Underdog Football Team Shines In 'Undefeated'

Feb 22, 2012
Originally published on February 27, 2012 3:54 pm

Throughout it's 110-year history, the Manassas High School football team in Memphis, Tenn., was known as a losing team. In 2009, volunteer coach Bill Courtney led the struggling Manassas Tigers to the playoffs.

Filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin follow the team's 2009 season in the documentary Undefeated, which has been nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary feature category.

The film focuses on coach Courtney and three of his players as the Tigers overcome a legacy of losing on and off the field. Lindsay and Martin spent nine months in North Memphis — from July 2009 to April 2010 — attending every practice and getting to know the community.

"We would shoot ... talent shows," Lindsay tells NPR's Neal Conan, "knowing that it wouldn't necessarily make the film, but we really want to earn the trust of the Greater North Memphis community. And we were really fortunate to have some really amazing things kind of transpire in front of the camera."

The filmmakers shot the film themselves and followed the action with two cameras. They collected 500 hours of footage. "Not recommended," Lindsay says, "if you're going to edit your own film."

While embedding with the community and getting an abundance of footage was key to making their "intimate coming-of-age film," it also meant that many moments couldn't make it into the documentary.

"[Coach] Bill likes to say there's a story under every helmet," says Martin. "There are some really amazing, really compelling story lines that we just, unfortunately ... left on the cutting floor."

Lindsay says the aim of the film was to tell a story that is a lot bigger than football. "Hopefully, when audiences see it," says Lindsay, "they realize that ... football is the lens that ... we enter the story on, but it's definitely not what the film is about."

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At the start of the 2009 football season, Bill Courtney, the coach at Manassas High School in North Memphis, Tennessee, reviewed some changes to his squad.


BILL COURTNEY: Let's see here. Starting right guard shot, no longer in school. Starting linebacker shot, no longer in school. Two players fighting right in front of the coach when he's trying to make things work out. Starting center arrested for shooting somebody in the face with a BB gun. Most coaches, that would be pretty much a career's worth of crap to deal with. I think that sums up the last two weeks for me.

CONAN: The movie "Undefeated" focuses on Coach Courtney and three of his players as the Manassas Tigers overcome a legacy of losing on and off the field. It's among the pictures nominated for this year's Academy Award for best feature documentary. We're talking with all the filmmakers. We've archived our earlier conversations on our website. Go to our npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin both directed and edited "Undefeated," and they join us today from the studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you with us. Congratulations on the nomination.

DAN LINDSAY: Thank you very much.

T.J. MARTIN: Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And you guys live and work in L.A. How long did you live and work in Memphis to make this picture?

MARTIN: We were there for nine months. We moved in July of 2009 and came back in April 2010.

CONAN: And that seems to me to have been absolutely critical to your success, that you were there immersed in this project, immersed in the school, immersed in these people's lives.

LINDSAY: Yeah. I mean, we really set out to make kind of a really intimate coming-of-age film, and the only way to really do that was to kind of embed ourselves in the community; embed ourselves with the team but within the greater community as well. So we kind of showed up for everything. We showed up to practice every day. We showed up to school all the time. We would shoot, you know, talent shows, knowing that it wouldn't necessarily make the film but we really want to earn the trust of the Greater North Memphis community. And we were really fortunate to have some really amazing things kind of transpire in front of the camera.

CONAN: Amazing things. But there - the most amazing things are these intimate moments where it appears you've achieved that documentary filmmaker's goal of seeming to be invisible.

LINDSAY: Yeah. Well, you know, for us, we're very interested in making experiential documentaries. We want the audience to kind of, at times, maybe forget they're watching a documentary, and for us, the only way to do that is to embed ourselves in that way. And it also helps, you know, T.J. and I shoot and kind of perform, you know, all the function of production. So it's just the two of us. So very, you know, there's no boom mics. There's no other crew standing around. And so very easily, we were able to, kind of, I think, just, kind of, blend in and become part of the team.

MARTIN: Yeah, you're talking to the catering crew as well right now.



CONAN: I suspect that that was the case. How was the catering?

MARTIN: If you like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, then you're in the right spot.

LINDSAY: We always joke that we might - we're probably the only nominees who, in moving out of their apartment, had to get down on their hands and, you know, scrub the floor, you know, to get our deposit back.


CONAN: There are - you're following a football team through a season, and it's a remarkable team and a remarkable season. And you have some very charismatic people among them. This is Coach Courtney, who's, I think, gave you an idea at the beginning or your process that you were on to something. But there's a moment in the film where he's talking with one of this players Montrail - known as Money - Brown, a right tackle who lived by himself, was injured, didn't want to go to school, but finally was convinced, partly by himself, but partly by the coach to go through rehab to make it possible to maybe get back to play the last game of the season. And the doctor tells him he can't play in that last game.

Fortunately for him, the team goes on, wins the last game, wins their district title, and he has the ability to go on and suit up one last time and play in the playoffs at the end of the season. But during practice one day, Coach Courtney calls him off and says, come over here.


