I recently had the pleasure of interviewing DP, John Matysiak who was one of two different cinematographers on the upcoming film BIG GEORGE FOREMAN: THE MIRACULOUS STORY OF THE ONCE AND FUTURE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD. We discussed his process, visual inspirations and what's special about this particular film for him.
You can watch the entire interview in the video link above or read the transcript below related to his work on BIG GEORGE FOREMAN.
JL: John, thanks for taking the time today to talk about your latest project, BIG GEORGE FOREMAN. So, I was particularly intrigued that there was two DP's on this. I mean, it's not every project that you have two different Directors of Photography. I'm really interested in hearing about when that decision started, like the conversations around that and where you came in regarding that.
JM: Yeah, I mean, that's one of the things with George Foreman and his life, he's lived such a larger than life story, you know. It takes such a massive amount of people to tell that story. And so, when I came onto the project there already had been some kind of starts and stops. Originally this project was supposed to go before the pandemic. And then they were in prep and they actually got down to New Orleans and there was a hurricane that hit production. So that kind of moved the dates as well, another year. And so this project was one of those projects that was just trying to get off the ground for so long. So I just feel really grateful that the timing worked out and I was able to connect with George Tillman Jr. in the fall of 2021. I just had a film come out called OLD HENRY and so we got connected and we just immediately hit it off in terms of what the story meant, you know. With someone like George Foreman, whose story is so larger than life, at the essence of it, it's still a human story. And so I think me and George [Tillman Jr.] really bonded with each other on that, that it was this human, personal story. Like it's the small things that matter in his life.
JL: So when was it discussed which portion of the film you would shoot? Because I assume you shot one time period and David Tattersall shot another, right?
JM: Yeah. I mean, that decision I think, was pretty organic in terms of the way the schedules aligned and everything. And so I kind of ended up shooting the earlier part of his life from the sixties when he was fighting in the Olympics in Mexico City, all the way through his fight with Muhammad Ali and then his fight with Frazier and then Jimmy Young, and then ultimately, his near-death experience. Through Foreman's near-death experience, he found his spirituality, and that's where the film kind of really kind of starts to grab hold of you in terms of his spirituality and him becoming a minister. And then there's this seven year break in the film in which we leave him and then we come back and and he's the George Foreman that, at least for myself, grew up knowing or being aware of, as this boxer who later in life at age 45, came back and won the heavyweight title. And then obviously, like every college dorm in the country, had a foreman grill. And so that's where the film was kind of going the whole time. And so it was just. an organic process, I think. I was blessed to be able to kind of shoot those decades of his earlier life.
JL: David Tattersall, I've been a big fan of his for a long time because I'm a huge STAR WARS fan, and he shot all the STAR WARS prequels. He shot THE GREEN MILE, which I think looks even more beautiful than THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Though, I think SHAWSHANK is a better film. It's an interesting choice. I mean, how did he get involved and did you talk with him about what you had done?
JM: Yeah, absolutely. I mean that was a very kind of organic situation. I believe him [Tattersall] and George [Tillman Jr.] worked together on a film prior. It was one of those things that we laid out, this idea of visually how we're going to move through these time periods, through choice of lensing and formats. Wether it was spherical lenses or anamorphic lenses. When he was younger and his world was kid of spinning out of control around him and he was a little bit more out of control, we used more vintage lenses that kind of distorted the edges of the frame distorting his own personal life around him because he was so kind of centered on one thing. And then through that transition, we kind of go to a more traditional or more contemporary look of just cleaner lines, when he found his spirituality in his near death experience. And then the master anamorphic lenses are what we ended up using all the way to the end of the film.
Khris Davis as George Foreman. The production went on hiatus while Davis gained weight to play Foreman later in his career.
JL: So in a way you kind of established where Tattersall would start with his half, you know, the kind of anamorphic, smoother, not so crazy look.
JM: Yea, well George [Tillman Jr.] always had in mind a clear distinctive break in the story and with that a different look for each section.
JL: I'm excited to see it, because, speaking about stages of life, I am ashamed to say the George Foreman I know is the guy selling his grill on TV, growing up. I don't know much about his story. So I'm excited to see that he even had a story. I didn't even know there was something there, you know, that was interesting.
JM: Oh yea he [Foreman] picked up boxing when, by the grace of God this mentor took him under his wing at the at the Job Corps, which was something that then President Lyndon B. Johnson had kind of put into place, basically these places where you could go and learn skills, like being a mechanic and electrician, and to be a part of the American workforce. And so at the Job Corps, he was getting into trouble. And so you had this mentor that took him under his wing and basically said, like, I feel like there's some anger and rage in you and let me teach you how to box. And within a very short amount of time, he won the gold medal in the Mexico City Olympics, and then, you know, it wasn't long after that he was fighting for the heavyweight title of the of the world. So, pretty remarkable what he did in a very short amount of time.
JL: That's really cool. Speaking of time, what was your shooting schedule? Was it a quick one? Did you feel like you had the time to do what you needed to do? Was it a run and gun situation?
JM: I mean, you know, it was always ambitious. That was one of the things in my early conversations with the producers and with George, that we were going to be covering a lot of ground in a short amount of time. The total production schedule, I believe, was 50 days. But I will say that we were able to find the time and to have the time to kind of prep everything accordingly. And so by the time you're on set, you're just - it's more execution, then figuring out or finding it. We had to be so, kind of dialed in. And we also had an amazing crew that just supported that vision from the get go. I was fortunate to work with some longtime collaborators that have been with me for years. And so we knew what we were embarking on. But it was extremely ambitious. Even on a 50 day schedule, It didn't feel like it was actually 50 days.
JL: It felt quicker, right? Yeah. Wow. Well, I'm curious, to prepare before you started, what kind of films did you watch? I'm sure you and George Tillman talked about some things he had in mind. I guess related to boxing or other sports films?
JM: Yeah, I mean ultimately this is a story about someone who is a boxer. It's not necessarily a boxing story. But it does take place in that genre. And so it was great to be able to go back and revisit these films that I'd seen early on and really analyze like RAGING BULL. Watching a film knowing you're going to embark on a similar themed film is a different experience than just watching it. And so yeah, I think like watching, you know, ROCKY and RAGING BULL and CINDERELLA MAN. That was a film we really referred to because that was kind of like, someone kind of digging themselves out of poverty. We also really liked the look of that film, just in that it felt grounded in reality, and felt grounded in this organic texture, which was something we were always going for. And so I mean, those were kind of the more boxing centered films. In addition, it was great to kind of dive into all the documentaries and all the documentary footage that was around. So, I found I spent more time watching a younger George Foreman in documentaries and found footage more than anything else. I was looking for a way in, to honestly tell his story and to represent his story. Because at no point in time did I want it to feel like we were making the "movie" version of it. I wanted to really get in and tell his story, his personal story.
In addition to the films we watched and shared back and forth, there were also some really prolific photographers that I know George [Tillman Jr.] in the beginning, was was very keen on leaning into color palette and texture wise. We referenced Eggleston and Gordon Parks. And then for me, there was this idea of bringing this iconic boxing photography to life from Neil Leifer. I mean, his images are what you think of when you think of Muhammad Ali, like every single photograph of Muhammad Ali standing over his opponent laid out on the mat is Neil Leifer. He just had this zeitgeist at the time, he's got some amazing photography from this bygone era. And so his photographs, they're so evocative and so emotional. That was something that I was really kind of drawn to. George [Tillman Jr.] and I had many binders and look books, we had all this photography and research that kept us informed visually on how we wanted to kind of represent these fights, these iconic fights that everyone knows. And so for me, it was like the thing that grounded myself visually, was that photography.