Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In – How We Made It: 'You don’t want to make a celebrity film - honesty is what you want'

BT TV talks to the producers of the new documentary film about legendary football manager Sir Alex Ferguson, which is coming to cinemas and Amazon Prime Video in May.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 25 May 2021 - 4.54pm
Film

Sir Alex Ferguson

Documentary

“We didn’t want to make a football programme you’ve seen a million times… We wanted to make a single film and single story.”

Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In is a football documentary worthy of the most successful British manager of all time.

The Manchester United legend, his son Jason and some very close friends and relatives look back at Ferguson’s phenomenal career, the driving forces behind his success and his upbringing in Govan in an emotional, moving and powerful film.

Starting from Sir Alex’s life-threatening brain haemorrhage in 2018, the film finds the notoriously intimidating Scotsman in a reflective mood and in a position of vulnerability in his life.

Revealing, deeply personal and much more than a football story, Never Give In is a story about family, leadership, and the extraordinary power of memory.

BT TV caught with the film’s producers, Bafta Award-winner Andrew Macdonald (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) and Academy Award-winner John Battsek (One Day in September, Searching for Sugar Man) to find out more about the making of the documentary…

This was never going to be a Manchester United movie

Sir Alex Ferguson celebrating a Manchester United victory Amazon Prime Video

It was intended to be about a man, his family, his profession, and his vulnerabilities. We really wanted to feel what this guy had achieved but more importantly where had come from. We knew what he’d done at Manchester United, but we also wanted to make sure we looked at his life in Scotland and the times at Manchester United where things didn’t go well. All those sides of him that people don’t know so well.

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Getting Jason Ferguson to direct was crucial

Originally we met with a bunch of directors and Jason was a producer at that moment. Jason had spent a lot of tine making recordings with his dad because he thought it was something he should do from a legacy point of view.

We met with very talented directors, but with something like this you want to know you’re going to be able to get very deep inside the subject and get to subtext and intimacy. And it occurred to us that Jason was the best person and in the position to do that. He is very film literate and documentary literate. He took guidance from us on aspects of the production.

Fundamentally, it meant Alex was at his most relaxed and most open and willing to dig deep into his stories. Likewise with Alex’s other kids, his wife and his brother, there just wasn’t that wall another director would have needed to get around. It did feel to us that Jason had the best chance of getting to the heart of what Sir Alex is all about.

Why we avoided loads of talking heads

At one point we talked about just having him and nobody else. That’s what we wanted it to feel like. Like you were listening to a man talk about his whole life.

Honesty is what you want. You don’t want to make a celebrity film. Ancelotti comes on and says he’s great. Another manager comes on and says he’s great. All these players come on and say he’s great. We could have done that, but we wanted the film to feel honest. We needed the family to do that.

The sport documentaries that influenced us

Films like [Rumble in the Jungle documentary] When We Were Kings. That was pivotal in me ever wanting to make documentaries at all.

I always liked the BT Sport Film I Believe In Miracles. It’s the relaxed nature of the players. I always liked that and it’s such an incredible story.

The Michael Jordan series [The Last Dance] and the OJ Simpson documentary Made in America. It’s properly investigative.

Why Sir Alex Ferguson feels like the last of his generation

That West Coast of Scotland and Glasgow was a football city with such a rich history. He does something no other person in Britain could do today. He comes from this really, really, ordinary working class background and gets to the very top, not just of his profession but the whole of Britain’s social, class system. He gets knighted, he’s part of the establishment and that story is just remarkable.

How often does that happen anymore? Maybe some tech entrepreneur, but it doesn’t seem to impact people in the same way.

He signifies something very British, and obviously very fiercely proudly Scottish. He never lets go of that. He never lets go of where he came from and his roots, how proud he is of his father. He’s phenomenal. There are so few people out there like that in life.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s relationship with his father is the emotional core of the film

We didn’t know beforehand that they’d fallen out. When his playing career was faltering, he started going out too much, fell out with his dad and we knew nothing about that.

It’s poignant because we all understand that. We might not have fallen out with our dads, but we all know what father-son relationships and family relationships are like. And that story unifies Sir Alex with all of us. It’s the complications of personal relationships that we all have. It was amazing to hear him tell that. Because he felt so relaxed with us and Jason, he wasn’t trying to hide anything.

Why we focused on the theme of memory in the film

The first thing that strikes you when you meet Sir Alex is his memory. The first time I met him, he talked me through going to see a football match in 1953, the Coronation Cup between Tottenham and Hibs and he could name seven or eight of the Hibs team. That idea that he could lose his memory was front and centre of everything we did and that gives it such amazing vitality.

He said the other day, he’s been given three extra years since the collapse and everything has been a bonus. It makes him so much more human. Your allegiance as a football fan 15 years ago disappears. That’s what we always wanted to do as producers.

Who we would love to film next

Andre Agassi.

You want people who are multi-dimensional. They are complicated. There are strong aspects of the story you know and resonate with people. They are people who resonate even if you don’t give a damn about tennis or football.

In football, there is a great film to be made about Jose Mourinho. But there needs to be time and space. I’m not sure if we’ve ever really seen him be straightforward and honest in the media before, he’s a genius at playing it. And that is something we saw in Ferguson. He’d spent 40 years playing and dealing with the media. That’s what makes it so refreshing, that little gap and the passing of time.

The secret of a great sport documentary is…

We made Fire in Babylon about West Indian cricket. Most people probably don’t care about West Indian cricket but because of the nature of those men and that story it actually resonates ways beyond the West Indies and cricket fans.

There is a magical ingredient when you’re making these films and that’s finding the right subject that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

The least remarkable part of When We Were Kings is the fight, which is the greatest fight of all time. It’s the least remarkable part of that film because Muhammed Ali is the most extraordinary character who resonates on so many different levels about different things.

Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In is in UK cinemas from May 27 and on Amazon Prime Video from May 29.

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