You’ve made several great sports movies. What made you say yes to another one after all these years?
Yeah, I thought I had weaned myself of sports movies. I had already done a football movie, and Texas football felt too Friday Night Lights to me. But then I read this book [Courage Beyond the Game], and I got to a particular scene that moved me to tears. I couldn’t remember the last time I was moved to tears reading a book. Freddie’s story had something about it that’s the most critical aspect of me choosing to make a film: a great last 10 minutes. I had a hunch I could create something for movie-goers that’s pretty rare these days: a real emotional experience. I hate using the term ‘tearjerker’ because it’s so pejorative, but it’s almost impossible not to choke up watching this.
Do you get that feeling often?
It rarely happens, and I knew I was taking on a big challenge with this film. The producers, financiers, and Freddie’s family all made it very clear if I was going to make it, they wanted it as accurate as possible. There were things I had to fudge with Rudy, compressing time spans, that sort of thing, but with Freddie’s story, 90 percent of it is true. I’ve never had a movie made as accurate as this one.
Earlier this fall, Heartland Film recognized My All American with its Truly Moving Picture Award, and a review I saw online described it as the “family-friendly movie we’ve been missing.” Is such recognition the mark of a successful film to you?
We knew this was going to be a film aimed for family audiences—that was always the goal. You have to remember that the events in My All American happened 42 years ago. We didn’t have the Internet then, and only the beginnings of the counter-culture. It was a simpler time and, like Hoosiers, there’s a thread of nostalgia at work here that I believe appeals to people. Freddie is a hero you can say is authentically inspirational. He’s not made-up or some cartoon character.
So much of the film relies on the talents of the person playing Freddie Steinmark. Talk about casting Finn Wittrock [American Horror Story] for the lead. What drew you to him?
I knew the movie would rise and fall on the decision of who played Freddie. We went through a two-month search all over the country, and we brought Finn in for four scenes, one of which was a pivotal hospital scene. Finn’s audition was the only one that made me choke up. He even looked like Freddie! It all felt fated and, in getting to know Finn, I found a lot of Freddie’s qualities in him. He was our plow horse on set, making everyone better. We had a lot of amateur football players in the film who had never acted, and Finn lifted them up. He understood his behavior set the tone for everything. One of the greatest privileges I’ve had as a filmmaker was directing scenes with Finn and Aaron Eckhart [who plays Coach Royal]. They were so great, there wasn’t a lot I had to do.
This was your first time in the director’s chair. Did you get much advice from your friend David Anspaugh, who directed Hoosiers?
Early on, I was nervous. But once we started pre-production of My All American, I realized so much of the way David and I had worked together on past films had prepared me for the work I had to do. The only area I felt unsure was in working with the actors. That was something new for me, and eventually I found a way to understand their processes. Flexibility and collaboration were key, and once I stepped behind the camera, it felt like second nature. But directing this movie was an intense experience—14-hour days for forty days. It was the most exhilarating but exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my life.
If you could say anything to your fans about this film, what would it be?
Please come and see it opening weekend—that’s what determines how many theaters we’re in the second weekend!
My All American Trailer