After a raucous ovation practically ripped off the roof of the Stateside Theater in Austin, Texas as the end credits started to roll on “First Match,” a harbinger of the Audience Award it would win later that week at SXSW, writer/director Olivia Newman looked relieved when she confessed that it had been six months since she had watched the film, after thinking about nonstop for nearly the decade prior.
“It was so nice for me to have some space away from the movie,” Newman said recently, with some distance from the premiere in Austin. “When you’re finishing a film, you’re watching it for every little tiny detail that you can fix, whether it’s in the sound or the color correction or the edit. You’re so focused on minutiae that you stop seeing it as a whole piece, so watching it in that theater was the first time I’d seen the movie as a movie. Of course, when we were editing it, I was loving the performances, but I was just taken into the film and I shut off that critical voice in my head and felt all these emotions that I hadn’t felt in a really long time, so to me, that was the biggest gift of being able to watch it at South By with an audience.”
Though it happens to all filmmakers, there’s some irony to Newman becoming numb to the thrills of her own film, not only because of how potent they are, but also in how insightful a portrait she’s crafted of a fierce young woman named Mo (Elvire Emanuelle) who spends much of “First Match” fighting with those same critical voices in her head. Shuttled from one foster home to another, Mo has given up on the idea of dependence on anyone but herself when her biological father Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) reappears in her life, intrigued with her newfound interest in wrestling at her high school in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn, where poverty remains an oppressive force, but wealth seeps out in other ways, breeding a steady stream of gifted athletes such as Mike Tyson and rappers such as RZA, Sean Price and Ka. Mo is obviously a standout too, at first in insisting on wrestling on a boys’ wrestling team, but then in easily bringing down opponents on the mat, her skills suggested to be naturally tied to her father in some ways, but also her anxieties, particularly when Darrel grooms her to start making cash on the side in underground fights.
Finding Mo at such an impressionable age, “First Match” is as compelling in watching her wrestle with other people as it is with herself, learning to trust her own instincts and growing a steely determination that increasingly supplies a brash facade with an stronger feeling of self-worth. To see this reconciliation of Mo’s inner and external selves is glorious in itself, particularly when she’s portrayed as ferociously as she is by newcomer Elvire Emanuelle in a true starmaking turn, but it’s even more triumphant knowing what Newman went through to get her story up onscreen, told by scores of potential financiers that the film was unfundable as a script for the feature made its way through the Sundance Writers Lab and the short its based on collected awards on the festival circuit. (Seven years later, Newman notes with a laugh that she still gets requests to screen it, though it can be seen right here.)
By making great use of the time to get deeper and deeper into the Brownsville community, intent on authentically capturing the culture in all its vibrancy, Newman creates an indelible sense of place inside of the kind of rousing crowdpleaser Hollywood is known for, filled with clever auteurist touches such as a gradually shifting color palette that reflects Mo’s outsider status and a liveliness that could only emerge from a film as comfortable in its own skin as “First Match” is. Sharing a bit of Brownsville with the world quite literally as “First Match” makes its debut on Netflix, Newman spoke about how immersing herself in the neighborhood shaped her first feature and the interaction between real life and filmmaking that helped make it feel so fresh and resonant.
When I cast Nyassa [Bakker], a wrestler from Brownsville, to be in the short, we became friends and I got to know some of the other girls on her team and that really then informed the script for the feature that explored some of the stories that Nyassa had shared with me about growing up in Brownsville and also explored the experience of being a young girl wrestler, living in foster care, desperate for what she thinks of as a real family, and inadvertently finding out that she can find that love in other places, like on a boys’ wrestling team. The feature is such a different story [than the short] and really delves more into growing up in this very specific part of New York and looking at the father/daughter story under more scrutiny. So it feels like the two in some ways are not really related storywise, but the short was a great way of showing people, “Look, I had worked with the wrestling community in New York and I know what I need to do to shoot wrestling authentically” and I was able to work with a lot of the same wrestling organizations that were able to help me make the short, so having had that experience was hugely helpful when it came to making the feature.
You actually note in the end credits “This movie couldn’t be made without…” an organization called Beat the Streets. How did they help?
Beat the Streets is this amazing nonprofit organization that brings wrestling into the New York City public schools. They help pay coaches’ salaries, they provide the mats and equipment, when necessary, and their mission is to really get more kids from New York City exposed to wrestling, but they’re really looking at wrestling as a way to help the kids in all facets of their life. They believe that the training you receive as a wrestler also helps shape [your] mentality, self-discipline and commitment – [qualities] you can apply to other aspects of your life – and [they try to prepare] the kids so that they’re getting wrestling scholarships to college and provide afterschool tutoring and college guidance. I stumbled upon this organization because I was trying to find wrestlers to be in my short film and wanted to learn about wrestling and it turned out that a dear family friend’s son, who was a wrestler at Columbia, was on the board of this organization. He and his wife, who was the team leader for the women’s Olympics wrestling team, became really an essential part of helping us crew up our wrestlers and they provided the mats that we used in the film. I can’t say enough about how important our relationship with Beat the Streets was and a bunch of their coaches actually ended up training Elvire and our other actors in the movie.
