Undefeated: A Post-Oscar Homecoming

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“That’s the Jesse Theater, right over there, with the dome. I had…well, I had some really good times there.”

Newly minted Oscar-winner Daniel Lindsay walks across the University of Missouri campus, pointing out landmarks to T.J. Martin, his co-director on Undefeated, the high-school football film that won Best Documentary Feature exactly one week prior. There have probably been other Missouri alumni who’ve won an Oscar before, but it’s doubtful any of them have returned quite so quickly to campus with the trophy. Fortuitously, though, Undefeated had already been slated to play the 2012 True/False Film Festival this weekend, so here Lindsay and Martin are, still basking in the glow of their win and strolling down Lindsay’s memory lane.

Lindsay came to the Columbia campus with plans to major in both accounting and theater, but his parents were having none of that. “My dad was just like, ‘No. You go to business school,’” says Lindsay. “‘That’s why you go to college.’“

The school offered an accelerated 3/2 program, which allowed students to earn a Master’s degree in five years. Lindsay enrolled, and after three years he had completed all the requirements for his accounting degree. But he was panicking, trying desperately to think of a path in accounting that he might find interesting. “I was in my junior year when I started even thinking about working in accounting. Oh my god! I was trying to think of cool ways to be an accountant. I remember I thought, ‘Maybe I could work as a tour accountant for bands. Like the guy you can really trust.’ So I was going to start this business being a tour accountant, but that was just bizarre and stupid.” He laughs heartily.

Of all things, a fraternity skit-night competition helped launch him on a different path. “I was in a fraternity here, Beta Theta Pi,” Lindsay says, “and there’s something called Greek Week here, which is a week of philanthropy and activities. And they have a skit competition at the Jesse Theater, and my sophomore year, I did that for the first time and just fell in love with it again, because I had done theater in high school. That was very influential in terms of getting me back on the path of making entertainment. A couple of guys and I wrote and directed all of our skits.”

Two years of the skit competition, combined with his growing dissatisfaction with the prospect of becoming an accountant, convinced him he should move to L.A. after his junior year, but his parents persueded him to try a summer there first. He was a part of USC’s Summer Production Workshop that summer, and he was hooked. He returned to Columbia and, instead, of spending his fourth year in graduate accounting courses, he stuffed his schedule with as many theater classes as he could find. “My teacher Jim Miller, he really taught me a lot about acting. And then we did another skit competition, and then we started going to the Ragtag all the time to watch films.”

Coincidentally enough, the same people that founded the Ragtag also began the True/False Film Fest a couple of years after Lindsay graduated. So here he is again, after all these years.

Martin’s path through college wasn’t so straight and narrow, either. He enrolled at Western Washington (in Bellingham, Wash.), but was an indifferent student. He had tinkered with film editing a bit in high school, but Western Washington had no film program, and he floundered in his freshman year and was dreading returning to school. He decided to spend a year with his parents, a biracial couple in a punk rock band in Paris (which itself sounds like a documentary waiting to happen). When he got back to the States, he knew he needed to dive into filmmaking. “So I took a year and a half off when I got back to the States, and we made my first film, which was essentially my film school. It was a film called A Day in the Life of America and it was kind of a concept film based on the coffee-table book where they send all the photographers out in one country over the course of one day to capture the essence of the country. We took all the hype surrounding the millennium and sent out six crews in the States to shoot over 24 hours leading up to the transition into the year 2000. We shot it in 24 hours, but we were in post for two years! We realized that in documentaries, that’s where a lot of the directing comes, in post.”

The film flopped (“That’s when I realized that a few years after the millennium, no one cared about the millennium anymore,” laughs Martin). But now Martin knew what he wanted to do. He went back to school at Western and designed his own major in film production, but more importantly he began taking on as much film work as he could find. And since he was designing his own major, all that work counted toward his studies. “I’d go to Seattle and work as a PA for somebody, or do a promotional video for a nonprofit, but I would get credit for it,” he says. Even so, eventually the work part of the equation took over the school part, and he left Western without finishing his senior project, the only requirement left for his degree.

Meanwhile, Lindsay was also honing his craft, plunging himself into as much film work as he could find. It started shortly after he moved to L.A., in seemingly the most random of encounters. “I had been there for about a week,” he remembers, “and I thought I should probably get a job, so I went to Kinko’s to copy my résumé. And there was this guy in front of me in line—short, balding—and he was sending, like a 50-page fax to Peru or something. And I just wanted to pay for my copy and get out of there, so I was starting to get really frustrated and he was making fun of me getting frustrated and that made me even more upset. We ended up talking and he said, ‘Why are you making your résumé? What do you want to do?’ and I said, ‘I’m trying to get a job as a PA.’ And he says, ‘No no. What do you really want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to direct.’ So he says, ‘Ok, well I grew up here. Maybe I can help you out. I live in D.C. now.’ And he starts talking about how ‘my buddy Bill Clinton’ and all this stuff and I think, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ He takes a copy of my résumé and I thought I’d never hear from him again.”

