On the Clock: The Writing and Making of ‘Draft Day’

Our road to Draft Day, our first feature film, was less about sweat, hard work, and determination and way more about fear, procrastination, and the occasional “super beer” (bourbon on the rocks with a beer chaser). Along the way, we were constantly told that all this was happening unbelievably fast, but there’s a part of us still wondering if it ever happened at all.

We met 12 years ago in graduate school at NYU, where we both got our MFAs in dramatic writing. We immediately bonded over football — Rajiv is a Browns fan and Scott is a Dolphins fan, so we’re both pretty much fucked. When we weren’t arguing about which one of our teams was worse, we talked about writing something together.

After NYU, we both kicked around Manhattan doing odd jobs to pay the bills — Rajiv taught essay writing at NYU, Scott temped at law firms — while trying to become professional writers. Although we both started as screenwriters, eventually Rajiv drifted into playwriting, while Scott focused on humor writing and remained in film.

The initial idea for Draft Day came in March 2010 while we were both working on other projects. A friend of ours, a non-football-fan poet named Mara, mentioned that she enjoyed watching the NFL draft, which was weird, because, as noted, she was a non-football-fan poet named Mara. She said she was fascinated by the draft because it had interesting characters, high stakes, and a ticking clock. That’s pretty much the basis of all good drama. Suddenly, we had an idea.

We contacted a sportswriter friend who hooked us up with Steve Serby, the lead football writer for the New York Post, who connected us with then–New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum.

Since it was the middle of training camp, and Mike was embroiled in a testy Darrelle Revis contract renegotiation while simultaneously being filmed by HBO’s Hard Knocks, he should not have had any time for two idiots who claimed they were writing a movie. Instead he gave us two hours. Seriously, we had to get off the phone with him because we had to go to work.

We asked Mike just about everything we ever wanted to know about being a GM: What’s your day like on draft day? Who’s in the room with you? How involved is the owner? What do you guys eat in there?

Thirty seconds in, we realized we knew nothing about the draft. For example, we had always assumed the GMs for each team attended the actual draft at Radio City Music Hall. This is not true. They work remotely from their team’s administrative facility. Who knew? Probably lots of people. But not us.

We also asked Mike about the stuff we were interested in as fans … Would you have drafted Ryan Leaf with the no. 2 pick in ’98? Mike’s answer: Of course, and everyone else would have, too. After the call, we felt like real honest-to-goodness journalists. (We are not.) Nothing could stop us from writing this thing now. We couldn’t wait to get going.

So, naturally, we didn’t work on it for 10 months.

But we kept talking about the script’s characters, themes, and, most important, the cool stuff we’d love to see in a football movie. We often found ourselves playing the “What If” game, trying to think of the craziest scenarios possible. At one point, we toyed with a “What if one of the players in the draft was gay?” story line — which we decided against, because it felt unrealistic. Of course now, in the wake of Michael Sam’s brave announcement, it would be worse than unrealistic — it would be, to use a dreaded Hollywood term, “too on the nose.”

In September 2011, the Sundance Institute called Rajiv and asked if he had any screenplays to submit to its Screenwriters Lab — an awesome program where you fly to Park City, Utah, and get to work on your script with a bunch of impressive mentors. This was an amazing opportunity … if you have a screenplay. Which we didn’t. Also, the deadline was in two weeks. So we decided to write the screenplay for Draft Day very fast.

We split the writing in half, set up our computers in adjoining rooms of Rajiv’s Park Slope apartment, and for two weeks never stopped typing and drinking coffee and rewarding ourselves with cookies and Chinese food. We’d shout questions to each other as we went along. We also quickly realized that when one of us heard the other typing furiously away, it was harder to procrastinate. The booze helped. Two weeks later, miraculously, we had an imperfect but good-enough script to send to Sundance.

The Sundance Institute called a week or so later to talk about the script. We told them all about how we didn’t see it as a sports movie but more as a character piece about a man trying to negotiate his way through the worst day of his life, who just happened to be the GM of a professional football team on the day of the NFL draft. We told them how important it was for us to try to make this movie work for non-football fans as well as deliver for the diehards.

There’s no other way to say it: We thought we did an amazing job on this conference call. And when you do a great job … you deserve a reward. So we went out and partied that night like we just won the Heisman.

A few days later, we learned we didn’t get in.

