Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A director tackles high school football

De La Salle High School in Concord, Ca., holds a record that likely never will be broken. Between 1992 and 2003, the team won 151 straight games, gaining a national reputation among those who follow high school football and helping to train a variety of players (see list below) who eventually made it into the professional ranks in the NFL.

The new movie -- When the Game Stands Tall -- stars Jim Caviezel as Bob Ladouceur, the legendary coach of the De La Salle Spartans. Ladouceur, who retired in 2013, also taught religion at the northern California school. He was famous not only for his on-field success, but for instilling character and discipline in his many charges.

I recently spoke with Thomas Carter, who directed When the Game Stands Tall. Carter also directed the 2005 high school basketball movie Coach Carter, and played a high school basketball player on The White Shadow, a TV program that ran from 1978 to 1981. He has directed extensively in television, and also has directed 11 features, beginning with 1993's Swing Kids.

Q. Should I feel like a sports ignoramous for not knowing about De La Salle's astonishing record before I heard about your film?
Carter: I'm a sports fan, as well, and, honestly, I’d never heard of De La Salle until this story came my way. People who follow high school sports in a big way knew about it, as well as a lot of sports writers.
One of the things I learned in reading about De La Salle is that we had no way to track national high school championship competitions until 10 or so years ago. We didn’t really have the platform to know what was going on elsewhere.

I'm sure if you if you live in Colorado, you probably read about the high school state championship whether you followed it or not. You probably saw something about it.

Q. ESPN now covers some high school football, as do a few other sports-oriented networks.
Carter: This movie actually covers the game that was considered the first of the high school championship games that was televised. Now there’s a little more awareness about it.

Q. Did you see De La Salle play before you began shooting?
Carter: Yes, in the year right before I made the movie. The first game I saw was between the northern and the southern sections of the state, which is how it’s broken up. De La Salle was playing the high school on which my nephew was a lineman. I had a little bit of a confused rooting interest, but I sat on the De La Salle side.

Q. I wasn't watching the movie with a stop watch, but it seemed to me that there was more football than in most similiar movies.
Carter: I don’t know if we had more football but we do have one of the longer sequences of a football game, the one between Long Beach Polytechnic and De La Salle. That big sequence hopefully makes you feel as if you’re watching a football game. It’s not as long as a football game, of course, but it’s very long for a movie. (Perhaps 20 minutes.)

More than that, it’s the visceral experience of watching those games that makes it feel real.

Q. How did you go about getting that visceral experience on film?
Carter: It was a quick shoot, but we had a lot of time for certain sequences. (The movie was shot in Louisiana because of state rebates.) The second unit probably had three or four days to shoot on that sequence, and then I came with the first unit, and we shot close to another three or four days. ....

We used a motorcycle camera. We mounted a camera on the back of an electric motorcycle. We moved with the players as they moved through the line. It gave a different kind of dynamism to the sequence. The motorcycle is actually tracking with the player in the middle of the play. ....

We were also up close and personal with the linemen so you feel the hits. A lot of the work was in the sound design, a very specific sound for each hit.

Q. That's something I wanted to ask you about. With all the talk about concussions these days were you concerned about how you displayed the physicality of football, particularly in a movie about high school football?
Carter: I'm concerned about that. The producer and I had conversations about it. Football is a physical game. It’s a combative game. I have hits in this movie that young boys will enjoy. Yet, there are times where parents may feel very cautioned. We tried to take out any helmet-to-helmet hits. We were very conscious about that. It's a full and aggressive football experience, but nobody — including me as a filmmaker — wants to do anything that leads to any kid getting hurt.

Q. One of the interesting things about the movie is that Ladouceur isn't a rah-rah type of guy. He's quiet and sometimes, it looks more like his assistant (Michael Chiklis) is coaching the team.
Carter: That's something I experienced going to a real team meeting. Bob sits in a corner. Other people talk. The players talk. More toward the end, Bob would get up and say some things. He’s always compelling in what he says because he's simple and direct. It's not overly theatrical, but it’s so honest and piercing.

Even though Bob is a man of relatively few words, he’s compelling and authentic when he speaks. Trying to tackle that with an actor is difficult. Jim had to try to find that within himself.

Q. So you were impressed by Ladouceur and his approach?
I don’t think any of us who've made a movie has had an experience that’s quite as dynamic, as deep and as rich as what these guys have been through, the kind of day-to-day commitment, what happens in a team meeting or a chapel service or in a game.

Q. During the story, a young man dies. He's shot while picking up his cousin at a party he didn't even attend. He was a good kid en route to a college scholarship at Oregon. It wasn't a police shooting, but it actually happened, and it made me think about Michael Brown, the young man who was just killed in Missouri.
Carter: It’s heartbreaking any time you lose a child for any reason, but when you lose a child in an unexpected and apparently avoidable way, in a way that makes no sense, it’s incredibly painful. .... I wanted to justice to the parents of the real kid. They suffered a tragedy. That was a big issue for me.

What's horrible is to look at the country and what’s happening in Missouri. Whatever happens specifically in this case, there’s a level of racism in certain pockets of the country that I would have thought would be gone by now, things that kids walking down the street would not have to deal with. I never imagined in 2014, that we’d be dealing with these issues.

It’s a reminder that we all have to keep a constant vigil, not just black people but white people, Latinos, Asians, all of us as Americans, a constant vigil against any kind of real bigotry and the perils of inequality of income and opportunity.

Q. Maybe it's pushing the point, but your movie seems to be calling young people to a higher ground.
Carter: That’s why a movie like this is important. It calls us into the service of our higher ideals -- not in a corny way, I hope, but in a way that’s true. Bob has been doing this for years. It’s not a made up story. Young men have responded to this call, have grown and hopefully have become young adults who have a more inclusive philosophy of brotherhood and camaraderie, of selflessness, of putting somebody before themselves, of playing for the other guy. That's real for them.

Bob will tell you winning is a result of other things that you do. He likes to win, but that’s not the first agenda.

Some De La Salle athletes who have gone on to pro football:
T.J. Ward, safety for the Denver Broncos
Maurice Jones-Drew, halfback for Oakland Raiders.
Kevin Simon, linebacker for Washington Redskins
Matt Gutierrez, former quarterback in the National Football League
D. J. Williams, outside linebacker for the Chicago Bears
Doug Brien, kicker with San Francisco 49ers
David Loverne, guard with New York Jets
Derek Landri, defensive tackle with Philadelphia Eagles

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