“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Justin Gilbert, the first-year men’s basketball head coach of the Medora Hornets, can be overheard saying in the opening frames of the new film “Medora.” His team has just added another loss to a losing streak that predates his tenure and his face is as bright red as the color of his school color-coordinated shirt. Yet what is going on in the small Indiana farming community is no joke, a place where the local high school comprised of roughly 70-80 students a year is one of the few vestiges of life left in the town after the plastic factory and the local brick layer closed and all that remains are trailer parks.
Still, what co-directors Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart find in Medora isn’t as dire as it seems at first, watching the town’s youngest generation fight against intimidating opponents on the court, where their competition from more populous schools pick from a greater pool of athletes, and off, where most of the young men don’t have fathers and the lack of things to do on a Saturday night is bound to get them into trouble. However, “Medora” develops into something quite fun on its own as the teens try their best to reverse their fortunes, pushed forward by a pep squad that still makes banners for them and a town that still turns out en masse for their home games, and demonstrate the dignity and distinction that refuse to let such communities fade quietly into the night.
Recently, Cohn and Rothbart took the time to talk about how they found their way to the basketball-loving town and why such places are always worth the stop off the highway, how their backgrounds in magazines help inform what they do as filmmakers and introducing some of the members of the Medora Hornets to their first plane ride as they tour the country with the film.
Since I understand it might have a thematic relationship to the film, how did the two of you meet?
Davy Rothbart: Andrew and I are from Ann Arbor, Michigan. We were bitter rivals. There was a just a gym at a elementary school that our friends would play at and we met years ago on the basketball court. We discovered a shared love of documentary film and we’d argue about what the best documentaries were of all time.
Our incredible producer Rachel Dengiz is also from Ann Arbor and after we read this article in The New York Times about Medora, this town where the factory is going to shut down and then this basketball team that never wins, we drove down to Medora the next day. We met the coaches and some of the players and watched the practice. We also wandered around the town and it’s just eerie. We went to the lone bar in town, the Perry Street Tavern and had a couple drinks, talked to the bartender and some of the other patrons. We just thought, this town’s amazing. It’s part of another time almost. It’s between two small towns, [where] you have to turn off of a two-lane highway and go six miles further into the cornfields. And yet the town persists.
The factory shut down, but people still live there and they still hold on to the town’s identity. They still are passionate about their high school basketball team, even a team that’s won only a handful of games in the past 10 years. We didn’t know the individual players’ stories, but we felt that once we got to know them that some really incredible stories would emerge. And they certainly did. We convinced the town that the school board and the players, the coaches that our heart was in the right place and we wanted to make a sensitive, respectful documentary about all the challenges they were facing and the courage it took to face those challenges. We came down with cameras and some friends and shot for one season, then another year going back and we came away with 600 hours of footage.
Because there was that big New York Times article, did you find that people in Medora were actually more open to talking to you or possibly less?
Andrew Cohn: That was a huge obstacle for us. The people in the town were not happy with the New York Times article. John Branch, who wrote it, is a great writer, and there’s nothing in the article that’s not true. The article is a great article, but for some reason, the people in the town felt like it didn’t cast the best light. Being that way from day one, it actually took us a year to get permission to make the film.
We’re not the only filmmakers that read the New York Times, so they were really bombarded by a lot of different outlets that wanted to do a film. In the ballsiest move ever, this town of 500 said “no” to everyone. ESPN, David Duchovny, all these huge production companies and us as well. They just didn’t feel like it was something they wanted to do.
It was really personal for me because I spent a lot of time there. I saw what happened in that town. Both my parents are from Indiana, went to IU. It’s not a world that’s foreign to me. I think a lot of filmmakers if they would walk into Perry Street Tavern would be a little intimidated or feel out of place. It couldn’t be more opposite for me and Davy. My uncle owns the only bar in Earl Park, Indiana, a smaller town than Medora, if you can believe it. I grew up in that bar. And every time I would go back to visit my mom in Indianapolis for holidays, I’d just go down and watch a game. Sometimes Davy would come with me and I would go down and hang out with the coaches. I just went with persistence. They gave us permission two weeks before the season started.
