INTERVIEW: Doc-Making "On the Ropes" with Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen: Part I, Butting Heads, Blow-Ups, and Big Deals
by Anthony Kaufman
“On the Ropes,” a Special Jury Award winner at Sundance ’99 is Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s documentary about three struggling young boxers and their dedicated trainer. It’s case and point for the challenges and choices in making and releasing non-fiction work in today’s market. Burstein and Morgen met while graduate students at NYU’s film department and decided to embark on a documentary project that would feel as dramatic and plot-driven as any narrative feature. Shot mostly on a Beta SP camera borrowed from NYU, the filmmakers followed their subjects for around 2 years, gaining access to their most intimate moments in and outside the ring. The result is emotional, heartfelt and a big hit with the critics, who have given the movie the necessary quotes it needs to pull in those doc-weary audiences, from Details (“The indie knockout of the year”) to GQ (“absorbing, crisp, fascinating”) to Mr. Ebert himself (“Heartbreaking”).
In this two-part interview coinciding with the film’s release from WinStar Films, Burstein, an experienced editor, and Morgen, director of the prize-winning Oliver North documentary, “Ollie’s Army,” outline some of the issues that face today’s documentary filmmakers. In this first part, they discuss the difficulty of collaborating — with each other and their acclaimed editor Nancy Baker (“Streetwise,” “Harlan County USA“), the differences between DV, Hi-8 and BetaCam, the video-to-film transfer and lastly, their dealings with Hollywood to make a fiction version of “On the Ropes.”
indieWIRE: You were able to bring in a high level of talent for your project. How did they get involved?
Nanette Burstein: As for Nancy Baker, we just called her and said, do you want to do this? We sent her a sample tape and an assembly of selects — which was the arc of each character’s story separated. She really fell in love with it, so she agreed to do it. And Jennifer Fox, who was our executive producer, I had actually worked for her on “American Love Story” and edited one of the shows. In fact, I started shooting the film while I was editing for her. I’d go in and edit for her at night and shoot during the day.
Brett Morgen: Nancy was really a coup, because “Streetwise” and “Harlan County” are two of our favorite films, and we thought she was part of the old school of doc editing, sort of the Grande Dame. Her credits are just phenomenal. So we’re young, not neophytes (this is my third film), but we wanted to bring someone to the table and we were both floored that Nancy wanted to work with us on it. But it was tough