The Story of Manny: Director Ryan Moore on his SXSW Documentary Debut

Ryan Moore’s documentary Manny, on boxing legend Manny Pacquiao, gets an auspicious premiere on March 8, 2014 at this weekend’s SXSW.

The first-time moviemaker spent years trying to get his documentary made, and finally succeeded with the help of what he calls “the invisible hand” (and a chance bathroom encounter with Mark Wahlberg).

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Manny is the untold story of Manny Pacquiao, one of the most celebrated boxers to ever enter the ring since Muhammad Ali. His life is the stuff fairy tales are made of, the true definition of a Cinderella-Man story. This documentary chronicles his early life growing up in the slums of the Philippines fighting to feed his family, to now carrying the hopes of a 100 million people on his back as he enters the ring. Manny provides an in-depth look into Manny’s life not only as a boxer, superstar, Congressman, and man of faith, but above all, a man.

My journey originally began when I convinced myself there had to be more to Manny’s life other than what was covered in the mini-series 24/7 on HBO. Don’t get me wrong, that TV show is extremely well done. Nothing gets me more hyped up before a fight, but as a Pacquiao fan, each episode left me wanting to know more about him, especially in his own words. I wanted to discover what drove him and what he felt was his underlying purpose for fighting.

So by a serendipitous turn of events, I got my wish. I met Manny at a charity event in Los Angeles shortly after he dominated Oscar De La Hoya in 2008. That encounter was the beginning of our relationship. After joining him to a few karaoke outings, I pitched Manny and his team a documentary concept (which he loved).

Manny was ready to begin filming, but the production team I partnered with at that time was unable to secure financing. I was back to the drawing board. After about a year of failed attempts with some networks and production teams, I hit a brick wall. So, I decided to just take it on as a personal mission and went for it. I reached out to friends and family for funding (I contacted hundreds) and that became the beginning of Manny. My mom, sister, cousin, best friend from college, friend from high school, cousin’s ex-boyfriend, and many others enabled my dream. Looking back it was a crazy proposition (first-time moviemaker in the riskiest genre to invest in), but somehow they understood the vision.

Soon enough I found myself in Manny’s world. It was close to the end of 2010 and unbeknownst to me, chasing after Manny all over the United States and the Philippines would become my new job (and title: Manny Chaser). Marathon doesn’t scratch the surface of what it felt like filming him. My goal was to create a visceral experience, and being attached to Manny’s hip is what it required. Thankfully, Manny was open to having me in close quarters around him and his family.

I’ll never forget the day Manny invited me over to his house and he had several large boxes full of private home videos in his bedroom. He admitted he had never watched any of the tapes and handed them over, “Take care of these, they are my only copies.” It felt like I was given a treasure chest. Manny’s repeated participation and genuine concern for this film elevated it immensely.

As I continued on filming, I was fortunate to gain the participation of numerous celebrities who were just as excited as Manny and I were about this film. I was a fan of The Fighter and I knew that Mark Wahlberg studied Manny for the making of that movie. After several attempts of reaching out to Mark, I just couldn’t get through. Then one day, I was at the Beverly Hills Hotel and I ran into him in the bathroom. That encounter could’ve gone incredibly wrong and awkward, but instead it secured me an interview. Shortly after, Mark continued to give additional interviews during his off time and even checked in every now and then while we were filming. My friends and I coined the term “the invisible hand,” which came to describe countless surreal situations that ultimately altered the course of the film for the better.

My original plan was to film less than a year but the story didn’t feel complete. Manny’s life had undergone a few transformations from 2010 to 2012, which led me to wrap production four separate times. To add another layer of amusement into the mix, one of the most challenging aspects of filming for so long is my crew kept changing. I’d fly out to Manila and would sometimes meet my cameraman for the first time on the day of the shoot. Unfortunately I couldn’t ask my DP’s and cameramen to free up their schedules for three years so whenever I had to film something immediately, it was always a toss up. I never knew who I was going to work with. Clean slate. The crew didn’t have any background of story, didn’t recognize the characters and what was going on. So I always had to be on my toes and made sure they were pointing the camera in the right direction. The U.S. crew didn’t know what the Filipino crew was shooting and vice versa. Filming went on and off for almost three years in and out of the boxing ring and in Manny’s Congressional office. By the time filming concluded, we had accumulated just over 1,200 hours of footage.

Then came the eventual edit of the mountain of footage. Thank God for the best pound for pound editor in the world, Lenny Mesina. As Lenny, Zaldy (our assistant editor) and I were quickly whittling away at footage, I realized that the film needed a narrator. My two top choices were Mark Wahlberg and Liam Neeson. Both had boxing credibility, but since I had a relationship with Mark, he was on board with performing the role. Unfortunately, at the twilight hour, schedule conflicts kept him unavailable. I didn’t know Liam personally, butI knew he’d spent his early years as an amateur boxer in Ireland (he too is a Pacquiao fan).

As luck would have it, I cold-called Liam’s agent and was turned down. Eight films were tying up Liam’s schedule so he too didn’t have time for a “passion project.” So at that moment, for some odd reason, I decided to write Liam a note and requested his agent hand it to him on set. His agent obliged, although I didn’t really believe he would bother with the trouble, and in a few days I received a call. Liam read the letter and agreed to narrate Manny. A few months later I was in New York directing Liam Neeson in a recording booth on my first film. Talk about surreal!

When I was making shorts as a child my dad (a songwriter) performed the scores on his piano. Those experiences of coming up with musical themes to my shorts were always fond memories. I knew that for Manny I wanted the final creative collaboration to be as magical as the rest of the process before it. Though I spoke with almost a dozen composers, I had my mind set on working with Hans Zimmer’s team, though I hadn’t met any of them. 18 months of waiting and convincing later, I was connected to Lorne Balfe (Inception, Sherlock Holmes, Iron Man, The Dark Knight) through my DP. Lorne viewed the film and immediately signed on. Lorne understood that our goal wasn’t to make this sound like any other boxing film that preceded it, so he created themes that illustrated Manny’s story of hardship and triumph. The score was so crucial to maintain a careful balance between the action and the human story.

Thanks to a dear friend Tristan, I was sold on the idea that this documentary needed a soundtrack inspired by Manny Pacquiao’s life. I called in some favors from personal friends of mine including Far East Movement, Apl.De.Ap of the Black Eyed Peas, and Cameron Rafati to work with Chad Hugo of the production duo The Neptunes. Together with his team Yardnoise, they produced original songs for a Manny soundtrack. Other musician collaborations include Randy Jackson playing bass on “Manny’s Theme”, Mark Foster of Foster the People, and Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun. Now the film felt complete.

I specifically chose the title Manny because by the end of the film, I want people to feel like they know him as just Manny. Not Congressman Pacquiao, not the People’s Champion, not the boxer with 10 world titles, but the guy who you could be on a first name basis with because you feel him. Be it a boxing legend, icon, politician, religious leader, or father, I ultimately want Pacquiao to be known as Manny, the man. MM

Manny premieres Saturday, March 8, at SXSW. Click here for more information on the film.

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Top picture courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

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