Inside Fighter is the kind of uncontrived and intimate cinematic portrait – free of pretence or judgement – that acts as a reminder of the possibilities of the documentary form. For each and every second of the film’s relatively brief 51-minute running time, it is clear that first-time director Nick Barkla has entered into the project without any preconceived notions about his character. He is there, quite literally, to document the trials and tribulations of his protagonist, before chiselling everything down to the barest essentials.
This is fantastic news for the viewer, because the subject of Barkla’s film is Frank Lo Porto, a disarmingly loveable Melbourne based boxer who’s been offered a chance at the WBA super welterweight world title. Barkla follows Frank for the five weeks between receiving this news, all the way through to the big fight.
We’ll be publishing a full review soon, but before we do that, I sat down with Nick Barkla to talk a bit about Inside Fighter, which will soon premiere at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.
Nick, how did you come to make this film?
I’m an actor and I was boxing in this gym to keep fit when I met Frank. We became friends over the course of about a year, and throughout that time he was getting higher in the rankings. He ended up in the top fifteen in the world, and told me at one point that he was a long shot, but he might have a world title fight on the horizon. It was really exciting for him. But he was at the end of his career, so he wasn’t sure if he was actually going to get a chance or not.
So I thought about making a documentary on him at that point. I liked the idea of a guy on the fringes of a title fight, but who may or may not get that opportunity. So I’d already got some footage at one of his Melbourne fights when out of the blue he called and told me he’d been offered a shot at the world title. Apparently the contender had broken his hand in training and they needed another opponent. In boxing the champion has to fight someone in the top fifteen and I think Frank was number twelve at that time. So they called him and asked if he wanted a shot in five weeks times in El Paso, Texas.
I told him I’d like to come along and film, and he said that was fine. So I grabbed my brother’s 5D stills camera (he’s a photographer) and rigged some sound equipment to it. I’d never used a camera before, and I hadn’t recorded sound. I hadn’t really done anything! The next day I was in the gym filming Frank, and decided I’d really look for those internal shifts he was going through along the way. So we had a four-week training camp in Melbourne then one week in Texas. All I knew is that in five weeks time, there’d be this climactic fight.
You mentioned that you’d never picked up a camera before. So your relationship with film was entirely as an actor up to this point?
Yeah. I mean I’d helped produce movies before. And I’d written some stuff. But yeah, mainly I was an actor. And I think the more acting I was doing the more I was becoming interested in telling my own stories. I still love acting but now I’m also interested in the story telling process in a bigger way.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you’re heavily influenced by directors like John Cassavetes, Ken Loach, Sidney Lumet and the Maysles brothers. I think there are a lot of consistencies amongst those directors, but what is it about those names in particular that inspires you?
I like the relationship they establish with the audience. You feel like you’re in the room with the characters in their films – there’s no real distance there. I always love that… when I feel like I really know someone in a film. It’s that raw, stripped back quality of it all. They don’t rely on tricks and convoluted plots. Their primary interest is in the characters and their internal conflicts.
And I guess that’s why I asked the question. There is a raw intensity in your film that seems to reflect that approach. Frank is a really compelling character from that point of view. He’s just out there doing his thing… there’s not an ounce of pretension in him. Did you have any of those directors in mind when you were putting Inside Fighter together?
It just happened. As an actor I’m always trying to make everything as authentic as possible. I’ve never been drawn to films or performances that draw attention to themselves. I try to get to that place myself but it’s not always easy. With someone like Frank, he’s not your stereotypical loudmouth boxer. He’s a really hard puncher and a tough working class guy from Glenroy. But when you meet him he’s a really sweet, gentle person as well. There was something about that that I really love.
But when it came to actually making the film I wasn’t thinking about filmmaking influences. I was flat out trying to work out how to use the camera, record sound and keep Frank in sight. It was more when I got into an edit that I thought a bit about how those filmmakers tell their stories.
It’s hard not to think of Rocky (1976) when watching Inside Fighter. It gets brought up a few times in the film, and there are a lot of similarities there. Was that something that you thought about much?
As soon as Frank told me he was getting a title fight, I thought… this is really strange. The Italian Stallion getting a fight at late notice against an undefeated African American champion. It’s basically the same storyline. Everybody was kind of aware of that. It was a big film for Frank growing up and everybody would joke that this was his Rocky moment.
I think it plays subconsciously for an audience watching the film as well. They’re thinking… maybe this is one of those great stories where the underdog wins. Because we’re kind of conditioned to think like that through Hollywood.
How does Frank feel about the film?
He found parts of it hard to watch. He was nervous about watching it and I was nervous about showing it to him. But he really likes it.
I think he appreciated somebody documenting the journey. Something to look back on. Because when you’re training with that level of intensity, I think everything can go past in a real blur.
Of course, people will have to see the movie to find out how it turned out! What’s next for you?
I’m well into development on a new documentary called The Mighty Apollo. It’s the story of a famous Australian circus strongman in the 40s and 50s. He was known locally as the strongest man in the world. He was the star of a circus and opened the first gym in Melbourne… the first bodybuilder. His goal was to become immortal, to be known as the strongest man in history.
He did all sorts of strongman stuff. He pulled a tram up Bourke Street with his teeth. He had an elephant stand on his chest. Crazy feats of strength. I’m working with his son, Paul Anderson who runs the Apollo Gym in Footscray. His dad left behind a massive archive that he’d amassed during his life and career of documentary footage, TV appearances, huge press books of photos and newspaper articles. We’re putting that together at the moment.
Paul saw Inside Fighter and that thing of the tough sportsman dealing with loss and the frailties that lie behind all the machismo appealed to him. There was a lot of relevance there.
That’s interesting that you say that. The other films that came to mind while watching Inside Fighter were The Wrestler (2008) and Warrior (2011). All movies about men whose masculinity conceals some kind of internal unrest.
You know, I realised that Inside Fighter had to be about something else. It couldn’t just be about boxing and… just that. There had to be something that would resonate with people who have no interest in boxing. The thing about Frank… it’s a bit like Rocky. There’s nothing particularly interesting about that character when you first meet them. It’s only as the story progresses, as they are placed under more and more pressure, that they begin to reveal things about themselves. It was a really good lesson for me story-telling wise. There don’t have to be bombs going off in the first five minutes.
I’m curious. You’re an actor, but you’ve found yourself making documentary films. Do you see yourself making fictional feature films?
Yeah, I do. I’ve been developing a couple of movies for a few years now. I’m still going to keep acting. You know the documentary with Frank just came up out of the blue. And it was good… because I didn’t have any of the skills. Using a camera, sound or any of that. If I had longer to consider it I might not have done it. It’s given me a taste, and I’m very keen to do more.
Tickets for Inside Fighter are available at: http://www.moshtix.com.au/mdff
The Melbourne Documentary Film Festival is a 3 day competitive documentary film festival (Sat 9, Sun 10 & Mon 11 July), delivering a diverse, challenging slate of films to entertain, educate and inform, creating a memorable, world class festival experience.
Follow the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on Twitter.
Join the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival group on Facebook.