There’s a reason why filmmakers and storytellers revisit familiar subjects and thematic territories time and time again: If executed properly, formulas are guaranteed to strike a chord. And this is especially true when it comes to inspirational sports movies, which tend to, predictably, focus on an underdog, show his or her (or the entire team’s) rise from being counted out to emerging as champions, and end on a positive note. But watch movies like Warrior or Rudy and see if you don’t, despite any emotional resistance, stand up and cheer once the climax erupts.
The latter of those two examples covers the hard-hitting world of football, one of the sports movie genre’s most frequently explored topics; last weekend, in fact, Undefeated, a new documentary from first-time directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, opened in limited release, covering the good old pigskin game. Yet, unlike painfully generic flicks such as The Blind Side, Undefeated is something entirely different, and, in turn, undeniably special. The film's inclusion amongst this year's five Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature nominees supports that claim.
In 2009, Lindsay and Martin relocated to the financially strapped area of North Memphis, Tennessee, to document the Manassas High School football team’s season, which promised to give the once-inferior team a strong chance to win its first-ever playoff game, possibly even a championship. Along the way, the documentarians realized that the heart of their film lied in the personal lives and struggles of four individuals: the coach, Bill Courtney, a tireless family man who treats the Manassas players as his own kids; O.C., a senior right tackle who’s a top college recruit but can’t seem to get his grades up to snuff; Montrail, a.k.a. Money, another senior whose 3.8 GPA unfortunately can’t translate into the funds needed to gain a college education; and Chavis, a hot-headed junior fresh out of a youth penitentiary.
Paying just as much, if not more, attention to its subjects’ battles off the field as they do to Manassas’ on-the-gridiron games, Undefeated transcends basic sports trappings and registers as something much more poignant and emotionally affecting. By Monday morning, the film, which recently gained an enthusiastic Sean “Diddy” Combs as an executive producer, could also be an Academy Award winner.
On the brink of their first Oscar experience, Lindsay, 33, and Martin, 32, spoke with Complex about Undefeated’s guerrilla-style production, their concerns with “generic sports movie” preconceptions, developing close, personal relationship with their movie’s stars, and how they’re officially part of Diddy’s entourage.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Before we talk about Undefeated itself, what first brought you to project and to the story of Manassas High School?
Daniel Lindsay: Man, that brings me back! [Laughs.] T.J. and I met working on a beer pong documentary, of all things, and that was how we established our working relationship. That was right around when Morgan Spurlock came in, put his name on that film, and signed on to distribute it. We were both kind of just looking for projects after that.
It’s kind of funny, because our producer Rich [Middlemas] and have been friends for about eight years, and Rich had always wanted to work on something together. And T.J. and I were having trouble getting bigger projects off the ground, so we went and had breakfast one morning. We were lamenting about the states of our careers, and we just said, “You know what? Fuck it. Let’s just go and make something on our own; we don’t have to ask for permission from somebody.” And when Rich found this article about O.C. [Brown], I immediately sent it to T.J., and that was the beginning.
T.J. Martin: In between beer pong and this, we had basically gone back to our freelance day-jobs as editors. Doing graveyard shifts. [Laughs.]
What was it about the O.C. article that spoke to you guys?
T.J. Martin: Upon my initial reaction from reading the article, to me it was just set in this really interesting world. At the time, what I knew about Memphis made it seem like an other-side-of-the-tracks kind of town. So I thought of it as an interesting opportunity to make a coming-of-age film, where this kid is straddling these two completely different worlds, shuttling back and forth between a community that’s predominantly white and much more affluent, and back to North Memphis, which is much more of an underserved community and predominantly black. That alone, to me, made for a really interesting and dynamic world that I thought we could explore some interesting race and class ideas, but through a coming-of-age story.
Lindsay: And that’s what we had a lot of initial discussions about, too. We didn’t know any of the people involved, we just had this article, but we were already starting to envision an intimately observed film, and something where it’d be mostly verite and observing this kid and a year in his life.
How immediately did that change once you two first visited Memphis and spent time with O.C.?
Lindsay: It was pretty interesting. We went out there for one week, and we were so focused on filming O.C. and seeing his world that we met Bill [Courtney, the coach], who’s one of the central people in the film. And he was just unbelievably charismatic, and the things that would come out of his mouth were incredible, and the way that he’d talk to the other players on the team was really fascinating. But we didn’t know anything about the history of the team until literally the last day we were there during that week.
