“Undefeated” back on the playing field

Oscar-winning documentary “Undefeated’ returns to Columbia after being shown during the 2012 True/False Film Fest in March.

By Jennifer Liu | May 4, 2012

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[MOVE] What is it about documentary filmmaking that made you want to pursue it as a profession?

[Dan Lindsay] I was interested in just making movies, and documentary is one form where you can go out and make a film. You can find an interesting story and you don’t need a crew or editors or a bunch of money. But you can still tell a great story. Documentaries are just really fun to make because you’re constantly on your toes. It’s a very instinctual way of working because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you really have to anticipate what’s going to happen. So it’s a bit of a rush, too.

[M] What was the process like looking for a documentary subject?

[DL] We found the story through one of the players from an article that was written for a local Memphis paper. Several months before we started the film, we got together and said, “Let’s really actively try to find a story.” And then Rich (Middlemas, the film’s producer) found a story on O.C. Brown, one of the players we profile in the film, and that’s what led us to the story. When finding stories for documentaries, they’re everywhere. Reading an article or listening to a friend tell an amazing story about a friend of theirs is similar to the process of making a documentary. In researching, you have to be open that you can find stories anywhere.

[M] What was the most important thing you learned while filming “Undefeated?”

[DL] Well, there’s funny answers like, don’t shoot 500 hours of footage because you’ll be editing for a long time. But on the flip side of that, do shoot 500 hours of footage. I think the biggest discovery that we made is that less is more, in terms of crew and what you need to do to shape a story. It is a leap of faith in making a documentary. How often do you say, “We’re going to follow this story, and we don’t know what’s going to happen but we’ve found this interesting environment and revealing characters. We’ll follow them for a certain period of time and see what happens.” It was “less is more” in terms that it was just T.J. (Martin, who is) my directing partner, and I. It really allowed us to embed ourselves and become a part of the fabric of the school and the team. If we had showed up with an agenda and a huge crew, we wouldn’t have gotten the emotional intimacy we were able to capture on film.

[M] What was your favorite experience from filming “Undefeated?”

[DL] We lived in Memphis for nine months making the film, and it was just T.J., Rich and myself living in an apartment. So just trying to live together and work together was funny enough.

One of my favorite anecdotes is when we were two or three months into making the film. We would go to the school almost everyday, so were around for everything. One day we were in the cafeteria and I just put the camera down, I was taking a break from filming. Then one of the players said to me, “Hey Dan, who's gonna play me in the movie?” And I said “You are. This is the movie.” And it was a prime example of how no matter how many times we explained to them what we were doing, I don’t think they always grasped what this was. Again, because our cameras were so small and it didn’t look like what they thought of as a big production.

[M] Who was the first person you talked to after you found out that “Undefeated” was nominated for an Academy Award?

[DL] I called T.J. first. I think we kind of screamed at each other, “Is this really happening?” And then I called Bill Courtney, the coach at the center of the film. And then I talked to my mom. And then there was a flurry of phone calls. It’s amazing how many phone calls you can get at 5 a.m.

[M] And where is the Oscar now?

[DL] It’s sitting in my apartment. It’s sad to say, but I think the Oscar is worth more than my entire apartment building. It’s sitting with my scotch bottles. I didn’t know where to put it. I don’t really have a trophy case to put it in at my apartment. And I was like, “What do I do with this thing?” That was the first place on my walk in, and I put it there, and it hasn’t moved. But I’m sure I need to find an appropriate resting place for it eventually.

[M] If you were to describe your True/False Film Fest experience this past March in three words, what would you say about it?

[DL] Inspiring. Heartwarming. Fun.

[M] What did you think of the festival?

[DL] It was the first time I had been back to Columbia for True/False. It started the year after I graduated. It was incredible. To come back and be (festival founders Paul Sturtz and David Wilson's) guest was a huge deal. To show the film at Jesse and have a standing ovation afterwards, the place where I had performed skits in college and where I got the buzz for entertainment, that was incredible. I just love Columbia. It’s one of my favorite places. And just to see the way the community has embraced the festival, it’s literally one of the best film festivals I’ve ever been to. It’s rare to have a festival in a smaller town where every screening is sold out and you’re not having to push people to go to your film. You just have the filmmaker there to enjoy the experience. On the East and West coasts in the industry, they say that there is no place for film in the middle of the country. And I think True/False is a great way of proving them wrong.

[M] How do you feel about “Undefeated” opening at Ragtag this weekend?

[DL] Ragtag Cinema had a huge impact on my life. It was the first time in my life that I lived in a town that had an art house cinema, and I ended up going to see every film that played there. I had never seen movies like that in a theater. It was a really big deal for me. I’m really excited that the film is playing at Ragtag. It’s a big honor for me.

[M] What kind of advice would you give to students who are interested in going into filmmaking as a career?

[DL] As with any creative endeavor, don’t be afraid to fail. Failing is the best thing you can do because it means you took a risk. The amount of risk you’re willing to take is proportional to the amount of success you have. Every single one of the people I look up to has made a shitty movie and may have failed. They attempted to do something and haven’t accomplished it. But that’s where you learn how to make better material. Don’t be precious with your work either. You’re not going to make “Citizen Kane” on your first five-minute short.

And the second thing is, live a life. Don’t get caught up in the technicalities of filmmaking. There will always be someone that will know more about a camera than you, that will know more about editing than you. But there will never be anybody who will have your specific life view. As a filmmaker, your value is in the unique way you look at the world, and that’s something that nobody can see better than you.

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