Saturday 25 May 2019

'It wasn't easy for her - she had to wrestle with some of it' - 'Katie' documentary director Ross Whitaker talks filming Katie Taylor over 18 months

Ross Whitaker spent 18 months filming boxer Katie Taylor after she crashed out of the 2016 Olympics. Although dad Pete was absent during those dark days in Rio, his relationship with Katie became fundamental to the documentary, the film-maker tells John Meagher

Pulling no punches: Whitaker says Taylor wanted to tell the whole story truthfully
Pulling no punches: Whitaker says Taylor wanted to tell the whole story truthfully
Ring master: Whitaker has made several boxing-related films during his career

The 2016 Rio Olympics, for many Irish, will be remembered for the Cork rowing brothers, the Donovans, and their delight at claiming a medal. Others will recall sailor Annalise Murphy wining silver after the disappointment at the London games four years previously.

But it was another memory, capturing a very different emotion, that perhaps stays with us longest. It's the sight of Katie Taylor immediately after her defeat in the ring and her devastation as RTÉ's camera moved in for an interview. She could hardly get the words out such was her upset, and it would have taken a very hard heart indeed not to be moved by the anguish on display from one of the country's best-known sports stars.

The Bray boxer had delivered an iconic Irish sporting moment in the London Olympics, winning gold in thrilling fashion, but here was this trailblazer with the weight of a country's expectations on her shoulders, at her lowest ebb.

Shortly after the crushing experience of Rio, the documentary filmmaker Ross Whitaker reached out to her, via manager Brian Peters, and proposed a film that would follow her as she attempted to rebuild her career and her life.

The result, two years later, is Katie - a feature-length fly-on-the-wall documentary that gives greater insight into her life and times than anything we have seen before.

"At one stage, it was called 'The Comeback'," says Whitaker. "The engine of the film was seeing could this person come back from this incredible low point in her life."

Over the course of 18 months, Whitaker followed her from the family home in Bray to boxing camp in Vermont and to the various arenas around the world in which she attempted to make the transition from all-conquering amateur fighter to professional boxer.

"She's a big consumer of films and she loves Netflix," Whitaker says. "One thing she said to me at that initial meeting was, 'if we're going to do this it has to be truthful, it has to be real'. But it wasn't easy for her - she had to wrestle with some of it. It was coming from a deep place to have to go there."

Katie offers a candid look at its subject. Whitaker says it was a joint effort.

"She wanted to tell the whole story truthfully. There was never a crisis point in the film where I had to say to Katie, 'You're backing out of this'. She really is a person of her word.

"She had no say over the final cut," he adds. "She decided that she was going to trust me. We spent the guts of 18 months filming for this. I have a way of filming that's very unobtrusive.

"As Katie is not a garrulous and very talkative person, it was really to witness how much dedication you need to have to be as good as she is. People often think you just rock up and win everything - I wanted to show the huge sacrifices involved."

When Taylor first emerged as a shy teenager, her father Pete was at her side. He was her mentor, her confidant and her boxing coach. They seemed inseparable and it was him who was in the corner when she won one world amateur title after the next as well as that magical summer afternoon at the London Olympics.

In 2016, their relationship broke down when Pete left Katie's mother, Bridget, for another woman. The tabloids had a field day and, for the first time, Taylor had to fight without Pete at her side. He was absent in those dark days in Brazil and Katie made it clear at the time that she wanted to go about her business her way.

Whitaker knew the relationship was fundamental to the film and he says that before shooting began, he sat down for a long lunch with Taylor and her family and explained that it couldn't be ignored. She agreed, although he says it was difficult for her to talk on camera about the fall-out.

"There's a lot of intrigue about her relationship with her father," he says. "He was her mentor and best friend - he goes from being ever-present in her life to being completely absent. What you're looking at, in my mind - and I hope Katie's okay with me saying this - is someone who's growing up and flying the nest."

Pete was not interviewed by Whitaker for this film - "the fracture with her dad happened before Rio" - but archive interviews are included in order to illustrate just how strong the father-child bond used to be.

But that is just one aspect of Taylor's life that's covered in the film. We also get an insight into what drives her, how the disappointment of Rio may never leave her, despite success in the professional ranks, and how religion is so pivotal to who she is. In one powerful scene, we see Bridget and Katie fervently praying before a fight.

"With Katie," Whitaker says, "nobody had ever been permitted to film in her dressing room before her fight, or her hotel room the night before, to be able to witness that moment with her mother. Other people might have thrown in a few questions after she's prayed before a fight, but I believe it's better to just witness it."

Whitaker favours an observational type of film-making - and he says that style suited Taylor well. He seems to have little interest in following in the footsteps of those directors who insert themselves into the story.

"I want to keep out of it as much as I can," he says. "Maybe the odd question here or there if absolutely necessarily, but otherwise it's the subject driving it."

Now 43, the Dubliner is firmly established as one of Ireland's finest documentary makers. He's made several boxing-related features, including one on Bernard Dunne when he was in his pomp in the late 2000s and When Ali Came to Ireland, a look-back to the late icon's 1972 fight at Croke Park.

One of his first films was Saviours, which followed the fortunes of three fledgling fighters, including Darren Sutherland (who, tragically, would take his own life a year after the film emerged). Saviours was very well received at the time and Whitaker later discovered that Katie Taylor had watched it and loved it.

"It certainly helped convince her to do a film with me," he says.

His work is characterised by an interest in people who push themselves and their bodies to the limits. Besides pugilists, he has also explored the world of surfing and his best-known film, Unbreakable, tells the life-affirming story of Mark Pollock, the blind Irish athlete, who had to rebuild his life after becoming paralysed following a fall.

"The big theme for me has always been identity," he says. "How do you construct who you are? With Mark Pollock, it was all about being an athlete, but what happens when your legs are taken away from you?"

He looks up to veteran documentary maker Nick Broomfield, as well as the Maysles brothers, Albert and David. "They [the Maysles] almost started off this observational take on things [with films like Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens]."

He is also taken with the work of Kim Longinotto. "She did an incredible film yeas ago called Divorce Iranian Style. She's very much into witnessing but she builds her films like dramas, thrillers."

Right now, he's working on a new film centred around a pair of men in the midlands who built a 'wall of death' - a large wooden cylinder that daredevil motorcyclists can drive around at great speed. It was the subject of a cult Irish film, Eat the Peach, in the 1980s.

"When I was in film school, I never took any of the documentary courses," he says, with a laugh. "Now, I couldn't imagine wanting to make a fictional film. Real life, real people and real stories can be so much more compelling.

"I love when you have a great story but everything in it is true and you connect to it so powerfully. In a documentary, there are real things at stake - if Katie loses a fight, her career is over and her life as she knows it is over. That's a powerful thing and it's a privilege to be given access to film it."

Katie will be screened in the IFI, Dublin, on September 29 as part of the IFI Documentary Festival. It will be followed be a Q&A with Ross Whitaker

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