At the Academy Awards a few weeks ago, there was a close call on the red carpet. A husky high school football coach from Memphis was improbably mingling with acting royalty, because his team was the subject of a little film nominated in the feature-length documentary category.
The coach turned away from Ryan Seacrest “and damn near knocked George Clooney over,’’ he recalls. Clooney took one look at redheaded Bill Courtney and said, “Well, hey, coach!’’
“At that point I recognized this thing had gone way beyond any of our expectations,’’ says Courtney.
If “Undefeated,’’ which won an Oscar that night, has very little to do with awards-show glamour, skeptics might look at the film’s premise - white coach arrives at a predominantly black inner-city high school in Tennessee to mentor its struggling football team - as the product of a particularly unimaginative Hollywood screenwriter. Yet the emotions conjured by the movie, which opens Friday, are brutally true to life.
While co-directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin were sifting through nearly 500 hours of footage they shot of the Manassas Tigers during the 2009 season - following key players as they transcended behavioral issues, academic deficiencies, injuries, and more - a producer’s wife stuck her head in the editing room.
They should name the movie “Man-Cry,’’ she suggested.
Multiple moments in the film have set audiences to sniffling, says Martin, speaking on a conference call with Lindsay. “It’s interesting to see what scenes affect different people,’’ he says. Some are moved by the boy they call “Money,’’ an undersize, big-hearted lineman trying to recover from a knee injury to play in his team’s last game. Some are brought to tears by the remarkable turnaround of a teammate who seems destined for jail time, or the coach’s own story of being abandoned by his father.
Then there’s the saga of O.C. Brown, a heavily recruited, outrageously quick 300-pound pulling guard whose poor grades might sabotage his chance at a scholarship. It was O.C.’s story - not the coach’s - that initially drew the filmmakers to Memphis.
At first, coach Bill was skeptical. “The producer [Rich Middlemas] didn’t have a movie to his credit,’’ he recalls, “and the two directors’ cumulative experience was a very thought-provoking, earth-shattering documentary on beer pong.
“When they went back to LA to, quote, ‘get funding,’ ’’ says Courtney, “I thought, there go three guys who will probably be waiting tables in a couple of days.’’ Yes, the coach’s natural default mode is heavy sarcasm.
But the directors quickly won the trust of the school community, thoroughly embedding themselves with the team. It helped that they were a tiny operation, using hand-held video cameras with no boom mikes or lighting.
“They were so unassuming,’’ says Courtney in his Southern drawl. “They caught such legitimate, intimate experiences that we had, because they were flies on the wall. Hell, we forgot they were there most of the time.’’
The directors borrowed a tip from the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman, “who keeps the camera on, ready, at all times,’’ says Lindsay, “until your subjects associate the camera with you. It would almost be weirder for them to see you not holding it.’’
Preparing to move to Memphis for several months of filming, Lindsay boxed up his belongings in LA. While packing, he called Martin over to discuss how the story might unfold, and they realized it had a lot to do with fatherhood and father figures.
“We both had some relationship issues with our fathers,’’ he recalls, “but I think a lot of guys do. It felt like an opportunity to explore the idea of fatherhood. I was so drawn to that.’’
So was another unlikely player in the story of the film, the rapper and music mogul Sean “P. Diddy’’ Combs. He contacted the crew about a month before the Oscars and announced he wanted to sign on as an executive producer.
Just as the coach was initially skeptical of the filmmakers, they were unsure how to respond. “We spent three years of our lives, working endlessly, and you come in at the last second and want to be a part of it?’’ says Lindsay.
But Combs’s interest was genuine. He’d learned about “Undefeated’’ from a film-business executive who happened to coach the rapper’s young son in Little League on Long Island.
In a meeting at Combs’s house, he told the directors about his own high school football experience. At the time, he thought that was his ticket to stardom. But his coach, with whom he’d had a great relationship, turned his back on the player after an injury during his senior year.
“That had a pretty devastating effect on him,’’ says Martin. “It really kind of rocked his world.’’ Combs’s last-minute involvement helped attract invaluable attention to the film in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards.
In a defining moment of the film, coach Bill refutes a century’s worth of Vince Lombardi-like halftime speeches when he says, “Football doesn’t build character. Football reveals character.’’ The coach is clearly more invested in producing strong young men than superb athletes.
“What we’re really talking about is how we move to a new construct of manhood,’’ says Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern’s nationally recognized Sport in Society initiative. “How do we teach young boys and men how to be kind and compassionate, how not to fear showing their emotions?
“Being tough as heck on the football field doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive from caring and being emotional,’’ he says. “If we associate manhood more with general humanity, we’d be awfully better off as people.’’
For Courtney, who expresses his concern several times in the film that he is failing his own four children by investing so much in his team, one simple scene still drops him to his knees: After a youth football game, he carries his son’s equipment off the field for him.
“I never even knew they filmed that,’’ he says. “That’s the most emotional part of the movie for me. It says so much about how life comes full circle.’’
The filmmakers are well aware that the season developed with more serendipities than they could rightfully have dreamed. “Never in a million years did we think things would unfold the way they did,’’ says Lindsay.
“As coach Bill often said, ‘There’s a story under every helmet.’ ’’James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.