Monday, April 3, 2023

Reverend's Interview: Throwing a Punch with Filmmaker Welby Ings

Sports and gay-themed movies have rarely gone hand in hand. This seems especially true when it comes to boxing. That’s about to change, though, with the release of Punch. Currently playing in select theaters and available to stream on demand, it will be released April 11th on DVD.

Set in New Zealand, the film focuses on a promising teen-aged boxer named Jim (played by newcomer Jordan Oosterhof). He is training under the watch of his demanding and alcoholic father, Stan (Academy Award nominee Tim Roth). When Jim develops an intimate relationship with a male classmate, Whetu (Conan Hayes of Netflix’s Sweet Tooth), the pair are forced to navigate isolation, homophobia and the brutality of small-town life.

Punch is a powerful story, beautifully written and directed by Welby Ings. Although it marks his feature film debut, Ings is an impressive, multi-talented man. He has been actively involved in the pursuit and protection of gay rights in New Zealand since coming out when he was 20. During the 1980’s, he was arrested several times while campaigning for homosexual law reforms, and he worked on amendments to the nation’s human rights provisions of the 1990’s. Ings was fired more than once for being an out gay man, and was beaten up on several occasions.

Today, he is an award-winning designer, filmmaker and author who holds a PhD in narrative design. His previous short films Boy, Munted and Sparrow were selected in competition at over 80 international film festivals. Dr. Ings is also a Professor in Design at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. He has been awarded the Prime Minister’s Supreme Award for University Teaching Excellence, as well as medals for his contributions to research and education.

Of note, Ings was illiterate until the age of 15. Although he now supervises doctoral candidates from around the world, he continues to use drawings as a vital means of creative thinking. A reference to this is in the opening and closing sequences of Punch that appear as a drawing on water-stained paper.

Punch was in development for many years. Ings fought hard to bring it to life as a commitment to his late partner, who grew up in a small-town boxing family. Also serving as inspiration were the experiences of two gay boxers known to Ings, as well as a number of takatāpui tane (gay Māori men) with whom he currently works.

It was a true privilege to meet and interview Ings via Zoom recently:

CC: I understand Punch was inspired by your late partner, and I am sorry to hear about his loss. How closely does the film resemble his story?
WI: The relationship between the father and the son, that’s Kevin. Kevin’s dad was a boxing coach and he wanted all his sons to be great boxers. Kevin was talented and his father was driven. He was not a bad man and Kevin’s dad was not alcoholic, but in the end Kevin walked away from boxing and he took up athletics. He held the national title in the triple jump and he used to train running up and down the sand dunes where we shot the movie. I’ve never told anyone this. (Pause) That actually happened; it’s where we used to go train. It’s such a beautiful, wild place.

At the end, when Kevin died of AIDS (in 1997), he didn’t want his father to know he was dying but his father came to see him in the hospice. He couldn’t touch him and I just thought, “There’s got to be a better way.”

CC: Oh, wow. That’s so sad.
WI: Yeah. You know, many of us have relationships with our dads that are fraught. I really tried to think, with the film, about love and masculinity. I always think our relationships with our dads and with other men — beyond sexuality — are really, really complex. They warrant complex stories and complex characters.

CC: When you actually decided “I’m going to write a screenplay” or “I’m going to make a movie,” did that happen relatively quickly or did you write it over years?
WI: It took 15 years, mate! (Laughs) And I actually don’t write a screenplay. I draw the film first. I did hundreds of drawings. I go out to the places where I want to film and, while I’m drawing them, I can hear the fictional characters — little flickers of dialogue or what they’re thinking — and I write those into the drawing. Then I come back and I cover the walls of my house with those drawings. I move them around and take some off while others get added on. It’s not a storyboard but I’ve learned to think through images, and I construct stories through hundreds and hundreds of drawings.

But that wasn’t what took 15 years. The 15 years was trying to get funding when nobody wants to see a gay story about boxing. And I said, “It’s not a gay story about boxing, it’s a story about love between men.” It wasn’t conforming to the comfortable narrative that everything’s rosy for LGBTQ people, where everybody lives in the city and its all sequined suits and Pride parades. Actually, you try being non-binary or trans in a small town, or you try coming out as gay in a hyper-masculine sporting world. So it was pushing uphill (trying to get funding) against kind of a sanctioned narrative.

CC: I read a review that referred to Punch as “Rocky meets Brokeback Mountain.” Do you think that’s accurate or is it too simplistic?
WI: (Laughing) Oh no, I hadn’t heard that! Oh well, I know everybody seeing a film has got their own reading. No, I think (Punch) is a very tender story but not soft. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen depicted — and I really wanted to do this — to actually illustrate what queer bashing was as a sexual assault. And the fact that we fight back! We’re not weak but we’re outnumbered. I think (Punch) is a tough story told with great beauty and a high level of humanity, and it talks about the complex nature of love between men.

CC: I agree completely. I thought Jordan and Conan gave excellent performances for a couple of young actors. How did you find them or go about casting them?
WI: Weren’t they wonderful, mate? It was for both of them their first feature film. With Jordan, it took about two years and I sat in on every audition. He was already a soccer player and a soccer coach, and he had to go into training for two years for that film. There’s no doubles in the film; it’s all him. He was fight-ready by the time we shot it. There were lots of people who auditioned but they didn’t have the commitment to training, because the film focuses more on his training than on the fight. So I needed somebody who was comfortable in their body and proud of their physicality, who could run through the sand dunes and leap into the air, while being at their peak fitness.

Conan took about five years to find. Lots of people auditioned for (Whetu) but when they saw what the screenplay actually was they backed out. For some young men, there’s still the anxiety that if they take (the role of) a queer character they might be typecast forever. Although I wrote Whetu as the strongest man in the film, he is quite non-binary in the way he looks but he doesn’t give a fuck. He is not defined by other people’s ideas of gender.

CC: Yeah, I love how confident Whetu’s character is and how confident both actors are. To hear it’s their first feature is just amazing.
WI: You know, on the last day we were shooting in the little hut out near the beach. It had been an intense six weeks and we shot it right in the middle of COVID, so we were really running in front of the wind with it. New Zealand was in lockdown and there were also the bush fires going on at the time. Anyway, we wrapped and the two boys walked out of the room and both burst into tears. That’s how intense it had been but it was also lovely. I always think that a set has got to be a joy to work on but it’s really hard work.

CC: Did you start out to be a designer or did you start out to be a filmmaker? I know you’re a teacher as well, a professor. I think your multiple skill set is very impressive, but where did it begin for you?
WI: Well, I got expelled from school but that was for feeling a guy up in the back of my German class. (Laughs) I really wanted to go to art school, but my family was very rural and it was a two hour bus drive to get into school each day. So I trained to be a teacher and I loved it. I love helping people get to a horizon beyond the one they can see.

CC: Is there anything else you would like my readers to know about Punch?
WI: It sits in the context of recent films like Moonlight, where sexuality and bullying in a coming-of-age narrative are used to explore the vulnerability and beauty of the human condition. When Whetu and Jim show us that they are free — that they have become strong and sensitive but separate men — our struggles with them and our hopes for them reach an unpredicted kind of triumph.

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.