Interview: Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin on Their Winning Football Doc “Undefeated”

The filmmakers behind the Oscar nominee for best documentary talk about when they knew they had something special, letting the story of a remarkable football team tell them what...

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While it will be the Manassas Tigers that will be joining the pantheon of great underdogs in films when the new documentary “Undefeated” is released on Friday, there is equal reason to celebrate Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, the two filmmakers who relocated from Los Angeles to North Memphis in 2009 to capture the Tigers’ remarkable season, when they walk the red carpet a week from now at the Academy Awards.

Like the Tigers, it’s irrelevant whether they win or not, though they’re more than deserving after operating essentially as a two-man crew in Manassas. Following a lead given to them by producer Rich Middlemas about a promising football player named O.C. Brown, an offensive tackle who was taken in by his coach Bill Courtney to help his grades reach the level of his pigskin prowess, the filmmakers settled into the deeply depressed community for nine months and discovered a far richer tale involving Brown, his teammates Montrail “Money” Brown and Chavis Daniels and their coach Courtney, who volunteered at the high school in his spare time away from his lumber company.

TJMartinDanLindsayUndefeatedIf Lindsay and Martin’s first film “The Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong” was a well-crafted, lighthearted look at men clinging onto the final days of being boys, “Undefeated” is a masterful, deeply moving portrait of boys fighting to become men as Courtney presides over a team that has never won a playoff game in their 110-year history where the pressure off the field is significantly more than on it, with the undersized Brown knowing his future isn’t in football but doesn’t have the money to pay for college without a scholarship and Daniels trying to straighten up his life after recently serving time at a youth detention center. 

Since the season is quite unpredictable, the less the said, the better, but the end result is arguably the finest sports doc since Steve James’s “Hoop Dreams” in 1994 because of course, it isn’t about sports at all. Still, Lindsay and Martin were gracious enough to speak to me about how their background in editing (with a hat tip to the Civil War drama “Glory”) helped them shape “Undefeated” with such limited resources, earning the trust of a community that’s so often unappreciated, and when being a disappearing act can be a good thing.

Since I saw it last year at SXSW, it’s been frustrating to tell everybody it’s not out yet, but you’ve got to go see it.

Dan Lindsay: We’ve been telling people the same thing. I swear it’s coming out…eventually. One day.

When did you know you had something special?

T.J. Martin: It was immediate for me.

DL: …in terms of knowing that the world was special.

TM: We still had to earn the trust of the team and of the community, but it was pretty immediate to see the emotional candor in front of the camera. At the very least, we knew we would get an interesting human interest story or explore some interesting narratives, especially at that age and try to capture a coming of age film. But a very specific moment where we thought we had a film?

DL: The moments like Money talking about his turtle — that was the first thing we ever shot with him. We mic’d him up and we’re like show us around your house. He brought us to his pet turtles and we’re like, “Oh my God, this is amazing.” Then there’s a lot of things early on in the season, this vulnerability that guys on the team are showing. Right away, we knew we were catching incredible things.

I’ve always thought that great documentaries need a great central character and to capture one or two incredible moments that just become iconic. After two weeks, we had three or four. We knew there was something, but crafting it and knowing that we had a film, that took a long time.

The structure of this is interesting because so much of the first half is getting ingrained in the world of Manassas and then by the second half, every scene feels like an explosion. 

DL: We watched “Glory” three or four times while we were putting this together. That film is actually pretty similar to ours. Not the scale and scope, obviously, but in structure. There’s a lot of set-up and it’s about three characters and the leader of those three characters and it’s all this set-up to get them to the second half of the film where it becomes emotional swell after emotional swell after emotional swell. That’s how we always viewed it. It’s Bill [Courtney, the coach] getting these guys ready to go into battle and then we’re going to watch them go into battle.

That’s part of the reason why we named the film “Undefeated” so that when they lost the first game, people would be like, “Wait a second, this isn’t going to be what I thought it was going to be.”

UndefeatedManassasTigersSince both of you come from an editing background to a certain degree and you shot the film as well, how did that shape what you filmed and possibly influence the style of the film? It seems like you must’ve known what you were doing with the extreme closeups, for instance.

TM: It took us a week or two before we really developed the style and then it was a combination of seeing Money and the turtle and then these kind of other really candid moments. They had like a three-day football camp and that was our opportunity to really meet the kids and to see how they would act in front of the camera. The idea [of the camp] is that they wear them down, they get really emotional and vulnerable, so they become a family.

We were there for that entire thing and that’s when we started recognizing if we were going to capture these emotional moments, the best way to capture it since we’re a scaled down crew is to be really tight on the face because that’s where it’s all happening. You can sit there for like three, four minutes without getting bored because it’s so expressive.

When we started shooting the games, we found the same thing. Dan would stay on Bill for a lot of the games because that’s really where he immersed himself in the action and then I would roam and catch the color of the world. We just started mirroring the edit off the field and the edit on the field pretty similarly.

DL: As editors, it helps you as a cameraman. It’s the best learning tool because you know what you’re going to need. You know you need to hold longer on certain things, you know how you’re going to have to craft a scene, what angles you’re going to need.

