T.J. Martin and Dan Lindsay’s first directorial collaboration earned them an Oscar for Best Documentary. You can watch it on SBS 2 on July 2.
10 Aug 2012 - 11:26 AM  UPDATED 20 Jan 2016 - 4:31 PM

Undefeated charts the Manassas Tigers, a high school football team in North Memphis, as they aspire to be their school's first team in 110 years to win a playoff game. 

It was Martin and Lindsay's producing partner, Rich Middlemas, who first sensed the story would make a great documentary. He became aware of Manassas player O.C. Brown, who had captivated college recruiters' attention.

“Rich went to the University of Tennessee,” Lindsay explains, “and he was hearing about some high school kid they were going to recruit who came out of nowhere. He googled him and an article about him living with one of his coaches came up… It was something that TJ and I had talked about, the idea of making a coming of age documentary that would be experiential and unfold in front of the camera,” the director explains.

The pair travelled to North Memphis to test O.C on camera. There they also met coach Bill Courtney and the other Manassas players and learned the history of the team.

“It was a process to gain their trust,” adds Martin, “One of the reasons we felt compelled to uproot our lives in L.A. and move to Memphis was because in the first couple of trips, when we pulled the camera out and filmed around the neighbourhood and with the kids, there was a vulnerability that was captured on the camera. An emotional candour was already there. After that it was just a matter of committing to the team and showing up every day and being consistent so we were able to disappear after a while.”

The duo then followed the Tigers throughout the 2009/10 football season. Both Martin and Lindsay shot and edited the film, and over the course of the season, they filmed 500 hours of footage, aware that doing so had benefits beyond the film's final cut. “Part of it is just showing up and shooting talent shows and stuff of that nature,” Lindsay says, “and be[ing] an extension of the community.”

Undefeated focuses exclusively on three dynamic members of the team: Brown, a naturally gifted athlete who struggles academically; Montrail 'Money', a highly driven student; and Chavis, a gifted player who returns to school after spending 15 months at a youth detention centre.

“A lot of times in American football films you shoot the quarterback or the people that score,” explains Lindsay. “That was never of interest to us. We were always looking for players who had the potential for a dramatic arc, people who had a goal in mind. O.C. was either going to get his grades high enough to take advantage of the college offers that were coming to him or he wasn't.”

The pair then looked for another player to juxtapose Brown's story. “We thought there had to be somebody who is trying everything they can, but because they don't have the same athletic ability, they're not getting the same support,” Lindsay says. “We met Money really early on and felt he was that character. He had a goal in mind: he wanted to get out of North Memphis. He didn't know how he would get to college but he just knew he wanted to go. Chavis wielded himself into the film. He just turned up and his actions were affecting the team in such a way that we had to include him.”

The other central character is the team's volunteer coach, Bill Courtney. It was Courtney who supported the directors' ambitions to make the documentary, vouching for them with the school board and wider community.

Both Martin and Lindsay cite Steve James's Hoop Dreams as inspiration in creating a long-term coming-of-age sporting documentary.

“Going into it we had a strong idea of what we wanted to achieve and we were lucky, admits Martin, “We set out to make a vérité film without a lot of talking heads and were very fortunate to achieve that. It's very rare. Usually you set out to make one thing and it transforms over the course of making the film, and once you go through post, it's a different beast of its own.” Adds Lindsay, “We don't necessarily think of ourselves as documentary filmmakers; we want to make movies. A lot of our influences are narrative filmmakers. We watched a surprising amount of war films to look at structure. We wanted it to have a classic narrative stricture. The film Glory was a film we watched several times.”