watching] real people and you were really in these places, these auditoriums. Those were the films that really stood out for me and led me to work with Darrell Foster, who worked with Will Smith on the boxing training for Ali.

What was it like collaborating with him?
GT: I wanted to stay as close to history as much as possible and I knew he knew the Ali fights from working on that film. He also had this system so that we could have all the departments on the same page – a number system to identify each type of punch and it’s placement within each corner of the ring. The second thing we talked about when we first met was how we wanted George’s body to look. I said I want it to look exactly like George Foreman. Well, if you look at the pictures, George can be as light as 219 (99kg). I’m like: 219? I’m bigger than 219… It seemed like when you look at George Foreman, he was huge. That was the perception. And so the question was how do we want our George to look? So 219 and 220 for George Foreman in the 1970s may be 240 (109kg) for us, to get George where we needed to be. Those were things and the details that he was able to bring to the table and he became a really great partner for us.

I’m assuming the choreography on the big fight scenes is fairly close to what took place?
GT: I was really trying to reproduce it. These are historic fights. They’re on YouTube. You know, you can google it and you can see Jimmy Young fighting George Foreman (Puerto Rico, 1977) and how he falls. I felt I had to honor that, not only for George, but for the other boxers and the fans. So that’s something that we took a lot of time with. You know, Ali’s 8th round knockdown of Foreman in Zaire, that three punch combination and the way Ali moves – the way we filmed it is consistent to the real fight. We also did that one about 30 to 40 times and Khris took punches to the face each time.

Did anyone get hurt while you were filming?
GT: No one got hurt, thankfully. I think that has a lot to do with our fighters. You know, Joe Frazier is played by Carlos Takam, a real heavyweight fighter. David Jite who plays Jimmy Young, a real fighter. Charles Brewer Jr. plays Michael Moorer. These guys get hit all the time. But the main thing is having endurance. That’s the first thing people were saying when I started prepping for the film. There is no way your actors are going to do each round more than twice, so you need a lot of coverage. And I’m like: I need them to do it 8 or 9 times.  So Darrell and I worked out a way that these fighters would be able to have the discipline, go the distance, and do it as many times as we needed to get it done. That all comes with just having real fighters who have the stamina to do that.

The thing I love most about Big George Foreman is the combination of Khris and Forest Whitaker, playing Foreman’s mentor Doc Broadus, on screen. What was it like for you to work with Forest?
GT: I first met Forest around 1997 but I was a fan before that. We were part of a photoshoot for Vanity Fair about up-and-coming directors. Forest at that time was a veteran as an actor, but he had directed Waiting to Exhale that year. And that film helped my film, Soul Food, get a greenlight because it was a box office success… I was just mostly a person who looked up to him as a mentor, someone who gave me advice. So when someone said, we should give this script to Forest, I was like ‘I hope he just likes it,’ (laughs)…  Turned out that he loved it. I tried to position the movie with a lot of great actors, actors who you may not know, actors you may know, and actors like Forest Whitaker who have done a lot… He’s a really great friend and I really loved working with him.

I’m curious – after working on this film so closely and for so long, how do you think George Foreman was able to do what he did, coming back at the age of 45 to reclaim his title and become the oldest heavyweight champion in the sport’s history?
GT: There’s something of a survival instinct that’s in him. The first time I met him he told me about his childhood in the 5th Ward of Houston. He moved so many times, each place three or four blocks away from the last one. Going from being a kid who’s not able to have enough to eat and to be able to get to the Olympics that fast… There’s a survival instinct that’s just there. I think that’s what George has always had. Because there’s no way he should have won, on paper, the heavyweight championship against Michael Moorer (Las Vegas, 1994), who was a light heavyweight, who was fast, who was quick, and whose jab was much quicker. But George had two things. The first, that survival instinct. And the second, that punch. Doc Broadus says that in the film. “You’ve got a punch, but you’ve got to use [your head]. I think that’s the journey that George learns throughout the movie.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
GT: I hope people when they watch the film, if there are some things in their life that they want to change, that they can identify with this and say: I can make that change as well. Where do you find that? Some people can find it in spirituality. Some people can find it in family. Some people can find it in sports. Wherever that is, we have that ability to better ourselves. That’s sort of the core of the film. That we can better ourselves… And that’s what I want to be able to give to the audience.

Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World’ is at Irish cinemas from April 28th