I was glad to
have interviewed doc directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin –
whose film Undefeated cleared nearly all the award hurdles
and got into that rarefied place of being a Best Documentary Feature
nominee – before viewing this year's Super Bowl. Talking with them
made me appreciate the New York Giants' win even more than expected
because I had a fresh understanding of all the barriers to success a
player overcomes to get to such big leagues.
documents one almost-championship season of a really
bottom-the-barrel high school football team from
wrong-side-of-the-tracks, inner-city West Memphis, Tennessee.
underfunded, underprivileged Manassas Tigers – they had been hired
out as a practice team for more successful, affluent schools –
reverse their fortunes thanks to a relatively new coach, Bill
Courtney, who, in 2004, came on board and applied what he learned as
a former player and salesman to transform wild kids into a team.
The team – and
particularly three spotlighted members – goes through trials and
tribulations as they break their 110 year losing streak and head to
tells of young men who dare to dream dreams that might surprisingly
come true. Just like these two relative newcomers who, in getting
this Oscar nom, now have real insight into what it takes to achieve
the unexpected – as this exclusive interview demonstrates.
Steve James in his classic sports doc
years to capture those dramatic moments. Who had the crystal ball
that led you to capture these intense moments even though you had no
idea they were going to happen?
Seth [Gordon], our producer. I’m kidding. I don’t think we ever
could have imagined… we just captured lightning in a bottle. That’s
all any great documentary is. There has to be an element of luck and
have things work out in a certain way. I don’t think we could have
predicted how it turned out. We always wanted to make a
coming-of-age film, but we also wanted to make a sports film. Plus
we wanted to address the education system and how it’s failing these
young students. But we were able to speak a lot about these social
issues by making this a stronger, intimate character piece that
hopefully inspires conversation about class, education and race. We
definitely went over a worn path with a story about high school
football. Even if they had lost all their games, we would have
filmed it anyway. It would just be a different film.
In Hoop Dreams, it was about catching up with the guys and
spending huge moments of time with them. We embedded ourselves with
them and spent every day of nine months with them. Not the same
thing, but there’s an intensity in different ways. We got really
lucky. But from the beginning, the approach never changed.
One thing we did knew from the beginning was that we didn’t want to
span the course of years. We wanted to capture a special moment in
time in adolescence where there are so many possibilities. We can
either see those possibilities begin to take shape, or the realities
of those possibilities set in. We wanted to film this intimate
coming of age story in a way that we would be able to get these
personal moments. Because of the way technology has progressed, we
can do that. We could shoot for hours and hours. But we used that to
our advantage in getting the players so used to us being there that
we were just the flies on the wall. They were able to go on with
their lives as they normally would and we were able to capture these
really intimate moments.
We expected little emotional swells here and there, but I don’t
think we expected it to be this big.
How did you
two work together?
We shot and edited everything.
Together. Sometimes we would go off and follow other characters, but
we edit in the same room right next to each other. I’m sure the
people that shared the space next to us thought we were fighting.
We had really heated conversations.
Other people don’t realize that’s how we work through points some
times. But for us, we’re not upset with each other; we just get very
heated and passionate. I remember one time we were so frustrated and
we just couldn’t get the first act together and we had a bit of a
dust-up. And I walk out and I came back in and I’m like, "Man, I’m
so sorry. I just wanted to make the best movie ever."
How did you
narrow it down to the players you covered?
Money [Montrail Brown] and OC [Brown] were the first characters we
you have focused more on OC?
The initial interest was doing a movie about OC until Rich Middlemas,
our producer, found this article about the Tigers. We still wanted
to make a coming-of-age film about OC. Then we met Bill, and then
Money, and it kind of mushroomed from there.
The first thing we ever shot with Money – and this was before we
moved there; we were just looking around – we went over to his
house, put a mic on him, and said "Show me around your house." So he
shows me this corner and says "These are my pet turtles." I said,
"Why turtles?" And what came out of his mouth is in the movie. I was
in Memphis, and sent the footage back to TJ, because he was cutting
presentation reels and trying to raise money. I said, "Watch this,
it’s amazing." Our friends were like, "You told him to say that."
And I said, "No, I swear!" So even from the first few moments, there
was something special here. Then Chavis [Daniels] became a character
because of the way he was affecting the team. There were one or two
other guys we followed a bit at first, and one that was actually in
the first, six-hour cut of the film. But it felt like it deviated
too much to the side.
He was probably the hardest to let go, though.
His name is Joaquin Kahns, and he had lived in 16 or 17 foster homes
in four years. He turned 18 at the beginning of the season and the
foster system kicked him out, so he was homeless. I hate to think of
it so clinically, because it breaks your heart. [However,] his story
slowed down the film because he was not as much a part of the team
as the other guys. We spent a huge amount of time with the rest of
the team, even when we knew they weren’t necessarily [going to] be
in the rest of the film. It was important for us for our process and
to get to know them. For guys that are 16 or 17 years old that want
attention, we didn’t want our presence to have a negative effect on
the team. If they saw us focusing on OC, Chavis and Money, that
might build resentment. So we did interviews with every other
player, even though we knew it wouldn’t wind up in the film, but it
was about giving them all their chance to get followed around and
say the toughest parts were what to do with the girlfriends and with
Girlfriends, especially. This is a time in their lives where there’s
no reason to exploit… if somebody was following the drama of my high
school relationship, ultimately it’s kind of provocative for
Ultimately if they weren’t affecting the story, I’d see no reason
for it. But with the parents, it’s an issue of sensibilities and
it’s hard to get ahold of them.