We wanted to do an interview with Bill, and he said, “Well, just come by my office, and while you’re there I’ll take you around North Memphis and tell you about the history of Manassas.” It was during that last day of our trip that he really started telling us anecdotes about the past, and how the team was getting better and they had the potential to make a bit of a run. I remember sitting in the airport and thinking, “Well, it’s a great world, but I don’t think O.C.’s story is right—so much of it has already happened.” We weren’t gonna be able to be there and capture most of those moments. But the coach and the team’s history were both really interesting.
Then we got back home and watched some of the footage we’d shot, and that was when we were like, “OK, that’s the story. That’s what we’re going to follow: the team.” We could still do this coming-of-age story, but we’d broaden the scope a bit.
Martin: We didn’t necessarily know that the team was going to be the story. A football season gives you a nice three-act structure, but we totally fought the sports narrative. For me, the selling point was going over the footage and Money and the turtle, and realizing how strong the emotional candor of both the students and community was. The scope broadened past just O.C. and expanded into exploring the players’ lives off the field, but then, about halfway through the season, we realized that there were some pretty amazing happening on the field, as well. So then with a subtle shift of the lens, we found a way to make it follow the sports narrative a bit more.
Was that a concern all along, to make sure the film didn’t fall into the typical, tired “inspirational sports movie” trapping and feel? Because on paper Undefeated’s story reads like something people have seen a dozen or so times before.
Lindsay: Oh my god, yes. [Laughs.] That was something that we talked about all the time. And we still talk about it; we still say that the biggest challenge throughout the whole process of making the film is getting people to see it. It does feel, on paper, just the description of it, like something we’ve all seen before.
I think the differences lie in the characters and the approaches we took. It’s really about the experience of watching it. Our goal was always to try to make something that you would lose yourself in and feel like you’re part of the team, just observing what’s happening and forgetting that you’re watching a documentary—that’s something we hadn’t seen before in these types of stories and films.
More than anything, though, the characters really excited us. And when you break it down, there are only, what do they say, seven stories in the world, anyway. How many love stories come out every year? It’s all about the approach and the specificity that you bring to it that can transcend it beyond cliché.
Martin: And I think in execution, too. You can talk about how you’re gonna do this and this and this in the approach, but we were really fortunate that there were some really amazing things transpiring in front of the camera. Dan, you’ve said this in the past, but it was really like we caught lightning in a bottle, and our job was just to put ourselves in a position to catch it. After it was all said and done, in post-production it was just a matter of, “How are we going to execute those moments? How can we make those moments read as powerfully for the audience as they did for us when they happened?”
When those kinds of moments happen, do you guys look at each other and say, “Wow, that’s going to work amazingly in the movie!”? There are a few key moments in Undefeated that have a major emotional impact, and you can tell that it’s all natural, and in the moment.
Lindsay: Absolutely. [Laughs.] The moment where Chavis stands up and dedicates his award to Money—I still, to this day, remember looking at T.J. with this look of, like, “Holy shit! Did that just happen?” I remember when we talked that night, I was like, “We have a movie now! It’s playing out like a scripted narrative.” It was amazing how Chavis and Money fought, and then that happened; we could have never in a million years predicted that, or attempted to make that happen. [Laughs.]
There are moments on the editing room floor, too, that just didn’t fit into the narrative. T.J. always says to me, “You want the sum to be greater than the parts,” so we had to get rid of many amazing individual moments that just didn’t play into the actual narrative.
That scene where Chavis gives his speech is a great example of what separates Undefeated from other generic movies of this kind. In those movies, the big speeches are clearly written beforehand, and rehearsed, and designed to provide a big narrative boost, but Chavis’ speech is so raw, in-the-moment, and you can tell that he’s struggling with finding the right words the entire time.
Martin: Most consistently, that’s the scene that always blows me away when watching the film. There is something about watching Chavis in that moment, because that is really kind of the end of his storyline right there, and then we start to close everyone else’s storylines before we get into the big push of the final game. To think about his remarkable change over the course of the season, and then to, on his own accord, not only dedicate his award to someone else, but also to just do it in his own words and his own way… I don’t know, I’m just completely moved and mesmerized by it every time. It’s a really powerful moment for me.
