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In Making Undefeated, Directors Defy Odds and Get an Oscar Nom

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I was glad to have interviewed doc directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin -- whose film Undefeated cleared nearly all the award hurdles and got into that rarefied place of being a Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominee -- before viewing this year's Super Bowl. Talking with them made me appreciate the New York Giants' win even more than expected because I had a fresh understanding of all the barriers to success a player overcomes to get to such big leagues.

This film documents one almost-champion season of a really bottom-of-the-barrel high school football team from wrong-side-of-the-tracks, inner-city West Memphis Tennessee.

The severely underfunded, underprivileged Manassas Tigers -- they had been hired out as a practice team for more successful, affluent schools -- reverse their fortunes thanks to a relatively new coach, Bill Courtney, who, in 2004, came on board and applied what he learned as a former player and salesman to transform wild kids into a team.

The team, and three spotlighted members, go through such trials and tribulations as they break their 110-year losing streak and head to the playoffs.

Undefeated tells of young men who dare to dream dreams that might surprisingly come true. Just like these two relative newcomers who, in getting this Oscar nom, also have real insight into what it takes to achieve the unexpected.

Q: It took Steve James in his classic sports doc Hoop Dreams years to film those dramatic moments; who had the crystal ball that led you to capture these intense moments even though you had no idea they were going to happen?

DL: We just captured lightning in a bottle. That's all any great documentary is. There has to be an element of luck and have things work out in a certain way. I don't think we could have predicted how it turned out.

We always wanted to make a coming-of-age film, but we also wanted to make a sports film. Plus we wanted to address the education system and how it's failing these young students. But we were able to speak a lot about these social issues by making this a stronger, intimate character piece that hopefully inspires conversation about class, education and race.

We definitely went over a worn path with a story about high school football. Even if they had lost all their games, we would have filmed it anyway. It would just be a different film.

T.J.: In Hoop Dreams, it was about catching up with the guys and spending huge moments of time with them. We embedded ourselves with them and spent every day of nine months with them. Not the same thing, but there's an intensity in different ways. We got really lucky. But from the beginning, the approach never changed.

DL: One thing we did knew from the beginning was that we didn't want to span the course of years. We wanted to capture a special moment in time in adolescence where there are so many possibilities. And we can either see those possibilities begin to take shape, or the realities of those possibilities set in.

We wanted to film this intimate coming of age story in a way that we would be able to get these personal moments. Because of the way technology has progressed, we can do that. We could shoot for hours and hours. But we used that to our advantage in getting the players so used to us being there that we were just the flies on the wall.

They were able to go on with their lives as they normally would and we were able to capture these really intimate moments.

TM: We expected little emotional swells here and there, but I don't think we expected it to be this big.

Q: How did you two work together?

TM: We shot and edited everything together. Sometimes we would go off and follow other characters, but we edit in the same room right next to each other. I'm sure the people that shared the space next to us thought we were fighting.

DL: We had really heated conversations.

TM: Other people don't realize that's how we work through points some times. But for us, we're not upset with each other, we just get very heated and passionate.

I remember one time we were so frustrated and we just couldn't get the first act together and we had a bit of a dust-up. And I walk out and I came back in and I'm like, "Man, I'm so sorry. I just wanted to make the best movie ever."

Q: How did you narrow it down to the players you covered?

DL: Money [Montrail Brown] and OC [Brown] were the first characters we found.

Q: Would you have focused more on OC?

TM: The initial interest was doing a movie about OC until Rich Middlemas, our producer, found this article about the Tigers. We still wanted to make a coming-of-age film about OC. Then we met Bill, and then Money, and it kind of mushroomed from there.

DL: The first thing we ever shot with Money -- and this was before we moved there, we were just looking around -- we went over to his house, put a mic on him, and said "Show me around your house." So he shows me this corner and says "These are my pet turtles."

I said, "Why turtles?" And what came out of his mouth is in the movie. I was in Memphis, and sent the footage back to TJ, because he was cutting presentation reels and trying to raise money. I said, "Watch this, it's amazing."

Our friends were like, "You told him to say that." And I said, "No, I swear!"

So even from the first few moments, there was something special here. Then Chavis [Daniels] became a character because of the way he was affecting the team. There were one or two other guys we followed a bit at first, and one that was actually in the first, six-hour cut of the film. But it felt like it deviated too much to the side.

TM: He was probably the hardest to let go, though.

DL: We spent a huge amount of time with the rest of the team, even when we knew they weren't necessarily [going to] be in the rest of the film. It was important for us for our process and to get to know them. For guys that are 16 or 17 years old that want attention, we didn't want our presence to have a negative effect on the team.

If they saw us focusing on OC, Chavis and Money, that might build resentment. So we did interviews with every other player, even though we knew it wouldn't wind up in the film, but it was about giving them all their chance to get followed around and get mic'ed.

Q: Would you say the toughest parts were what to do with the girlfriends and with the parents?

TM: Girlfriends, especially. This is a time in their lives where there's no reason to exploit... if somebody was following the drama of my high school relationship, ultimately it's kind of provocative for provocative's sake.

DL: Ultimately if they weren't affecting the story, I'd see no reason for it. But with the parents, it's an issue of sensibilities and it's hard to get ahold of them.

TM: Money's grandma refused to be on. And it wasn't because she didn't like us.

DL: Some of the parents were maybe a little more cognizant of what was happening. And the approach we had is that we wanted to tell the kid's story and have it be from their perspective. There were times when we would interview the parents, and we had some footage, but it doesn't lend itself to the greater narrative.

And that was the big thing with this film. From day one, we wanted it to feel like a scripted film. We wanted you to get swept away on this journey.

For an extended version of this Q&A and other stories by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com

Around the Web

Undefeated (2011) - IMDb

Undefeated - Rotten Tomatoes

Undefeated, the story of the Manassas Tigers, reviewed - Slate ...

Undefeated :: Movies :: Reviews :: Paste

The Undefeated - Victory Film Group

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