Undefeated Directors, Dan Lindsay And TJ Martin, Reveal The Highest And Lowest Points In Making Their Oscar-Winning Documentary
by Sasha Bronner
When two unknown LA filmmakers pack up and move to Memphis to make a documentary about a struggling high school football team, it doesn’t exactly scream Academy Award.
And yet, “Undefeated” has been hailed not only one of the best sports documentaries of all time, but one of the best sports films – ever. Directors Dan Lindsay, 33, and TJ Martin, 32, followed a story with their gut, and after showing some edited footage around Hollywood, were able to secure financing for the film before they even shot it.
Over two years later, their hard work (which included a broken hand, computers screen-deep in water, a school board potentially shutting them down, and over 500 hours of footage to edit), has most certainly paid off. “Undefeated” won the Oscar for Best Documentary in February and the next day, Lindsay and Martin had approximately 1,500 new emails in their inboxes, each.
The duo met while making a documentary about the world series of beer pong, and what was meant to be a two-month edit, turned into a nine-month blossoming relationship. When they screened “Undefeated” at South by Southwest in 2011, industry monarch Harvey Weinstein immediately scooped it up. Sean “P. Diddy” Combs came on as executive producer and what was once a tiny football documentary, became the toast of the town at the 2012 Academy Awards.
The Huffington Post sat down with the two filmmakers at a coffee shop in Los Feliz to talk sleep deprivation, the expletive that got their acceptance speech cut short and why Brad Pitt is probably laughing at them.
TJ Martin: Silverlake
Dan Lindsay: Koreatown
LA Transplant or Native Angeleno?
TJ: Transplant from Seattle, Washington. I’ve been in LA for five years.
Dan: Transplant from Rockford, Illinois. It was once voted one the worst cities to live in America. But obviously if you’ve been to Rockford you’d know it’s a magical place. I’ve been in LA 10 years now, so I think I count as an Angeleno.
Your documentary “Undefeated” started as many films have — with an article. Who brought it to you, and did you immediately want to make it into a film?
TJ: Our producer Rich found the article. He went to the University of Tennessee and follows their football recruiting closely. One of the main players from “Undefeated,” O.C. Brown, was being recruited by them.
Dan: Rich and I went to breakfast at Izzy’s Deli in Santa Monica, I had corned beef and hash, and we were sort of just lamenting our careers and we decided that should just find our own story to make a film about. So when Rich found this article, he sent it to us with that in mind.
TJ: But it wasn’t the article that inspired us, really. It was the world. Since O.C. was the subject of the article, we first thought that it was a possibility to make a coming of age story about O.C.
A la “The Blind Side”?
Dan: The film “The Blind Side” hadn’t even been made yet. Rich actually mentioned the book The Blind Side in the first conversation we had and he said it’s kind of happening again. When we hung up from our first phone with Coach Bill, I called Rich back and told him I hated him. He asked why and I said, “We are going to have to move to Memphis to make this movie.”
How exactly do you co-direct a film? What is your process of collaboration?
TJ: We both shoot cameras at same time. We both edit. We have the same skill sets. We cut in the same room but work on different scenes. And then we swap to see if one saw something the other didn’t.
We heard that the first rough cut of “Undefeated” was extremely long.
Dan: Yes, the first assembly of the film was five hours long. We put all of our scenes in some sort of linear order and it was more of a way to see what stood out. When we finished, I was pretty sure TJ was going to slit his wrists. He said, “This is never going to work!” And I said, “No it’s good!” When one of us is down, the other is up. We ebb and flow.
What kind of music do you guys listen to?
Dan: Music is very big to TJ and I. I was in a death metal band when I was 13 and I was the screamer. I have really bad rhythm though, so they had to point to me when it was my turn to come in. I was awful.
TJ: My parents were punk rock musicians. I thought that would be my thing. I was a drummer.
Dan: TJ’s and my musical tastes are like a Venn diagram. A lot of how we figure out our tone and approach for a film is by talking about music first. Music is the closest art form to film for me. The journey it takes you on is similar. It’s emotional.
Did you guys get some heat for your Oscar acceptance speech because you were cut off (and bleeped out) before you had a chance to thank the players and community in Memphis?
TJ: The thing that was most disheartening was that we didn’t get the opportunity to just dedicate the award to O.C., Coach Bill, Money and Chavis.
Dan: I was pissed off from the moment we walked off the stage and was down for a couple of days.
TJ: Look. There are always going to be haters out there, and I messed up and gave them gold.
