Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine on Giving an Extra Kick to “LFG”

"LFG"
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It was almost a little too on the nose that Sean Fine found himself on a soccer field he wasn’t supposed to be on when what became the climatic moment in “LFG,” his latest film with Andrea Nix Fine, was unfolding at the same time across the country. The thought of sneaking past the gates onto the pitch had crossed Fine’s mind throughout the making of a film about the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team when their governing body, the U.S. Soccer Federation, had largely prevented access to their games, given it was going to be about their legal fight for equal pay, and now when he finally did so to give his son some time outdoors at the height of the pandemic in 2020, he had to appreciate the irony of once again finding himself on the outside after he and Nix Fine had worked so hard to get the inside story.

“It was a Friday night and we get this text [saying], ‘Summary Judgement came in,’ and I’m like, “What?!?” said Fine, with an incredulous laugh. “And our whole team is texting players, [saying] ‘Just give us your reaction.’”

“LFG” was always made with the intention of closing gaps, so while the filmmakers behind such films as “War/Dance” and “Life According to Sam” may have been caught off-guard, they were hardly unprepared, having outfitted as many members of the team as they could with their own camera equipment (more on this later). And what they managed to capture is every bit as ferocious as one expects of soccer stars such as Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn when they take the field, only “LFG” makes their dedication to the game all the more impressive when they are engaged in a bitter battle over their rightful compensation, making significantly less than their male counterparts despite bringing in more income as a more successful – and popular – team.

When the U.S. women’s team lawsuit in March 2019 coincides with their winning run to glory in the World Cup, “LFG” allows one into the fascinating funhouse mirror the athletes experienced of public adoration and private heartbreak as backroom negotiations are endlessly frustrating and the women’s team couldn’t be more celebrated with parades in their honor and their jerseys selling out in stores, though they hardly see any of the proceeds. Despite this abominable treatment, the Fines resist a somber tone, taking their cues from the team, not only borrowing the squad’s rallying cry, “Let’s Fuckin’ Go” for the film’s title, but keeping upbeat and up tempo as eye-popping infographics to outline egregious details of the case and the film’s frenetic pacing allows for the collective power of the players to emerge when so many have a chance to add their voice and cover so much ground.

After premiering earlier this year on HBO Max, “LFG” is still kicking up a storm as it enters the fall awards season conversation and recently the directing duo spoke about how they were able to hurdle over any obstacle that was thrown at them, whether it was by the U.S. Soccer Federation or COVID, in order to do justice to the story of the women’s pursuit of a fair contract.

On one hand, this seemed like a complete departure from your other work, but then I started hearing about the connections you had to the material, like Sean having sports photographers in the family and Andrea being an athlete – were you actually looking for something like this?

Sean Fine: When the lawsuit dropped, it really came to us through Every Woman Studios and Abby Greensfelder just said, “It’s interesting this is happening and I don’t think anyone’s telling this story.” Generally if something’s happening in the news, as a documentarian, it’s [a question of] how do you follow that at the same time the news is and get ahead of it and how do you tell that story differently? What made us really want to do it is the more we looked into the history of it, this has been going on since the ‘99ers and even before then, and then the comments that people were making after the women dropped the lawsuit – not just on social media, but also in the press [where] people going after them — it was interesting what they were up against.

Andrea Nix Fine: There was a discrepancy about what the truth really was. There’s a lot of misunderstandings about these women and what they’re worth and their value. Like “Of course, the men make more for the federation. [The women] have got some hutzpah filing this lawsuit and men always get more eyeballs.” But it’s really easy to find that’s not true, and we [thought], “Alright, if this isn’t true, and how hard it is to file a lawsuit, there’s got to be something there.” The more we looked into it, we saw this [situation] is really misunderstood and then of course, these women are great characters and they had really shut the wall on talking about this more than in soundbite stuff. They had never let anybody in, so we knew it would be a challenge.

