Dan Lindsay had no idea whether the film was any good. Back when he and T.J. Martin had been shooting in Memphis, they were certain that they had stumbled upon something powerful and poignant. But after editing down 500-someodd hours of film, they had reached the point where artists become discontented with their work. Fatigue and frustration clouded their vision.
But as their documentary, Undefeated, began playing in front of its first test audience, Lindsay noticed that people were responding just as he hoped they would. They morphed into invested fans, cheering for the Manassas High School Tigers — a football team that hadn’t won a single game in nearly 14 years … until now. They became enamored with Bill Courtney, a white, well-to-do businessman who volunteered to coach the mostly poor, black team for free. They pulled for left tackle O.C. Brown to pick up his grades and make it to college. They waited impatiently for troublemaker Chavis Daniels to realize the err of his ways, while their hearts grew heavy as lineman Montrail “Money” Brown suffered a devastating injury.
“Our task as directors and editors is to take the emotional rollercoaster we went on and distill it into a two-hour experience so the audience members care as much about what’s happening as we did while filming it,” says Lindsay, a 2001 University of Missouri graduate. “Watching that first audience respond was the most emotional I got in the process of making this film. It was the highest high.”
Following that peak came a series of shock-and-awe moments.
The film debuted at South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and The Weinstein Co. purchased the distribution and remake rights during a bidding war. Lindsay recalls his reaction of pure surprise: “What? That’s ridiculous. They release really good movies.”
Then Undefeated aired at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. “Toronto had been a dream of mine,” Lindsay says. “I just never thought it would happen this early in my career.”
The film received Critics’ Choice Award and Academy Award nominations, and if those weren’t shocking enough, Lindsay then received word that Sean “Diddy” Combs wanted to help with the film. “He had seen it that week and really responded to it. His desire to come aboard was about getting awareness of the film,” Lindsay says.
Then on Feb. 26, after walking his mom down the red carpet in a Brooks Brothers suit, Lindsay heard Undefeated named as the 2012 documentary Oscar winner. “It was an amazing rupture of energy like I’ve never had come through my body. I remember just glimpses of things. I jumped over one of the series of stairs. Wow, this award is really heavy, I thought. Why I am up on stage? I remember hugging T.J., saying something and then looking down and seeing Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Why are they laughing at me? I wasn’t nervous; I just felt a ton of energy, like I had drank 5,000 cups of coffee.”
Just like the best documentaries, Lindsay’s unscripted life had become more vivid and unpredictable than any scripted story.
An unlikely start
If things had worked out like Lindsay planned them in high school, he would have gone to the University of Illinois, his family’s alma mater, and become an accountant. A few U-turns along the way landed him in a much different university and profession.
While visiting his aunt and uncle in St. Louis, Lindsay decided to tour the University of Missouri on perhaps one of Columbia’s worst wintry days. The Rockford, Ill., native arrived at Jesse Hall in the middle of an ice storm, leading his tour guide to assume that he wouldn’t want to travail around the slippery campus. But he did, and his next day in town proved more promising.
“It looked like what I imagined a college town would look like,” says Lindsay, who still calls Columbia one of his favorite cities. “I’m very much a person who likes experiences. Early on, a lot of mine were tied to the fraternity [Beta Theta Pi]. For some reason, I always remember walking down what we called Beta Highway toward Memorial Union on nice days and just thinking, ‘I love this place.’”
While fall football Saturdays and cheesy Shakespeare’s slices affirmed that Lindsay had chosen the right school, he began questioning his major. “I kept trying to come up with cool ways to be an accountant, like maybe I could be an accountant for a band and go on the road with them.”
Becoming a filmmaker wasn’t a natural second choice. Lindsay didn’t grow up as a film geek; he didn’t even particularly like watching movies. He vividly recalls going to see The Empire Strikes Back as a toddler, but he remember more about the car ride in his mom’s MG convertible than he does about the film or theater. His first movie camera experience came when his middle-school teacher gave the class an option of writing a paper or making a video about World War II.
“It seemed like a no-brainer to me,” he says. “I could make a film and mess around. For a paper, I would have had to type and all that terrible stuff. But I never thought of it as something people did. I didn’t know what directors did until I was 21.”
Lindsay switched his major to marketing and enrolled in filmmaking classes at the University of Southern California during the summer before his senior year. Upon graduation, he and several Mizzou friends moved to Los Angeles. “My plan consisted of four words: I’m moving to LA. I hadn’t thought about much more than that,” he says.