What emotions were you both experiencing right before they announced your win? How anxious were you?
TJ: This calm came over me as I got settled in my seat. I was sure “Paradise Lost” had won. And then they called us and Dan zipped up there past me and I thought, “Oh sh*t, this is actually happening!”
Have you watched yourselves winning online?
Dan: I don’t want to watch it. I want to have my version of it. If I watch it, that’s how I’ll remember it. Instead of remembering it from my vantage point, which was looking down and seeing Brad Pitt laugh.
At something you guys said?
Dan: No. Probably at us! At the Oscar Nominee Luncheon, our producer Rich was standing next to Brad Pitt at one point. And when they finally called my name to come down for the photo, I got so excited that I just jumped over all the risers and ran up to the stage. Apparently Brad turned and said, “Look at that guy! He’s so excited!”
You have spoken about the importance of gaining the trust of the players and the community during the filming of this documentary. How did you do that?
TJ: I think anyone on the periphery was skeptical. But once we earned the trust of the players, and the people in the community saw the relationships we had built with them, there was a ripple effect.
What was the lowest point for both of you during the process of making this film?
Dan: There was a pretty bad miscommunication with the school board and apparently no one told the superintendent that we would be filming at Manassas High School. We were three weeks in and the principal said we couldn’t shoot or talk to the players anymore. We thought it was over.
TJ: Probably when I broke my hand on my birthday and we were already into shooting. I missed four games and even after that had to shoot in a sling. Or it was seeing that first five-hour cut of the film. It was one of those moments where I thought, “What the f*ck have we gotten ourselves into? Why did we shoot 500 hours of footage?”
Was there a time when something really clicked?
TJ: The first time I saw the footage of Money with the turtle. I saw that and I felt there was something really unique and intimate about the world we were in.
Dan: The biggest, highest high for me was the test screening. No one had seen the film yet and we had been cutting for so long, we didn’t even know if it worked.
TJ: We stayed up all night and did some really major re-structures the night before that test screening.
Dan: There were notes that had been given to us by the producers but the night before, we just looked at each other and decided to put it all back as we originally had it. We didn’t listen to the notes.
I sat in the back corner during the screening because I was so nervous. The first scene with Coach Bill in the classroom came up and they laughed when it was funny, and then it got quiet at other times. And I just started getting really emotional and crying — and maybe I was just sleep deprived — but I saw that it was working and that they liked it.
Favorite LA restaurant?
Dan: Cactus Taqueria on Vine. Carne asada burrito, no beans. There have been periods of my life where I go there for lunch and for dinner.
TJ: Malo is the spot. If there’s going to be any happy hour, that’s where I’m happiest.
What does winning an Oscar give you? What kinds of doors does it open?
Dan: After our nomination, we were asked our opinion on a script, but this time it really felt like they was listening. They think we know what we are talking about. But my opinions hadn’t changed over the course of those 48 hours. The Oscars were surreal. But it was a blip in our lives and this morning I was cleaning my bathroom.
TJ: It earns you a certain amount of trust and creates a safety net and maybe people feel more comfortable going into business with you. The meetings we are taking now are a little more realistic than six months ago.
Favorite LA movie?
Dan: “The Big Lebowski.”
TJ: It’s very recent, but I loved the way Nicolas Winding Refn shot Los Angeles in “Drive.”
What is the craziest thing that’s happened to you in LA?
TJ: At the Oscar Nominees Luncheon, I got up to the stands to take the group photo and found myself eavesdropping on a conversation between two familiar voices. I thought, “Who the hell would I personally know in this room?” And when I looked behind my left shoulder, I saw none other than the great Steven Spielberg. And when I looked over my right shoulder, sure enough he was conversing with Martin Scorsese. And security wasn’t ushering me out of the room!
Dan: Years ago, on the first night when I arrived in LA, I left my parents a message and jokingly said that I got car jacked and beaten up on the side of the road. Little did I know, their horrible answering machine cut the message off and that’s all they heard. My phone died and I went to bed only to be awoken to banging on the door and the LAPD screaming, “Is Daniel Lindsay in there?!” This was my first night in Los Angeles.
What is the best piece of advice you guys were given?
Dan: Hans Zimmer told us we were going to win two days before the Oscars. And he said, “When you got up there and win on Sunday, you’re gonna look out and the first three rows are going to be really famous people and they are going to clap and smile at you and that’s going to be really seductive, but those people three weeks ago couldn’t give a shit about you. So the best thing you can do is go make another movie.”