- 01 Nov 18
Director Ross Whitaker discusses his new documentary about one of Ireland’s most successful and fascinating athletes, Olympic champion Katie Taylor.
In a way, Ross Whitaker was always going to be the director to chart the career of Katie Taylor. The Dubliner is not only one of Ireland’s most accomplished and prolific directors, with a palpable sense of empathy and intelligence running through his work, but he has also made several boxing-related films. He tackled the career of Bernard Dunne during the 2000s; directed When Ali Came To Ireland, looking back at the late icon’s 1972 fight at Croke Park; and his first film Saviours followed the fortunes of three fledgling fighters (it was also a favourite film of Katie Taylor’s).
Before we get into Taylor’s relationship with boxing, where did Whitaker’s own interest in the sport come from?
“One thing I noticed about boxing was that it always has tremendous stories behind it,” says the director. “As a filmmaker, what I always ask myself is ‘What’s at stake for the protagonist?’ And if you think of the people’s backgrounds, there’s a huge amount of pressure for people who box to succeed, because often they feel there aren’t a lot of other avenues for them. Then when you go into the ring, there’s a huge amount at stake. Obviously you can get hurt but also, if you lose a fight, your career can be over.”
In Katie Taylor, Whitaker found that sense of determination, bravery and sense of risk – and so much more.
“I didn’t know that girls weren’t allowed to box; that she had to disguise herself as a boy,” says Whitaker, shaking his head in awed approval. “She had to fight so much to just get in the ring. And it’s amazing that she kept going, because she had the mix of talent and determination not to be beaten that would have allowed to her be champion in any sport. But she stuck to the one sport that everyone told her she couldn’t do. It’s enthralling.”
Taylor was instrumental in campaigning for women to be allowed to box at the Olympics in 2012 – which meant that when she won a gold medal, it really was a dream come true. But when she returned to the Olympics in 2016, having recently become estranged from her father and coach Pete Taylor, and lost the first high-profile match of her career, it was devastating. The things that had come to define her identity – her supportive family and seemingly unstoppable winning streak – had crumbled away in fell swoop. It was at this dramatic low-point in Taylor’s career that Whitaker decided to make a film about her.
“It was a moment where her story moved from being interesting to really compelling,” Whitaker says. “It’s a shame that somebody’s victories can work against them, but from a dramatist’s point of view, an unbroken winning streak isn’t as interesting!”
But Whitaker’s film isn’t just about the boxer’s Rio loss – it also explores the personal transformation she goes through in the aftermath. Filming her over 18 months, the director observes her struggling to cope with the estrangement from her father, before she moves to America on her own, finds a new coach and decides to enter the world of professional boxing.
“In terms of cinematic themes, this is a comeback story – but it’s also a coming-of-age story,” says Whitaker. “She was truly gaining her independence, striking out on her own, growing as a human being – and all at the age of 30. That shows how much of a cocoon athletes can be in when they’re so dedicated to their sport, often to the detriment of other areas of their lives. But there’s so much people will see in her personal journey that they will be able to relate to.”
Nonetheless, there is the inescapable fact that Taylor is an incredibly shy, humble and introverted person. Though warm and kind, she’s not talkative and isn’t one to openly explain her thought processes or articulate her emotions. For a documentarian, is making a film about such a private person a daunting idea?
“It’s really scary!” admits Whitaker. “Katie is great fun and good company and when you’re in her presence, she genuinely has an aura. But as a director, you do wonder what you’ve got yourself into, filming with someone as quiet and introverted as she is. But I’ve always believed that character is not colour – you don’t have to be flamboyant to be an interesting character. It’s just harder to bring that to the surface. But I had to accept her as she is and approach the film not trying to do endless interviews and drag anything out of her, but to let the audience come to understand her by watching her, being with her. I wanted the film to be about showing, not telling.”
The film is personal and empathetic and shows Taylor in a way she hasn’t been seen before, and will undoubtedly be a must-see for many people – all except one, that is. Taylor herself hasn’t seen the film, and has no immediate plans to.
“It’s a funny one,” says Whitaker, “because you don’t feel like you’ve got the full seal of approval. Her family have seen it and have told her it’s a beautiful film. But she’s decided that this film is kind of like a time capsule for her. She’s living through these things right now, so she wants to hold off and watch it at a later date. I did think her curiosity would get the better of her! (laughs). But she likes to just be, and do, and act. She tries to live in the present. But yeah, I do want to know what she thinks, eventually!”
Katie is in cinemas now.