AFI Docs 2021 Interview: Matt Ogens on the Decade-Long Game Plan for “Audible”

For most, the remarkable winning streak of the Maryland School for the Deaf Orioles on the football field, a run that involved five straight years of National Prep Championships and no losses to other deaf schools over 16 seasons, would’ve been a natural hook for a film, making an inevitable loss as much of a crushing blow for a filmmaker as it would be for the team if it happened on their watch. However, when it occurred while Matt Ogens was shooting “Audible,” the director took it in stride.

“At first, just as a human, I was heartbroken for them,” says Ogens. “But as a filmmaker, I take it either way. It’s a great story point and conflict, especially when they come back and end up doing great in the rest of the season. That was the only game they lost that season.”

After all, Ogens didn’t really need the Orioles on the field to believe in their success, knowing everything they had to go through simply to take the field. That was particularly true of Amaree Mckenstry-Hall, a defensive tackle who has already had more than his share of tragedy in his 18 years, losing a friend and teammate to suicide and estranged from his father, who abandoned his family at 25 and has since rededicated himself in recent years to spreading the gospel of the Lord. He has found strength in his friendships with Jalen, a cheerleader at the school, and Lera, who he may or may not be going steady with – they still need to decide, and has become a force on the football field and off because of his ability to persevere, partly as a result of never seeing his deafness as disability after he lost his hearing during a bout of meningitis when he was young.

Ogens is able to put an audience in Amaree’s shoes as “Audible” awakens all the senses, relaying the intense action on the gridiron by steadicam shots that emphasize the speed and fluidity of the game that gives a real feel to it and a meticulous use of sound to convey how he navigates the world instinctually through what information’s available to him. Following his previous film “Home and Away,” a feature in which sports were a gateway to a fascinating story about the U.S./Mexico border at Bowie High where some students had to cross countries every day, Ogens again finds the game revealing of character away from it and in the process puts everyone on a level playing field, no matter what there background is. Shortly before “Audible”’s premiere at AFI Docs to be followed on July 1st with a debut on Netflix, Ogens spoke about how he got to Maryland School for the Deaf, telling a story in a language that wasn’t his own and bringing audiences into the film.

How did this come about?

I knew about the school since I’m from DC, so I grew up only a half-hour [away] and also my best friend since I was a kid is deaf, but I stumbled upon the school ten years before I started filming because I also direct commercials. I directed a campaign for a brand at various high schools, following their football teams around the country and Maryland School for the Deaf was one of them, so it all felt like I was supposed to do something more with them. I stayed in touch with the school and I’d go visit when I’d go visit my family, and just in my gut knew I wanted to stick with it.

When I went back a couple years ago and met Amaree and Jaylen and Lira and their group of friends, I was like, “This feels right,” and I’m glad it took this long because I love Amarre’s story. Certainly, every kid there is worthy, but the timing of Amaree being a senior, his relationship with his father, his friendship with Jalen, the cheerleader, and their connection through Teddy, spoke to what the film’s about in a way that maybe in prior years I didn’t have. And the football player I profiled in the commercial many years ago is Coach Ryan, who’s the coach now. He was a player then, a star player then, so it just felt right. And then I connected with Peter Berg, who created “Friday Night Lights,” directed the movie and then the show and then Nyle DiMarco, who’s a deaf advocate and activist who actually went to Maryland School for the Deaf, it just all aligned.

It has some of the best football scenes this side of “Friday Night Lights” — were you getting tips on how to immerse the audience or did that come from experience?

I’ve shot a lot of sports content and [my last film] “Home and Away” was through the lens of high school athletes, so I knew how to cover that, but also [wanted to] better myself and challenge myself to do it in a more cinematic, stylized way, if I can and if appropriate. I wanted to make this film immersive, so hopefully I was able to bring people into their lives and those games. I [also] knew that even before I found Amaree, I wanted to make sound a character in the film, so we got some heavy hitters in music and sound — our composer Jackson Greenberg and Derek Vanderhorst and his whole sound design team — and had them work together to show the spectrum and range of sound from silence to very vibrant. Even the music feels [like the] bassy vibrational sounds that Amarre talks about.

It sounds like you grew up around enough deaf people you might know sign language…

I wish I could say I was fluent in it, and this is not an excuse, but I’ve filmed all over the world and if I had to learn every language I worked in, I would know 35 languages. And that’s a tough language to learn, but beautiful because it’s so physical. My producer Geoff McLean and I actually took ASL lessons for a couple months leading up to it — not enough that we could be fluent, but enough that we could show some respect and ask basic questions and understand a little bit here and there.

Does not knowing the language makes you more attentive in certain ways?

Certainly, and having worked in many languages with interpreters and even some tech that I use to get that in real time, I have a system and who you use as an interpreter matters too. You’re almost casting them. But I spend time with [my subjects] before we’re filming and connect with them and I can’t deny there’s a barrier if you can’t speak [the same] language, but it made me more present and much more mindful and attuned to their body language.

Was there anything that changed your ideas of what this could be?

I knew we were following Amaree and his friends in his senior year, and we’d have the season of football as a narrative arc, but then I don’t know what’s going to happen within that. I don’t know how the conversations are going to go or if relationships will stay or fall apart, so [once] I knew who my characters were and what they were dealing with, from there, [it was about] letting them be as they grow up. And I knew I wanted to find moments with them that just showed them as teenagers. Their social life is a big part of that when you’re a teenager, so I knew we were going to capture elements of that in some way, and I didn’t create [those moments] as much as [bringing a camera when I heard] “Hey, I’m having a party at Miguel’s house this weekend. If you guys want to come…” The homecoming dance was a school activity, so I knew I wanted to show life that was relatable, but I didn’t know what it was going to be.

What’s it like getting to the finish line with it and starting to send it out into the world?

Well, it’s not at the finish line yet. It’s just starting and it’s exciting. I’m mainly excited for everyone that worked on the film and was in the film and [for] the deaf community to see this because it’s as much for a deaf audience as a hearing audience.

“Audible” is screening virtually as part of AFI Docs in Shorts Program 6 through June 27th. It will premiere on Netflix on July 1st.

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