Normally, you’d have six months or a year to get together funding and pre-production and plan everything, but I had to be like, “Okay, I’m still going to sublet my apartment here in New York, move to Indiana with my girlfriend. Davy’s going to meet me there. We’re going to get a motel and we’re just going to start shooting.” And that’s how it started.
You both have backgrounds in film, but are perhaps better known as writers and one of the things that I loved a lot was the detail in the framing where every shot seems to tell it’s own story. Did you find those skills carry over from one medium to another?
DR: Definitely. We filmed in these kids’ bedrooms, in their homes. Sometimes you see younger siblings hanging out, taking in the scene. There’s a military recruiter who comes to Logan Farmer’s house to tell him about why he should join the Army. You can see his little brother sitting there taking it all in. Andrew and I write this magazine called Found Magazine that’s all notes and letters that people find on the ground or on the street. Sometimes just a fragment of a story sparks your imagination and you imagine what the rest of the story is.
So often we’ve been driving around the country doing Found Magazine tours and we’ve seen a trailer park behind some old battered billboard along the side of the Interstate and we’ve often wondered, who are those kids, what are their stories? So it was a really profound moment to one day be filming and look up in one of the kids’ front yard, and saw this highway past this old abandoned billboard. I was like, “Wow, we are in these kids’ homes that we’ve always wondered about.” Just to spend time inside these kids’ houses, to get to meet their families is really telling and it helps to get a better sense of what these communities are about.
AC: It’s also interesting that for two co-directors, we barely ever butted heads. We wanted to make the same movie. We wanted to make a movie where things were happening in real time. My favorite documentaries are movies that unfold in front of you. When Dylan meets his dad, it’s not him about him talking about meeting his dad, it’s not him reflecting. You see him meet his dad. To getthose intimate moments, you really have to put in the time and the energy to really get to know your subjects. You can’t just show up and expect people to open up to you.
For Davy and I, it was a really great joy to get to know these kids and we’re still really close with them. You can’t fake that. You just show up and you’re genuine and you really have an interest and care and you’re listening. You open up about yourself. In a way, we became friends with these kids. I think that comes across in the movie.
One of the things that also really comes through is that you obviously both love basketball, which must be hard to translate to the screen in an interesting way. Was it difficult?
DR: It’s hard to convey the drama of a game. When you’re there, you feel it and you look around the gym and see the intensity on everybody’s faces, but to communicate that in a film is not always the easiest thing. That’s where the editing skills of Andrew and Vanessa [Roworth] came into play. My favorite shots are the looks on the people’s faces. Even those, sometimes it’s one of the player’s family members who you’ve met already in the film, sometimes it’s just a townsperson.
AC: As an editor, it was a challenge weaving [all that] together.This has three elements – the story of the kids, the story of the town and the story of the season. Weaving those things together to make it not three different movies was definitely a challenge.
I’ve heard there’s been some remarkable things that have happened already because of this film – for some of the Medora kids, the premiere at SXSW was the first time they went on a plane. What’s it been like to travel with this film?
DR: Dylan and Robby came down to Austin and they’d never really left Indiana, so for them to run around town with us was awesome. Also, for them to feel the love of the audience. I told them, “When people see this movie, they’re going to fall in love with you.”On the streets of Austin for days afterwards, people would be shouting out, “Go Hornets!” They would want to give them high fives and hugs.
Sharing the experience with the kids has been really gratifying. What’s exciting is over the next couple of months many of the kids from Medora are going to get a chance to come with us to some of these special screenings. Dylan and Rusty are coming to New York City for our New York City premiere. Zack is coming out to LA and San Francisco with Dylan. We’re having a special screening in Bloomington where the entire team is going to be there at IU Cinema.
I don’t know that the kids fully realize just how courageous and resilient they are and how moving and affecting that is for other people. It’s going to be really wonderful in the months to come for them to get a little bit of the love that they deserve for being such special people.
“Medora” opens on November 8th in Los Angeles at the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and in New York at the Village East Cinema. A full list of screenings across the country can be found here.