Because we arrogantly assumed we would get into the Screenwriters Lab, we had marked our calendars and set aside that week in January when the workshop takes place. So instead, we used those days to hit the script a second time. Four more days in Park Slope.

This time we banged out what we thought was a much-improved draft that we were ready to share with our manager, Josh, who liked it and gave us notes. After a few big rewrites, Josh began slipping it to various people around Hollywood. So we took a trip to L.A. — the first meeting we had was with a producer who told us that Draft Day “would never get made” and that “the script was not as good as we thought.” Not a great start.

Then we heard that famed director Ivan Reitman had read our script and wanted to meet us. Here’s the first thing he told us when we met him, although maybe our memories aren’t clear on the subject, because we were basically freaking out since we were meeting with Ivan Reitman … but what he told us was this: “I love your script, and I want to make it, and I want to be partners with you throughout this whole process.”

This was one of the greatest moments of our lives. For the first time, it seemed like maybe Draft Day could happen.  

In just a few months, Ivan quickly got Paramount Pictures to option the film, the NFL came on board, and the next thing we knew, after we all had lunch at Ivan’s house one glorious day, Kevin Costner was going to play our hero, Sonny Weaver Jr. Holy shit, was this really happening?

No, it wasn’t. Paramount decided not to make it. It sucked, but it made sense to us — making a movie is a huge multimillion dollar bet and if you’re not 100 percent sure about what you’re betting on, you’re not gonna do it. (Or at least that’s what we told ourselves.) The good news was that unlike a lot of studios, Paramount did not tie up our script through legal means and allowed Ivan to try to find someone who would make it.

We had written a really small movie — one that took place pretty much entirely in offices. If everything worked perfectly, we thought the script we wrote could be made independently, like Margin Call, a film we loved.

But Ivan knew the movie could get bigger. He wanted to put the actual NFL draft at Radio City front and center. In our script, Radio City didn’t play a big part, because, frankly, we never thought we’d get the NFL on board. But Ivan wanted to make the draft a living and breathing character in the movie. He wanted to take our audience behind the scenes and give them unfettered access to all the cool unknown stuff. So we rewrote a lot, with a freedom we hadn’t had before.

Then Ivan told us he had found our saviors in the good people at OddLot Entertainment and Summit Entertainment. They wanted to make our movie.

The first day of shooting took place at Radio City Music Hall in New York on the first day of the actual NFL draft in 2013. Shooting a movie about the draft at the draft was surreal. The first guy we met on set was Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, who plays a Florida State running back named Ray Jennings in the movie. That day, as Arian’s character was filmed stepping out of an SUV onto the red carpet to attend the draft, we remembered that Arian had been, in actuality, an undrafted player. This was cool on a number of levels, but also a reminder that nobody really knows shit on draft day.

♦♦♦

Sitting in Radio City that afternoon, we got to watch Chris Berman and Mel Kiper read words we had written — as themselves — doing their SportsCenter bit about players we had invented.

Later, we watched Commissioner Roger Goodell walk to the podium to announce those same fictional players’ names as if they were being drafted. We actually shot this as real fans were beginning to enter Radio City for the real draft, and when the commissioner read those names — names nobody had ever heard of before — the crowd, as if on cue, instinctively booed.

That night, as the real draft began, someone from the movie handed both of us Browns jerseys with the last names of two of our characters, “DREW” and “BELLO,” printed on them. We put them on, thrilled to be wearing our fake players’ names … and wondered if we should have come up with more outrageous names for our fake players.

Then we cheered as the real Browns drafted Barkevious Mingo in the first round.

A month after the draft, we began shooting the rest of the movie in Cleveland. We were living in a hotel downtown across from Jacobs Field (now called Progressive Field, but to us, it will always be The Jake) and right next to the Horseshoe Casino — a place, in hindsight, we probably should have gone to less.

We were immediately struck by what many people had already told us — screenwriters are usually not needed or wanted on the sets of their movies. Hopefully, the script is done before filming starts — so what else are you doing there except getting in the way?

But we soon discovered we were needed. Costner called us into his trailer every morning and we’d go over the script for that day with him, making revisions and adjustments as we went along. Costner is a very intense actor who has a finely tuned notion of what he does particularly well. We had the thought that our script was a sort of race car that we had built, and now we got to customize it for a guy who knew how to drive as good as anyone. This was something that we absolutely loved doing: Sitting around, tossing a football with Crash Davis, and talking about your script is something that never gets old.

