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How Little Eli Grew Up Before Our Eyes

Q&A: Undefeated Filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin

Sitting down with the directors of the Oscar-nominated documentary

Going into the 2009 season, the football team at Manassas High School in crime-ridden North Memphis hadn’t won a playoff game in its 110-year history. Yet because of Internet chatter about its offensive lineman with Division 1 potential, the team captured the attention of Los Angeles-based filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin. They spent nine months beginning in the fall of 2009 following the team, which resulted in the film Undefeated.

The movie tells the story of fiery Manassas coach Bill Courtney — whose passion for helping his players extends beyond football — and three of his troubled, talented charges — O.C. Brown, the D1 prospect; linebacker Chavis Daniels; and lineman Montrail “Money” Brown. Their struggles on and off the field recall the most inspiring and lacerating moments of Hoop Dreams and Friday Night Lights, and Undefeated was recently nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary. Grantland’s Davy Rothbart spoke with Lindsay and Martin about the origins of their film and their time in North Memphis.

How did the idea for this movie originate?

Dan Lindsay: Our producer, Rich Middlemas, is a huge fan of University of Tennessee football. He went to school there and has an unhealthy obsession with their athletic programs, to the point that he follows their recruiting and all the online message boards. One day, this high school player from Memphis named O.C. Brown popped up on one of these sites — everyone was talking about this YouTube video of him that had gone viral, relatively speaking. Rich was like, “I don’t know who this kid is. I need to know everything about him.”

He Googled his name, and this article from the local Memphis paper came up, which explained how during the week O.C. was living with one of his volunteer coaches in East Memphis — a really affluent area — and then spent weekends back with his grandmother in North Memphis, which is really impoverished. Rich forwarded the article to us and we sparked to the idea of this teenage kid who is being shuttled between two completely disparate worlds. The idea of exploring his senior year, as all this attention was about to be thrust on him, felt like it had potential.

When did your concept for the film evolve to include O.C. Brown’s coach and some of his teammates?

Lindsay: On our first trip to Memphis, we met O.C.’s high school coach, Bill Courtney, who’s just this completely dynamic, compelling guy. Bill started telling us stories about the history of the Manassas High School football program and his involvement there. Bill owned a business in the neighborhood and had reached out to the school to see if he could help out in any way. At the time, it was just this hopeless varsity football team with 17 players and ratty equipment. Bill committed himself to rebuilding the program.

After five seasons, he’d built Manassas into an actual program that was starting to win games. The upcoming season, which was going to be O.C.’s senior year, was also the senior year for a bunch of guys that Bill had convinced to stick around North Memphis and go to school at Manassas, instead of going off to other high schools that had more established programs. Our thought was: Let’s focus on the whole team and follow them for a full season as they attempt to win the first playoff game in the school’s history.

When you first showed up in North Memphis with video cameras, how did the players respond? Was there any initial awkwardness or difficulty?

T.J. Martin: Surprisingly enough, most players dropped their guards pretty quickly. I don’t think they fully understood the scope of the project, but everyone knows about reality television, so that was probably their closest point of comparison. Within the first couple of weeks, when we saw how emotionally candid they were in front of the camera, we decided to just keep our crew really scaled down. For the most part, it was just Dan and me and our producer. We felt that people would continue to open up to us if it didn’t become some gigantic production.

Beyond the players, we still had to earn the trust of the greater community. Some of the teachers and parents were a bit more wary of our presence. In that neighborhood, if there’s any kind of media attention, it’s often people coming in just to do a quick, sensationalized news story about how violent the neighborhood is. Here we were, outsiders, saying, “We want to tell your story.”

The way we seemed to earn people’s trust and respect was simply to be there without fail. We’d show up every day for practice, show up for school, and we’d even be there to shoot stuff like the high school talent show. It became clear that we were committing to them, committing to their story, that we wanted to tell their story responsibly, and that we weren’t just in and out.

How did you choose which players to center your attention on?

Martin: Going in, we couldn’t have known what was going to happen in any of these guys’ lives, but we tried to pick out characters that had the potential for some sort of dramatic arc. There was something they wanted and they were either going to get it or they weren’t. We ended up with a movie about a couple of linemen and a linebacker. At times during the season we laughed about that. Halfway through production, we were like, “Oh man. Maybe we should be interviewing the quarterback or the people scoring all the touchdowns.” Ultimately, it was more about finding the characters that were most interesting to us, no matter what position they played.

Undefeated seems similar to documentaries like Hoop Dreams, which use sports as a lens to look at larger issues, including the economic inequalities of American cities. Was Hoop Dreams among your inspirations for this film?

Lindsay: It’s probably our favorite documentary. Sports tend to be a great way to attack some of these issues, though our goal is not to get on a soapbox and preach to people. For us, this was an opportunity to tell a human-interest story and a story about characters who find themselves in very difficult circumstances. Sports is something we all understand — there are clearly defined winners and losers — so a film like this can sometimes be a way to get everybody thinking about things in our society that aren’t easy to talk about. We never want to dictate what people should think, but simply present a world in a way that elicits conversation.

What other documentaries have inspired your work? I noticed that Seth Gordon, who directed King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, was a producer on Undefeated.

Lindsay: A big one for both of us is [Chris Smith's] American Movie. It’s about the drive to create art, but it’s also a portrait of working-class life in Milwaukee. I’m also a big fan of [Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's] Brother’s Keeper.

Lindsay: Seth Gordon and his producing partner Ed Cunningham were onboard with Undefeated from the beginning. Seth thought the story had a lot of potential and really helped our film get made. He was also invaluable to us in the post-production process. When we’d get lost in the footage, he was able to come in and give us a set of objective eyes. Seth started out as an editor, so it was great to be able to run different cuts by him and get his take on each edit.

Undefeated is filled with moments of extreme rawness and intimacy. Did your own emotional investment in your subjects’ lives ever make it a challenge to film critical scenes?

Lindsay: To make the film, we moved to Memphis for nine months. We went and spent every day with these guys — at school, at practice — and spent all of our free time with them, too. Naturally, you become really attached and very much a part of their lives. So their successes and failures hit you hard. Sometimes it kills you because you see them making mistakes and you want to intervene and help them out. There were several times when I had to collect myself after filming a scene because I was overcome with so much emotion. I had to put the camera down and just take a breath.

Martin: I’d get teary-eyed, too, but the thrilling moments were equally hard to film, because we’d get so wrapped up in the games. You can watch the raw footage we shot and right when they’re about to score a touchdown, all of a sudden one of the cameras just starts panning away because we’re going crazy cheering for them. We’d be like, “Oh wait, we’re supposed to be doing a job.”

Undefeated opens in theaters across the country today.

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