'Medora' Co-Director Andrew Cohn on Lessons Learned from a Winless Basketball Team
Directors Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart have just released Medora, a documentary about a winless high school basketball team from a small town in Indiana. The filmmakers moved to the town for 9 months to document the lives of 6 teenagers, and the result is the most quintessentially American film I've seen this year. Read on for our interview with Andrew Cohn about the importance of committing to a project, the relationship of a filmmaker to their subject and their strategy for the release of the film.
"We didn't want to be weekend filmmakers."
NFS: How did the project start and how was it financed?
Andrew: Davy [Rothbart] read an article in NY Times about a team that never wins and we thought it would be a really interesting idea for a film. So we ended up moving down to Medora for 9 months and really embedded ourselves in the community. We funded the film ourselves and did a Kickstarter campaign when we got back. We had 600 hours of footage and realized that we needed help with the editing.
NFS: For you, what is the value for committing to a long-term stay, moving somewhere without necessarily knowing what you're gonna get as opposed to slowly trying to collect footage?
Andrew: We were all in. My favorite films bring you into a world, and we immediately felt that with Medora -- it was this crazy world. We didn't want to be weekend filmmakers, we didn't wanna stay there for a couple of weeks and go back and forth. We thought, "If we were gonna do it we just need to be there for the whole season." And to get those really raw intimate moments you need to gain a sense of trust with your subjects. By being there every day and embedding ourselves we were able to do that.
Co-directors Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart
"All you can ask your documentary subjects is to be themselves."
NFS: I feel like I know those kids, it's interesting to see how the archetypes get repeated across the culture. I feel like I'm friends with them. It feels very universal and very American in that way.
Andrew: Those are the kids I went to high school with. [Laughs] But yeah, all you can ask your documentary subjects is to be themselves and let the chips fall. I like when Coach Gilbert says "I'm not here to be your friend. If you hate me and you go on to college then I've done my job." It means he cares; it would be easy for him to just pick up his check, play everyone the same amount of minutes, say, "Oh, we lost by 40 again? Whatever." But the fact that he still cares is a testament to his character. The value of small town America is not just a place, it's a mentality: people help out their neighbor, and you see that in the movie.
NFS: How much of the film's narrative was propelled by the presence of the camera? Do you think the presence of cameras acted as a catalyst for the team to win basketball games?
Andrew: I was shocked at how quickly the cameras became invisible to the kids. For the first week or two I would watch footage and see them being self-conscious, looking at the cameras, etc. I think at a certain point for a documentary subject it becomes burdensome to worry about the cameras, sub-consciously. The good thing about sports documentaries is there is no time to worry about the cameras -- they're worried about the game.
You can see the kids in the film were devastated every time they lost. They were embarrassed. That was real and I don't think the cameras had anything to do with that. But you've gotta remember: most of these kids didn't even know what a documentary film was until we got there. I remember Robby [Armstrong] asking me a couple of weeks in who was gonna play him in the movie. [Laughs]
But we showed them Hoop Dreams and Murderball so they could get a sense of what was going on. And I remember driving with Dylan [McSoley] and he asks, "Are you guys gonna, like, take part of my interview and put it under this driving footage?" So they did start to get it as it went on, and we told them. The difference between our film and reality TV is that we didn't have to manipulate any of those situations. We didn't have to say, "Let's get Dylan meeting his dad again. Can you do the fire truck ride one more time?" When you're there for so long you have the opportunity to let those moments unfold.
I remember after Dylan met his dad afterwards I was kicking myself like, "I wish I had brought them outside the school for a father-son moment." But then I realized that's so disingenuous. That's not what happened. Who am I to get in there and manipulate what happened? It happened, it was awkward and life goes on. That's one of the lessons I learned during this filmmaking process. So yes the kids are aware of the cameras, but you wanna be invisible and be a fly on the wall as much as you can be.
"It's about audiences connecting with characters and not necessarily about trying to doing all this theme stuff. That was our strategy."
NFS: How has your relationship with your subjects evolved?
Andrew: The relationship between a filmmaker and a subject is like no other. I was at dinner with Dylan [McSoley] in Boston after a screening and he said, "Man, I would never be here without you guys." And I turned to him and said, "I wouldn't be here either without you." And that's the core of the relationship: a mutual admiration, a mutual gratefulness.
I'm extremely grateful for the kids to open up their lives like the way they did for us. You can't help but become friends with these kids especially after being there so long, and it continues today. I still talk to them all the time, but for some of them it's been 3 years and traveling with them you can see how much they've grown up. Whereas before they were the kids -- now they're just friends.
NFS: How important was your festival run to your release?
Andrew: We premiered at SXSW and then played at like 30 or 40 film festivals after. Fests are important for a film to get buzz and reviews. For a small independent film it's a great outlet to get an audience without having to pay to rent a theater or things like that. And of course to sell your film -- for us the PBS Independent Lens thing happened because of SXSW, so it's important to get it front of buyers and distributors.
"I'm extremely grateful for the kids to open up their lives like the way they did for us."
NFS: Beachside is on the film as their first release. Tell us about the role they've played in the film's creation/release.
Andrew: Michael Clark, Alex Turtletaub and Tim Foley are the guys are Beachside. Yeah, we're the first film to get put out through their company. They've been great, and on the creative side too. I edited the film with Vanessa Roworth for about a year and we were running into a wall. Beachside brought on a great editor named Mary Mandardt for the last 4 months. Mary has been doing documentary film editing for 25 years so to have her fresh insights not being attached to the whole film was great. I learned a lot from her as an editor. Beachside are also responsible for the Medora video game.
NFS: How did you strategize the release of the film?
Andrew: It played in 30 Landmark Theaters across the country, and of course we planned premieres in LA, NY, Boston, Philly and San Francisco. Thanks to Beachside we were able to fly out the kids and have really amazing events. We did an amazing event with Rooftop Films in New York. And since Davy has a DIY attitude, we're taking it on our own tour in December. So we're taking it 20 more cities, to universities and independent theaters with one or two subjects from the film.
"For most high-schoolers there is no championship, there is no scholarship -- it's acne and homecoming and getting caught drinking."
NFS: How have sports documentaries influenced you and what things did you want to avoid when making your own?
Andrew: Hoop Dreams is my favorite documentary of all time, but a lot of sports documentaries tread on the same territory: it's either the inner city kid who need a scholarship or it's father figure basketball coach.
But I think Medora captures amateur athletics for what most high-schoolers deal with. For most high-schoolers there is no championship, there is no scholarship -- it's acne and homecoming and getting caught drinking. It's these small victories that should still be celebrated. You don't have to win a championship to be celebrated and that's what I love about the fire truck ride in the movie: the audiences feel so connected to the characters that it does feel like they won a state championship.
It's about audiences connecting with characters and not necessarily about trying to doing all this theme stuff. That was our strategy. We wanted to make a movie that doesn't fit into the normal sports documentary cliché. But you don't need to go to film school to make films. Storytelling is storytelling.
NFS: And lastly, but most importantly -- who's going to win the finals this year?
Andrew: I think the Pacers are gonna win it all, and I'm not just saying that because of the Hoosiers thing. I think they're the best team in the NBA the way they're constructed.
Thanks to Andrew Cohn for the chat. Check out all the cool stuff they're doing with their website and ways to experience the film. Andrew and Davy will be touring with the film in December, so if they come near you don't miss it.