But when you make one revision, two or three other things begin to unravel, and so our work became very intense. One day, Jennifer Garner came to us with a question about one of her lines. Garner plays Ali Parker, the salary cap director of the Browns, and her question had to do with the legitimacy of the line — a recently rewritten line. Obviously, we wanted to make sure we were still writing something that was legit within the world of pro football. Luckily, cross-checking isn’t too difficult when you’re shooting at the Browns’ administrative offices. We walked down the hall into the office of the actual salary cap director — Megan Rogers, a sharp young woman who, coincidentally, bears a striking resemblance to Garner — and she answered our question immediately.

A general manager on the day of the draft is constantly on the phone, and because of this, there are multiple scenes of phone calls in our film, which are shown in split screen. But when we were shooting these scenes, the actor on the other side was usually not on set … and this was where we found our other useful job during production. We got to read the other side of the dialogue with Costner, in essence playing Frank Langella or Diddy or Ellen Burstyn, oftentimes in the same day. We were becoming, ever so slightly, part of the team.

One day we gathered in the tunnel of FirstEnergy Stadium, where some of the real Browns players, some of our cast, and more than 60 extras dressed in full Browns uniforms were about to storm out onto the field. We stood among these guys, and for the first (and probably last) time in our lives, saw to a small degree what it might be like to charge out of a tunnel onto a professional football field.

Every day of shooting, three or four dreams were coming true for us — as writers and as football fans — and as our “team” stormed the field, we felt a rush of gratitude … how did it come to pass that we could be part of something like this? It was humbling. And then, 38 days later, it was done.

Except it was also just beginning.

This past fall, we went to L.A. for the first screening of the film. Afterward, we spent a day with Ivan and editors of the film. We went through the whole movie together, talking about every scene, trying to find ways to compress some moments, rethink the sequence of others, and just talk about the movement of the story. The movie was, in a way, still being written, long after it had wrapped.

To complete the film, Ivan needed a few final shots of FirstEnergy Stadium filled with fans going wild on game day. It was the reverse shot of what we saw months earlier in the tunnel of the stadium — the field that those guys ran onto had to have 80,000 insane Browns fans woofing away. So we shot at the home opener, Week 1 of the 2013 NFL season. And of course, this year of all years, the Browns hosted the Dolphins. It was another one of those twists of fate that had seemed to follow us ever since our non-football-fan poet friend named Mara told us she liked to watch the draft.

We got to stand on the field. We got to watch the real Browns run out. We got to hear a sold-out stadium roar in approval and love and hope for a new season. One deliriously misguided banner read “16-0! Dream Big!” You gotta love Browns fans.

The Fins won. But Scott felt conflicted because he had inadvertently become a Browns fan, too.

There was a big publicity push for the movie during Super Bowl week in New York this year and we scored tickets to the game, basically because the producer of Draft Day, Ali Bell, always has our back. Neither of us had ever been to a Super Bowl. It was an unforgettable experience. The game itself? Not so great. When either the Browns or Dolphins go to the Super Bowl this year — and one of those scenarios will happen — we hope they don’t have to play the Seahawks.

As we sat there in the chilly February night watching the opening snap sail over Peyton Manning’s head, we started thinking about the chain of events that had led us to this crazy point.

Looking down on the field, we were reminded of a hot, sunny day when we filmed some choreographed football scenes. Ivan was in rare form that day, pacing around the field, looking very much like a head coach in his own right — barking directions at the players and his crew, yelling encouragement and riling the players up when the heat started to sap their strength.

We wrapped early that afternoon and went out to lunch with Ivan in the Tremont area of Cleveland. We finally asked him about Ghostbusters. We asked him when he knew that movie was going to be something special. He said he knew on the first day of shooting, “… when I saw Bill and Dan and Harold walking down the street in their Ghostbuster uniforms. I knew when I saw them that we had something.”

The thing about working with a legend is, you get a small glimpse into what made them a legend in the first place. It’s their work ethic, it’s their vision, it’s their personality … or maybe it’s just their intuition of knowing when something is special.

We have no idea if Draft Day is special or if it’s going to be well received. It might crash and burn like seemingly every Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins season does. But at this point, it doesn’t really matter to us. We got to work with some legends. And our movie got made.

Filed Under: Movies, Draft Day, Kevin Costner, Rajiv Joseph, Scott Rothman, ivan reitman, Mike Tannenbaum

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