COURTNEY: This man doesn't know you. Don't have any idea who you are, but he knows about you. He is going to pay 100 percent of every dime for your college education, everything. You keep doing the right thing and good thing and good things will happen to you. It's a big world out there, Ronnie. It's your chance to taste it.

CONAN: And I have to say, that's not the only part of your film that I cried at.


LINDSAY: Well, I was crying to when I was shooting it, so you're not alone.

CONAN: Now, there - I'm also listening to a little bit of technique and it seems to me you had a mic on the coach.

LINDSAY: Yeah. So what we would do is we would always put a mic on Bill at practice, just because we knew information was always going to funnel through him. So we had a wireless on him, and then just one mic on the camera. And that's how we performed sound during production.

MARTIN: Yeah, and keep - so we had two cameras so there - two of us shooting more times than none. So, you know, I would - if, for example, Dan was following Bill, I would maybe follow Chavis or O.C. and we kind of mic him up. And so both cameras have the ability to, you know, capture sound from one specific character and also we have a shot on top of the mic so if he's shooting Bill, I can shoot cut ways for Dan and vice versa. If I am shooting O.C., Dan can kind of pick up my (unintelligible).

CONAN: And I'm - I've read you've shot 500 hours of footage.

LINDSAY: Not recommended.

MARTIN: Yeah. That's the...

LINDSAY: If you're going to edit your own film.


CONAN: I was going to say, doesn't that make the hero of this film whoever had to log all those hours and hours of film?

LINDSAY: You're talking to those two people.


MARTIN: You did basically call us heroes. Thank you for that.

LINDSAY: It took us three and a half months just to split the footage in half and to watch it. So T.J. watched 250 hours. I watched 250 hours. And then I cut the 250 hours that he watched, and he cut the 250 hours that I watched. That was the only way we are able to see everything.

CONAN: So how did you decide which characters to focus on? Now, let me point out, obviously, the coach - OK, you've got a charismatic coach, that helps a lot. But you're focusing on a left tackle, a right tackle and a linebacker. These aren't the people who are throwing touchdown passes.

LINDSAY: Yeah. I think that came out of our own stupidity.


LINDSAY: We were about halfway through the session and we're like, oh, maybe we should be following the people that scored the touchdowns. Yeah, I mean, our characters came to us very early on and we, you know, we found the story through O.C. And so we knew he was going to be a character and then...

CONAN: We should just point O.C. is a remarkably gifted and remarkably large athlete, who looked like he might go on to do greater things after he graduated from Manassas High School. And in fact, there was a story in the paper that this highly talented prospect was living with three families.

LINDSAY: Yeah, he would split his time between his - the volunteer coach's house in kind of a very affluent neighborhood during the week so he could get tutored, and then he lived at his grandmother on the weekends in North Memphis. And so that was originally what was interesting to us, is this idea of this teenager being shuttled between this kind of two disparate worlds. But once we went in to look at O.C.'s story, we found and we met Money, and we met Bill, the coach. And that was when it kind of opened up and we decided to focus on the team. And then Chavis, our third character, became a character just out of sheer - the drama that he brought to the team. And we just kind of had to follow him.

CONAN: Yeah, he's like the trickster who shows up halfway through the season, enormous physical talent but what a head case.


MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, we, you know, we really wanted to - like Dan said earlier, we wanted to give the audience the experience to the - we don't want the audience to basically get to the point where they are almost - they forgot they're watching a documentary. So it's really important that our - each one of our characters interact with each other.

And, you know, in North Memphis - Bill likes to say, there's a story under every helmet. There are some really amazing, really compelling storylines that we just, unfortunately - were left on the cutting floor. But we really want to find some storylines - individuals who are going to have, you know, a potential for a great change or a greater arc in a short amount of time. So that was important for us, that the aim is not only interact with each other, but there is going to be some form of change over the course of the season.

LINDSAY: They had a goal in mind and they're going to achieve it or not.

CONAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah, exactly.

CONAN: And you have the built-in narrative drive of the season. Practice, game one, game two and so on and so forth and interweaving the stories within those - within that structures of the sports season.

LINDSAY: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I mean, that was, you know, that was another reason that we decided to kind of focus on the team, because it did give us an inherent beginning, middle and an end. But, you know, for us, it was never about the football. And hopefully, when audiences see it, they realize that it's, you know, football is the lens that we're - that we enter the story on, but it's definitely not what the film is about.

MARTIN: Yeah, the themes are much more universal. I mean, we're really exploring ideas of, you know, themes of fatherhood, you know, themes of, you know, a lot of subtext is resilience. You know, the, you know, and really exploring the world of the haves and have-nots through the conduit of football.

CONAN: It is also - and some people will listen to the story of O.C. Brown and say, aha, I think, I saw that picture. It was called "The Blind Side."


LINDSAY: Yeah, we always joke that, you know, that - and then we were aware of the book. But we went to - we were living in Memphis before that film even went into production, and they went in production, filmed it. It was released - Sandra Bullock won an Oscar, and we were still in Memphis making our movie.


LINDSAY: And I was like, oh, there's - here's the difference between scripted narratives and documentaries.

CONAN: And there's another group that might say, yeah, I saw that film Goldie Hawn was in. I think it was called "Wildcats."


