Fight On: Aaron Rahsaan Thomas on His 30 for 30 Film Trojan War

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When future Friday Night Lights and Southland writer/producer Aaron Rahsaan Thomas arrived at USC, the school’s beloved football institution, the USC Trojans, had fallen on hard times. This all changed with the arrival of Pete Carroll, a charismatic, under-the-radar coach who subsequently turned the team around. What followed was a 34-game winning streak that culminated in the 2006 Rose Bowl with The University of Texas Longhorns—an event considered by many to be one of the greatest college football games of all time. Ultimately, the Trojans’ dynasty would come to an end here. The true nail in the coffin, however, emerged when a series of sanctions and penalties brought against star player Reggie Bush erased a sizable chunk of the team’s wins from the records.

These Pete Carroll years are the focus of ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 documentary, Trojan War, which also marks Thomas’ debut as a documentary filmmaker. Featuring interviews with the major players at the time, as well as celebrities like Snoop Dogg and Lance Armstrong, the film darts back and forth in time, with narrator Michael B. Jordan taking the audience through the ecstatic highs and crushing lows of this once-in-a-generation sports saga.

Prior to the film’s October 13th release, Paste sat down with Thomas to discuss how the documentary came together, the intersection between USC and the entertainment industry and how films ranging from City of God to Rocky III influenced the story’s structure.

Paste Magazine: Tell me a little bit about how you came to 30 for 30 and what the seed for Trojan War was?
Aaron Rahsaan Thomas: ESPN and I had been looking to do something for a few years. There was a time where ESPN was looking to acquire Friday Night Lights while we were on NBC. At the time, I was staffed on Friday Night Lights and we started to toss around ideas for other projects. I think every pitch I tossed out they were already developing at the time, so it took us a few years before they came to me with an idea. They knew I was a big fan of USC, they knew I’d attended USC film school and taught there as an adjunct professor, so they wanted to connect me with a producer, Keyshawn Johnson, who had an idea for doing a 30 for 30 on the Peter Carroll era of USC. So I met with Keyshawn, and we hit it off and we went from there to develop a premise.

Paste: For me, the best 30 for 30 films are the ones where you can go in knowing nothing or caring nothing about the subject, but it still engages you. How did you approach this story? What was that ‘human element?’
Thomas: We were aware that some of the more prominent 30 for 30s had been done on college football before—The U, The U Part 2 Pony Excess, about SMU. From the beginning, we wanted it to feel different and we really wanted it to feel like USC. One of the more interesting aspects is USC’s location in Los Angeles. Also, there’s USC’s history with the entertainment business, going all the way back to John Wayne being a football player. That’s how he got his break—he was a member of the USC football team and was able to intern for Fox Studios at the time. So, we thought that was an interesting aspect and maybe there was an angle we could play on kind of like The Kid Stays in the Picture—doing an element of football as entertainment. At the end of the day that’s really what it is, even in college, and we thought we’d lean into that.

I also always liked the aspect of getting to know these guys personally. One of the things they did in the Brazilian film City of God that I always really liked was they would stop the narrative at times and go into these side anecdotes about the characters. I thought maybe there’s an opportunity to do that in a sports film and pay homage to a couple of films I admired. So that was the idea—to try to give you a snippet of the connection between USC and entertainment, give you a snippet of the ride and the fun in being a celebrity when you’re a 21-year-old college student and to give the audiences a bit of a window into who these kids were behind the scenes. So when you see them become stars, you get a sense of how far they’d come from meager, humble beginnings.

Paste: When you were putting the film together, was there anything that changed from the initial inception?
Thomas: ESPN really prides itself on being very supportive of directors’ visions. I found that to be absolutely true. If there’s one thing they wanted to stress—and I completely agree with it—it was that the centerpiece of the film was the 2006 Rose Bowl, which is known as perhaps the greatest college football game ever played, between the SC Trojans and the University of Texas Longhorns. Unfortunately, for SC, it didn’t go their way and the University of Texas ended up winning the game through a great play by Texas’ quarterback, Vince Young. So there was a temptation to maybe do a 50/50 split between USC and Texas. We made a decision early on, and ESPN wanted to stress this, that we choose a perspective and stick with it. Because of my connection with SC, we chose to do it from SC’s perspective. We did very extensive research and a lot of interviews with Texas, but at the end of the day, to be fair, it is from SC’s perspective. So even the Rose Bowl is presented from SC’s point-of-view. There will be Texas fans, I’m sure, who will say, “wait a second! Wait a second!” But, it’s called Trojan War for a reason.

Paste: Where were you in your life when that winning streak was happening?
Thomas: I arrived at USC right around the same time that Pete did. I grew up in the Midwest in Kansas City, but I grew up a USC football fan. When I arrived, the team wasn’t that good. They were still riding on past successes, so it was a little disappointing. When Pete arrived, the assumption was that he would just be a stop-gas solution—a nice guy who would keep us afloat until we got a ‘real’ coach, so to speak. So I don’t think expectations were that high. I don’t know that my expectations were that high. But, despite all that, I bought season tickets when I arrived. And then we started to see things change. Pete was really gregarious and he had an idea for how he wanted to conduct the program and, before long, he was able to really convey his philosophy to the players. And we started to win. So as I’m going through film school, the team is getting better and, despite the fact that I couldn’t afford season tickets, I kind of felt like, ‘I have to keep these because I think we might be on to something here.’ I saw the attendance really grow from being a half-filled stadium to being the easiest tickets in town to scalp—if one were so inclined.

