By Barry Janoff
August 18, 2014: In 1992, the football team at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., began a winning streak that grew from modest to profound to historical, not ending until 2004. Under the guidance of head coach Bob Ladouceur, the Spartans did not lose for 151 consecutive games.
The previous record was held by Hudson High School in Michigan, which won 72 consecutive games from 1968-1975.
In 2002, while the winning streak was still on-going, Neil Hayes, who was then a reporter for the local Contra Costa Times, was granted an all-access pass during the team's entire season, which he wrote about in the 2003 book, When the Game Stands Tall (Frog Books).
Fast-forward to 2009 when David Zelon, a producer with Mandalay Pictures, read the book, contacted Hayes and put it on a Hollywood road to the big screen.
The movie, filmed last year in New Orleans (due to financial reasons), stars Jim Caviezel as Ladouceur, Alexander Ludwig, Michael Chiklis and Laura Dern, and was directed by Thomas Carter. It's focus is on the players who, under coach Ladouceur, bonded together to grow into men as they dealt not just with the pressures of keeping the streak alive, but also with the murder of star player, Terrance Kelly — who was murdered the night before he was to leave on scholarship for the University of Oregon — a heart attack suffered by Ladouceur, the end of the streak and personal issues both on and off the field.
Ultimately, as the trailer to the film proclaims, "When you lose everything, how do you find your way back. It's not about sports. It's not about winning. It's all about growing up. Forgiveness. Commitment. Brotherhood. It's about standing tall."
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Zelon, whose resume includes Soul Surfer (based on the story of surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm in a shark attack), Into the Blue (which deals with deep-sea divers), Never Back Down (MMA) and Finish Line (track & field), about When the Game Stands Tall, which opens nationwide on Aug. 22.
NYSportsJournalism.com: How challenging is it to tell a story that takes place over more than a dozen years in just two hours or so of screen time?
David Zelon: Obviously you have to condense time and tighten up the story. You can't tell the story of every player on every team from every season, so you combine them into characters who represent the best of what the story is about. You have to be true to the story, events and people as best as you can, but you have to take some liberties. This is the story of a team that won 151 consecutive games, but you don't need to show every victory and the pre- and post-game situations for every game. There is a big focus is on Terrence Kelly and his tragic death and the impact of the heart attack suffered by coach Ladouceur. So our intent was to show how the people in the story — the players, the coaches, their families, their friends — were impacted by the events and how the players and coaches had faith and grew over the course of the events in the movie.
NYSJ: How have the players and coaches who actually were involved reacted to the story and how they were portrayed?
DZ: The players, coaches and others who were involved I believe are happy with the way their story has been told. We have had some reaction from players who said the way we show certain incidents did not happen in the timeframe we depicted. But in the end we stayed true to the story and really showed who these young men are, not just as football players but as kids who bond together, who are led by a coach who really cares about them and who they become as they move through high school and into young adults.
NYSJ: The story is that you found the book while helping to clean up the locker room while working with your son's high school football team. That would seem like a great Hollywood cliche, but is that how it happened?
DZ: It is. I was stacking dirty shoulder pads, equipment and sweaty socks when I found a wrapped package. I believe it was a gift to the previous season’s coach from the parent booster club that he had left in his locker. I opened it and found the book. It was a Saturday morning and I had some time on my hands, so I started to read it. I'd say about 30 pages in I knew that it would be a great story to turn into a movie. When you asked about challenges, the main one I had was how to tell the story of a team that never loses. This was the hard-cover version, which ended when the winning streak hit 125 games. I spoke with Neil and he asked if I had read the paperback version, which added a 30-page epilogue where the story went through the entire winning streak and also dealt with the death of Kelly, Ladouceur's heart attack, the end of the streak and the impact of all of that.
NYSJ: So that was your epiphany for making the movie?
DZ: It really gave me something to get my head around, to tell a story about growth, commitment, bonding, having faith, how the winning was the result of players and their coach working together and maturing not just through the good times but especially through the hard times. And it still took four years to get it going (from reading the book to the start of filming, which took place in New Orleans in mid-2013).
NYSJ: How did the cast come together?
DZ: Jim was the catalyst. He has played (legendary golfer) Bobby Jones in Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius. He also starred in The Passion of the Christ. So he was a person of interest almost from the outset. I took him up to see De La Salle football games, we met Bob Ladouceur and we talked about the story and what it represented, that it would have a strong faith-based theme. After [he agreed to do the movie] we were off and running.
NYSJ: When you were planning marketing, was the challenge to show that it was about people and emotions in a sports context or that it was a sports movie about real people?
DZ: I think we got it right by showing that it's about a group of young men who have faith in each other, who grow together under the leadership of their coaches and the guidance of their parents, who bond as a team when they are going through this amazing winning streak but who become even closer and perhaps mature even more when they are confronted with tragedy off the field and losing on the field. There has been some traditional marketing (including a TV commercial tie-in with American Family Insurance), but at the core of it is word-of-mouth, social media (the movie's Facebook page has more than 137,000 "likes"), people talking about the movie and the story we are telling. That is what really will drive the buzz and get audiences into the theater.
"I was sitting behind Vin Scully (at a screening), when the lights came on he was crying. People are really connecting with the story that we are telling."
NYSJ: What have you taken away from watching audiences during advance screenings?
DZ: That the emotions of the people in the movie, and the telling of the story itself, really hit home. At one private screening in the home of Peter Guber (chairman and CEO for Mandalay Entertainment), Jerry West was there, Mark Davis (owner of the NFL's Oakland Raiders) among other invited guests. I was sitting behind Vin Scully, the legendary announcer for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and when the lights came on he was crying. So people are really connecting with the story that we are telling and it is having an impact.
NYSJ: How important was the theatrical release date of the movie, coming right as pro, college and high school football seasons are beginning?
DZ: Initially there was talk about opening it in September. But I argued that a significant part of our target audience would be away at school or not looking to go to a movie. In August, the timing was much better, not only, as you said, with the football season about to start, but also because the target demo would have more time to see the movie. But here's my thinking about the release date of a movie: There are no bad weekends, only bad movies.
NYSJ: Do you take away pieces from each movie that you do and say, Let's do that again but even better, or Let's not do that again?
DZ: Yes. I think that happens with all people who work on movies and who want to continually improve on what they have done. I learned a lot from making Soul Surfer, the story of Bethany Hamilton, a young surfer who lost her arm after being attacked by a shark. That story is about her faith in God and how she not only survived the incident but became a tremendous inspiration to others. The movie did well with a wide demographic audience, but really hit home with faith-based movie audiences. I wanted to have the same reaction with this movie. I you are asking about every movie that I have been associated with, you look at the positives, the negatives, the things you did that told the story in the best way and touched the most number of people. Every once in a while you get hold of a great story and you are able to stay true to the events and the people and the feelings as best you can, and when you put it on screen it has an impact and continues to reach people.
NYSJ: When we speak at the 25th anniversary of the movie, will you be saying that it has withstood the test of time?
DZ: Yes. I believe that it will. The early feedback we have received has been great, and I feel that it will continue to grow and remain a movie that people want to see again and again.