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The directors of “Undefeated” tackle high school football

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“You keep doing the right thing. And good things will happen to you.”

Those are the words of high school football coach Bill Courtney to his team, the Manassas Tigers. Based on the incredible power of “Undefeated,” the film about Courtney and the Tigers, one has to assume that its directors, Dan Lindsay, and T.J. Martin, have been doing the right thing for a loooooong time. The film premiered at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, where it was quickly scooped up for distribution by The Weinstein Company. Now it’s nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary before it even opens in theaters this Friday.

The documentary category at the Oscars is always fraught with controversy. This year’s nominations have been particularly contentious thanks to snubs of terrific films like “The Interrupters,” “Senna,” and “Project Nim.” Regardless, “Undefeated” is a worthy Oscar nominee. The film, which bears obvious similarities to the television show “Friday Night Lights,” packs as strong an emotional wallop as any of the series’ best episodes.

Manassass High is located in North Memphis, Tennessee, one of the most economically depressed parts of the country. Its students are not only playing for pride, some of them are quite literally fighting for their future, like star offensive lineman O.C. Brown, whose unique physical abilities could land him a college scholarship if he could only get his grades up. His teammate Montrail, a.k.a Money, has the opposite problem: he’s an exceptional student, but he’s too small to play college ball and probably too poor to afford a good school any other way. And then there’s Chavis, a player who missed all of last season after he was sentenced to a term in a youth detention facility because of anger management issues.

These guys might sound more like the Bad News Bears than the Chicago Bears, but Courtney’s positive influence on these young men and their community over the course of a single remarkable season is nothing short of inspiring. Not to get too schmaltzy about it, but the world portrayed in “Undefeated” — where good deeds are rewarded in kind — is the world we all want to live in. And to know that this is a documentary, which means this is the world we actually live in, makes your heart soar.

During our conversation, Lindsay, Martin and I talked about how the project developed, why they chose to focus on O.C., Money, and Chavis instead of the traditional subject of football stories (i.e. the quarterback), and whether they ever received one of their own motivational Bill Courtney pep talks.

I’ve read that your original plan was to make a film specifically about O.C. Brown. How far into the process did you decide to widen the film’s scope and what spurred the decision?

Dan Lindsay: It happened after our first trip to Memphis to look into the idea. On that trip we met Bill Courtney, and his dynamic personality convinced us right away that he would be a part of the film. And then when he told us the stories of the previous five years and the amazing anecdotes of things that had happened in the past, we realized that really was the story: the team trying to break [Manassas’ 100-plus year] playoff jinx. That seemed like the perfect setup for a beginning, middle, and an end.

T.J. Martin: It opened up in scale after meeting Bill, but the approach of the film never changed even as it grew. From day one, we knew we wanted to make something more vérité. We were much more interested in things unfolding in front of the camera and less anecdotally.

We fought making a traditional sports film for a long time. The season gave us a nice spine, but we still thought a lot of the film would take place off of the field. Then we realized that it was undeniable how much drama was taking place on the field, and on the practice field, and so forth. About three games in, we realized if we were going to make a sports film we better make the best damn sports film there is.

It’s a damn good sports film, but it may be the only football movie I’ve ever seen where not only are the quarterback and the running back not the main characters, they don’t even have speaking roles. Was that a deliberate choice or was that simply how the finished film evolved in the editing room?

DL: That was our own stupidity, not a deliberate choice. [laughs] No, but it is funny; about halfway through the season we were like, “Oh man, we should probably be talking to the guys who are scoring all the touchdowns.”

[laughs]

DL: But it was always about the characters. We set out to make a documentary that would make you forget you were watching a documentary. We needed characters who had potential for a dramatic arc. They wanted something, and either they were going to get it or they weren’t. That was our focus. We did realize that people were probably going to be interested in who this great quarterback is. But it was never our intention to make a rah-rah football film, so those guys never seemed as important to us.