Paste: Speaking of film, one of the elements of the film involves cuts to interviews with producer Larry Turman [The Graduate], which draws parallels between being a film producer and being a coach. And the film itself is structured like a screenplay, with scene descriptions appearing onscreen. How did that come into play?
Thomas: We made a decision early on, based on the 30 for 30 series, to take some creative chances. One of the strengths of the series is that no two 30 for 30 films feel alike. We felt like, if we’re going to lean into a connection between SC and the entertainment business, why not go all the way and do things a little different? Our idea from the beginning was that this ride that SC was on almost felt scripted. You have an underdog coach with an underdog team who builds this team to great heights. It almost was a Hollywood movie in a way, complete with personalities. We thought we’d give the audience a sense of that—like they’re living in a movie. It definitely felt that way at the time. The only thing is that the ending doesn’t exactly turn out the way you expect—they lose! (laughs)

Paste: It’s more the European ending.
Thomas: Yes, it’s bittersweet! But that was the idea. And there were some aspects from a couple other films I admire. One was, strangely enough, Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, which has super agent Dicky Fox giving you advice throughout the film. That’s what the Larry Turman bits were inspired by—to give you a sense of old-school Hollywood advice, which we felt paralleled nicely with Pete’s approach. Larry wrote this book on the business called, So You Want to Be a Producer? and all his bits of advice were in that book. We felt like, why not use bits of that? He was really gracious with his time. We only had him for 20 minutes, so we had to rush in, get all these bits and get him out of there. We thought it would add this change of pace and provide something else outside of sports. Larry isn’t even a sports fan, as far as I know. Anytime I see those bits, it puts a smile on my face because, like you said, hopefully it appeals to those who may not even be football fans because you’re following a narrative, and he’s a part of that.

Paste: You mention City of God and Jerry Maguire . Were there any other references you had in making the film? Certain interviews have a kind of Errol Morris feel, with the subjects staring straight into the camera.
Thomas: Absolutely. We definitely wanted to put you in the middle of the action as much as possible. I think a few times it really pays off in ways you don’t always expect. We have a sequence where we’re talking about the Notre Dame game with their infamous ‘Bush Push’ play. Matt Leinart starts to recall what he was thinking during the course of it, and I think that’s where being in his face—like you’re talking across from him in a booth somewhere—can be effective. You feel like it’s just you and him and he’s telling you a story.

We also used a motif that was inspired by, of all films, Rocky III. In Rocky III, the first ten minutes tells the story of Rocky being on top. He’s a champion, he’s won the belt from Apollo Creed and he’s no longer the underdog from Philly. But waiting in the wings is this strange guy with a Mohawk who looks really angry, who’s training in his basement and he’s coming after Rocky. We wanted to use Texas as kind of our Clubber Lang, to USC as Rocky. We thought, ‘Okay, if we’re going to use Texas, let’s use them in an effective way.’ They’re the coming threat. We know it’s going to happen. We can see it. But we want to get a sense of how it ended up happening. How USC’s overconfidence built, and how Texas was able to step up and hit them off the mount.

Finally, I always liked the idea of Goodfellas towards the end. Even though in that case you’re talking about criminals, you’re still taken on this wild ride where you’re living vicariously through these guys and, in the end, despite the ride being over, they end the film with Joe Pesci shooting at the camera to Sid Vicious’ ‘My Way.’ To me that indicates no regrets. If they had to do it over, they’d do it again. We wanted to leave people with that because that’s SC in a nutshell.

Paste: Speaking of Rocky, you have Michael B. Jordan narrating, who’s the new Creed. How did that come about?
Thomas: We always wanted to get a narrator who would have certain personal connections to the material. Mike was an obvious choice from the beginning because you have the Rocky parallel, but you also have the connection to the show I wrote on, Friday Night Lights. On that show, Mike played a character named Vince. He’s named Vince for a reason—after Vince Young. For those paying attention, every time he mentions Vince Young you can get a sense that it’s Vince talking about Vince, so to speak.

We also felt like Mike is obviously an up-and-coming star in Hollywood. He’s talking about these kids going on a ride and how things change for you when you go from being a 20-year-old-nobody to being a star; he knows about that. And frankly, I hadn’t heard his voice on a voiceover before. So we wanted to go with someone fresh, and someone you don’t hear every day and who gives you a bit of energy. And if we’re going to break the fourth wall and do some unorthodox things, you want someone with charisma. And Mike just embodied all of that. We wanted to have fun, and he’s a fun guy.