Sean Fine: And sport [generally] is a really hard thing to make documentaries on, especially athletes. We made a film about Lindsay Vonn a long time ago, which we really like but [athletes] are so scheduled. They have so much going on that it’s very hard to do what we like to do, which is get into their lives, get behind the curtain.

Andrea Nix Fine: But I played soccer and I love the sport and I just think these women are so good at it. It’s incredibly powerful to watch them do their thing and every year, it gets stronger, better, faster and you see it in their play, so the thought we could do this and you’re like, “This is amazing, it’s a great story and we’ll get to film some soccer with them,” which of course proved to be a little difficult because U.S. Soccer owns that door to walk through…

Sean Fine: But letting them open that door for our camera to be there at some very vulnerable times, that’s often times why we make films. It’s also a David and Goliath story. If you look at any of our films, it’s usually the person that’s not being heard trying to be heard, so we said to ourselves, “Hey, I think this is a story worth telling” but the way we like to tell stories, which is in their voice, from their perspective.

You mentioned making a film about Lindsay Vonn and that’s just one athlete – is it a greater challenge to spread your focus out across an entire team?

Sean Fine: Challenge is an understatement. [laughs]

Andrea Nix Fine: It’s really hard. It takes a village – you have a whole team and then you have their legal council and then the PR side [to navigate] and you know you want to tell it from not one person’s point of view, but you can’t interview the whole team. Since we don’t do narrators, you have to make sure you can bring the lawsuit [into the narrative] through the players’ experience, and you have to have people working deeply in the lawsuit and can speak about it intelligently. That part was actually pretty easy. All these women are so smart and had put so much time and intellectual power into it [that] they could almost be lawyers – some of them I think have a second career coming that way. But it was really hard to balance it and whose story and how much of the backstory you bring in since you can’t go into every person’s backstory, so while we do bring in a number of voices, we do look at Megan Rapinoe’s journey and Jessica McDonald’s journey…

Sean Fine: Yeah, because here’s a famous player you think you know about because you’ve read everything and she’s out in the media all the time, but I think we showed a different side of her, showing [she and Jessica are] very similar in what they’re going through and yet very different in their upbringings…

Andrea Nix Fine: Yeah, and that the financial circumstances are quite different. Jessica McDonald’s been playing soccer professionally for years, yet she’s barely making ends meet, [which is how] a lot of how these women are going through professional careers. They have to have second jobs.

Sean Fine: And you have to understand how somebody who has played their whole life in professional soccer, that’s a full-time job. Just like Tom Brady’s job, you hear about his diet and his physicality and his workout and people emulate everything he does — that’s all he concentrates on. The same with Jessica McDonald, it’s just that Jessica McDonald has to do two other jobs to make ends meet and then if she makes the U.S. National Team, that’s money on top of it, but that’s not a secure thing forever, so you had to understand that in the film because then [you know] what’s it like for that person to sign their name to a lawsuit against the person they dreamed their whole life about working for. That person can dictate whether they can become super-famous and achieve a dream or not, and if they don’t value you as an individual and as a player, things need to shift.

One of the great stylistic qualities of the film is how energetic it is in how it’s paced and edited where you’re expressing something about these athletes in how it’s cut together and how you’re imparting information. Did that come naturally?

Andrea Nix Fine: We put a lot of thought and craft into making sure the ride that this film takes you on feels like them. You meet them and they just have this cocksureness about them and it’s not arrogance necessarily, it’s just a power and a confidence. They have a swagger and it’s unapologetic. And the last really big soccer film that was made was called “Dare to Dream,” about the ‘99ers, so if you take that and now you look at “LFG” — [an acronym for “Let’s Fucking Go”] that was their mantra, it just felt like “God, this is them,” so we started to think, “What does that look like?” Even though you wouldn’t think of a Guy Ritchie reference, that’s what we started thinking about with the layout of information — [in] “Snatch” and those other films, I love that a lot of information is condensed in a really short piece of media.

