Grantland’s Davy Rothbart recently spoke with filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin about their Oscar-nominated documentary Undefeated. The film tells the story of the Manassas (Memphis, Tenn.) High School football team’s struggle to win a playoff game, a feat that eluded them for their entire 110-year history. In these bonus questions, Rothbart talks to them about the difficulties of filmmaking. For more about Undefeated, which is out in theaters across the country today, visit Grantland.com.
What advice would you give to other filmmakers who are just beginning to tackle a documentary project?
Dan Lindsay: Embrace failure. Over the course of your career, you’re going to fail many times before you actually find success.
T.J. Martin: Have respect for your characters and don’t bring your own agenda or your own ideas to a story. Let the story tell you what it wants to be. If you’re genuine and honest, it’s going to come across on the screen. We embrace the idea of getting close to our subjects because that intimacy will eventually be portrayed in the film itself. Never shy away from that.
How long did it take for you to edit the film? Were there rough moments?
Lindsay: It took us three months just to watch all of the footage we’d shot, and that was after dividing it in half. T.J. watched 250 hours and I watched another 250 hours. After three months of viewing the footage, it took another nine to 10 months of actual editing. We swapped chunks of footage. He cut the stuff I’d watched, and I cut the stuff he’d watched. Collaborating with someone means you’re going to disagree on certain things, sometimes vehemently, but having a partner to look at every moment of the film and help make decisions is invaluable.
What was the most challenging part of the filmmaking process?
Lindsay: The whole thing? [Laughing.] Every film has particular challenges you have to overcome. One of the most difficult things for us was simply trying to get people to watch the film and take interest in it. It hadn’t come out yet in theaters, so I don’t mean the general public, but the film community. T.J. and I often joked that if we went to a film festival and saw the description of our film in the program, we probably wouldn’t go see it because we’d be like, “Oh, great. Another high school football film. I’ve seen that before.”
To sell people on why we think this film is different and unique, we had to convey the experience of watching it, which isn’t easy to do. You almost have to give away particular moments. For us, the challenge became: How do you give the elevator pitch for a movie that is really more about the experience of inhabiting its world, its characters’ lives? Fortunately, the film people who saw it really responded, and now we’re able to share it with a larger audience. It’s a big thrill.