TJM: For lack of a better term, the way we “cast” our characters, besides trying to find whoever had the most potential for dramatic change within a short amount of time, was to pick people who were going to interact with each other and with the team. We did follow a couple of other storylines that were extremely compelling, but they didn’t make the final edit because we didn’t want to make a series of vignettes. We wanted it to be a really tight narrative where every scene propels the story forward.

Your subjects are so incredibly comfortable on camera. I’m sure a lot of that had to do with the way you guys built a relationship between you and then team. But watching how remarkably relaxed — and how incredibly open and honest — these young men are on camera, made me think about the world of YouTube videos and camera phones. Teens today think it’s totally normal to have a camera pointed at them. Do you think you guys benefitted from that?

DL: I don’t think we ever really thought about that. For us, the approach was to build a relationship. But I will say one of the reasons we got excited about the film after that first trip to Memphis was we were getting that kind of honesty right away. I can’t say what to attribute that to. Honestly, I think part of it is some of these guys were just happy to be able to express themselves and tell their stories. I know Money especially doesn’t really have a lot of people in his life who are asking him those kind of questions about his hopes and fears and stuff. I think our interest alone helped us.

Our age really benefited us, too. We’re both in our early 30s, so we weren’t unbelievably far removed from high school. We were able to relate to the kids in that way but we weren’t too far removed from the coaches either. It put us in this spot where we could relate to both the coaches and the students.

When a character like Money is going through hard times, how hard is it to just stand there with a camera and not go over and give the poor guy a hug?

TJM: It’s extremely difficult. In vérité documentaries, you’re really watching the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject. We didn’t want to be “objective” or not grow close to the subjects; we wanted an intimate film, so we did develop a pretty close relationship with our subjects. To watch them struggle with certain things in their lives, to watch them go through obstacles, and to know that in your own opinion they might be making the wrong decision, was extremely difficult. At the same time, that’s not our judgment call, and we always needed to remind ourselves of that.

With that said, Money went through some really tough times while we were there, including a lot of stuff that’s not even in the film. There were definitely times where we’d take him out to lunch, without the cameras, and give him an opportunity to vent and kind of figure out where his head was at. And that’s an opportunity to remind him that we care about his well-being.

DL: To answer your question directly, there are also times where you do give the guy a hug. We understand the line between filmmaker and subject, and we respect that, but at the same time it’s impossible not to get close with these guys, and sometimes it just happens. After [a crucial game], I was following Bill and he broke down, and I was like “None of this is necessary.” I put down the camera and we talked and I gave the guy a hug. You can’t help that. Or if you can help it, I think you end up with a very — I don’t mean this to be judgmental or anything — but a very sterile film. As an audience member, you can feel when a filmmaker is removed to that extent.

I spent part of my vacation in Memphis last summer, and I was unprepared for how hard the recession had hit the area. How familiar were you guys with Memphis and its problems before you started the film?

TJM: I personally didn’t know much about Memphis before going there. We did as much research as possible in advance, but we kind of had the same experience: when we got to North Memphis, we felt a stronger and more urgent need to tell this story. Dan and I have done a fair amount of traveling, and neither of us had seen poverty on that level in this country before. We never set out to make issues-based films; we always wanted to make more of a human interest piece. But the one thing that is pretty rare to find in communities like this is a film that celebrates the potential, the opportunities, and the good along with the bad. A lot of times in these communities, specifically communities like North Memphis, if there’s a media presence, they’re there to sensationalize a story about violence in the neighborhood or something like that. And we saw this more as an opportunity to celebrate the stories of the people who live in these communities.

As we see over and over in the film, Bill Courtney is a master of the halftime pep talk. Did you ever find yourselves on the receiving end of one of his pep talks?

TJM: [laughs] Definitely. In postproduction, we found ourselves on the receiving end of those pep talks ever day. And little does he know that’s what got us through nine months of post-production: listening to these amazing speeches by Bill. That actually gave us hope to go into the editing room each day when we were only 25 hours into a 500 hour logging session.

