“I don’t know what in hell you expect from me,” Ross Tanner growled as Ackerman entered his Las Vegas office.
“Fifteen minutes of your time, plus a few answers.”
“C’mon, we both know most of these so-called documentaries never see the light of day.”
“Did you Google me? Or check imdb?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“My films do.”
Tanner winced. “And anyway, what do I have to do with Latin boxing?”
“Asks the matchmaker for Oscar De la Hoya, Roberto Duran, Miguel Cotto, Alexis Arguello, Juan Manuel Marquez, and how many others?”
A half-smile appeared on Tanner’s face. “Somebody knows his shit. So what’s first?”
“Ten minutes to set up the camera and lights.”
“To make you look beautiful.”
“I thought you were a filmmaker, not a magician.”
Though Ackerman had been tempted to forego the interview, once underway it went well, with Tanner proving to be thoughtful, articulate, and even, as time went on, surprisingly personable. Quizzed as to why Latinos had largely taken over the sport, both in and out of the ring, his answer was clear. “After Tyson, the heavyweight division withered,” he stated, “making the lighter weights the headliners. Julio Cesar Chavez, Duran, Oscar, and Tito Trinidad became the big draws. And since Latino fans flaunt their origins, waving flags and painting their faces, a Mexican vs, say, a Puerto Rican becomes about pride, not just what’s happening in the ring.”
Asked why friends and neighbors in East LA rooted for Chavez rather than their local hero, De la Hoya, when the two fought, Tanner laughed. “When Oscar went into the ring against an American – Mosely, Hopkins, Whitaker – or a Puerto Rican like Trinidad, his homies loved him. But against a Mexican national like Chavez, or Vargas, who was considered more Mexican, he became the pocho – brown on the outside, white on the inside. I can’t tell you how many times he said he was proudly American, but his blood was 100% Mexican.”
When talk turned to what was needed for a resurgence of the sport, Tanner was equally astute. “First and foremost, a more prominent place in the Olympics. That’s what made a star of Ali when he was Cassius Clay, then Oscar and Ray Leonard after him.” Asked what else could help, Tanner did not hesitate. “A charismatic American heavyweight – especially one who’s bilingual. Talk all you want about best pound-for-pound, but the toughest guy in the world – the center of attention when it’s Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Ali, or Tyson – is a great heavyweight champ.”
Once the interview was over, and the crew was packing up, Tanner surprised Ackerman with a question. “Can I bring up something personal?”
“I write scripts in my spare time.”
Having been pestered over the years by dentists, dermatologists, lawyers, and waiters, not to mention distant relatives and friends of friends, all of whom had scripts Certain to be the next great thing, Ackerman cringed.
“And?” he asked, trying not to broadcast his dread.
“Mind taking a look at two or three?”
“So you did check me out.”
Tanner nodded guiltily. “I really like that basketball movie that aired on HBO. And the rock & roll film from way back when.”
“Tell you what,” said Ackerman. “Pick the script you like best, then send it.”
“What if I like a bunch of ’em?”
“That’s like rolling up your sleeve and saying, ‘Wanna buy a watch?'”
Ackerman’s motivation for making a film about boxing was simple. After dealing with assorted financing entities on documentaries that were commissioned – by NBC for the breakthroughs in the treatment of diabetes; by a religious organization for one dealing with Eastern spirituality in the Western world; by a group of philanthropists on an experiment in reducing criminal recidivism – he felt a need to distance himself, if only temporarily, from what he termed input. Despite having achieved what’s known in the business as final cut, on every project funded by others there were inevitably ideas, notions, and expectations from those writing checks, all of which led to haggling and squabbling, making producing a film more difficult and less rewarding.
Having fought at the local Police Athletic League in his youth, Ackerman viewed the changes in boxing as an opportunity to address not merely the sport itself, but also race, politics, economics, language, culture, and the immigrant experience.
With many more interviews scheduled, Ackerman set off with his crew for New York, Miami, then Puerto Rico, forgetting about Tanner’s Hollywood dreams. But upon his return to Los Angeles, within the stack of bills, letters, and packages that awaited him, was a large manila envelope containing not one, not two, but three scripts by Ross Tanner.
