Friday, February 17, 2012

In Making Undefeated, Directors Defy Odds, Like The Film's Subjects, And Get An Oscar Nom

I was glad to have interviewed doc directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin -- whose film Undefeated cleared nearly all the award hurdles and got into that rarefied place of being a Best Documentary Feature nominee -- before viewing this year's Superbowl. Talking with them made me appreciate the New York Giants' win even more than expected because I had a fresh understanding of all the barriers to success a player overcomes to get to such big leagues.

This film documents one almost-champion season of a really bottom-the-barrel high school football team from wrong-sde-of-the-tracks, inner-city West Memphis Tennessee.

The severely underfunded, underprivileged Manassas Tigers -- they had been hired out as a practice team for more successful, affluent schools -- reverse their fortunes thanks to a relatively new coach, Bill Courtney, who, in 2004, came on board and applied what he learned as a former player and salesman to transform wild kids into a team.

The team, and three spotlighted members, go through such trials and tribulations as they break their 110 year losing streak and head to the playoffs.

Undefeated tells of young men who dare to dream dreams that might surprisingly come true. Just like these two relative newcomers who in getting this Oscar nom, also have real insight into what it takes to achieve the unexpected.

Q: It took Steve James in his classic sports doc Hoop Dreams years to those dramatic moments; who had the crystal ball that led you to capture these intense moments even though you had no idea they were going to happen?

DL: Seth [Gordon], our producer. I’m kidding. I don’t think we ever could have imagined, we just captured lightning in a bottle. That’s all any great documentary is. There has to be an element of luck and have things work out in a certain way. I don’t think we could have predicted how it turned out.

We always wanted to make a coming-of-age film, but we also wanted to make a sports film. Plus we wanted to address the education system and how it’s failing these young students. But we were able to speak a lot about these social issues by making this a stronger, intimate character piece that hopefully inspires conversation about class, education and race.

We definitely went over a worn path with a story about high school football. Even if they had lost all their games, we would have filmed it anyway. It would just be a different film.

T.J.: In Hoop Dreams, it was about catching up with the guys and spending huge moments of time with them. We embedded ourselves with them and spent every day of nine months with them. Not the same thing, but there’s an intensity in different ways. We got really lucky. But from the beginning, the approach never changed.

DL: One thing we did knew from the beginning was that we didn’t want to span the course of years. We wanted to capture a special moment in time in adolescence where there are so many possibilities. And we can either see those possibilities begin to take shape, or the realities of those possibilities set in.

We wanted to film this intimate coming of age story in a way that we would be able to get these personal moments. Because of the way technology has progressed, we can do that. We could shoot for hours and hours. But we used that to our advantage in getting the players so used to us being there that we were just the flies on the wall.

They were able to go on with their lives as they normally would and we were able to capture these really intimate moments.

TM: We expected little emotional swells here and there, but I don’t think we expected it to be this big.

Q: How did you two work together?

TM: We shot and edited everything.

Q: Together?

TM: Together. Sometimes we would go off and follow other characters, but we edit in the same room right next to each other. I’m sure the people that shared the space next to us thought we were fighting.

DL: We had really heated conversations.

TM: Other people don’t realize that’s how we work through points some times. But for us, we’re not upset with each other, we just get very heated and passionate.

I remember one time we were so frustrated and we just couldn’t get the first act together and we had a bit of a dust-up. And I walk out and I came back in and I’m like, "Man, I’m so sorry. I just wanted to make the best movie ever."

Q: How did you narrow it down to the players you covered?

DL: Money [Montrail Brown] and OC [Brown] were the first characters we found.

Q: Would you have focused more on OC?

TM: The initial interest was doing a movie about OC until Rich Middlemas, our producer, found this article about the Tigers. We still wanted to make a coming-of-age film about OC. Then we met Bill, and then Money, and it kind of mushroomed from there.

DL: The first thing we ever shot with Money -- and this was before we moved there, we were just looking around -- we went over to his house, put a mic on him, and said "Show me around your house." So he shows me this corner and says "These are my pet turtles."

I said, "Why turtles?" And what came out of his mouth is in the movie. I was in Memphis, and sent the footage back to TJ, because he was cutting presentation reels and trying to raise money. I said, "Watch this, it’s amazing."