DL: We both still talk to Bill all the time. He always wants to know about everything going on in my life and he totally does it to us. [laughs] “Dan, you gotta embrace this moment!” Every once in a while I find myself getting kind of worked up when he’s talking to me. It’s an ongoing pep talk from him to me.

“Undefeated” opens in limited release this Friday. If you see it, let us know what you think on Facebook and Twitter.

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Mr. Roboto

5 Reasons Rocky IV Is Too Rotten to Miss

Catch Rocky IV Friday at 8P during IFC's Rotten Fridays.

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Photo Credit: MGM/UA/YouTube

When Rocky IV was released in 1985, the critics were not kind. (While it wasn’t around back then, the film’s 39% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes speaks for itself.) Less of a movie than a jingoistic music video starring a robot and a steroid-addled, monosyllabic Russian baddie, Rocky IV is a far cry from the Italian Stallion’s humble origins.

Still, more than any movie ever made, it exemplifies the whole “so bad its good” genre. This movie was made for us, the great-unwashed masses of the 1980s, who loved the band Survivor and hated those Commie bastards. Before you catch Rocky IV on IFC’s Rotten Fridays, let’s take a look at some moments that make this flick a “too rotten to miss” classic.

5. That Opening Shot

Rocky IV
United Artists

It takes all of 30 seconds for the audience to know they’re in for one ridiculous rollercoaster ride through a Cold War conniption fit of good vs. evil. Gone is the subtle tone and grounded reality of the first Rocky. In its place we see two gloves, one emblazoned with the American flag, the other with the Soviets’, hurtling toward each other. When they collide, sparks fly, and we witness an explosion decades in the making.

In case the symbolism is too subtle for you, director/writer/star Sylvester Stallone is trying to hint that this movie will be the clash of civilizations we’d all been waiting for, but instead of nuclear bombs, a humble palooka from the streets would be duking it out in the ring with the ultimate representation of coldhearted Communism. If it were up to us, this opening shot would’ve won Best Picture all by itself.


4. So Many Montages

Rocky IV has a running time of 91 minutes and 20 seconds. Its eight montages (yes, EIGHT) run a total of 29 minutes and 10 seconds. That is one third of the movie solely dedicated to montages. (Considering Stallone’s contempt for all things Soviet, we have to wonder if he knows it was a dirty Ruskie who invented the montage.)

During one of the many, many montages, director Stallone actually flashes back to a scene that had happened a minute and half prior, creating the impression that he might actually flashback to the montage we were just watching in the same montage. Stallone clearly loves a good montage set to an inspirational ’80s song, and so do we. Which brings us to…


3. A Soundtrack Full of Pumped Up ’80s Jams

Speaking of montages, they are set to the score of some of the cheesiest hits from the mid-’80s. For once, we’re spared tracks from Frank Stallone, with Stallone replacing his rocker brother with synth-y singles from Survivor, John Cafferty and Kenny Loggins. And of course, Robert Tepper, possessor of an ’80s mullet that could topple empires, crooning “No Easy Way Out.” The music in this movie is one step away from being a parody of the music in this movie. If you ever want to know what cocaine can do to the human mind, just listen to this soundtrack.


2. Rocky Ends the Cold War

Rocky IV speech
United Artists

In one of the most misguided, self-congratulatory, and immediately dated moments in cinema history, good ol’ galoot Rocky Balboa single-handedly ended the Cold War four years before the Berlin Wall came down.

To quote the Italian Stallion himself: “In here…there were two guys… killing each other. But I guess that’s better than millions. What I’m trying to say is… if I can change… and you can change…everybody can change!” And just like that the Soviet public, generals and even the Premier himself rose to their feet in applause, realizing what fools they’d been. This guy beat Mr. T for Heaven’s sake. He knows what he’s talking about!


1. Paulie’s Robot

Okay, let’s all take a deep breath and really consider this for a moment. Rocky IV has a robot butler in it. A movie franchise that began back in 1976 exploring the gritty reality of a bum fighter trying to prove himself somehow limped along long enough to turn into a weak Short Circuit rip-off in which an alcoholic mooch with a history of domestic abuse now gets his coffee served to him by a robot. A robot that he has programmed with a “sultry” lady voice!