TM: In the field, I could watch what he’s shooting and know what he’s going to need as a cutaway. I could just jump on him and then vice versa if I was following a character. He could see what my camera’s doing and figure out what would aid me in post in cutting that scene.

There seems to be a wonderful symmetry to go from your first documentary “Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong” to this film since they’re both sports films, but of two extremes. Tonally, was it much of a transition for you going from something more lighthearted to a more emotionally charged drama? 

DL: There’s a certain melancholy that I think we’re attracted to, and “Last Cup” had some of that as well. It’s a totally different film, but…

TM: There are some similarities.

DL: The other thing is the approach. We never looked at either of those as sports films. We knew that ostensibly they’re going to fall in that genre, but for us, it has to have good character development.

TM: Even for the sports film to work, it needs to be a good film.

DL: They’re definitely different. “Last Cup” was a learning experience for us where we were able to take everything we learned from there and bring it to this film.

TM: On paper, it’s pretty funny.

DL: Yeah, we went from a beer pong movie to something that just got nominated for an Oscar, which is ridiculous.

TM: But also we work from themes first and foremost. In “Last Cup,” the theme really was about Peter Pan syndrome as the champ, Billy, says to "move onto life 2.0," so even though it’s in the world of a beer pong tournament, every scene should be speaking towards a greater theme. We’re just doing the exact same thing in “Undefeated.” It just happens to be football. We’re making a coming of age film that explores the themes of fatherhood, opportunity or lack thereof, of commitment, of resilience and so every scene should speak to that.

Were those the ideas that were strong enough to get you to spend nine months in Manassas?

DL: We’re interested in making documentaries that are experiential where things are going to unfold in front of the camera. We’re not really wanting to [make] retrospective documentaries, so it was Bill’s anecdotes about things that happened in the past and then knowing that we had three great characters – that was what the draw was. It was like okay, we just need to commit ourselves to make this movie because the only way it’s going to be as good as we want it to be is for us to move there and capture everything.

Then the themes told us what it was going to be. We fought for a long time making…I read in some reviews, “Oh, it’s just kind of a clichéd sports film.” We didn’t set out to make that. That’s what happened. We don’t want to force our agenda onto something. The circumstances and the characters and the story are going to tell us what the film needs to be.

Did you feel a different responsibility than you had ever before in filming teenagers, particularly Chavis, who obviously going through a very sensitive time in his life?

DL: There’s a level of respect you give to people. We’re not interested in being exploitative and we’re not interested in being provocative for provocative’s sake, so like you bring up Chavis – we want to treat him with respect, but tell his story.

TM: Respect your characters. But we were definitely more sensitive of the situation and the community. We found specifically in North Memphis, if there’s a media presence there, they’re [likely] there to do a sensationalized piece on how violent the neighborhood is or things like that. At the end of the day, [our film is] more of a character study. That’s a combination of showing the bad and the good, If we do that right, maybe it’ll inspire a greater conversation about class or race issues, but we would never say that this film is authoritative on that. It’s really an opportunity for people to celebrate the narratives that take place in a community like North Memphis.

DL: One thing it would not be was a “white knight” story. We went there looking to make a film about O.C. and found this other story. We weren’t searching out like, “Oh, a white coach who coaches an all-black team.”

TM: Completely circumstantial.

DL: We’ve seen it too much and it’s often done in a very heavy-handed way. So it was very important that we present it as truthfully as possible because it’s not about that because it’s not about that for the kids.

TM: We did spend a lot of time making sure it didn’t come across as a “white knight” story. We weren’t interested in it, but we also knew that people would bring their own ideas, their own preconceptions, their own baggage to the film. A lot of times we let the material tell us how to shape it, [but] that was the one thing where we were a little bit more delicate and very specific with how we enter the lens of this story and watch the dynamics between Bill and the kids, because the last thing you want is somebody to be bogged down in that when you have a beautiful story unfolding in front of you, but all they can think about is “Ugh, I’ve seen this white knight stuff before.”

UndefeatedManassasTigers2TJ said something great in another interview along the lines of what we’ve discussed, that you realized you weren’t just committing to a team, but a community. Was there a specific moment that that realization set in?

TM: I don’t think there was a specific moment. Over the course of the nine months, eventually, the moment really is when people just forget you’re there, like you walk into the school with the cameras, [and people say] “Oh yeah, that’s just the film guys.”

DL: One of my favorite stories is this teacher – I went in to drop something off for Money one day, and we’d been there for like four months. I think the season was already over. We were in the school almost every day, at practice every day, and around all the time and I walk in and this teacher goes, “Can I help you?” Because I didn’t have the camera, she didn’t recognize me and I was like, “I’m one of the only white dudes walking around this school. How could you not know who I am?” [laughs] But [later] I was like, that’s awesome. Frederick Wiseman, I had read a long time ago, always talked about that. Always have your camera at the ready so they associate you with your camera. That was something that we wanted to achieve so we could get the intimacy.

TM: It definitely wasn’t a moment, but a process. Like Dan said, with our cameras, we became invisible and that’s when we knew we had embedded ourselves into the community. We weren’t so much of an anomaly anymore.

“Undefeated” opens in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark on February 17th before expanding into limited release.

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