“Undefeated” is the Oscar winning documentary from MU grad Dan Lindsay which will open and close True/False this year. The film follows an underdog high school football team in North Memphis, Tenn. KBIA’s Nick Gass spoke with Lindsay about the biggest challenges the directors faced and the process that went into making the movie.
I read that one of your producers, Rich Middlemas, found an article in The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. What in that article specifically made you want to go to North Memphis and live there for nine months?
Well, I mean, I wouldn’t say the article was the convincing factor of us moving there to make this film. What was interesting in the article was this idea of O.C., you know, a teenager being shuttled between these two, you know, kind of very disparate worlds. That was intriguing enough for us to at least want to meet O.C.
And so went, we took a trip to Memphis and were able through six degrees of separation to get a phone number for Mike Ray, who he was living with. And Rich and I went to Memphis just to meet O.C. And then when we met Bill Courtney, the head coach, who is really at the center of our film, he was, he was the one who really, you know he was so charismatic and so interesting and just watching him interact with the players on the first trip we were there.
That was really the convincing factor that not only was this story important but that the only way to do this story was to actually move there and be there for every moment so we could kind of capture the intimate moments that we were hoping to capture in the film.
How well would you got to know these people in the documentary? What did it take for you to gain that level of intimacy?
Well, I think it’s several things: number one, I think just being there all of the time, and being consistent. For a lot of the guys on the team, there’s not a lot of consistency in their life. They bounce around from house to house, living with an aunt or a grandmother, and there’s also just not a lot of consistency in the things that are offered to them. And I think that’s why the football team became such a success at Manassas, and why Bill had such a success rate at Manassas, is because he was so consistent. He was always there and he followed up what he said he was gonna do. And so we really took a key from him, and then I think Bill vouching for us, telling the guys that, “you know, I’ve spent enough time with these guys, if I didn’t trust them, they wouldn’t be here, and they want to tell your story, and they want to tell it truthfully.” I think, you know, that helped a lot.
And then I also think one of the biggest decisions we made going into it was that we were never going to give “direction” to any of the players. So in some documentaries you’ll say, “Hey, can we get a shot of you coming through the door? Or you know, let’s, we’re gonna get some B-roll of you doing this or that.” We decided we would never do that because we never wanted them thinking about the process. We never wanted them thinking about the fact that we were making a film. We wanted to try to blend in as much as conceivably possibly, and I really think that helped a lot.
At our premiere at South by Southwest, one of the players, somebody in the crowd asked that kind of same question but directed at them, “How were you able to kind of forget the camera?” And he was like, “Man, half the moments in the film I didn’t even realize they were there.” So, I think it’s kind of a combination of things.
In all, what would you say was the most difficult part of making this documentary?
Oh, man. Well, it’s just, we always comment, like you can count the production team of this movie on one hand. You know, like, TJ and I and just our producer, Rich, were in Memphis. There was nobody else. So, any obstacles, like little obstacles that normally could be handled by somebody else had to be handled by us. I mean, down to like when we moved out of our apartment in Memphis, I was down on my hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor so we’d get our deposit back. Everything that could possibly be a problem, we had to deal with, but I think that really the hardest part has actually been after the fact. In trying to get people to see the movie, frankly.
One of our biggest hesitations going into making this was, like, this feels like a story that’s been told before, and so we were hesitant at that. But because we knew the characters were so strong and we felt the story was important and it was important to shine a light on this community. And so we decided to do it, but it still, TJ and I always joked that if we saw our film written up in a festival we probably wouldn’t go see it, because we’d be like, “Ah, I’ve seen that before.” Because the film is so much about the experience of watching it and less about the kind of conceit, and so that’s really been the biggest challenge. Once people see it, they want to tell everybody they know that they have to see it, but on paper it feels almost trite. And so that’s really been the biggest challenge, I think.