By Steve Coulter
Like any piece of artwork, documentary filmmaking is a process that requires a long-term commitment to subject and form.
Boxing shares a space on that headstrong plateau, where art and athletics collide, and a concoction of hyper dedication and repetition forges a mentality that shuns the mind and body’s inherent need for safety.
That’s why it was natural for director Brad Bores and boxer David “Dino” Wells to build trust with each other when they met back in February 2011 — a bond that spring-boarded the young filmmaker from simply tracking The Leather Warrior’s comeback attempt to producing his debut feature-length film, “When The Bell Rings.”
“When I started out, it wasn’t an all-out production at all — I had no plans to make it a full-length documentary,” said Bores, who had directed several, short independent films before his camera began following Wells around in April 2011. “I was really just interested in his return to the ring and exploring what it was like for him after being out of boxing for 15 years.
“As a kid growing up in the 90s, I was a fan of the sport when it was in its prime with Tyson and Holyfield, but then I lost interest,” he added. “I’ve always had an admiration and appreciation for the sport though — something about the solo athlete that has to take things on themselves has always appealed to me and I found that subject very enticing.”
Born and raised in Monroeville, Ohio, Bores stumbled upon a much larger story that would ultimately become the emotional backbone of “When the Bell Rings.”
As Wells began training to fight again, memories of his fatherless childhood haunted him and he set out a journey to regain the fractured relationship he had with his own son.
“As I became closer, he revealed more,” Bores explained, acknowledging that the scope of story expanded drastically after spending days on end in the gym shooting the same type footage.
“A majority of that training stuff didn’t get in but what it did was create a bond overtime between us that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” he added. “I knew he had kids but he expressed a real passion about them that I didn’t know existed beforehand.”
The big reveal catapulted Bores on a two-year journey that included moving away from Los Angeles, where he had worked as an assistant editor at Fancy Film Post Production, to Wells’ home city of New Orleans.
“I met Dino while he was training in LA but it was only after about three or four months that the mother of his children gave him the ability to speak to his son and once he got in contact with him, he wanted to be closer and I went with him,” the director said. “I packed everything into my truck and sold most of the stuff that was in my apartment.”
The opportunity to leave Hollywood was a blessing in disguise for Bores, who admitted that he was on the brink of moving back to the Midwest after five years on the West Coast.
A graduate of Bowling Green State University, he describes himself as a late bloomer to filmmaking.
“I studied fine arts and photography and didn’t know much about it,” he said. “I was working with cameras and composition, but video wasn’t incorporated at all until the middle of my senior year.
“The midwest isn’t exactly known for being a filmmaking hub, but I learned a lot watching movies and then working in any capacity I could after college,” he added. “I did some post production work and shot some short films.”
Always drawn to documentary filmmaking, Bores said his film style is cinéma vérité — a combination of improvisation and observation.
“I like documentaries because you can learn from all genres and take bits and pieces from each,” he explained.
He found as a documentarian, he was more productive away from the glamour of Hollywood.
“I found out I didn’t need to be out there,” he said. “And this film gave me that opportunity to move; to make me feel better about the decision to leave; to feel like I didn’t quit the industry.”
A Natural Ending
While Bores’ departure from Los Angeles was a conclusion of sorts, he still needed to find a satisfying ending for his subject-turned-friend.
In New Orleans, the filmmaker and boxer continued to work together as the comeback plot line took a spot on the back-burner.
“Our story really played out with an organic structure you see with most narratives,” Bores said. “It was pretty obvious when we hit that end point where we knew we needed to begin wrapping it up. “Sports will do that for you. There’s always that arc and this falls in line with that.”
However, When the Bell Rings can also separate from other films in the boxing-comeback cannon.
“It’s raw, it’s gritty, it’s emotional; it’s a visceral experience for the audience,” Bores said. “It’s sports and drama, but at the same time it transcends boxing.”
Shooting the film didn’t come without its setbacks and challenges though.
Most difficult for the young documentarian was filming the abuse that Wells took in the boxing ring while training.
“He has a very fearless mentality as a fighter,” Bores said. “He thought he was still a young fighter — he approached it as if he was still 20, but he had to learn how to be old fighter and, in filming that, I had to be objective behind the camera.”
Outside of the ring, each man learned a lot about his identity — one as a remerging father and the other as a blossoming documenter of those natural instincts.
“I didn’t want to interject with how he was handling his newfound role in his son’s life,” Bores said. “But that was a personal setback I suffered, because it did add a dramatic element to the film, but some of it was not for Dino.
“It was hard to balance in those moments being a filmmaker and being his friend,” he added. “I had to learn when to cross that line and when not to and that’s something I learned from this process that I’ll always have in future projects.”
Back in Ohio following the film’s premiere in November 2015, Bores has made a network of filmmakers who live in cities like Nashville, Chicago and Cincinnati.
He does some commercial filmmaking, like directing and producing reality TV shows, while traveling around the midwest and expanding his production company.
“You definitely feel like a bigger fish in a smaller pond, and that’s a perk in some sense,” he said. “Some enjoy it; some don’t, but I’m definitely more comfortable here.”
His main passion is filming small niche projects for nonprofits or small corporations. The reality stuff simply “fills the gap.”
When he set forth with a full-time production scheduled for When the Bell Rings, he knew he would be dedicating two to three years to the project.
He learned that type of commitment comes natural when a subject inspires.
“Sometimes, a filmmaker can be doing something for five to seven years without finding a natural climax or ending, like we had,” he said.
Thinking about documentaries that are “long-term endeavors” — longer than his own, Bores said it’s something that interests him.
“As I get older, I may be willing to go that route,” he said.
Ringing the Endorsement Bell
For now, he’s still working on getting his first film on the map.
The big fish in the pond that has yet to be reeled in is Netflix.
“That’s our top priority,” said Bores of his distributor Geoff Clark, who helped get the raw footage into the hands of former NBA player and All-Star Metta World Peace.
“Metta was a great fit for us,” Bores said of the film’s executive producer. “His dad was a boxer and he really connected with the project and gave it a great endorsement. It was more than just putting his name on a product for credit or for money, he wanted this story to have enough exposure so people could see it.”
In addition to the digital platforms, the film was screened at several film festivals last year, including ones in Louisiana, New Hampshire, Idaho, and New York City.
Like shooting with Wells, the festival circuit was a learning process that Bores will carry with him in the future.
“Festivals aren’t the end all and be all for a filmmaker,” he said, confidently. “I think a lot of people think that if a film is not picked up at a festival, then that’s its downfall, but that’s not true.
“Some festivals, the big known ones, can get you to distributors, but a lot of the smaller ones are really used to gain notches of momentum,” he added. “It’s hard to get into the big ones without having a previous connection, and that’s the Catch 22.”
Bores’ advice for anyone venturing into the world of feature-length documentaries is to be realistic about what it means to be successful.
For the young filmmaker from Ohio, that means accepting When the Bells Rings won’t receive a red carpet roll out, but it could one day impact a large viewing audience.
“If I’ve learned anything from this, it’s to keep going and don’t give up,” Bores said. “Don’t fold up the tent and call it done because there’s a lot of ebbs and flows and you just have to ride them all out to the end.”