We so badly didn’t want to make a “white knight” story, and I don’t think Bill would ever, in a million years, want to be seen as a “savior”—I know he doesn’t. So much of the success of that program is Bill giving these young men such a great foundation and the tools for them to use both on the football field and in their personal lives, and then to see Chavis actually take those tools and use them in his own way is amazing.
That also separates Undefeated from something like The Blind Side, which puts the focus on the wrong character and turns the underserved player/kid into a one-dimensional cipher.
Martin: Well, thank you. Dan has often said that Bill represents a group of volunteers, and he happens to be the head coach and very charismatic. We had to find someone’s lens to enter the story through, but, really, the story isn’t just about Bill Courtney—it’s about O.C., Money, Chavis, and Bill. Those are the four main characters, and it’s about their relationships with each other through the course of the season. It’s definitely not “the white guy comes in and saves the world.” [Laughs.]
Did the kids take to the cameras easily, or was it awkward at first for them to have cameras following them around at all times?
Lindsay: There was just a process of us just being there for everything, and so I think they very quickly… I don’t know, I can’t speak for them, but it definitely felt like they forgot that we were there. The one thing that we rarely talk about in interviews is this summer football camp that they do out there. They were very adamant that we move out to Memphis before that, and that was in July, before the school year. It was this four-day thing where they go outside of North Memphis to this church, and they practice football all day and have team-building exercises and mentoring sessions. We were there for all of that, and we filmed all of that.
It gets really emotional for the guys—they’re tired, and they’ve been practicing all day. These real, raw emotions start to come out. At one point, the seniors on the team decided to call a team meeting to talk to the younger guys, and it was “players only,” but then the players said to us, “And you guys come up, too.” At that point, we knew that, one, they’d accepted us being there, and, two, how emotionally candid they were while we were filming, it just felt like… I don’t know. T.J., would you agree that that was the moment where they accepted us being there?
Lindsay: Also, I think the size of our cameras, and the fact that we didn’t have a boom operator, a sound mixer, and all of those other crew members—it was literally just T.J. and I. Once they were able to break down in front of us, from then on we just became a part of the team.
Neither of you guys come from areas quite like North Memphis (Lindsay is from Rockford, Illinois; Martin is from Seattle, Washington), so was it difficult to settle into the community while you were living there?
Lindsay: North Memphis was shocking to me, at first, but it wasn’t a bad thing.
Martin: I never personally felt uncomfortable, though.
Lindsay: I think that’s just due to our personalities. We went to everybody and were really open and honest about what we were doing; also, Rich, our producer, is very disarming, and he’s from the south. I don’t know that you can quantify it, or explain it, but we were just open, honest, and interested, so it was never like, “Oh, who the hell are these guys?” I don’t know, maybe that was going on behind our backs.
Martin: I don’t think we were ever unwanted, but I think there was definitely a kind of weariness and curiosity toward out presence. But it was similar to what Bill has said; once Bill recognized what our intentions were, and that we showed up as outsiders but we wanted to tell the stories of this team responsibly, he started to trust us. For the greater community, it was kind of the same thing—it was a slow process.
Essentially, that was one of the biggest reasons why we shot 500 hours; here we are as outsiders saying, “We want to tell your story,” so a big part of that is to basically commit to that, and to show up everyday, not to come in one day a week or one day a month. Move to Memphis, show up to every practice, go to school all the time, go to talent shows that we know aren’t going to make the film, but, again, we made a commitment to this community and we were going to prove that. And I think, after awhile, they saw that, and the consistency of it led to us becoming, “Those guys with the football team.” We became a part of the team, an extension of the team.
Lindsay: In terms of the football team and how we were able to blend in, Bill has talked about how during the first couple of weeks he’d think, “Oh, there are those guys with the cameras again,” but then after a week or so, he and the football team had their season to worry about, so it slowly became a thing where he’d compare us to team managers, or guys who give the players water bottles on the sideline.
A decision we made very early on was to never interrupt anything, or ask to have things done; like, “Can we have a shot of you walking out onto the field?” Or, “We need a shot of you walking down the hallway.” We never, ever brought up what we were doing. We never brought attention to the process.
Being that you guys were so close to these kids’ lives, and kept hearing about how underserved the school and community were, was it difficult to not get directly involved at times, and help out?