Stallone was inspired to include the real life robot Sico in Rocky IV because of the work it did to help autistic children like his son Seargeoh. That’s all very moving, but doesn’t explain why he decided to write a scene where Paulie dubs poor Sico “the love of my life.” It’s a testament to Rocky IV‘s “too rotten to miss” status that Paulie’s robot girlfriend/personal servant isn’t even the craziest thing that happens to Rock and the gang.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” movie Rocky IV this Friday at 8P on IFC. 

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Gray's Anatomy

Everything You Need to Know About the Movie That Inspired “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”

Brand new Documentary Now! airs Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom Pictures

This week Documentary Now! spotlights a master monologist with “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything.” Before you tune in at 10P this Wednesday on IFC, check out our guide to Swimming to Cambodia, the 1987 film that captured writer/performer Spalding Gray’s acclaimed one-person show.

Spalding Gray 101

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures

Actor and renowned monologist Spalding Gray spent two years on stage perfecting his Obie Award-winning “Swimming to Cambodia” monologue. In it, Gray tells the story of his eight weeks in Southeast Asia while shooting the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie The Killing Fields. He had a small role, but the experience gave him several anecdotes about hanging out with the film crew and experiencing the local culture, all while searching for “the perfect moment.”

Directed by the Silence of the Lambs Guy

Hannibal Lecter
Orion Pictures/Everett Collection

Acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Demme took Gray’s two-night, four hour performance and crafted it down to 85 minutes. His use of dramatic lighting, stylish camerawork and a score by performance artist Laurie Anderson was praised by critics and earned the film a cult following. No stranger to groundbreaking docs, Demme also directed the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which Documentary Now! pays tribute to in this season’s episode “Final Transmission.”

All about the Voices

While it may have been a one-man show, Gray created a repertoire of characters all with distinctive accents. (He portrayed conversations between himself and others just by turning his head.) Our favorite impressions are of his demanding girlfriend Renee and Ivan Strasberg, the South African director of photography on The Killing Fields who, as depicted by Gray, sounds a bit like a Jamaican surfer.

The Original Cranky New Yorker

In one memorable scene, Gray rants about how his noisy upstairs artist neighbors are driving him and Renee crazy. Even in the mid-’80s, there were New Yorkers complaining that the city wasn’t what it used to be.

Show and Tell

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures/YouTube

A big fan of visual aids, Gray used pull-down maps to illustrate his travels. This helped to bring Swimming to Cambodia to life, since he’s basically sitting at a desk the entire time.

Inspired One-Person Shows

Gray’s groundbreaking performances in Swimming and other documentaries like Monster in a Box and the Steven Soderbergh-directed Gray’s Anatomy (about Gray’s struggle with a rare eye condition) paved the way for future one-person shows. (We wouldn’t have everything from Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” to Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me” without him.) Even Doc Now! star Fred Armisen got into the one-person show act for his recent SNL monologue.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Spalding Gray when “Parker Gail: Location Is Everything” premieres Wednesday, September 28th at 10P on IFC. 

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Burning Heart

10 Reasons Why Rocky IV Is the Ultimate Rocky Movie

Catch an all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: United Artists/Everett Collection

Sure, most people love the first Rocky for its heart, gripping boxing scenes and the classic training montage. Or, you might love Creed for being both a return-to-form and a new exploration of the Rocky mythology. Maybe the thrill of seeing Mr. T and Hulk Hogan in the same movie makes Rocky III your top pick. Well, sorry, you’re wrong: Rocky IV is the greatest of all the “Italian Stallion”‘s movies.

Before you watch the all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC (with Rocky IV airing at 8P as part of Rotten Fridays), check out a few reasons to appreciate the fourth installment as the king of the series.

1. The Greatest Opening Ever

How many openings are able to sum up the entire conflict of the film in less than a minute and without a single line of dialogue? And how many of those movies have exploding boxing gloves? Just try to watch the opening sequence above and not be completely psyched for the pumped-up flick to come.