But he called the next day and asked if Lindsay would like to get a drink: “By this time, I had looked him up and there was all this crazy stuff about him and Clinton and this woman accused him of threatening to kill her cat or something like that. Apparently Pat Buchannan’s brother came to his house with a gun to try and shoot him. There was all this crazy stuff about this guy and I thought, ‘Well, I’m bigger than him, so if he tries anything weird on me, I think I could take him.’ And you know, I’m just out to L.A. and I’m thinking, ‘This is how this works.’“

That man, producer Cody Shearer, did get Lindsay a few interviews, but before any of them could pan out, he ended up hiring Lindsay himself. “We went and met a couple editors and some filmmakers and people that he had known,” Lindsay remembers, “and that was the end of August of 2001. And then September 11th happened. He called me and said, ‘Hey you have a camera, right? I’m going to rent a car and drive back to D.C. because there’s not going to be any flights for a couple days. I was thinking along the way we could interview people about their reactions to September 11th.’ So I, of course, agreed. But I had no idea what I was doing. My mom had just bought me the camera for graduation.

But the project ended up lasting a year and taking Lindsay around the world to interview various people. The resulting documentary, Why US? aired on the Discovery Times Channel in September 2003. “That was kind of my film school,” says Lindsay. “And because I was the director on that film, I was able to get hired to do other things because I had directed before. But I still didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Cody ran this institute that had these symposiums around the world for grad students and members of foreign ministries on conflict resolution and international relations, and they would have me come out and film the speakers and document these symposiums. I must have shot hundreds of hours of footage during that, and that’s how I learned how to shoot documentary style. That was like three years of getting in to constantly work and shoot and edit.”

The pair first worked together directing the delightful documentary Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong. “I got hired to direct it,” recalls Lindsay, “and T.J. got hired to edit it. But I ended up editing part of it, and by the end of the film were pretty much co-directing it. We found that we had a really similar aesthetic. And a similar work ethic too—I think the people that hired us just wanted us to slap something together, but we ended up spedning eight months cutting it.”

One day Rich Middlemas, who ended up producing Undefeated, sent Lindsay an article. “He’s a huge college football fan,” Lindsay says. “He follows recruiting, and this name started coming up, Casey Brown, that he hadn’t heard before. So he Googled the name and an article from the local Memphis paper came up about him living with one of his coaches during the week in a kind of very affluent area of Memphis and living with his grandmother on the weekends in north Memphis, which is a kind of underserved community where our film takes place. Rich sent the article over to myself and I forwarded it on to T.J. and it seemed like an interesting world to explore. We went to Memphis with the idea of doing an intimate, coming-of-age film about a kid navigating these two seemingly disparate worlds over the course of his senior year while he’s getting all this attention from colleges. On that first trip, we met Bill Courtney, who’s the volunteer coach at the center of our film, and he was just so charismatic and so interesting. Then we met a couple other players on the team and filmed them and got this really incredible material from the first few things we were shooting. That’s when we decided to really shift the focus and follow the team. Bill told us the history of the team, that for many years they didn’t even win a game. In the 110-year history of the school, they had never won a playoff game. That gave the story a good structure—we’ll follow a season of the team. But we never wanted it to be about football. We wanted it to be the backdrop to tell an intimate coming-of-age story.”

The pair shot over 500 hours of footage over the course of nine months, a staggering total. It took the two of them three months just to log the footage. “We stayed an additional three months in Memphis to log the material,” explains Martin, “so that if we found any story holes or anything like that, we were there on the ground, we could go pick them up. So Dan logged 250, and it took him three months to go through it. And I logged 250. And when we started cutting, we swapped those 250 hours and I cut his pieces that he logged and he cut mine. Once we were back in L.A., we spent another nine months cutting.”

“It was our lives,” Lindsay adds. “We went to practice everyday. We went to school almost everyday. We were around for everything. That was our documentary, because we’re interested in making things that are very experiential in a way to the audience. We want things to unfold in front of the camera. And the only way to do that was to be present for everything.”

The mountain of footage was necessary not only to tell the right story, but to let the team, the school and the city know that they were committed, says Martin: “A lot of communities like North Memphis tend to get demonized; if there is a media presence there, they’re there to do sensationalized stories about how bad it is, so naturally they were wary of our presence coming in here to say, ‘We’re going to tell this story—the story of the football team, the story of the kids.’ So one of the reasons there’s 500 hours of footage is to back up our talk. To actually commit to telling the story and commit to showing up everyday to school and commit to showing up everyday at practice and also shoot community events or talent shows, knowing that that footage will never make the film. That was us showing our commitment to the community as a whole. It was a process of earning their trust.”