Our friends were like, "You told him to say that." And I said, "No, I swear!"

So even from the first few moments, there was something special here. Then Chavis [Daniels] became a character because of the way he was affecting the team. There were one or two other guys we followed a bit at first, and one that was actually in the first, six-hour cut of the film. But it felt like it deviated too much to the side.

TM: He was probably the hardest to let go, though.

DL: His name is Joaquin Kahns, and he had lived in 16 or 17 foster homes in four years. He turned 18 at the beginning of the season and the foster system kicked him out, so he was homeless. I hate to think of it so clinically, because it breaks your heart. [However,] his story slowed down the film because he was not as much a part of the team as the other guys.

We spent a huge amount of time with the rest of the team, even when we knew they weren’t necessarily [going to] be in the rest of the film. It was important for us for our process and to get to know them. For guys that are 16 or 17 years old that want attention, we didn’t want our presence to have a negative effect on the team.

If they saw us focusing on OC, Chavis, and Money, that might build resentment. So we did interviews with every other player, even though we knew it wouldn’t wind up in the film, but it was about giving them all their chance to get followed around and get mic’ed.

Q: Would you say the toughest parts were what to do with the girlfriends and with the parents?

TM: Girlfriends, especially. This is a time in their lives where there’s no reason to exploit… if somebody was following the drama of my high school relationship, ultimately it’s kind of provocative for provocative’s sake.

DL: Ultimately if they weren’t affecting the story, I’d see no reason for it. But with the parents, it’s an issue of sensibilities and it’s hard to get ahold of them.

TM: Money’s grandma refused to be on. And it wasn’t because she didn’t like us.

DL: Some of the parents were maybe a little more cognizant of what was happening. And the approach we had is that we wanted to tell the kid’s story and have it be from their perspective. There were times when we would interview the parents, and we had some footage, but it doesn’t lend itself to the greater narrative. And that was the big thing with this film. From day one, we wanted it to feel like a scripted film. We wanted you to get swept away on this journey.

Q: It is surprising how many of the player’s parents were criminals or had been in jail.

TM: North Memphis was once voted -- by Forbes Magazine, I believe -- the most violent neighborhood in America.

DL: Most violent crimes per capita.

TM: I don’t know if that’s particularly unique to African-American males in this country. I don’t think it’s unique to North Memphis but that’s a huge political discussion to get into.

Q: Is that why you put in the local journalist, to add a narrative voice?

TM: We needed someone to set the stage. We wanted to capture a moment in time, so we only wanted to give you the elements you needed to make sense of what you were about to watch, because it was just about that season.

Jason ended up being very beneficial in that he gave the viewer context for what they were viewing. The funny thing about him is that he did an interview after the nomination came out on the local Memphis news.

His dad is in Paradise Lost as one of the newscasters in Memphis, so they had them both on TV talking about their experiences. He thought we were some college kids doing a project and didn’t think anything would come from this with our little cameras.

Q: What about racial tension say between the white coachs and the kids or the community?

DL: That’s something we were very conscious of.

TM: We didn’t want to make this a white knight story. That’s another thing that I think is a misconception, too: people would assume a white coach "saves" black kids. There’s a reason we don’t discuss race. At first, that was a really interesting dynamic to us. But once we got there, we realized it was a non-issue and that there was no reason to discuss it. But at the same time, it’s not like we were [ignoring it].

The same goes for class issues. We set the stage and hope that it elicits a greater discussion, but our job is to show a human interest story, a character study of sorts. We were very conscious of the prevalence of white knight stories in Hollywood, and that’s something that turns us off.

But once we saw Bill and his genuineness, we realized that that’s not what this was. We just presented the story, and it just happens that he’s white and that this is an all African-American school.

I do think there's valid criticism on why these films are made. I’m sure there is a volunteer coach that is African-American and at an African-American school doing similar things to Bill. We just came upon the story because of OC.

Q: More interesting than the race angle is that we have a fatherless coach becoming a father figure to fatherless players.