Money’s grandma refused to be on. And it wasn’t because she didn’t
Some of the parents were maybe a little more cognizant of what was
happening. The approach we had is that we wanted to tell the kid’s
story and have it be from their perspective. There were times when
we would interview the parents, and we had some footage, but it
doesn’t lend itself to the greater narrative. That was the big thing
with this film. From day one, we wanted it to feel like a scripted
film. We wanted you to get swept away on this journey.
is surprising how many of the player’s parents were criminals or had
been in jail.
North Memphis was once voted – by Forbes Magazine, I
believe – the most violent neighborhood in America.
Most violent crimes per capita.
I don’t know if that’s particularly unique to African-American males
in this country. I don’t think it’s unique to North Memphis but
that’s a huge political discussion to get into.
Is that why
you put in the local journalist, to add a narrative voice?
We needed someone to set the stage. We wanted to capture a moment in
time, so we only wanted to give you the elements you needed to make
sense of what you were about to watch, because it was just about
that season. Jason ended up being very beneficial in that he gave
the viewer context for what they were viewing. The funny thing about
him is that he did an interview after the nomination came out on the
local Memphis news. His dad is in Paradise Lost as one of the
newscasters in Memphis, so they had them both on TV talking about
their experiences. He thought we were some college kids doing a
project and didn’t think anything would come from this with our
racial tension say between the white coaches and the kids or the
That’s something we were very conscious of.
We didn’t want to make this a white knight story. That’s another
thing that I think is a misconception, too: people would assume a
white coach "saves" black kids. There’s a reason we don’t discuss
race. At first, that was a really interesting dynamic to us. But
once we got there, we realized it was a non-issue and that there was
no reason to discuss it. But at the same time, it’s not like we were
[ignoring it]. The same goes for class issues. We set the stage and
hope that it elicits a greater discussion, but our job is to show a
human interest story, a character study of sorts. We were very
conscious of the prevalence of white knight stories in Hollywood,
and that’s something that turns us off. But once we saw Bill and his
genuineness, we realized that that’s not what this was. We just
presented the story, and it just happens that he’s white and that
this is an all African-American school. I do think there's valid
criticism on why these films are made. I’m sure there is a volunteer
coach that is African-American and at an African-American school
doing similar things to Bill. We just came upon the story because of
interesting than the race angle is that we have a fatherless coach
becoming a father figure to fatherless players.
That was one of the early things Bill said when we were filming.
Bill was microphoned – and I don’t even know if he knew he was – and
he was talking to some people at the school. He said, "Well, my own
father left me when I was four years old." Later, TJ and I were
talking and we realized [by then] Bill’s a real person, he’s not
just a rah-rah football coach, he has a past that means something.
Suddenly, this is a bigger story than we thought. There are moments
with Bill that aren’t in the film, where he’s talking to a player,
and it’s like he’s special; he’s unlike any coach I have ever seen
years were you covering Bill?
Just his last season.
We were there for a total of nine months.
end he had to leave so he could spend time with his family.
That was something we did not know going into the film. People think
we knew that this was going to be his last season, but he revealed
that to us. We always thought we were just going to get this one
little season and life would go on, but it was more like the end of
an era. The principal at the school got let go that following year
because the state came in and removed half the staff and changed it
to a charter school.
staying in touch?
I talk to Chavis and Money. Bill calls me at least once a day. I
keep up with OC on Facebook, but he’s really busy with football.
He’s having problems understanding blocking schemes and such, but
he’s doing really well in school. Chavis is in college playing
football. He is unbelievable. He is the smartest of all those kids
and he has all this energy. He’s a really, really bright kid. He
couldn’t speak as fast as his brain was working. I talked to him the
other [day]. His maturity has caught up to his intelligence. So I’m
talking to him and wondering, "Am I talking to the same guy?"
Money’s well. He went for his first year and now he’s back in
Memphis. He’s living with coach Ray, the same coach OC lived with,
and then he’s going to go back to school. He just had trouble
adjusting, I think. Part of it is that he’s not on the football
team, and he was the manager of the team, and seeing OC, I think
that was hard for him.
do a TV series where you revisit these kids. Anyone ever tell you
No, you’re the first, actually.
excited about the Oscars?
Would it be weird if I said no?
the nomination change your thinking on your next project?
I don’t think it will change much. Generally speaking, we’re pretty
specific with the projects we take on.
If Rich sent us this article to us now, and it was just about the
football team, I could see us going, “Eeehhhh.” There is a bit of
pressure on us to find something that has the potential to be… or
maybe not. I don’t think the Oscar nomination has anything to do
with that. That’s our own pressures.
Who will be
styling you two?
We don’t know. I have a friend that’s a stylist and she was like,
"Well, maybe Brooks Brothers."
us Let us know what you