At 25 years old, undrafted wide receiver Matthew Cherry couldn’t find an NFL team to sign him. He was on the verge of becoming one of the 78 percent of players who end up divorced, bankrupt or unemployed two years after leaving football. So he took a production assistant job fetching coffee for important people on the set of Heroes, then Girlfriends and then, fittingly, The Game.

Cherry learned the entertainment industry from the ground up, and flipped his PA gig into bigger opportunities. Eventually he landed gigs directing music videos starring Common, Beyoncé and Snoop Dogg. Then in 2012, he got his big break at SXSW, debuting his first project as a director, The Last Fall, a semi-autobiographical tale about a broke NFL washout figuring out what to do post-football.

Four years later, he’s back in Austin with 9 Rides, and the NFL is way back in the rearview mirror. Cherry wrote, produced, directed and edited the film, which examines masculinity and jealousy through the eyes of an Uber driver (Dorian Missick) working on New Year’s Eve when he learns his fianceé might not be faithful. With 9 Rides premiering at SXSW tonight, we sat down with the director to hear all about his winding career path.

When did you know the NFL wasn’t going to work out?
My whole career I was used to being "the guy," but when you come to the NFL, everybody is "the guy." I was killing, I was catching hella touchdowns, I was doing my thing, but I wasn't given the same opportunities because they drafted other receivers higher. It was a business thing. You have to justify the fact that you gave someone a $10 million dollar signing bonus, and you gave me a $10,000 dollar signing bonus.

What was the shift like, going from NFL wide receiver to production assistant?
In the NFL, if you say you're thirsty, ten people run up on you with water bottles. So you go from getting served to being the server—that was probably the hardest transition. It was crazy to see people say, "Go over there and get me that water." I’m like, "Dude. I'm 6'2" and 220 pounds. I'm not your average PA, man."

Did you tell people you were from the NFL?
I didn't tell people until later on because I didn't want people judging me or looking at me like some privileged dude. They found out when they Googled me. It was just really important for me to learn it from the ground up. You come to it with a different appreciation as opposed to "Oh, I'm an investor with a million dollars and all y'all work for me." I know what it's like to be under the gun and have to deliver the film by a deadline—and your tire blew out. I've been there.

What’s your goal in storytelling?
I think my lane is humanizing situations that people kind of look at mostly on the surface level. Like you look at football players and I think a lot of guys watching these games don't think of these players’ families. He drops the touchdown pass and they're like, "Gah! He's a bum. He sucks. Kill him."

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Why did you make 9 Rides?
The thing about 9 Rides—and I think all my work will probably have this moving forward—it deals with the fragility of the male ego. The idea is just to show the complexity that guys have when we hold our partners to a standard that we don't hold ourselves to.

Coming into the game as a non-traditional director, did you make this movie in any non-traditional ways?
We did it all with no script. It was all improv—all based off a very detailed outline. That was the great thing about casting great actors. I would be like, this is the scenario, and you have to do your homework on your own. It was just a very collaborative and organic experience. And it came together so fast. We literally had a six-day shoot the week of Thanksgiving.

And you shot it on an iPhone 6s too, right?
Yeah. When it comes to filmmakers of color, an underrepresented group, I feel like I always hear, “you can shoot a movie on your phone.” It just proves that the kind of camera you shoot on doesn't matter as long as you have a great story. And we're just super proud of how it looks.

Are there any similarities between football and filmmaking?
With the filmmaking thing, it can come across like it's just the director. But ultimately—and this is what attracted me—it's a team effort. It's similar to football, but now I'm the coach.

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