DL: That was one of the early things Bill said when we were filming. Bill was microphoned -- and I don’t even know if he knew he was -- and he was talking to some people at the school. He said, "Well, my own father left me when I was four years old."

Later, TJ and I were talking and we realized [by then] Bill’s a real person, he’s not just a rah-rah football coach, he has a past that means something. Suddenly, this is a bigger story than we thought. There are moments with Bill that aren’t in the film, where he’s talking to a player, and it’s like he’s special; he’s unlike any coach I have ever seen before.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Actor Michelle Williams' Uncanny Marilyn Wins Award Noms

Who knew that when actress Michelle Williams first appeared as the bad girl in Dawson’s Creek, she would have the uncanny good sense to take on roles which offered her real challenges? From a supporting part in Brokeback Mountain to the lead in Wendy and Lucy, she rose to the occasion.

So now, another year, another Williams’ award nomination. Last year, her star turn in Blue Valentine garnered this former small town Montana native various noms; now she’s up for the Best Actor Oscar for playing Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn.

Without making her Marilyn simply an "incredible simulation," Williams rendered as authentic a performance as an actor can give of such an iconic chameleon. But given Williams' ever-arching resume, she has developed the chops to validate such an achievement.

Born in 1980, Williams’ strong characterizationas Dawson's Jen led to film appearances in the comedic Dick and depressive Prozac Nation before the series even ended.

Since then she was in such quality indie films as The Station Agent, Imaginary Heroes, and The Baxter. But real success happened in 2005 when she starred in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain as a woman who realizes her husband is in love with a man.

That role landed her an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actress as well as an intro to Heath Ledger who fathered daughter Matilda Rose. They split and when Heath died, she withdrew only to come roaring back, including this many-nominated role.

The following Q&A was drawn from a press conference before the the film's 2011 New York Film Festival premiere, red carpet comments and a session before its New York opening.

Q: What was the most difficult part about channeling Marilyn Monroe?

MW: Maybe letting myself just believing that I could. Previous representations of her were more  [like impersonations so] I felt maybe there was room. That was the first thing that made me think, "Okay, I can explore this."

It was a decision made in the safety of my own home, and I didn't really consider the larger implications of it. It was a very, very slow process.

It started at home with watching movies, listening to interviews, poring over books. [I would] try and mimic a walk, or figure out how exactly it was that she was holding her mouth.

The first big discovery that I stumbled on was that "Marilyn Monroe" was a character that she played, and that [despite] the image that you're most familiar with, there was a person underneath it. That [persona] was carefully honed, but it was artifice -- and it was honed to where you couldn't tell that it was artifice. It felt so real.

It was something that she'd studied, perfected and crafted. So once I discovered that that was a layer, and then finding out what that layer was and then getting underneath it -- it was a long and ungainly process.

Q: It seems almost like this is a multiple role -- you're playing someone who's playing a role who's playing a role. Did you think of it in those terms?

MW: In some way it's not, when you think of them separately. You want to think of them together because they need to adhere. But I don't know how much it helps me to think of them as three separate people because they are, of course, connected.

Q: It's a hard thing to do singing, and then to do it in someone else's voice.

MW: Well, like I said, Marilyn Monroe was a creation, and that creation took a lot of personal work. She also had teachers. Trainers were more common then, professionals who would help make these stars and help develop these talents. So I was -- as she was -- very lucky on this movie to be surrounded and supported by great people.

A wonderful man, David Crane, worked with me every day for a couple of weeks and he taught me. I have not sung since I was [about] 10 years old. So he taught me about breathing, how to deliver emotion on lines instead of just [sound].

And then in my ears, I listened to her. It comes up on my iPod all the time, all the Marilyn Monroe. And she was very influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, so I listened to a lot of her music.

Q:how difficult was it to learn the choreography and then to perform the opening musical number as Marilyn -- which you did so well?

MW: I'm not a singer or a dancer. So, like everything else in this movie for me, they took a tremendous amount of preparation and willingness to start at the very beginning. [I had to be willing] to not know what to do, to make mistakes along the way and to not be hard on myself and to realize that they're a part of the process.

