The Spring 2013 season of Stranger Than Fiction ended on Tuesday with a very special screening of On The Ropes. Directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen, the Oscar-nominated documentary shares the stories of three young boxers working their way from the amateur to pro leagues and explores the impact that their boxing careers make on the rest of their lives. Burstein and Morgen document the struggles — both personal and professional — encountered by the boxers, as well as the perseverance and dedication that they exhibit along the way.
Last week, close to 20 years after production, the filmmakers were able to reunite with their subjects in front of STF’s audience. After the On The Ropes screening, Executive Director Raphaela Neihausen was joined by Burstein and Morgen, as well as three of the main subjects from the film — Harry Keitt, Tyrene Manson, and George Walton — for a Q&A.
Stranger Than Fiction: I have a question for all of you: watching this film, so many years later, what’s the experience like for you?
George Walton: I’m gonna be honest. I’m gonna be straight up. I needed a drink before the movie started. (laughter) What’s the name of that bar again?
STF: We’ll go after. (laughter)
Walton: It took me back. I felt so many emotions, so many mixed emotions. Something that Harry says in the movie about the snake with the legs and the arms… (laughter) Well, that finally became a reality, and I understand totally what he means now. Back then, I didn’t understand.
Tyrene Manson: I try my best not to watch this at all. I have a cousin who always wants to watch it. But it hurts, because it’s reality. It’s my past reality that I have not dealt with yet. I hold so much in, and I’m still living for my children, who are my cousins but I call them my children, and I still hold a lot in. So it’s painful to see it, although God has blessed us to go through it, to grow and learn from it. And it’s good to see everyone again. (applause)
Harry Keitt: I think about On The Ropes a lot. I think about all the people involved sometimes. One person who’s missing right now is Noel Santiago; he’s not here. He lives in LA, and he’s doing well.
I’m still doing the same thing. I try to help people out, and sometimes people say, “Why are you wasting your time on people?” But people have to understand that I got a second chance at life. Somebody gave me a second chance. If it wasn’t for that second chance, I wouldn’t be here. My trainer gave me a second chance. As a matter of fact, I got 100 second chances. (laughter) So when somebody needs some help, it’s hard to turn them down and walk away because people didn’t walk away from me. My wife gave me a second chance. A few times, you know what I’m saying? (laughter) So if a person needs some help, I’ll be there. That’s the kind of person I am.
And Nanette, the one who discovered me, she tricked me. She said, “Can I take some pictures of you?” (laughter) And then it turned into a film! And then I met Brett. The film, the camera, talking everyday…sometimes I would say, “Listen, I don’t have nothing to say. Don’t talk to me today.” (laughter)
Brett Morgen: That’s not true. Harry always has something to say. (laughter)
Burstein: Yeah, like, two hours later… (laughter)
Keitt: Some days, I was just like, “Don’t talk to me today.” (laughter) Here, Brett, you take this. (applause)
Morgen: Obviously, since this was our first film, I never…I don’t know about Nanette, but I haven’t seen it in so many years. It’s really strange to see a movie you made 20 years ago. There are parts of it, watching it, where I felt that I couldn’t remember filming it at all. Like, Tyrene on the pay phone? I thought, “Pay phones?! Who uses those now?” (laughter) So it was great to be able to watch it. And then there were moments where I’d remember what we were going through.
I was watching it thinking how blessed we were to have found George, Tyrene, Harry, and Noel, because beyond being able to articulate their experiences so successfully and in such a wonderfully poetic way, I think the four of them, one thing they all have in common is some of the most expressive faces. And watching it on the screen tonight, it was…I’m really glad you all got to experience this. And it’s a very emotional experience. I met my wife during a screening of this film, which totally changed my life. And George and Tyrene got married in the making of the film. (applause)
Burstein: And they’re still married! (applause)
Manson: We owe them for that! We owe them big time.
Burstein: This movie came about so organically. I was actually learning how to box from Harry and getting my ass kicked by Tyrene. (laughter) I was about to go to film school at NYU, where I would have access to equipment, and I just found these very, very moving and poignant stories. At some point, I talked Brett into making this film with me, and it was such an emotional journey because, as you can see from the movie, so much happened, and it was just the two of us. Harry was carrying our bags for us. (laughter) We didn’t even have a production assistant! So we just went through this experience and learned so much.