Going to graduate school for film was an option, but Lindsay found a cheaper way to get experience. While at Kinko’s copying his resume, he met producer and former Washington, D.C., reporter Cody Shearer, who took a copy of Lindsay’s resume. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Shearer asked Lindsay to direct a short documentary he was filming called Why U.S.? While later working on his first feature-length documentary, Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong, Lindsay met film editor T.J. Martin. The pair made plans to collaboratively direct and edit a documentary, but one big thing was missing: a compelling story.
A surprising season
No one could have guessed that 2009 would be the season when one of the worst performing and worst funded high school football programs in Tennessee would make a run for the playoffs. That’s not the story that Lindsay and Martin set out to document — it’s not a story that anyone could have predicted.
Their producer Rich Middlemas led them to Manassas High School after reading about O.C. Brown, a talented athlete with lots of promise on the field but problems in the classroom. His living situation piqued the crew’s interest. His mother died when he was young, and his father wasn’t around — leaving him in the care of his grandmother. But he also partially lived with one of his coaches in a luxurious suburban home because no tutors were willing to drive to where his family lived in inner-city Memphis.
“What attracted us was the opportunity to tell a coming-of-age story about one character during an important year of his life,” Lindsay says. “When gathering some initial footage in the spring, we captured some moments that made us realize we had entered a special world.”
In one of those scenes shot early on, football player Montrail Brown shows the film crew around his house and likens his pet turtle to people: They try to be hard on the outside but are really soft on the inside. It was one of those “Did he just say that?” moments.
They decided to expand the scope of the storyline but insisted on keeping their approach the same. To blend in and capture intimate moments, they limited the number of crew members. Lindsay, Martin and Middlemas would do nearly all of the filming and editing — though they had scant experience shooting sports.
“We didn’t think about the challenges,” Lindsay says. “The ball moves really fast, especially when you’re trying to track it looking through an eye piece. We hid a lot of mistakes through our editing. One decision we made early on, however, was to capture what the experience is like for people getting the thrill of it. I remember going to high school football games and being bored. We wanted to get the energy and intensity of the people who are in the games, so we filmed on the sidelines instead of in the stands.”
The hallways of Manassas High School were much different than those of Lindsay’s Boylan Catholic High School, but he noticed many similarities, too.
“Teenagers are teenagers,” says Lindsay, who played soccer and wrestled during his high school days. “They are all worried about the same things. It’s a time of life when everything is so important because the world is so small; when you’re still in the bubble of high school you feel things more.”
For the entire crew, their year living in north Memphis — where single-parent homes, poverty, unemployment and crime are common — was an eye-opening experience. But they purposely veered away from becoming an advocacy film. Rather than convincing audiences of what to think about certain social issues, the documentary subtley raises questions about race, class and the American dream.
The result was what Salon described as “a genuine crowd-pleaser, a rousing and inspirational flowers-in-the-junkyard fable of hope and possibility in grim circumstances.”
An unchartered future
Lindsay’s golden Emmy statute sits on a shelf next to his scotch bottles, where he placed it after the awards ceremony.
“It’s not like there’s a trophy case built into my residence,” he says with a laugh. “The Oscar is probably worth more than the entire building it’s in. So for right now, it just hangs out in the hallway. When I walk by to shower in the morning, I think, ‘Oh yeah; that happened.’”
Although the film has long been done, Lindsay still keeps in touch with nearly everyone in Undefeated.
“That’s just the nature of making a documentary. You spend so much time with your subjects that you can’t help but get close and start to care for them,” Lindsay says. “It was a difficult position to be in at times. Your duty as a documentary filmmaker is to observe and not interrupt, but it’s difficult to watch someone make a bad decision in front of you without being able to intervene. On the completely opposite side, when they were scoring a touchdown in a game, we were so excited that we’d almost screw up filming.”
The critical acclaim and national release of the film brought much unanticipated acclaim to both the subjects and the filmmakers. Lindsay’s calendar is now chocked with media interviews and meetings about future projects. He can’t reveal specifics but says that his next film is likely to be a feature-length scripted narrative, his first. But then he’ll make another documentary. It’s a genre with much allure for adventurous filmmaker types such as Lindsay. It doesn’t require a huge set or budget — just a camera and a solid story.
“When making documentaries, you get an invitation into a world you normally wouldn’t be exposed to or invited into,” Lindsay says. “You meet people you normally would never meet. That’s one of the things that has drawn me to documentaries and why I’ll always want to make them. It’s because of the people you meet, places you get to go and opportunities that I never would have had if I had become an accountant.”