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.