When you make a film, you have one idea when you’re filming it and another idea when you’re editing it, and then you’re screening it for everyone and you never really see it objectively. This is probably the first time I’ve watched this movie objectively, and I have so much admiration for the people who are in front of the camera.
Audience: How many people did you talk to in the beginning before you started filming? Before you decided on the four of them as the main characters?
Burstein: Just them, actually. (laughter)
Morgen: We got real lucky.
Burstein: Yeah. You know, as I said, I was training at this gym for awhile, so I knew what was going on in their lives and I knew their stories and I knew them personally. It wasn’t the normal “casting process” that people may go through in a reality show or a documentary. It was just people we knew.
Walton: From what I understood, you two originally were doing a film on women fighters, right?
Burstein: Yeah, I was going to do a film on female boxers. That’s true; you remember more than I do. (laughter) Women’s boxing was relatively new at the time. And I remember Brett and I had watched the Tyson fight, and Christy Martin was on the undercard, and that was the first time there was a professional women’s bout on TV. There was no defense in the fight, so it was just a bloodbath and kind of fascinating to watch. I thought maybe there was an interesting film in women’s boxing, and I wanted to learn how to box, so I started training at this gym, and then I found these stories. So it really didn’t have to do with women’s boxing, per se. I mean, Tyrene happened to be a woman, but it was much more than that.
Morgen: I think Harry, Tyrene, and George were very easy choices, for obvious reasons in the film, and because of where they were in their careers. Noel was probably a real wild card, because we knew he was never going to be a great boxer. We really liked that he wasn’t the typical story. We already had George’s story, so we liked the fact that Harry was just trying to teach Noel not to be a great boxer but how to succeed in life. And I think he did a great job. The last I heard, Noel was a mortgage broker in Oxnard, California, married with a kid.
Burstein: Yeah, Noel and I are Facebook friends, and he sent me a message about a year ago asking me to go to a gallery opening. (laughter) But that was the thing about the film. Noel wasn’t necessarily going to be a great boxer, but he was learning discipline from Harry. He was learning to stay in school, and that was what was so appealing about the story.
STF: And after the filming stopped, were people still boxing? Tyrene, I’m very curious about you specifically. Were you training in prison? Did you ever get that fight you were looking for?
Manson: I was training, and I did get to go to the Golden Gloves in 2000 or 2001. I got the silver again. It was a brutal fight. It was a good one.
Walton: She actually won that fight, in my eyes. (applause)
Manson: Yeah, but because of politics, they had to give it to her. I was just coming out of the system and getting right into it. It was what it was.
Walton: Yeah, the girl was the favorite. She was, like, a three-time Golden Glove Champ or something, but Tyrene kicked her butt. (laughter)
Manson: The young woman said to me, “What did they feed you in prison, nails?!” (laughter) At the same time, it was a good battle, her and I. It was a good battle, and I received another silver, so that’s two Silver Gloves, and after that, that was it. (applause)
Walton: Oh, please. I suck, man. (laughter) I sold out. (laughter) Man, I ain’t do much. There was one individual that they didn’t show in the film, in the documentary, who played a major part in the choices I made, the decisions I made and everything. From the time we tried to make that transition from the amateurs to the pros, I just never had that fire and that drive to become the professional that I needed to become. I never really elevated my game. So I went on, and I was just riding off of natural ability. I never really put in that hard championship work that I needed to put in to win the title. I ended up winning the New York State title, but I didn’t really amount to much after that. I was just flopping all over the place. But right now, I just train people now. I just enjoy training people and teaching them. I’m like a little Harry now. (laughter) The same stuff Harry was telling me, I’m telling guys now. (applause)
STF: Is the same gym still around?
Keitt: Yeah, Bed-Stuy is still open, but we’re at different places. George is on Long Island.
Walton: I’m in Glen Cove, Long Island.
Keitt: I’m at Gleason’s Gym in DUMBO. Bed-Stuy is always going to be Bed-Stuy. It’s always going to be home. But we just had to move on. This whole thing to me is a learning experience. It’s a learning experience about life, getting to know yourself and getting to know people. I’ve learned a lot through the years, growing up, learning how to become a man. Back then, I was learning how to be a man…
Walton: Me too. (laughter)
Keitt: …Trying to find my path, trying to find out who I am and why I’m here. If the streets could talk, I’d be in trouble, but thank God the streets can’t talk. (laughter) On The Ropes means a lot to me, because it was a movie that helped me wake up, helped me realize that I’m not that guy that people say I am.
