GREGORY ALLEN HOWARD
HOW ALI CHANGED

December 28, 2001, New York Times by Dave Kehr

There are now five names attached to the screenplay of Ali, the epic biographical film about the boxer Muhammad Ali directed by Michael Mann. But at the beginning, there was Gregory Allen Howard, whose screenplay for Remember the Titans, became one of the most successful sports films of all time.

"I was the original screenwriter,"" Mr. Howard said by phone from his Los Angeles office. "I was hired, let's see, six years ago now by Jon Peters and Mark Canton, who was then the chairman of Columbia, to be the first person to try to come up with a take on Muhammad Ali and try to get the majority of his life into a screenplay"

"In terms of the final product, I have story credit, and the others share on the screenplay. The final product is really an amalgam. We all contributed, and that's the main thing."

But Mr. Howard said: "My take on it was slightly different. I wrote a father-son story because I think his relationship to his father was the key to Ali's life. His father, Cassius Clay Sr., was a hipster -- he used to call himself that -- and he used to talk a lot of trash. A lot of what Ali is came from Cash. His father was a narcissist and ignored him and ignored his boxing. Ali had 108 amateur matches, and Cash didn't attend one of them. That created in Ali a burning need for daddies, and he sought father figures when he left the house. In the final movie, it's hinted at, but it's not as explicit as what I had."

It took a year, Mr. Howard said, just to pull the material together: "The obvious is known. What I was looking for was the unknown. Since I was the first one on the project, I was like a coal miner with a lantern, searching in the caves of the inner psyche of the most famous man on the planet."

Mr. Howard, who has a degree in American history from Princeton, said: "History is just something I absolutely love. I've sort of backed into a subspecialty in screenwriting. I'd actually written a couple of historical projects, one about the Negro Baseball League and specifically about Satchel Paige. That's what got me the Ali project. And I'm doing one now for Disney, a Civil War movie called Drummer Boy from the perspective of a group of 12-year-old drummer boys who get captured and have to find their way back home. It's sort of like Stand by Me set against the Civil War."

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