Emails and texts soon followed: Did you get ’em? Have a chance to take a peek? Can’t wait to hear your thoughts.
Then came calls, which Ackerman ducked for several days before at last answering.
“Ready to help us get rich?” asked Tanner hopefully.
“First, why three?”
“Be thankful I didn’t send four, five, or all ten.”
“You’ve written ten scripts?”
“Plus a bunch of treatments.”
“And your goal is?”
“To get movies made.”
“But your immediate goal?”
“To get producers interested,” said Tanner. “And first and foremost, an agent.”
“All the more reason to pick one.”
“Instead of showing how prolific I am?”
“Know what ten unmade screenplays spells?”
“Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Failure.”
“Even if a couple were semi-finalists in screenwriting competitions?”
“Not the winners? Choose one, then text me your answer.”
After receiving Tanner’s choice – a script about a real-life Mafioso who successfully feigned insanity to keep from being jailed while running one of the Five Families of New York – Ackerman dawdled until a rainy Saturday afternoon.
The moment he reached the last page and read FADE OUT, his iPhone rang.
“So?” asked Tanner.
“Got a periscope? Or can you see me on Google Earth?”
“Intuition. Hit me with your thoughts.”
“The incidents are interesting –”
“What if I tell you it’s a dramatization, but it’s not dramatized?”
“Gimme that in English,” said Tanner.
“A series of events is not the same as a story.”
“But they’re true. And I’ve got both insights and permission from The Boys.”
“Which only helps if they’re going to finance the movie.”
The silence that ensued lasted until Ackerman spoke again. “You still breathing?”
“I suppose you’ve got the solution,” Tanner grumbled.
“At least a possibility. Instead of it being a faceless system that’s after him –”
“Make it one cop who’s obsessed with bringing him down.”
“You’ve got a cat-and-mouse with cast-able leads.”
“That’s pretty good.”
“Only pretty good?” Ackerman teased.
“Let me think about it,” Tanner responded. “But in the meantime, will you read another?”
“Because you’ve got something I really prize.”
Before Ackerman could ponder what that word meant to Tanner, swag started arriving virtually every day: tickets to important fights, boxing memorabilia, archival footage, plus signed photos of the sport’s finest.
“Great, huh?” Tanner gloated over the phone.
“Seems like someone wants something,” stated Ackerman.
“Everyone wants something,” was Tanner’s reply.
Then came a series of invitations: to workouts at gyms in LA… to overblown luncheons at which fights were announced and fighters presented… to pre- and post-fight press conferences. Coupled with the introductions that Tanner provided to people both famous and infamous – pugilists past and present, trainers, managers, promoters, sportswriters, and bloggers, plus gamblers, pimps, and assorted hangers-on – Ackerman suddenly had insider status within an otherwise closed community.
An ever-increasing series of get-togethers followed: breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, sometimes with just the two of them, others with various Tanner colleagues or cronies, and a few with Ackerman’s girlfriend Carla as well.
What surprised Ackerman was how much fun he was having, except at those awkward moments when screenwriting crept into the conversation. Though Tanner always expressed gratitude for constructive criticism, it became clear that rewriting was unlikely. What Tanner wanted, Ackerman came to realize, was the same kind of respect, praise, and autonomy he was afforded – and wielded – in the fight business.
After a dinner at an Italian restaurant in Brentwood, during which Ackerman introduced a star-struck Tanner to Dustin Hoffman, the exasperated matchmaker exploded. “What the fuck is it gonna take for you to help get one of my scripts set up?”
“Think about something you said the first time we met,” answered Ackerman.
“I’m a filmmaker, not a magician.”
The silence that ensued between the two men was ended by a call that woke Ackerman at 3 AM on a Thursday.
“I’ve got us a deal!” Tanner exclaimed.
“W-what’s this us stuff,” Ackerman mumbled, trying to figure out not just where – but also who – he was.
“Want to hear?”
