With recent Oscar winners of the best documentary feature including films like The Cove, An Inconvenient Truth, March of the Penguins, and Bowling for Columbine, the award and nomination in and of itself is one of the greatest honors a documentary film can receive. For three young filmmakers, TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay, and Richard Middlemas, the nomination was astounding.
“When you work on something this long, you lose a sense of which way is up,” producer Rich Middlemas said this week. “You never set out thinking something like this would happen. It was unexpected, but I’ll take it. Just the idea of us going to the Oscars, as nominees, is hard to wrap your mind around.”
Set against the backdrop of an American football season, Undefeated is a coming-of-age documentary film that follows three underprivileged student-athletes from inner-city Memphis and a charismatic, passionate volunteer coach who struggles to provide them with the discipline, resources and inspiration they’ll need to not only overcome their bleak life circumstances, but also to win the first playoff game in the high school’s 110-year history.
Here’s our interview with one of the film’s producers, Rich Middlemas.
Is this your first movie? How did you find the story?
From soup to nuts, this is the first film I’ve ever done. I went to college at the University of Tennessee and still follow their recruiting. So, in 2009, one of the initiatives coach Lane Kiffin (now coach of USC) had was to visit [recruits] Marlon Brown and O.C. Brown. I had heard of Marlon, but not of O.C., so I Googled it and came across an article in the Memphis paper: “Three families have arms around top prospect.”
O.C. was a highly sought-after recruit but low test scores and grades prevented him from getting into college and he couldn’t get a tutor to go to his neighborhood at night. So one of his volunteer coaches offered to have him stay with him during the week so he could [personally] tutor him. [Interestingly, all of this preceded the release of the popular, inspirational film with a strikingly similar plotline, The Blind Side, for which Sandra Bullock won an Oscar.] It just shows how long it takes to get films like these into theatres. But the story was there. And I thought it would be interesting to see it portrayed on the screen.
I never aspired to make documentaries, but I had a friend who worked in that space, so I sent it over to him and he agreed it had potential. We went down to Memphis for a week to get some footage and met O.C. and the family he was living with as well as Bill Courtney (the volunteer head coach), who proved to be dynamic and charismatic on camera. [Through the trip, we found that], Mantro Brown (no relation to O.C.) was a stark contrast – he was an undersized lineman with excellent grades. He couldn’t play football in college; didn’t have the potential or desire or eligibility that O.C. had.
Then with my [production] partner, Dan Lindsay, we brought the footage back and suggested another colleague, TJ Martin, be a great addition to the team. After that, we were fortunate to get the attention of director Seth Gordon, who had recently directed Horrible Bosses. He got his start in documentary The King of Kong and his partner works for ESPN as a college football blogcaster. [The stars were lining up…] Soon after they were interested in coming on board and arranged meetings that could help us get the funding we needed, [and the rest was history in the making…]
How much time did you spend in Memphis? How much footage was shot?
By July 2009, we were in Memphis shooting. The first trip was in April. Not having a lot of credits, I’m not sure any of this would have been possible without [the players, school, coaches, and families] saying we could. We shot from July 2009 to April of 2010, a total of nine months. Their season came to an end in the winter of 2009. But one thing we decided early on, in order to have access and intimacy, was that it was imperative we have a skeleton crew. It was just the three of us – me, Dan and TJ –which allowed us to be agile and nimble. We didn’t want to be disruptive in the kids’ learning environment or present any kind of distraction for them. We had more than 500 hours of footage by the end of shooting. And then it took from January to April just to go through everything and log it.
It was amazing how welcoming and receptive they were, despite how unimpressive we looked. We were carrying little handheld cameras and it probably didn’t look like anything that would turn out ok. Dan tells a story of how one of the kids said “who’s gonna play me in the movie?” And then said, “this IS the movie!” Initially some of the kids would mug for the camera a bit – once we explained we couldn’t use that, they understood and we just kind of became part of the team. It became the new normal. We tried to create more of a cinematic experience because the story was unfolding as we went. [What we put together and what happened] speaks to the experiential nature of it.
Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs is one of the executive producers. When and how did Sean get involved?
One of the biggest hurdles for documentaries is awareness. I think he saw an opportunity, and the film spoke to him as someone who played football. He wanted to do what he could to support it. It was very recently that he got involved [and since then, the film has secured theatrical releases in March around the country. See below.]
What was it like meeting the other Oscar nominees? How did it feel to be standing next to Brad and Meryl?
It was towards the end of January that nominees came out. There was an Oscar short list prior to that announcing 15 films in early Jan and I knew we were in that mix. That was mindblowing in and of itself. People don’t believe that I was asleep when nominations were announced. I figured what’s done is done; not in our hands. So I set my phone to phone mode only and went to bed. I figured if we don’t get the nomination, I’ll get text messages and emails, but if the phone rang, either someone had died or we were nominated. I was woken up by sister and she was hysterical, so I grabbed the phone and she said, “your life just changed, why are you asleep!?” That next day was a great day of connecting with old friends – phone calls, emails, texts. At the nominees luncheon that followed, they always take a “class picture” – we were brought up in groups based on last name. Everyone was standing on a riser, and I was keeping my head down as I was walking up – I didn’t want to create my own YouTube moment, and I ended up on back row, up next to Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep was on other side of him. He stuck his hand out and said congratulations. So I said, “thanks and to you.” It was surreal.
How do you sum up the journey?
We were the beneficiaries of remarkable subjects who were candid to us on camera. Without the characters and their gift of trust allowing us to document their story, couldn’t have done it. They were truthful about their lives and we were truthful about what we saw. They were so giving to us of their time and lives and we felt an obligation to authentically tell their stories in the way they unfolded. But the most nerve-wrecking was opening at the film festival in Memphis. It was a packed house and those were the people who knew the story and what we chose to keep and leave out. The kids said we got it right and that was the best feeling. [Spoiler alert] One of the kids said “oh man, I thought we were going to come back and win, and I was there!”
What do you hope will come from this project?
I hope people will simply discover the film.
Where are the players now?
One is on a football scholarship in college at Southern Miss, another is at small African American college in Tennessee, and the coach is still in Memphis, running his lumber business just like he did when we found him. Life goes on.
Since the film has opened in New York and Los Angeles, it has been received with rave reviews and open arms, compelling celebrities like Justin Timberlake and Giovanni Ribisi to tweet about the film and encourage people to see it.
“Undefeated” opens on March 2nd in Chicago, Philly, San Francisco, Dallas, D.C., Detroit, Houston, Baltimore and Memphis.
Lindsay Taub is an LA-based writer/editor who covers travel, lifestyle, culture, music/arts, food, wellness, and more. She calls Los Angeles home when she's there, but prefers to leave the city for the mountains and open spaces as often as possible. She loves cooking, gardening, live music, hiking with her three rescue dogs, and rustic luxury. Follow her on instagram/twitter @lindsaytaub and follow the Pacific Punch @ThePacificPunch or email email@example.com. Learn more at www.lindsaytaub.com and www.voyagevixens.com .***