[laughs] Well, with Nyassa, you are a wrestler for years and years and you develop a close relationship with your coaches and I’m sure they impart all kinds of coachy wisdom to their wrestlers. For Elvire, Mike Torriero was a coach with Beat the Streets for many years and had actually stopped coaching for a little while, but we pulled him out of retirement and made him take this on because I knew he was just an amazing coach. He trained [Elvire] a few mornings a week and he was so impressed with Elvire and really built her confidence, even when she was tired or things were hurting, he’d give her that tough love that a coach gives to keep going. he and I came up with the choreography together [because] he knew what kinds of moves she would be able to do with so little training and actually be able to really sell, and in just being who he is and coaching the way he coaches, I think he also taught her about the kind of dynamic that wrestlers have with their coaches. They can often be really brutal. It’s like boot camp. There’s no letting you off the hook. You’ve got to work. So I think she learned about the wrestling and relationship dynamics between coach and wrestler by going through that training with an actual wrestling coach.
What was it on her audition tape that convinced you Elvire should be the star of this?
I saw so many audition tapes by wonderful, wonderful young actresses, but I was looking for somebody who I believe grew up in Brooklyn and I hoped I could find somebody who I believed could grow up in Brownsville. It’s a very subtle thing, but each neighborhood and the circumstances of your life affect the way you carry yourself and Elvire tapped into that. When I saw her audition tape, I believed her. I believed her anger. I believed her vulnerability. She felt like somebody who was from Brooklyn and sure enough, she and I discovered later when she was walking around Brownsville for the first time, a couple weeks before production, that she was actually born and raised there for the first few years of her life, which I didn’t know and she didn’t even know when I cast her. That just ended up being this magical coincidence, but Elvire is somebody who is deeply empathic and she feels things on such a deep level. She wasn’t putting anything on. She was very natural and there’s no pretending to feel something, so when she drops into an emotional place with the character, she’s there. She’s just in it. That really was what I was looking for, and even in that first audition tape, I believed her immediately.
You’re also working with one of my very favorite cinematographers Ashley Connor, who seems to be able to get a camera just about anywhere. What was that collaboration like?
Ashley is a beast. She’s unbelievable. She has such an amazing eye and such an amazing, instinctive understanding of the emotions of the story at all times. One of the reasons I wanted to work with her [was because] I knew we had to shoot this handheld because we had such a tight schedule that we had to run and gun it when necessary, and Ashley loves doing those shots where she’s literally running alongside the actor or getting right inside of her POV. Ashley can completely inhabit the subjective experience, which was so important to me for the visual style of the film, and she got on the mat with Elvire during the training sessions. She asked if she could train with her, so she could inhabit the body of a wrestler and see what that was going to feel like so that when she was shooting the wrestling scenes, she would know how low she was going to need to crouch and what were the important moves we were going to have to capture. But she also is always so in tune with what are we emotionally trying to tell, not just covering it, so if we were rushing through a scene, we would often step aside and be like, “What is the most essential moment that we have to make sure we get and how can we get that efficiently?” So yeah… I bow down to Ashley Connor.
I understand there was a constant mix of professionals and nonprofessionals on set – do you encourage those two groups to rub off on one another to get the authenticity that you do?
Yeah, I knew that I needed to fill in the team with actual wrestlers in order to really capture the [reality] — yesterday, we had a private cast and crew screening and Jackie Davis, who runs the girls’ wrestling league in New York, was there and she was commenting on the banter you hear between the wrestlers on the bus. She said, “Oh my God, that’s exactly how they talk” and we do these dance parties on the bus [exactly as you see in the film] and I knew that was stuff that you can only get if you actually have wrestlers in your movie. If you say [to them during a scene], “Okay, this is just the bus ride home from practice – go,” they just are themselves. You can’t fake that stuff. Similarly, when we were casting background [actors] for the girls’ fights, we cast from Brownsville. We just put up signs and recruited people from within the community and many of them were very aware of these underground fight clubs. Some of them may have even been to them.
There was this one story I like to tell where we were shooting the big [underground] fight scene and at a certain point, the cops get wind of these fights and break it up. In the script, I had written a line for the MC, who said, “5-0, 5-0, clear out.” And [I could hear] the background actors whispering [to each other] and I said, “What’s going on?” And they said, “No, no, it’s fine. It’s fine.” And I said, “Tell me, what are you guys talking about?” And they said, “Well…we don’t really say 5-0. That’s really dated. But it’s your film. Do what you want.” And I said, “No, no, tell me if that’s dated, what do you say in Brownsville.” And then there was this discussion of what do they call the police in the Bronx versus Brooklyn versus Brownsville. [laughs] Eventually, we all agreed “The Jake” was the right term to use. That kind of collaboration and feedback is something that I thought out for the whole [film], from script to screen. Any kind of feedback I could get from readers of all different backgrounds and creeds, doing table reads with teenagers from Brownsville to make sure that my dialogue felt authentic, tapping into as many experts as you can and involve in all the different realms of the movie — that for me is part of the wonderful process of making a movie.