“What I want is to get some sleep.”
“I’m coming in tomorrow. Lunch at 1 at Musso’s, then a meeting that’ll launch us.”
“This is crazy.”
“Like a fox!” Tanner gloated.
At 1:05 the next afternoon, Ackerman strolled into Hollywood’s oldest restaurant to find Tanner already seated. “Ready to thank me?”
“My mind-reading skills are failing. For what?”
“You and I are going to make a movie about El Chapo.”
When Ackerman failed to respond, Tanner beamed. “Great, huh?” he announced.
“Why not Attila the Hun? Or Hitler?
“C’mon, my ass! With most films, what’s the worst that happens if something goes wrong?” Ackerman asked.
“They get panned.”
“But with this one?”
“They burn down your house, then kill you and your family.”
“And the cartels are often mistaken for philanthropists and do-gooders.”
“Just come with me to the meeting. For me.”
“Give me one reason why.”
An hour-and-a-half later, Ackerman found himself seated in a quiet booth in the bar of a Hollywood hotel with Tanner plus two Latino attorneys, one from San Diego, the other from Mexico City, both of whom remained deliberately nameless.
After a minute of small talk, the San Diego-based lawyer spoke. “Senor Tanner says your word is as good as your work.”
“And we like your work,” added the other attorney.
“So when can you start?” asked lawyer #1.
“Start on what?”
“The movie we discussed with Senor Tanner,” said lawyer #2.
“But what movie?” asked Ackerman. “Are we talking first burp to last breath? And serious access, or just stuff grabbed from the internet? There are a million ways to do a film, and not all are equal.”
The two attorneys exchanged a glance, then the one from San Diego spoke. “How would you see the movie?”
“I assume you want the audience on your client’s side.”
Both attorneys nodded.
“Then the best approach,” continued Ackerman, “is to depict him as a modern day Robin Hood.”
That elicited smiles from the three other men.
“So I ask again,” said attorney #1, “when can you start?”
“Whoa,” replied Ackerman. “Am I just supposed to make stuff up?”
“We can supply access,” replied lawyer #2.
“We start with our client’s daughter in Mexico City,” stated attorney #2. “After her, we can arrange other people.”
“What if they say no?” Ackerman asked playfully, eliciting not one iota of mirth.
“No one,” stated the lawyer from Mexico in no uncertain terms, “says no.”
“You were fucking great!” Tanner exclaimed as he and Ackerman stepped out of the hotel. “A total fucking knockout! So when do you want to leave?”
“Are you nuts?”
“I said I’d got to the meeting. Not that I’d get in bed with ’em.”
Tanner was crestfallen. “But this is my shot at finally getting a movie made.”
“Really want to get a movie made?”
“More than anything in the world.”
“Then let’s do a documentary about your boss.”
“You think that could be a film?”
“A graduate of Yale Law School who works for the Justice Department then outdoes Don King to become the biggest promoter in boxing?”
“Yeah, but –”
“And who said, I lied to you yesterday, but today I’m telling the truth? You’re sitting on a documentary that’s crying, begging, and pleading to get made.”
Four days later, Tanner called Ackerman. “So where do we start?”
“With some pages to show first to your boss, then to financing entities. Want to give it a shot?”
“I’m on it,” said Tanner.
A week of silence was broken by another call. “The pages –” Tanner said.
“What about ’em?”
“I can’t figure out where to start,” said Tanner.
“Maybe you should do it.”
“I’m in post-production on my boxing film.”
“Please? As a favor to me?”
Over Thai food that evening, Ackerman’s girlfriend voiced her dismay. “It’s not like you to want to do two films in a row about the same subject,” Carla said.
“It’s kind of different,” responded Ackerman.
“If you don’t mind my asking, different how?
“Aside from being the most powerful boxing promoter since Don King, Ben Albert is a larger than life figure, a character in every sense of the word. And characters, these days are in short supply.”
“Hey, if you’re comfortable with it –”
“I am,” Ackerman replied, though at times he wondered just how true that was.
