Filmmaker Q&A

In the Ring with the USA’s First Women’s Boxing Olympic Gold Medalist

July 27, 2016 by Craig Phillips in Interviews

Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper‘s film T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold tells the story of Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, who at the 2012 London Olympics became the first American woman to win a Gold medal in boxing. After a long, hard road coming out of Flint, Michigan, Shields entered Rio 2016 as the number one ranked woman in the world as she strives for another Gold. 

The filmmaking duo connected with producer Sue Jaye Johnson, who had been documenting Shields for several years, starting with “T-Rex’s” first elite boxing tournament, and spearheaded an unprecedented collaboration between The New York Times, NPR, and WNYC to document the first women to box in the Olympics. “Teen Contender,” that Peabody Award-winning radio documentary Johnson co-produced with Radio Diaries, followed Claressa’s journey to the Olympics. Canepari and Cooper, who’ve been working together since 2009 and were named to Filmmaker Magazine’s Top 25 New Filmmakers to Watch list, collaborated with Johnson and T-Rex was on its way.

Zack and Drea have been busy working on several projects (more on that below), but Johnson, who is an integral part of T-Rex getting made and distributed, answered collectively for the three of them. T-Rex was recently a New York Times Critic Pick: “You don’t have to be a boxing fan to be awed by Claressa Shields, the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the sport. But if you are, you’ll still be knocked out.”

When did you first become aware of Claressa’s story and what compelled you to want to follow her for awhile to make a movie about it?

Sue: Five years ago, I started boxing. There were so many lessons in the ring for me — about pulling punches and dealing with fear and pressure. I was curious what other women were getting out of hitting the heavy bags… and each other. 2012 was the first year women were allowed to box in the Olympic games so I started photographing and interviewing the women who were hoping to make history for The New York Times Magazine, WNYC, and NPR.

At the last Olympic qualifier, a quiet 16-year-old girl scored a TKO in the first round. She was so unrestrained — so dominant. It was Claressa’s first fight against adult women. No one had seen her box before. I teamed up with Radio Diaries [for “Teen Contender”] and we gave Claressa a recorder and mic to document her attempts to make the Olympic team. The stakes were so high. Here was this kid from Flint with an oversized dream and everything was against her. It was so clear that her story needed to be a film, too. But the Olympics were coming up fast and I’d never made a film before.

Enter Zack Canepari and Drea Cooper. They had been working on a series called California is a place. and they were making an MTV pilot about girl fighters. They met Claressa in Flint and recognized immediately how determined she was to rise above a very chaotic life in Flint. [Her coach] Jason [Crutchfield] knew we were all interested in making a film and he connected us.

It was an arranged marriage. We spoke on the phone, hammered out the details of how we would work together, and we met for the first time on the road filming Claressa’s international debut in Canada.  

We filmed for 18 months from Claressa’s 17th birthday through her high school graduation, and then some. In between, she had her first loss, won the gold medal, fell in love, split with Jason, and learned how to maintain her balance through it all.

Drea Cooper, Sue Jaye Johnson, and Zack Canepari (l-r)
Zack Canepari, Sue Jaye Johnson, and Drea Cooper

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

Like Claressa, we weren’t sure what was going to happen after the gold medal. When she got home from London, Claressa’s phone was ringing off the hook, but that didn’t lead to any big opportunities or support for Claressa and Jason. She’s the one who supports her younger brother and sister — and her mom. She’d been focused on London for so long, she didn’t know what came next. Should she go pro? Get a job? Go to college? Start a  family? And then Claressa and Jason went their separate ways. We kept shooting and realized the film would have a solid third act. Maybe a fourth and fifth act. Making a narrative structure out of that, where the Olympics happen two-thirds of the way through, that was a challenge. And then — wrapping up filming. There was always something dramatic going on in her life — and in Flint. We shot enough to have made a sequel.

How did you gain the trust of Claressa and Jason and the other people featured in T-Rex?

It made a mark on Jason that we were there early, that we immediately understood how exceptional Claressa’s was, how much was at stake and how hard they had worked to get where they were. And that we were committed for the long haul. They knew Claressa was going to make history and they wanted their story told.

And the process was valuable. For Jason, listening to those early interviews was the first time he heard Claressa open up about her life. He knew she was often hungry at home and unsupervised — she would call him up in the middle of the night for a meal and a place to sleep, but she was quiet and never talked about it. Not even on their 12-hour drives to tournaments. The microphone and cameras were permission to talk about difficult stuff.

Also, Jason and Claressa are real partners in this project. It is not a passive experience being documented 24/7 for nearly two years. We were all there with a job to do and everyone was working really hard. We all recognized that in each other. No one changed what they were saying or doing when the cameras were on. And we spent a lot of time together not filming, just hanging out.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

More [in] Flint. The weekend BBQ’s, Sunday church, the basement hair salons. We had all this great archival footage of Flint in its heyday. Flint pride is a real thing. When we were filming, there were all these scenes of Claressa in a basement hair salons surrounded by women who were giving her advice on everything — beauty, boys, family drama. When Claressa came back from London it felt like the whole city showed up at the airport to celebrate. There was an entire marching band! That community, that sense of place — that’s Flint in a nutshell. It’s the reason Zack and Drea are still in Flint doing follow up stories.