Walton: You’re not that loser that everybody calls you. (laughter)
Audience: Harry, in the time since the movie, how many fighters have you taken from the amateurs and trained to be at the top of the game in professional boxing?
Keitt: I’ve had international champions and Golden Glove champions, even people who have made it to the finals. Basically, I’m helping people find who they are. A lot of times, a lot of people who come to boxing are looking for direction. Boxing gave me direction. Boxing gave me a way to see the direction I wanted to go down. For a lot of people, it’s a sport that gives you direction, a sport that gives you confidence where confidence doesn’t lie. When I was in basketball, I loved basketball. I loved baseball, but I wasn’t a team person. I’d be the last one to get picked. (laughter) But in boxing? (laughter) I’m telling the truth! In boxing, when the bell went “ding,” either you were gonna knock me out or I was gonna knock you out. Somebody was going to sleep. And most of the time I didn’t take a nap. (laughter) So that’s why I’m still here.
Morgen: I just wanted to say one quick story. Even though this is a very pure cinema vérité film, Nanette and I weren’t very pure about cinema vérité. We were very conscious of the story as we were going along. As I was watching the film, one memory stood out. It’s my favorite story about making the film. When Noel fought in the Golden Gloves the second time, we told Harry before the fight, “Listen, if Noel loses, can you give him a pep talk afterwards to put it all in perspective? Because that’ll be the end of his story. We won’t see him anymore in the movie, and we need to try to find a way to end it on a positive note.” (laughter) And Harry’s like, “Yeah, okay, okay.” (laughter)
So you all know that scene in the movie where Noel loses and Harry’s like, “Man, Noel, hold your head up, man.” You know that scene? What you didn’t see was, after we cut out, Harry turned to us and was like, “You guys got it?” (laughter) And we’re like, “Yeah, we got it.” And Harry goes, “Noel, you fucking bum! I don’t want to see your ass again!” (laughter and applause)
Keitt: That’s not true! (laughter) I would not say nothing like that! (laughter)
Audience: I just wanted to say, Nanette, you didn’t need to go to NYU. This is an amazing film.
Burstein: I didn’t really go. (laughter)
Morgen: She has the best track record in the history of NYU. This is was your second film, and your thesis was The Kid Stays in the Picture, right?
Burstein: This was my first film.
Morgen: Oh, this is your first film.
Audience: It’s so well edited. It’s just incredible. I absolutely adore this film, and you guys are the most compelling and generous characters. How was it for you to do it? How did you trust these two people to open the door of your houses and your lives? How did that go? I know you were boxing with her, but how did you get to connect in such a beautiful way and end up with this film?
Burstein: I think they just thought we were doing some little student project. (laughter)
Manson: We thought it was a five-minute student project!
Burstein: They didn’t think that anyone would ever see it.
Manson: Five minutes! But it was good, because Harry always said that they were good people. “They’re young, they’re good people, it’s okay.” I said, “Harry, they’re about to see some real deal going up in the house that Jack built!” (laughter) I don’t really know too much about the house that Jack built, but they can handle it. (laughter) And they did! Uncut.
Walton: I just wanna say that I’m so glad. I thank God for all of y’all, but I’m so glad that these two came into my life. What they did, for them to come into my life and follow a major part of my life, a time that was very important…it wasn’t like they really imposed themselves. They didn’t invade my space or anything. I was just being me, and for them to come and put it together on film, I mean, is like amazing. It just blows me away. And to see it now, after so many years, is like unreal. Like I was in a time capsule or something. And this is something that can go on forever. You’ll always be in a part of my heart. (applause)
Morgen: At the same time, I think both of us really owe our careers to these three. We were both film students at the time, and if it wasn’t for their generosity…this launched both of our careers, and I think that, even though we don’t see each other all that much…
Walton: How many years has it been since I seen you?
Morgen: Too long.
Manson: They still look the same.
Morgen: They all look better! (laughter)
Manson: We still feel the same about one another. We’re still a family, all of us.