Ackerman was aware that the document needed to serve not only as a blueprint for the proposed film, but also two other functions. First, a means to get the cooperation of Tanner’s notoriously cantankerous boss. Second, as a springboard to get the required funding. He spent two days searching for the right way in until an approach finally came to him. For openers, to focus on the charismatic figure – Ben Albert – who went from prosecuting criminals to dominating a realm replete with dirty dealings and corruption. Next, which became even more important to him, was to use the sport not just as an arena, but also as a metaphor for commerce – or perhaps even capitalism – gone awry.
Suddenly the pages seemed to write themselves, pouring forth in a way that allowed Ackerman to complete a draft in one long, extended, burst of energy.
That night, sleep quickly gave way to hours spent tossing and turning in bed, with Ackerman mulling over what he had written, then coming up with changes and additions. That was followed by a morning session at the computer in which alterations were made, followed by several hours fiddling with length, grammar, and continuity.
Once done, Ackerman let the pages sit unread over a weekend, then took a day to edit them, followed by a morning doing additional trimming and tweaking. Only then was the document emailed to the matchmaker.
“Fan-fucking-tastic!” was Tanner’s almost instantaneous response. “Killer, killer, killer!”
“Ready to give ’em to you-know-who?” asked Ackerman.
“I was thinking I’d start with his wife and daughter.”
“Their blessing would be great.”
“Is that what you do with an idea for a fight?”
“Not the same thing. What’s your objection?”
“I’m not accustomed to sneaking in the side or back door.”
“Trust me on this.”
“You’re the one desperate to get a film going.”
“And don’t I know it.”
Working with his film editor to reduce nearly sixty hours of boxing-related interviews to a manageable length, Ackerman was far from troubled by another stretch of silence from Tanner.
That respite ended, though, when a call came at 10 PM on a Thursday. “What do you think of Paul Bloom?” Tanner asked.
“He’s made a couple of okay films. Why?”
“He wants to get involved in boxing.”
“I figured if I help him, maybe he’ll help us.”
When Ackerman failed to respond, Tanner spoke again. “Say something.”
“What does he bring to the table?”
“The more the merrier, right?”
Once more Ackerman chose not to reply, so again Tanner did so. “What if I tell you he loves the pages?”
“So he’s a man of taste and judgment. What about the wife and daughter?”
“I think Bloom can be more helpful.”
Though less than convinced, Ackerman bit his tongue.
After reducing the interview footage for his boxing film to a coherent length of three hours, all the while making certain not to rely too heavily on just the big names among those seen on-screen, Ackerman and his editor set to work on the even more difficult task of whittling those three hours down to ninety minutes.
Due to the twelve- to fifteen-hour days that he was putting in, a lack of communication from Tanner was hardly troubling or even noticeable. One week went by, then another, then a third before Ackerman’s curiosity finally grew. Putting in a call while driving to the editing room, he was surprised when Tanner answered with a whisper.
“Why so hush-hush?” Ackerman asked.
“We’re filming the first interview.”
“The documentary about my boss.”
“Whoa. Who’s we?”
“Paul Bloom and I.”
“Hey, I was the one who came up with it,” claimed Tanner.
“That’s not how I remember it.”
“I-I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, I do,” said Ackerman. “So much for loyalty.”
“Pissed?” asked Carla as she and Ackerman sat down at their favorite sushi bar.
“I was at first.”
“I’m actually kind of relieved.”
“Know what they used to say back in Jersey?”
“If a guy fucks you on Tuesday, watch out for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.”
Though he considered taking some sort of action against Tanner, Ackerman ultimately decided that with one boxing documentary almost finished, his time would be better spent on a film he was offered about a singer-songwriter.
As for losing his insider’s status in the fight community, the opposite took place. Due to the release of long-awaited film, coupled with the interviews that followed, plus the Q&A’s he gave at different festivals, more doors than ever before were opened.
Nor was Ackerman the least bit displeased when he was informed that what was shot by Paul Bloom was not the film itself, but simply a promo designed to bring in funding. Those bucks, as luck would have it, never materialized.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.