Rockford native hopes Oscar-nominated doc remains ‘Undefeated’
BY CINDY PEARLMAN February 23, 2012 6:42PM
The 2009 season of the Manassas High Tigers of Memphis, Tenn., is chronicled in “Undefeated,” nominated for the best feature documentary Oscar.
Updated: March 27, 2012 8:05AM
Rockford native Dan Lindsay never thought he would be quoting dialogue from his own movie.
The Oscar-nominated documentary “Undefeated” has some great lines, but none better than from a volunteer football coach in Memphis who really isn’t talking about football during a certain pep talk. “I love Bill’s mantra, which is, ‘The character of a man is how you handle yourself during times of defeat and not times of victory,’” Lindsay says.
“Undefeated,” co-directed by T.J. Martin, was such a hit at the SXSW Film Festival last year that the Weinstein Co. immediately snapped it up for a wide release, knowing it hit the same nerve as films including “The Blind Side” and “Hoop Dreams.”
“Undefeated” is set at Manassas High School, a school with a 110-year history in north Memphis — a crime-plagued area hit hard when Firestone closed a tire plant in the ’80s.
The Tigers long to win a playoff game, something always out of the team’s grasp. The 2009 season brings promise with an amazing left tackle, O.C. Brown, who learns the game from an amazing volunteer coach, Bill Courtney. There is also Montrail “Money” Brown, a small but sure right tackle who excels at academics and has a spirit that won’t quit.
“It’s just like David and Goliath. That’s one of the oldest stories in human history,” says Lindsay. “I think sports stories aren’t just about sports. These are stories that touch us because we all feel like we’re underdogs in life.”
Q: Dan, how do you end up making one of the most-talked about documentaries of the year?
Lindsay: I was born and raised in Rockford, where my dad was a financial manager and my mom a P.E. teacher. You don’t really think about making movies in a serious way when your family truly believes that you’re going to become an accountant. The truth was I wasn’t much of a film student back then at Boylan Catholic School, but instead was a wrestler and soccer player. Eventually, I left Rockford to become an accounting major in college. It just shows how far off-direction you can go in life without really planning to change directions. I made little films with my friends in college, but never thought it would be something I could do for a living until later.
Q: How did you discover the story of this high school?
Lindsay: It started with an article online about one of the players at this amazing school. It was about O.C. Brown and how despite all the tough knocks in life he had become a very hot recruit for colleges. But his academic situation made it difficult for him to qualify for colleges. He was actually living with his high school football coach during the week and his grandmother on the weekend. The idea of this teen being shuttled between these two worlds was interesting. It spurred a trip to Memphis.
Martin: Then we met his volunteer coach, who told us anecdotes about what had happened in previous years to all of his players. This was going to be their senior year. He convinced us to come to Memphis to make a film about this team.
Q: Was it hard to get these high school players to trust you when you had cameras around them?
Martin:We got really fortunate in that they opened up to us pretty early on — especially our main characters. Bill sat down with the players in the beginning and vouched for us. I knew the guys felt like if Bill didn’t trust us he wouldn’t bring us around. We made a promise to them to tell their story and not our version of their story. These are kids who are used to a lot of broken promises, so we really had to earn their trust. Part of that was showing up for everything in their lives. We showed up for every single practice. We went and shot their talent shows knowing it would never make it into the film, but it showed we cared.
Q: As time progressed, how tough was it to film their actual games and not get too wrapped up in the outcome?
Lindsay: We would screw up shots when they got a touchdown. We would put our cameras down and cheer when we should have been filming. In the audio, you could hear us screaming, “Yes!” and “No!” during different plays. I had the coach miked into the camera, so I’d hear him call the plays. There were times when I got so into it that I thought, “Wait, that’s not the right play, dude!” During fouls, we wanted to throw our own flags.
Q: What was it like to bring the film back and screen it for the kids?
Lindsay: We did a screening in Memphis, and there were a lot of people there. It was a very nervewracking screening for us, but we hoped the film would ultimately be a testament to the trust the people there gave us. What freaked us out is there was a Q&A after the screening. We said, “Are there any questions?” Nothing. But then we took everyone into a reception that was supposed to last 20 minutes and it lasted three hours because there were so many questions and comments and people coming up and saying, “I love it so much.” I guess the town was shocked at first that the promises were kept and their movie was up there on the screen.
Martin: When one of the players told us, “You got it right,” that was the best compliment.
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