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.”


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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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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