Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Oscar-winners for their documentary “Undefeated,” tell the moving story of a volunteer coach and the players he impacts in inner-city Memphis.
Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Oscar-winners for their documentary Undefeated, tell the moving story of a volunteer coach and the players he impacts in inner-city Memphis.
Interviewed by Maria Fontoura
How did you find this story?
Dan: Our producer, Rich [Middlemas], went to the University of Tennessee. He’s a huge Vols football fan, to the point that he follows their recruiting with an unhealthy obsession. Out of nowhere, this tackle from a high school in Memphis was popping up all over the message boards. We Googled his name, O.C. Brown, and found an article about how two families had their arms around this top prospect. It detailed how he was struggling in the classroom and the coaches wanted to find him a tutor, but they couldn’t find one that would go into his neighborhood, so one coach took him in a few nights a week. We thought it would be interesting to document this kid’s senior year as he was being shuttled between two seemingly disparate worlds. We took a trip to Memphis to meet O.C., and it was there that we met Bill Courtney, the coach who is one of the main subjects of our film. He was so unbelievably charismatic and told us about things that had happened in past seasons. He painted such a world that we thought, “wow, if we embed ourselves with this team, we could probably document some compelling stuff.” But I don’t think we ever imagined we would get some of the moments that we ultimately did.
Were parallels to Friday Night Lights apparent as you were filming?
Dan: No, we were too stupid to actually think, “maybe we should watch some football-related content before we do this.” I’d never even seen the movie.
T.J.: Yeah, we got that hot tip about halfway through the season.
Dan: One of the coaches said, “you guys should watch Friday Night Lights — sounds like that’s what you’re trying to do.” And we were like, “what’s Friday Night Lights?” Then I became a very big fan. I read The Blind Side, read Friday Night Lights, watched the TV series, and watched the movie. But we were already five games deep at that point.
Were you concerned that people would think you were piggybacking on the success of The Blind Side, another story about a white coach helping a poor, black football player?
Dan: Not really. We were already living in Memphis making the movie when The Blind Side went into production. Then that movie came out, and then Sandra Bullock won an Oscar, and we were still in Memphis making our movie. Obviously, there are similarities in O.C.’s storyline: it’s football, it’s Memphis, he plays the same position as Michael Oher. There’s an emotional and inspirational quality to The Blind Side and to our film that people respond to in similar ways. But the movie The Blind Side is very much a love story between a mother and a surrogate son. O.C.’s story is about taking advantage of opportunity.
T.J.: The comparisons are very surface-level. The experience of watching our film and the themes that are explored are night and day. And honestly, if you look at the race dynamics, it’s very different.
Dan: The fact that Bill is white and this is an all African-American school is very circumstantial. Going into it we thought, “this is something we’re really going to explore.” But to them it was not a big deal at all. It was never talked about. And we were very conscious of not wanting to tell a white knight story. You couldn’t deny the power of what Bill was doing, but in no way did it feel like he was ever trying to be a savior. Bill is trying to win the respect of the kids, and that’s a big deal for him. He’d always tell us, “these kids don’t have to respect me because of who I am, I need to earn their respect. And the way I do that is by serving them.”
There are certain moments that have so much pathos they almost seems scripted, such as when the juvie alum, Chavis, gives a team award he’d received to his former enemy, Money.
Dan: At that moment, T.J. and I looked at each other like, “did that just happen? We have a movie now. This is incredible that things are turning out this way.”
Were there other jaw-dropping moments?
T.J.: There were a ton of moments like that which were left on the cutting room floor. We had to divorce ourselves from a lot of really intimate experiences that unfolded in front of the camera to stick to the universal themes that we wanted to explore. One really amazing storyline was that of a player who’d just turned 18 and been kicked out of the foster system. He didn’t have anywhere to live, so he wasn’t going to be able to play football and finish out his senior year. He was taken in by a first-year volunteer coach, which ended up being his 19th foster home. Being shuttled around 19 different foster homes — interesting is not a good enough word to define how unique a character he is and how many challenges he faces within himself. He was a hard one for us not to include in the film.
Are you still touch with the kids?
Dan: Yep. On Super Bowl Sunday, after the game, I get a call from Chavis: “Dan, you have roadside assistance? I locked my keys in my car, I need some help.” I was like, “I’m in Los Angeles, Chavis, what do you want me to do?” But sure enough, he was right. Somebody [at the party] had AAA, and we got them to come out and get his keys out of his car.
What kinds of movies were you making before this?
Dan: We did a feature documentary that I was hired to direct and T.J. was hired to edit. It was a very important film on the World Series of Beer Pong.
T.J.: It’ll change your life.
Dan: The producers that found the story and hired us originally wanted some bro-tastic film of guys getting drunk and throwing up, and instead T.J. and I spent nine months crafting this film that examined the idea of people not wanting to grow up and Peter Pan syndrome. That’s how we met and found very quickly that not only do we work well together, but it’s kind of strange how our tastes are in line. I’ll pick up T.J. for an interview and he’ll walk out wearing the same thing as me.
T.J.: It is embarrassing. We did a TV segment this morning and the first thing I texted him was, “what are you wearing?”
Dan: And we still both had cardigans and striped shirts.
What kinds of projects are you working on now?
Dan: The day that we found out we’d made the [Oscars] short list, T.J. and I were working on cutting a promotional video for my uncle’s speaking conference in Carmel. All of a sudden our phone is ringing, people saying congratulations, and we’re like, “thank you! But we have to get back to cutting this thing so we can make a thousand dollars to pay our rent!”