In some ways because of that, when I was able to put the nerves aside, I really felt a tremendous outpouring of joy. I felt like a little girl whose dreams came true for the first time. I was able to tap into what I imagine made Marilyn Monroe so luminous in those singing and dancing numbers.

What I experienced is that when you're in that state, your critical mind has to turn off. There's no room for it because you're remembering steps and lyrics. It's like learning to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time. Maybe that's what makes those performances of hers so magical -- that she's not thinking.

Q: A lot was made about Method Acting in this movie. What are your thoughts on Method?

MW: I suppose, yeah, whatever works. I'd never done anything that had ever required so much technical know-how. This was the first attempt that I had made, really the first time, that I had actually, admittedly, started from the outside in because I knew that I was going to have a very, very long way to go.

Where I, Michelle, have wound up after 31 years physically is very different from Marilyn. So for the first time, I started externally, which was a switch to me.

Similar to Marilyn, I suppose, I'm not trained. I sort of popped into classes now and then. I read books. I read a lot of books.

I have made some kind of amalgamation, some sort of hodgepodge of my own personal experience, what I know works for me in the moment, what I've learned from other actors.
I certainly don't know what I'd call it, but at the time the people who were driving the Method were actually live in the room, [I think] how exciting would that have been to be directed in class by [Elia] Kazan, to have [Lee] Strasberg by your side.

Now we get secondhand information. It's like the soup of the soup. It's been sort of passed on.
I'm not beyond doing rain dances or throwing the [cards] or whatever. And I'm still experimenting. I'm still finding out what works for me.

That's the reason that it keeps me acting, and keeps me excited. I'm still learning, and those answers change and new information comes in all the time that transforms my idea of how I'm going to do what I'm going to do.

Q: Has Marilyn Monroe influenced you as an actress as well?

MW: She hasn't, to be honest. I had a picture of her in my bedroom when I was growing up, and so I've always had some sort of response to her, but only because of her image. I wasn't aware of her movies.

When I had that picture in my bedroom, I hadn't really seen any work that she had done -- although at that time, I was very interested in the Method. God knows why, but at 12 that's what I was reading about.

I was reading about James Dean and Montgomery Clift, [Marlon] Brando and thus Marilyn, but I didn't know her body of work. Really, I only came to it as a result of taking on this film.

Q: Of her films, which one was your favorite and why?

MW: I wish I could say Prince and the Showgirl. Some Like It Hot -- how can you not? And I also am pretty fond of The Misfits. It was still a shot at a serious part.

Q: How did you and Kenneth Branagh develop the relationship of Monroe and Olivier -- you had to establish that distance between you?

MW: The only distance that we might have kept was because we were both so absorbed in our process. We sat next to each other in the hair and makeup chair and it was like Command Central Number 1 and Command Central Number 2.

We both were kind of married to our computers, headphones in our ears, and constantly watching, listening, absorbing and then going out and doing.

So the only kind of separation [that] occurred is a part of trying to capture somebody who was. And that that requires a certain amount of technical attention.

Q: Eddie Redmayne said one of the great things with the whole production was the sense that you shot in the same studio that The Prince and the Showgirl was shot in.

MW: My dressing room was Marilyn's actual dressing room when she was making The Prince and the Showgirl.

Q: Was it hard to leave Marilyn behind at the end of filming?

MW: In some ways, something that I like so much about what I get to do is that you never have to leave people behind. There's not a part of my contract that says, "You must abandon your character when you finish shooting." So I get to keep her with me in any way that I choose.

Q: There's a difference in celebrity culture between the '50s and today. The film seems to to comment on that. What do you feel is the difference in celebrity culture now versus then?

MW: The internet. It's the acceleration and proliferation of information. It has always existed and it just has more forms to take.

Q: How have you viewed her as a woman from a very different time with very different expectations of women?

MW: I wish that she could experience what I've been able to, which is to work outside of a studio system, to not be bound to playing the same role, to not be a contract player, to not basically have to be on salary and have to take what's given to you.

I wish that [she] could experience choice and independence and exert her sort of creative will, like I feel very lucky to have been able to.

Q: Why do you think the world continues to be fascinated with Marilyn?

MW: Because there's something indescribable about her, even though she's been so examined and so much has been made of her. There's still something mysterious.

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