Notes on "Undefeated"



Last October, in advance of the local premier of the documentary Undefeated at Indie Memphis Film Festival, I interviewed directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin and producer Rich Middlemas by phone. The film finally gets its wide release in Memphis this weekend. Undefeated will be playing at Paradiso theater beginning tomorrow, and tonight there is a special private screening for the Manassas High School coaches, players, parents, and school staff, hosted Malco Theaters, the Memphis & Shelby County Film/TV Commission, and Memphis mayor A C Wharton.

The film follows the ups and downs of the 2009 football season at Manassas, a North Memphis high school with no history of winning. Here’s the story I wrote for the Indie Memphis preview (fourth item from the top) and here’s my review of the film in this week’s Memphis Flyer. Undefeated won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature last Sunday evening.

Much of the material I got in the interview was left out for space reasons for my story, so here are some excerpts from the cutting-room floor.

Dan Lindsay on moving to Memphis for the production (The filmmakers lived in Harbor Town for nine months, from July 2009 to March 2010.): “We went to spring practices and saw who had the potential for a dramatic story arc over the course of the coming season. That was part of the reason we felt it was important to move to Memphis. Nothing replaces being in the city and understanding the dynamics of the city.”

T.J. Martin on researching Memphis for film prep: “[We were] getting to intimately know people and asking them questions, going above and beyond what the story was we were following, and letting people know we were vastly more interested in the community rather than just the football team.”

Martin on the amount of footage they had: “It took us two weeks to figure out how we were going to organize our files. After we finished principal photography, Dan would watch 250 hours, and I would watch 250 hours, and we would log those and put them into our filing system. Then I would start cutting the scenes that he logged and vice versa, so we both could get our eyes on the whole 500 hours. Just to go through the 250 between the two of us took three months. We did shoot an additional three other storylines that didn’t make the final cut of the film. The film took shape in the editing process — finding the best story that could represent everyone’s story.”

Martin on the subjects of the film: “Everyone was emotionally candid on the film. We wanted it to be a cinematic experience, so that it plays out like a narrative film. We got lucky that people forgot that we were there and we became an extension of the team.”

Martin on the racial undertones of the story (Coach Bill Courtney and his staff are white, and the players are African-American): “We were very concerned about not telling a white knight story. We couldn’t take away the fact that Bill was white and this was an all-African-American school. But, we never bring that up in the movie. And it’s not brought up because it was never an issue for the players or for Bill. This was just their experience, and he was their coach. It was important to us that the film is a human story, and all of that other stuff is the backdrop to that story. The history of Memphis is a backdrop."

Lindsay on one documentary that influenced them:Hoop Dreams is one of the greatest documentaries ever made. The biggest thing we took from it is the patience that [Hoop Dreams director] Steve James had in making that movie, and how much is shown and not told.

Lindsay on the score: “We thought if we were going to make a movie in Memphis, which has so much musical history, we should instrumentally find some references. Knowing we had an emotional film, we wanted to find a way to use the score to enhance the emotion without making it about the score. We thought about using a Hammond B-3 organ, which is very important in my mind to not only the Memphis sound but Southern Baptist churches and gospel music. We wanted it to be atmospheric but not overly symphonic. We described, if Brian Eno and Tom Waits had a child that born in 1950 — what would that sound like?”


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