MARTIN: I hadn't heard that of one actually.

LINDSAY: Yeah. You know, I mean, it's funny because - and those are all scripted narratives, you know, and that was actually something that we actually set out to do. You know, I mean, we've gotten some criticism from people that say, oh, it's, you know, I've seen this story before, but I don't know that you've seen it in a documentary, you know? So we wanted to take elements of scripted sports films and infuse them into the construction of our film, and it's also just how things happened. I mean, things unfolded in this really unique, amazing way that really length themselves to a three-act structure. And so we just kind of went with it, you know, we embraced it. I mean, T.J. and I are always - say story will tell us - the story will tell us what it's going to be.

CONAN: We're talking with the filmmakers behind "Undefeated," one of the films nominated for this year's best feature documentary at the Academy Awards. Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin are with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. The climax of the film comes at a game, the playoffs, and this is where Coach Courtney guides his team to a goal that - well, Manassas High School had never won a playoff game in its 109-year-old history. This was the goal of the team all year long, and they don't make it. They miss an extra point, and that proves to be absolutely crucial. They lose the game by one point, but he speaks to the team right afterwards.


COURTNEY: (As himself) Remember the things that carry you are the things you've been taught: character, discipline. And remember, please, remember if you've ever remember anything from me the last six years, the true measure of a man's character is how he handles this. Anybody could be a champ. It takes a man to stand up when this thing hits you in the mouth, because it hurts. I am proud to be Manassas Tiger, and I'm proud of you.

CONAN: I have to say, going in to see this picture, I had some concerns about white paternalism in the South. He is such an extraordinary character. He overcame that.

LINDSAY: Yeah. Well, you know, it's funny, we were talking to somebody - another journalist about this earlier today, and he brought up the same idea. And he said, you know, his kind of idea of Southern white paternalism is very much - there's like a thumb on somebody. You know, you're almost kind of controlling somebody. And he said, what's remarkable about Bill is that he is actually trying to earn the respect of his players, and then in hopes that they will then respect him and respect each other and achieve things that maybe they didn't think they could achieve.

MARTIN: Yeah, that was - I mean, that was one of our concerns from the beginning, was we were always conscious of not making a white knight story. You know, we came in there ourselves with a critical eye, and once we kind of realized, you know, just by nature of the socioeconomic kind of differences of, you know, where the volunteers come from and the community of North Memphis, it was clear that kind of - I think people were maybe weary of what maybe their intentions were. And so naturally, we kind of had our own kind of inquiries. But once we were there, within the first week, we realized that the dynamics of race and class were not an issue to the individuals that we were profiling, then it was not important for us to kind of address it in the film.

But with that said, we also didn't want to shy away from it. And we were hoping that through the course of, kind of, getting swept away in a intimate, human interest piece, it would actually inspire a greater conversation about these much deeper complex issues regarding class and race.

CONAN: I have to ask, there is an epilogue after the movie. We find out what happened a year later to some of the people. O.C. Brown did go on to college at the University of Southern Mississippi. How is he doing?

LINDSAY: O.C is good. He's, you know, he is - I think he is struggling a bit with the offensive, like getting the blocking schemes down. But he's doing well in school and he's, you know, which is - was the goal the whole time, was to help him get to college. So, I mean, if that's the goal, he is succeeding.

CONAN: Money also went to Southern Miss.

LINDSAY: Yeah, he did. He is not there anymore though. He is back in Memphis, actually living with the coach that had taken in O.C., because he's going to go to a new school.

CONAN: And Chavis, we find that he went back for his senior year and was elected captain of the defensive team, which seems a remarkable achievement. How is he doing?

LINDSAY: He's great. He is at Lane College playing football and, you know, we talked to him the other day.

MARTIN: Yeah. We gave him - we had our new executive producer, Sean Combs, got on the phone with Chavis, and I think that kind of made his entire year.


CONAN: I could understand that.


CONAN: Congratulations on your new executive producer. And the next question, so does this nomination open doors for you?

LINDSAY: I don't know. I mean, yeah, I guess, I mean, I think...

MARTIN: We're here at NPR.

LINDSAY: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: We're talking to you.

LINDSAY: I got to tell you this is just equally exciting for us as getting nominated for an Oscar, no lie.

MARTIN: And listen to you every day, so this is crazy for us.


MARTIN: But I think, you know, I think - look, the biggest thing for us is that the nomination really is a testament to the people that we followed...

LINDSAY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...and the trust that they gave us and the respect that they gave us and, you know, the fact that they allowed us to do (unintelligible)...

LINDSAY: (Unintelligible) story responsibly.

MARTIN: ...tell the story, and that's really what this is because I think for most people when they see the film, it is an experience, an emotional experience watching the film, and we don't have that without the trust of our subjects.

CONAN: Well, good luck at the Academy Awards.

MARTIN: Thank you very much.

LINDSAY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: T.J. Martin and Dan Lindsay directed and edited the film "Undefeated," an Oscar nominee for this year's best documentary feature. They joined us from NPR West. Tomorrow, we'll talk about gay marriage and black churches. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.