Paste: Was this your first time directing a documentary?
Thomas: It was. I found it very different from a narrative. You go into a narrative and ideally you have the story already determined, so it’s a just a matter of executing the story. I feel like it’s backwards with a documentary. You really have to be open because you might go in with a notion or a premise, but, as you gather interviews, you will have no idea what people will say. The story can start to take shape as you gather information. A few people come in with some interesting bits of information you never knew and suddenly the documentary can start to become about that. You really have to be flexible to where the story takes you. And after a while, you do craft a story like you would [a narrative film], but you really have to be open in the beginning. It’s a good exercise.

Paste: One of the people who declined to take part in the film was Reggie Bush, who plays a very major role in the story. Do you design one version of the movie in case he did decide to appear and another where he didn’t?
Thomas: We were trying to get Reggie from the very beginning. We knew it would be tough. We were prepared, if we were to get Reggie, that we could get his perspective on certain things that now are given from other sources. But, ultimately, the story pretty much remained as is. I don’t just say this because we didn’t get him, but I think it actually helps that we didn’t get him, because the story ends up being more sympathetic or empathetic in a way, when you hear so many people commenting on where he is and what happened with him at SC—the sanctions and the penalties he had to face. There’s something really compelling about him not being there, because it says something about the hard feelings that are still in place.

Paste: Was anyone reluctant to open up and offer information?
Thomas: One of my great concerns was that, because of the nature of the penalties and sanctions, we would have a lot of guarded, diplomatic answers. And we certainly got some of them. But it’s been 10 years since that season happened and there were people eager to express their opinions. I thought LenDale White was really candid with us. A few others were very candid as well. Ultimately, I think we were able to get everything we needed. There is certainly another story to be told about the penalties themselves. It’s such a deep rabbit hole that you’d really want an entire film, or maybe even a miniseries, to fully explore it.

Paste: You mentioned LenDale White being particularly candid. Were there any interviews that surprised you in any way?
Thomas: There’s a guy in the film, Todd McNair, who has been in the news this year because he has a lawsuit against the NCAA. Frankly, there are some questionable decisions the NCAA has made. He’s been one of the first flag barriers to go back and call them on that. He was really gracious and open with us. Even though we used him mostly for the personal aspect, I thought it was really refreshing and cool just how generous he was. Keith Jackson, who’s been an announcer for forever and is an icon in college football, had some very surprising views on the NCAA as well. You’d think a guy like him might be more in line with NCAA because he’s worked with them for so long. But he’s been one of the most adamant voices regarding NCAA needing to change their policies.

And then we got Lance Armstrong. There were a lot of things that Lance said that we couldn’t include, just because they were so in-depth regarding his own situation that, had we included them, you’d be completely distracted. He was very open. I feel like, if anyone wants to interview him, now would be the time because he was more candid than I expected.

Paste: Beside him, you have a few other celebrities offering their take on the USC streak. You have John Singelton and Snoop Dogg. Did you ever try to get more celebrity contributors, or were you wary of shifting focus away from the actual players?
Thomas: We reached out to a few others. Will [Ferrell]’s a big supporter of the university and he would have been great to have. We reached out to him. We had Matthew McConaughey for a second. We had his interview shot and in the film. But, as you find out with the entertainment industry, politics and other things can kind of get in the way.

Paste: He would have been part of the UT side?
Thomas: Yes. But he’s also a big-time actor and a big-time star and I suppose that figures into things—if you’re only going to use him for three minutes in the film, how does his camp feel about that? But it was great to get him and I was glad we were able to sit down with him. In a way, I think it works out for us because we’re trying to tell the story of USC being the Hollywood school and had we had too many stars from Texas, it kind of hurts our case a little bit.

Paste: In retrospect, what do you think is the biggest lesson you learned in making this film that you’d pass on to people deciding to make their own documentaries?
Thomas: The biggest thing I learned—and I’m still learning it by the way and I may have a different answer when it’s all said and done—but I definitely learned to trust my gut. Even if you feel like you’re the only one. Being a director, you have to trust your vision. What draws you to this story, what do you like about it…and stick with it. At every turn, you’ll have people telling you you’re crazy and that it shouldn’t be done that way, and/or trying to tell you the way they think it should be done. And that’s not to say you shouldn’t be willing to collaborate, you should be open. But ultimately, you want to be very clear about what story you want to tell and why you want to tell it. There’s so many fights you’re going to wage that you need that to fall back on, especially before the film’s finished and there’s’ nothing to see and there’s nothing tangible. You really have to believe that what you see will be worthwhile.

Paste: What other projects do you have coming up?
Thomas: I’m currently a co-executive producer on a Netflix TV series called The Get Down. It’s executive produced by Baz Luhrmann and Shawn Ryan and Tom Kelly, who was a showrunner for Copper. It’s about New York City in the late 1970s—birth of hip-hop, birth of New Wave punk and kind of the rise and fall of disco. And it’s a coming-of-age story about four kids in the Bronx. One of them is destined to become a superstar in the hip-hop world, but we meet him when he’s just a teenager experiencing all these great things around him. It’s a lot of fun; we’re aiming for it to premiere in the fall of 2016. We’re working with really great auspices—Grandmaster Flash is a producer, Kurtis Blow is a producer. It’s a lot of work, but it’s unique and we feel like it’ll be different than anything else on TV.


Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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