And when we met Jeffrey Kessler, the lawyer, he could handle that. He is the most comfortable person looking into the camera that we’ve ever interviewed hands down. He’s a trial lawyer, and he’s like “I’m going to give it to you,” so working with that information had the same swagger in some ways as the sound and the look and the graphics.

Sean Fine: And Andrea won’t say this, but usually as a filmmaker you try a bunch of different opens, and even from the on-set, Andrea was the first person to say, this film needs to be called “LFG” or “Let’s Fucking Go,” and a lot of people were like, “Are people going to understand that?” Or “What are little girls going to think.” And she was like, “It’s LFG, it’s the mantra for the film. It’s in your face. These are these players. We open this way.” And I’m grateful that Andrea stuck to her guns because it set the tone for everything else – for the graphics, for the [music] — I used to go to a lot of punk rock shows in Washington D.C., so we were looking at old posters from riot grrl bands and old punk rock bands.

Andrea Nix Fine: Union Editorial we worked on with the graphics and they took that punk rock poster [idea] and started playing with it and came up with a very poppy color scheme that was a lot of fun. And the two groups we worked with [for the music] were wonderful. Barking Owl is a woman-owned music collective, kind of new on the scene and they really just got it immediately. Then even the credit music, when you hear that, there’s an artist named Charm [La’Donna] that watched the film and they put themselves inside the studio for 24 hours and wrote it after watching it and that was so great because something spoke to them from the film and it was inspired by the women themselves.

Sean Fine: And like all our films, we work with our editor Jeff Consiglio and you talk about pacing, he picked up on that right away and he was able to bring that to this too. He doesn’t know soccer at all, which was fascinating, to try and watch him navigate this and figure out some of the game footage.

Andrea Nix Fine: Yeah, making sure you don’t make two different films, like a soccer film crossed with a legal film. We worked a long time on how to structure this, so it’s chronological, unfolding with the lawsuit, but at the same time, you’re trying to jump out and go back in time to meet some of the players, explain what’s going on with the lawsuit and then jump back in.

Sean Fine: And also to have that structure where I hope people realize this is a year after they won they won the World Cup. It should’ve been a year of celebrating and holding this team up, yet you see in the film, it’s a year of constant disrespect by their employer and a constant fight for them and what that must be like day after day [which is why you] keep seeing that day marker flip, flip, flip as you go through the film.

From what I understand March 6, 2020 was a momentous day because you had to completely reconfigure the shoot because of COVID. What was it like figuring out how to put cameras in the hands of your subjects and what was it like to start seeing what kind of footage you’d get back?

Sean Fine: Yeah, Andrea once again called it – we were in New York, shooting Jeffrey Kessler and we started to come home and Andrea said, “What’s happening now is going to be big. Things are going to start locking down.” And we got home that night, I started to read up more on what was going on and I was like, “You’re right and we pulled our kids out of school and then we immediately returned our attention to the film and like, ‘Okay, how are we going to tell this story if we can’t travel anywhere?’ We also immediately said to ourselves, “Everybody in production is going to start buying everything they can to do mobile shooting, so how are we going to do this?” We developed quickly a foolproof camera system that we could send out to all of our characters in the film that they could film themselves by just turning on the camera. It was quite difficult to figure out [because] these are soccer players, they’re not camera people and they’re used to filming themselves with their phone, but we didn’t want their phone, we wanted a little bit better and a little easier, so we had to make this whole set-up — a box that you open and in it was instructions to set it up and then there’s the process of how do you upload your footage. Some of the players only had iPads, and no camera connects to an iPad and when you can’t leave your apartment, it’s not like you can go somewhere to upload it, so we figured out a whole system.