Flint, Michigan has of course been in the news recently for distressing reasons. You just touched on it a bit, but what do you think Claressa Shields means to the people of Flint now, both from her Olympics success and this film? Does she, and do you, find hope in that city’s future?

Everyone in Flint knows who Claressa is. There’s a huge billboard of her outside of the city limits. Berston Gym has gotten some funding and they’ve hired more coaches and taken in a new crop of kids. Claressa left Flint last year and moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Life at home in Flint was too unstable. She’s been looking for a place to relocate her family and she’s got her eye on Florida. She’ll get her little brother Peanut into school and Brianna a job at a hair salon. That’s the plan. She’s hoping that her success in Rio will help make that possible.

The water crisis is real and ongoing and the stress of living there is palpable. Claressa’s success is one way of keeping Flint in the news. And a reminder, hopefully, that there are many kids like her, with all that potential, but who need a lot of help to thrive.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

Claressa desperately wanted to take her family with her to the Olympics. Jason knows this is a terrible idea. Her mom struggles with addiction and has never once made the effort to see her fight. But Claressa is so loyal. And she thinks she can work it out if she can just get her mom and dad’s wife to get along in London. She takes them out to dinner at Applebee’s and she’s got her talking points written down in her journal. She’s got everything written down in that journal. When her Mom starts drinking and then gets into it with her dad’s wife, you can see it sink in;  she’s going to have to leave them behind if she wants to accomplish her dream.

Claressa and her coach Jason have had what you could call an up and down relationship and eventual falling out. As things got tenser as you filmed, did Jason want the filming to stop at any point? Along those lines has he seen the film?

Jason and Claressa don’t do things halfway. This was their story and they both wanted it told — the good and the bad. As Claressa says, no sugar coating.

Claressa and Jason’s estrangement was because she wanted to date her sparring partner, Rell, who was also one of Jason’s fighters. But it was about so much more than that. Claressa was 18. She’d seen the bigger world and she was ready to step out from under his protection. Jason wanted his fighter to comply. Claressa moved out and they didn’t speak for months, but they both came to the premiere at SXSW last year. They were sitting in the same aisle and when the first boxing match came on, Jason leaned over to Claressa and they started talking about her jab. When it comes to boxing, they forget that they aren’t talking.

Jason is proud of the film. He wants people to know how much he’s sacrificed to train the kids who show up at the gym every night at six. And how much he and his wife, Mickey, did to take care of Claressa.

These days, Claressa and Jason Skype and text regularly. Especially when she’s out of the country competing. Jason isn’t an Olympic coach so Claressa trains with USA Boxing’s coach. And she’s living full-time at the Olympic Training Center.

Do you think people are more accepting of the idea of female athletes than in the past?

It depends on what kind of athlete. As Claressa finds out after winning the gold medal, our society isn’t ready to embrace a woman who relishes her aggression the way she does.

It wasn’t until 1995 that women were even allowed to fight in the amateurs — and that was only because of a lawsuit. In the U.S., women pro boxers are not televised. Men get paid ten times what a woman gets to fight on the same card. Claressa aspires to break those glass ceilings. Not just for herself but for the sport. If she’s fighting on a pro card, she says she will insist that other women are on the card so it’s not a zero-sum game where there is only room for one successful woman.

Women’s’ boxing becoming an Olympic sport expands the margins of what is acceptable for women and girls around the world. At a time when women’s rights are being encroached upon, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, showcasing the stories of fierce women is hugely important. And inspiring.

Do you have any concerns about Claressa being at the Rio Olympics, given the political situation and infrastructure issues going on there?

There’s definitely potential for danger and unrest but the world, in general, is a hot mess right now so that is true of pretty much anywhere. Other cities have pulled off seemingly impossible feats — South Africa hosted the World Cup without incident, and it was a source of national pride. Let’s hope when it comes time for the athletes to perform that will be the prevailing sentiment.

There’s a whole other documentary to be made about the Olympic Industrial Complex — who benefits and who loses. It’s big business.

But it’s also a thing of beauty. We saw that when we were in London in 2012. For a few weeks, the world is paying attention to the potential of our humanity — we’re all for that.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

Drea skipped out on some diaper changing. He had two (!) children while we were making this film. Zack didn’t sleep much in his new house. He’s finally negotiated a monthly rate at the Holiday Inn Express in Flint. Sue put her burgeoning boxing career on hold — she still aspires to have a match someday, if Claressa will work her corner.

What other project(s) are you working on or planning on working on next?

Zack and Drea are both still working in Flint. Zack has a photo book coming out called Rex about Claressa and her sister Briana. The book is being published by Contrasto and will be released in the fall. Also, he is producing a web series called “Flint is a Place,” which features new material of both Claressa and Briana as well as other Flint stories. Drea and Zack are making their first VR [virtual reality] film as part of this series as well. The main project will be published around the same time that Claressa fights in the 2016 Olympics.

Zack and Drea are also working together on a project about the relationship between the police and community in Flint.

Sue did a follow up about Claressa for NPR [see below] and she’s working with RockGirl, which takes girls on road trips across South Africa to meet and document the lives of other girls.

What are your three favorite films?

Sue: When We Were Kings.

One of Drea’s favorite films is George Washington, directed by David Gordon Green.

Zack likes Bombay Beach by Alma Har’el. Also Fletch, with Chevy Chase.

Listen to NPR All Things Considered piece with Claressa Shields and Sue Jaye Johnson:

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.