SBJ/July 21-27, 2014/In Depth

Football movie gets physical during filming

Filming football scenes can be dangerous, as the first day of shooting a series of plays for the new movie “When the Game Stands Tall” proved — and even when the director in charge is Allan Graf, an offensive lineman for the 1972 national champion USC Trojans.

Both of the stand-in football players for actor Alexander Ludwig, who plays Chris Ryan in the docudrama, were injured when the football footage was shot in Louisiana in the spring of 2013.

The movie features Jim Caviezel (right) portraying coach Bob Ladouceur.
Photo by: Sony Pictures
“The first pulled a hamstring, the other rolled an ankle,” said David Zelon, an executive vice president of Mandalay Pictures and producer of the movie. “By the end of the first day, we had two more stand-ins on flights to New Orleans. I can smile about it now, because the rest of the shoot went pretty smoothly. It helps when you have Allan Graf. He’s the best in the business of directing sports scenes.”

Graf, 63, was hired by Zelon as a second unit director to film the football scenes. For the last quarter-century, Graf has been a go-to man for directing football action for movies. After Graf graduated from USC, he was a stand-in for Dick Butkus for the Bears legend’s movie and television performances and acted in 1970s football movies like “The Longest Yard” and “North Dallas Forty.” He went on to become a stunt man before getting the assignment to direct the football action in the comedy “Necessary Roughness” in 1991.

Graf has been directing football plays for motion pictures steadily ever since, with “When the Game Stands Tall” becoming the 16th movie featuring gridiron action he shot. His other work includes the football featured in “Any Given Sunday,” “Jerry Maguire,” “The Program,” “The Waterboy” and “Friday Night Lights.”

“It can be grueling for everyone, but I love what I do,” Graf said. “When we were doing ‘Any Given Sunday’ with
Oliver Stone, Lawrence Taylor said to me, ‘Allan, I never got hit this hard when I was playing in the NFL.’ But my feeling is, it’s got to look real, or you don’t have a movie. I’m not going to shoot one of those dumb scenes where players are yelling at each other across the line of scrimmage. It’s not real because, well, in football, it’s illegal.”

“When the Game Stands Tall,” which is expected to be released in more than 2,000 theaters on Aug. 22, is based on the 2003 book of the same name by Neil Hayes. It is the true story of head coach Bob Ladouceur, who led the De La Salle High School team in California to a 151-game winning streak.

Ladouceur is played by Jim Caviezel (Bobby Jones in “Stroke of Genius” and star of the TV show “Person of Interest”). Caviezel played basketball at Bellevue College, and his father, James, played at UCLA under John Wooden. The actor’s connection to Wooden shaped his performance in the movie.

“My dad stayed in touch with Coach Wooden throughout his life,” Caviezel said. “Those types of coaches who were great teachers helped me develop my portrayal of Coach Ladouceur, who’s a living legend.”

The movie, directed by Thomas Carter, cost an estimated $15 million. The budget was around $20 million, but the producers received close to $5 million in state tax credits by filming in Louisiana.

Graf helped keep the movie on budget. He usually is able to complete the filming of a maximum of three football plays each day to his satisfaction. But Zelon told him that, to meet budget, Graf needed to get six done daily. The second unit director was assisted by a new piece of technology: a motorcycle in which cameras can be attached in the front and back. A stunt man drives the motorcycle while a cameraperson rides along and operates the cameras.

Allan Graf directed the football action scenes.
Photo by: Sony Pictures
“It’s a great new apparatus,” Graf said. “Usually, you just have a camera on a dolly to follow action down the sidelines. But with the bike, we were able to get some awesome shots of receivers catching long passes and players breaking free for touchdowns. I hope to get another football movie soon so I can use it again.”

Football movies are far from sure things at the box office. “Remember the Titans” grossed $115 million in 2000, making it the most successful football movie of all time. (“The Blind Side,” which grossed $300 million globally, is considered more of a family drama than a pure football movie.) This past April, “Draft Day,” a drama directed by Ivan Reitman with complete cooperation from the NFL, grossed $29 million — slightly over its production budget.

Zelon is optimistic about the bottom line for “When the Game Stands Tall.” The film has faith-based elements, with Ladouceur and the team’s spirituality featured throughout scenes of the team’s winning streak, along with the struggles of the team and the coach after the streak ends. Caviezel has reached the Christian audience before, playing Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ,” which grossed more than $600 million worldwide.

Zelon was successful in 2011 with “Soul Surfer,” a true story with faith-based elements about a young woman who returns to professional surfing after losing her left arm from a shark bite. “Soul Surfer” cost $15 million to make and grossed more than $43 million. Zelon would love to see “When the Game Stands Tall” match the success of “Soul Surfer.”

While volunteering for his son’s football team at Santa Monica High School in 2009, Zelon discovered a hardcover
Real-life coach Bob Ladouceur (left), producer David Zelon and actor Jim Caviezel on the set.
Photo by: Sony Pictures
copy of the book “When the Game Stands Tall” buried beneath a pile of dirty pads.

“I sat there, reading the book on the floor of that smelly locker room, and I was transfixed,” Zelon said. “It had the potential to be a good movie.”

Zelon contacted Hayes, the author, but had some concerns. “I asked Neil, ‘Where’s the narrative?’” Zelon said, “because you can’t have a movie about a team that never loses. There’s no drama, no conflict.”

Hayes told him about the paperback version of the book that was published in 2005. It contains a 30-page epilogue that details what happened with the De La Salle team after the 151-game winning streak ended in 2004. It includes a death, a serious health setback for Ladouceur, and a return to winning for the team. After the meeting, Zelon optioned the rights to the book and got the funding from Mandalay Pictures and Affirm Films.

Five years after Zelon first read the book, the movie version of “When the Game Stands Tall” will arrive in theaters.

“It’s an inspiring film because it’s not about the wins or losses but the life lessons that apply way beyond a high school football team,” Caviezel said. “It’s about overcoming challenges in life.”

Zelon added, “I’m hoping we catch lightning in a bottle with the movie. We’re opening the week before high school football starts. It’s a family film with a message that resonates. The movie has tested well with mothers, and moms are the best word-of-mouth out there.”

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