If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like Peter Berg’s (fictional) >Friday Night Lights series, you’re absolutely right. But, amazingly, neither Lindsay nor Martin had ever seen the series or the movie on which it was based. “We were like halfway through filming in Memphis,” remembers Lindsay, “when someone said, ‘You guys should check out Friday Night Lights. It sounds kind of similar to what you’re doing.’ And we were like, ‘What’s Friday Night Lights?’ I knew it, but I had never watched it. So we watched the show and were like, ‘Oh shit.’ And the upcoming season was literally the same storyline. He goes to take over the program at East Dillon, and I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ Actually, it wasn’t until halfway through the season that I read The Blind Side, read Friday Night Lights, saw Friday Night Lights the movie and then watched the series. We’d been already there for three or four months.”

“We were talking at a panel at the Academy before the Academy Awards,” Martin adds, “and Michael Moore asked, ‘Did you see The Blind Side and think, hmmm…?’ And we were like, ‘No!’ We moved to Memphis to do the movie and a few weeks after we moved there, we heard they were making a movie of this book, The Blind Side, with Sandra Bullock. So we’re already in Memphis, and they go into production. They shoot their film. It comes out. She wins an Oscar and we’re still in Memphis making our film. So we’re like, ‘Oh. Great. Now we look like the assholes who saw all the success of The Blind Side and wanted to go make a movie like that. But we really didn’t!”

Speaking of Oscars, Martin and Lindsay now, of course, each have a shiny gold man of their own. It was a surreal experience, they both agree. “I mean, I was dropping F-bombs onstage,” says Martin, laughing. “I was in shock. I had no idea.” “It’s funny, too,” says Martin, “in my mind I always thought I played it really cool. But when they said our name, I was just like—it didn’t even register that we had to go on stage. I don’t even remember half of it. I remember walking up and seeing Robert Downey Jr. and thinking, ‘Why am I onstage with him?’”

Two encounters especially stand out for them amidst all the Oscar hoopla. One was meeting one of their documentary heroes, Steve James. “We’ve gone to so many meetings where people ask ‘If you could meet any person who would it be?’ and we always answer ‘Steve James.’ So to have someone come over and say ‘Steve wants to talk to you’ and have him say very, very nice things to you, it’s very humbling.”

The other, of course, was with George Clooney on the red carpet. “Meeting Clooney was pretty cool,” Martin says with a broad grin filled with the whitest teeth you’ll ever see. “We met him on the red carpet and he shook our hands and gave us this charming-guy Clooney smile. It was great.”

“Apparently he’d had like, 10 people over to his house last Sunday to watch the film,” adds Lindsay, “and he said, ‘Man, it was just 10 guys sitting in my living room and we were all crying.’ Richard Kind was one of the guys over there, I guess, and he saw Bill in the hotel lobby a couple days before the Oscars. He went up to Bill and said, ‘Who are you?’ And Bill was like, ‘Who are you?’ And he says, ‘You’re the coach, aren’t you?’ and Bill’s like, ‘You’re an actor, aren’t you?’ And I guess Kind was holding a bunch of papers and he just threw them up in the air and was like, ‘I love you! I’m so excited to meet you!’”

The Oscar win had an added benefit for Martin. “A few years ago I found myself at a point where I couldn’t find work, like I actually I had only one change of clothes, so I thought, ‘I’ll finally finish my senior project.’ I finished it and I submitted all the materials to Western and they said, ‘Okay, well you gotta pay for the credits.’ I thought, ‘I can’t feed myself right now. How am I going to pay for the credits?’ So I was like, ‘Screw that,’ and so again I still didn’t officially graduate. It wasn’t until this weekend when I came home and did my victory lap in Bellingham at the school after we screened it, they had a reception and they awarded me with my diploma. They paid for my credits. After 10 years. All it took was winning an Oscar. So I’m like, an official graduate now.”

And Lindsay also got a chance to have his home campus victory lap at True/False. Undefeated opened the entire festival and this night will play in, of all places, the Jesse Theater. “Yeah, the last time I was in the Jesse Theater, I was on stage,” laughs Lindsay. “We were winning the award for best skit. It’s kind of full-circle. It’s been… just incredible. I was sitting here having coffee yesterday and someone just came up and introduced themselves and I noticed two people were just taking pictures of me and my first thought was, ‘Why are they… oh yeah.’ “

Oh yeah, indeed.

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