By Cameron Lee
October 19, 2020
North Carolina once boasted a healthy film production industry having been locations for now-classic films like David Lynch’s neo-noir mystery film Blue Velvet, the romantic sports comedy Bull Durham, and the Academy Award-winning film Dirty Dancing. An early adopter of film tax incentives since 2000, the state has steadily rewarded production companies shooting major film projects in North Carolina.
Charlotte– like many other cities in the state– has seen a decline in major film productions since the film tax credit expired and a new grant-based program was adopted at the end of 2014. The backlash from the infamous House Bill 2 (HB2) also had a negative economic impact in the state’s film industry. Outside of 2017’s Logan Lucky, shot primarily at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, and American Animals, filmed at Davidson College and several locations in Plaza Midwood, major film production has remained fairly slow.
While big studio feature films may not be as prevalent in the city, two Charlotte film and arts community staples, Seth Koch and Rick Lazes, have released a feature film documentary about the life and career of three-time world heavyweight champion and Olympic gold medalist, Lennox Lewis.
Why Lennox Lewis?
Rick Lazes, who many may know as a multimedia artist and CEO of Ark Group— the developers of the Music Factory— has known Lennox Lewis for over 20 years and even attended the Mike Tyson/Lennox Lewis fight in 2002. Seth Koch, a longtime friend of Rick’s son Scott, is a filmmaker originally from Davidson, NC and raised in Charlotte. The three worked on a short film released in 2014 called Like Rats in a Trap, a story about the 1904 flood of the Barringer Gold Mine. It was two years later that the idea of the Lennox Lewis film surfaced.
“He [Rick Lazes] came to me and said, ‘What do you think about making a movie about Lennox?’ And so the first thing I started doing was writing scripts for like a regular movie or narrative movie. But it pretty quickly shifted into a documentary,” said Koch.
Lewis, like many boxers, came from a troublesome upbringing. Born in London to Jamaican immigrant parents, Lewis never really had a relationship with his dad and was pretty much orphaned from the age of seven to 12. Koch, who admittedly says he was not much of a boxing fan prior to working on the film, studied hours of fight footage and interviews. The moment that resonated with him early in the process was an incident shortly after Lewis reunited with his mother in Canada.
“There was one angle that struck me very early on. And it’s when Lennox got in trouble with law enforcement in Canada, when he was about 12 or 13,” Koch said. “And it just struck me that when he got in trouble with law enforcement [for fighting] in Canada, they were like, ‘Hey, why don’t you come down to the police gym and we’ll teach you how to box.’ You know, they didn’t treat him in a racist manner.”
With many social justice issues that surfaced in the states that year, for Koch, the moment was powerful. “He could have taken a different route, the police could have abused him…the interaction between law enforcement and young Black men has a huge effect,” said Koch.
Getting to know the guarded champ
Many may remember Lennox Lewis as somewhat of a cheeky British man and adversary to more popular American fighters like Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and George Foreman, but the mild-mannered boxing champion’s history is as compelling as any heavyweight fighter.
“Every time we got together with him, he got a little more comfortable and we could crack him open a little bit more. He’s a very tight-lipped person. He’s a very shelled person and that’s one of the things that makes this story so interesting because for most of his career, nobody knew much of anything about him,” Koch said.
After multiple visits and interviews, Koch slowly started shedding layers with the former international boxing star. “By the time I actually visited his home in Jamaica in 2017. You know, we were pretty good friends….He was very trusting. So he was very open and gave us a lot of access to his life, to his family, to his inner thoughts, and struggles and that sort of stuff.”
Meeting Mike Tyson
In 2018, Koch and Lazes landed an interview with Mike Tyson, who played a semi-significant role in Lewis’ career. Lewis and Tyson first met in Catskill, New York while training for the 1984 Olympics. Lewis outgrew the sparring talent in Canada and sought more intense competition, which brought him to the famed training grounds of legendary boxing trainer and manager Cus D’Amato.
“Tyson was a connoisseur of boxing. They would sit upstairs in Tyson’s room and watch old films of Ali and Frazier and, you know, all these old fights. And Tyson knew them all. He knew every move…and when they first got in the ring, he tried to take his head off,” said Koch.
Lewis didn’t back down though, after taking some punishment in their first sparring match, he studied the films of Muhammad Ali, and learned how to out-maneuver Tyson and keep his distance in the following practice bouts.
Koch also noticed a stark difference in the paths of the former heavyweight champions: “One of his [Lennox Lewis] strengths was that he surrounded himself with a group of people that he could trust, a group of people that would have his back. Unlike Mike Tyson, who just kept getting screwed, everybody was trying to like, you know, get as much as they could out of him as a commodity.”
The two were destined for greatness in boxing and it was well documented that Cus D’Amato proclaimed the two were going to be heavyweight legends.
Courting Dr. Dre
Choosing a narrator can be vital for documentary films; the tone and voice recognition can sometimes be the difference between a forgettable film and a project that lives on in the minds of viewers across the world. For Koch and Lazes, they spared no expense or effort in bringing on an iconic voice narrator, formally pitching everyone from Morgan Freeman to Snoop Dogg, and almost landing Jamie Foxx before going with Dr. Dre.
Luckily, Dr. Dre was a big fan of Lennox. Koch, Lazes, and Director of Photography (and Charlotte native) Ben Premeaux visited Dre’s home to record the narration. “I think the draw for Dre was meeting Lennox. So we used that to our advantage. And we ended up a couple days after the meeting, watching the movie and talking a little bit about some of the changes he thought should be made. We recorded the narration in his subterranean studio,” said Koch.
Shopping the documentary to festivals and streaming services
The process of pitching a film to streaming services can be an arduous task, as the industry still remains heavily guarded by agents. Prior to Covid-19, the idea was to hit the film festival circuit to gain buzz about the documentary.
“So we got into Tribeca [film festival], and that was a huge deal…The plan was to go and have sort of a big blowout premiere, and from there, use the Tribeca film market to try and negotiate a deal,” Koch said. “We actually wanted distribution in theaters for at least a short run so that we were eligible for the Oscars. And then from that, also negotiate a distribution deal for streaming and stuff.”
Lazes and Koch were also able to add famed producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff (The Irishman, Joker, The Wolf of Wall Street) to the team after a chance meeting at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival premiere of Bleed For This, a boxing film produced by Koskoff.
With a compelling subject, big-name narrator, and accomplished producers added to the project, the film received enough attention to be submitted to the Cannes international market where it was picked up by VMI Worldwide, an international film finance and production company, and they secured a deal with the streaming service Crackle for an online release.
What’s next for Koch and Lazes?
The filmmaking process can be grueling and, with recent news of many movie theater chains closing due to the pandemic, the future of the film industry is uncertain. While Koch and Lazes’ hopes for their first feature documentary film didn’t unfold as they originally envisioned, Koch remains optimistic and grateful for the opportunity. “It’s not only been a learning experience, but it’s really set our course. We’ve got probably four or five projects that we’re working on that are in the same kind of vein.”
With most of the reenactments from the Lennox Lewis doc shot in Charlotte, the duo remains committed to bringing much-needed film work and attention to the city. “Our goal is once we’ve got a couple of projects that we’d like to try and get financed, to do it here in the Charlotte area, in North Carolina, and use those film credits to pull the industry back.”
Watch the trailer for Lennox Lewis: The Untold Story now streaming on Crackle.