Martin: It’s totally difficult. [Laughs.] I think, for stuff like recognizing some of the faults or mishaps of the school system, that just makes for greater conversation that we have absolutely no control over. Now, as far as growing close to and building closer relationships with the people we were profiling, that’s very difficult. It's tough to see someone like Money making some potentially bad decisions and not step in and say, “Have you thought this through all the way?"
To be honest with you, there were moments in which we did put down the camera and take Money out to lunch, and give him an opportunity to have someone to talk to, and vent. It’s a tricky balance that you have to figure out over the course of shooting.
Lindsay: I don’t think we’ve ever talked about this, either, but we made a pretty conscious decision to never give the kids… Like, if one of them were to say, “Dan, I need five bucks,” we wouldn’t do it, and it was very difficult—not that I have any fucking money. [Laughs.] I need five bucks, too! But, yeah, that’s a line you can’t cross, because you lose the sense of objectivity. We’re not journalists, and I personally don’t think that’s our job. I always feel like an asshole saying this, but we’re storytellers.
Martin: You’re such an asshole.
Lindsay: [Laughs.] I just know that one somebody says, “Dude, I’m a storyteller,” you think, “Oh, god, please stop.” But that emotional attachment, I think you see that on screen. What you see in a documentary is the relationship between the filmmaker and the subjects, and if you approach it in a very clinical way, you get a more clinical feeling as an audience member. There has to be boundaries, but when you’re living with someone every single day, it’s impossible not to get emotionally caught up in their lives.
For us, when we came back to L.A. and started editing the film, it was all about, “OK, it’s all about those really special moments.” Like, Money finding out that he’ll be able to go to college meant the world to us; I was crying while I was filming that. So it came down to, “In two hours, how do we get the audience to go through the same experience we did? So that when that moment happens, it means as much to them as it did to us?” That was always our objective when putting the film together.
Rest assured, you’ve accomplished that. And, clearly, the right people agree with me, since Undefeated is up for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Martin: Which is still incredibly surreal. We got loud phone call at 5:30 in the morning from our publicist, screaming on the other line, “Aaah, you’ve been nominated!” And I was like, “Aah, you’re lying to me!” [Laughs.] I thought she was playing some sick, twisted joke, and I hung up on her, actually. And from there, it was a flood of emails and phone calls, so I realized that she was telling the truth. I think it’s finally, maybe now starting to settle in, but it’s taken a long time for us to recognize the reality of the situation.
Lindsay: It’s funny, because in meetings we’ve had since the nominations were announced, I can actually tell that people are actually listening to us now, which is hilarious. [Laughs.]
We were meeting with somebody who shall remain nameless, but he’s a very high-up in a production company, and he was talking about a project and asked, “Well, what do you guys think of that?” We started talking, and I remember T.J. was giving his opinion; I looked over, and I was like, “This guy is actually listening to us! He thinks we know what we’re talking about.” [Laughs.] It blows my mind, because we’re not any different of people now from who we were when no one cared about what we had to say, but for some reason people are actually listening to us.
One big-time person who’s suddenly on your side is Diddy, who recently became attached to Undefeated as an executive producer after seeing the film and falling in love with it. How bizarre is his involvement?
Martin: [Laughs.] “Bizarre” truly is the right word. Every time we think the film has reached its peak, one other amazing thing happens. I think I can safely say, speaking for both of us, that we were a little cautious at first, hearing that Diddy wanted to jump onboard.
But after meeting with him, he shared this personal anecdote about him playing football and getting hurt his senior year, and his coach kind of turning his back on him and how that really affected him. He told us that, after watching this film, he couldn’t help but be really affected by the relationship between Coach Bill and the players. He thought it was a film that had an important message, one he felt should reach a wider audience, so he genuinely wanted to get behind this film and he wanted us to use as a platform to cast a broader net. With that said, there’s no doubt—its turned out to be a really great collaboration, and we’re thrilled to have him onboard.
Lindsay: And, backstage at the Jimmy Kimmel show, he told that we’re officially part of his entourage. I was like, “We’re holding you to that—I hope you realize that.” So now, every party that we go to, I’m going to be like, “We’re with Diddy!” [Laughs.]
So this is when the real perks begin, in other words.
Martin: [Laughs.] Exactly. I think we’re walking the red carpet with him at the Academy Awards ceremony, apparently, which should be interesting.
You’ll be on every gossip blog in the world come Monday morning, then.
Lindsay: Yeah, like, “Who are those two guys?”
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)