2. Montages!

We all know that the best part of any sports movie is the montage, and Rocky IV doesn’t give you one measly montage. There’s a recap of the previous films montage, a getting to Russia Montage, two training montages and an ending fight montage. That’s five montages! There’s probably a montage of montages snuck in there, too.


3. There’s a Full James Brown Musical Number

This movie is so packed with memorable moments, it’s easy to forget one of the first things that happens in the film: Apollo comes out to fight Drago dressed as a shirtless Uncle Sam, while James Brown and a full band play “Living in America.” To drive home the number’s patriotism, there are dancers in tuxedos and top hats, weird unitards and bowler caps, and bedazzled showgirls with headpieces for miles. Oh, and don’t forget the giant tentacled dragon statue on the stage. This is how every boxing match should start. Heck, this is how we always want to enter a room.


4. The Soundtrack

The Rocky IV soundtrack doesn’t just feature James Brown — it has rock anthems galore, all of which make you immediately want to hit the gym. From “Heart’s on Fire” by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band to “Sweetest Victory” by Touch to multiple Survivor jams, you’ll get pumped and stay pumped. Even the instrumental score rocks! Sure, sometimes it sounds like it was made on a kids Casio, but this soundtrack never quits and — to quote Robert Tepper — never takes the easy way out.


5. Abs!

Rocky IV weights

Every Rocky movie shows off Stallone’s incredible physique, but Rocky IV really ups the game. Not only do we get Dolph Lundgren mostly shirtless looking like a man machine, but we get a wide variety of scenes of Stallone doing impossible tasks. Stallone’s crazy dragon fly crunches, aka a thing no human should be able to do, automatically take this movie to the top.


6. Two words: Ivan Drago

Ivan Drago
United Artists

Not only does Rocky IV explore the global conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, but it encapsulates all of our fears of the Cold War in one perfect villain. Ivan Drago only trains with machines and science and looks like he stepped out of an Aryan Nations recruitment poster. He also only responds in short, cold phrases like “If he dies, he dies,” or “I must break you.” There’s never been a villain who we so clearly want to get the crap beat out of than Ivan Drago.


7. Rocky Makes Chores Look Badass

Rocky saw
United Artists

Rocky doesn’t need to be hooked up to machines to become the perfect fighter. All he needs are huge tires and some outdoor chores to do. No one’s ever looked cooler chopping wood and using tractor parts. Half of his training is lifting an old wagon, probably to fix a broken axle. If anything, this film inspires us to take care of that gardening work we’ve been neglecting.


8. Rocky’s Beard

Rocky IV Beard

Stallone’s beard game is truly on point in Rocky IV. And this isn’t some “I forgot to shave, here’s a little stubble” look. No, we get full out, lumberjack-style beard action. Does any other Rocky movie have our hero looking like an old Russian aristocrat? Another point for Rocky IV.


9. There’s a robot!

Again, there’s so much to Rocky IV, you probably forgot about the robot. Well, Rocky has some money now and he’s not going to spend it on frivolous things for himself. He’s going to buy Paulie a robot! The best part of this scene is how truly disturbed Paulie is by this new technology until he gives it a sexy lady voice.


10. Rocky Ends the Cold War

If you’re still not convinced that Rocky IV is the greatest, answer this question: Does any other Rocky movie bring peace between the US and Russia?

By the end of the film, Rocky rises up to beat the seemingly undefeatable Drago. He fights so well, that even the Russians begin to appreciate his skills. Then, instead of using his victory to prove America’s superiority, he gives a rousing speech of “If I can change and you can change, everybody can change!” The whole crowd goes wild, including all of the Russian government, who we assume give up Communism immediately based solely on Rocky’s words. Stallone’s call for international reconciliation through brutal fighting and a variety of montages makes this if not one of the greatest films of all time, certainly the greatest Rocky of them all.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” movie Rocky IV this Friday at 8P on IFC. 

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