All of a sudden, little bits and pieces would come back. I think Jessica was the first person that embraced it and said, “This is awesome during COVID,” and she’s like filming her kid and because we got the camera to Jessica early, it was around March 8th when they had that big game, The She Believes Cup, and she had her camera on her, so she took it in the locker room with her. That’s a place you just don’t bring a camera, but that footage, [which is] only two or three shots, is an unbelievable moment. They say, “Let’s fucking go” as they leave and they’re so upset and so resolute and having her perspective to do that just meant the world to us. Then from there on, other players started filming themselves and we were able to speak to them at certain moments and get their reactions to things.

Andrea Nix Fine: Yeah, I’m so grateful they let us in because one of these things that we quickly learned about these players is that they’re in front of cameras a lot and they’re really media savvy, [which] they try to use to their advantage all the time, but [when it’s in relation to the lawsuit] you’re really vulnerable because you just don’t know what’s going to happen in this case. At one point, we were talking to one of the players later on and they were moved to tears a little bit, trying to explain, “I just hope that people don’t turn on us because of it.” They just weren’t sure what it was going to mean, and how much they had to trust us to [allow us to film] and let us into a legal case, [where] we worked really, really carefully with the lawyers to do no harm or [break] confidentiality, so [when the summary judgment came in], we said, “Guys, if you hear anything, let us know,” and quite honestly, no one expected to get that answer like that that the judge gave at that point. It caught the law team off-guard, it caught the players off-guard…

Sean Fine: It was a Friday night and our son plays soccer and we snuck on a field to play, just me and him and we get this text and it’s like, “Summary Judgement came in,” and I’m like, “What?!?” And the whole team is like texting players, just give us your reaction.

Andrea Nix Fine: It really meant the world that all of the players opened themselves up to us that day because that was hard and we couldn’t use the audio. But it was a weird gift in that way because you’re sitting with them, you’re inside their kitchens and they’re sitting on their couch…

Sean Fine: Megan’s with her girlfriend walking around in her kitchen behind her. It’s so real and raw. For me as a cinematographer, I’m like, “This is horrible. I want to be there filming this.” [laughs] But at the same time, it’s probably the first time I ever embraced these little cameras because there’s just something relatable, warts and all. In this moment, they’re like here I am in my living room, more upset than I’ve been in years and I’m going to film this. So it was an incredible gift that they trusted us so much and thought this was so important that they would click their cameras on. In all of our films, there’s one or two moments that you work really hard to get close to people and you’re gifted a moment in their life to truly show their lowest or their highest point in life — or in your story — and that to me was this point. I felt very proud of the work we had done to get close to them and felt very proud they trusted us in that moment.

You’ve started a new production company, Change Content, which I imagine has been in the works for some time. Is LFG indicative of what you want to be doing moving forward?

Sean Fine: Yeah, definitely. Our films have always created change and we believe in the ripple effect. We’ve seen it from “War/Dance,” “L’Innocente” to “Life According to Sam” — a well-made film that is entertaining on an issue or a topic can move mountains, so that’s what we want to do. We want to scale that on an enormous level and we also want to create a platform where other voices can be heard in filmmaking. We’re filmmakers, so we know what that feels like and we want to make a space where other filmmakers that are having trouble trying to get their stories out there, we can help them do that and try to diversify the landscape a little bit.

Andrea Nix Fine: And the other part we’re really excited by is that the two ideas that we like with anything we’ve done is “true stories, true impact” because we’re moving into limited series and narrative work — different kinds of things where it’s all a true story of someone’s incredible experience and we have a whole bunch of these ideas that we’re already starting to unpack and in different phases of development on and it feels great because it’s a natural progression for us. The funny thing about documentaries is sometimes you’re like, “Oh, I wish I could cover it in different ways,” but if I could put it into a limited series or narrative, you get to be a little bit more intentional about how you can do that.

Sean Fine: And even in this film, we were speaking to the CEO of Title Nine, the women’s clothing brand who watched our film and donated a million dollars to the players association after watching “LFG.” And P&G has come onboard to help with an impact campaign for the film that we’re going through – every film has an impact campaign baked into it as well. So we’re very excited about this company and what we can do to help make change in the world with film.