Angelo Pizzo wrote two of the greatest sports movies ever—first 1986’s Hoosiers, which introduced the world to the jump-shooting prowess of Jimmy Chitwood and the surprisingly glorious sight of Gene Hackman wearing a leather jacket and delivering a chest pass; and later 1993’s Rudy, which made even the biggest Notre Dame haters stand up and cheer for the five-foot-nothing kid from The Goonies. If you’re looking for a little inspiration, put on either one of those flicks, and two hours later, after you wipe the tears away, you’ll probably be pretty fired up.
Pizzo’s latest movie, and his directorial debut, is My All American, hitting theaters this weekend. It chronicles the story of Freddie Steinmark, an undersized defensive back for the University of Texas who leads his team to a championship and then… well, is confronted with something far bigger than the game of football.
We got on the phone with Pizzo (pictured above with Aaron Eckhart) to ask about the secret sauce in creating classic sports flicks. In other words, how to make something you can’t switch away from when you find it on cable, even though you’ve seen it a dozen times before. In an account chockfull of tasty trivia and what-ifs (Brendan Fraser as Rudy??), here’s what he said.
“With Hoosiers, we were so lucky to get Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper. Honestly, Gene was in a low point in his career, and we had cast him for two years and couldn’t get a yes. One studio was willing to make the movie if we got rid of Gene and put in Burt Reynolds.”
1. Don’t Try to Make a Classic—or Even a Box Office Hit
I didn’t go about it with the intention of making any movie that would sustain the way Hoosiers and Rudy have. I think it’s good fortune, a combination of factors of which I’m not really sure. All of the efforts that myself and David Anspaugh, the director, made was to tell stories that touched us and that meant something personal to us. We never made a film with the thought, “Gee, I think it’s going to be a huge box office success.” It wasn’t commerce that was driving us. It was passion. And I think that comes through.
2. Make It a Period Piece
One of the things that does help: Both Rudy and Hoosiers, when they were made, were already period films. So they never really dated, and we didn’t do anything contemporary. We didn’t do anything to make it hip or modern or appeal to the audience of that time. We sought a classic thematic score. So when you look at the films today, they don’t appear dated. Whereas if you look at another film of that time, like Top Gun, it looks ridiculous. With the music and the haircuts and the filmmaking style. It’s so driven. It’s one big ad out of Vanity Fair or something.
3. Dominate the Second Tier Market
Not many people saw Rudy in the theater. The movie only pulled in around 25 million dollars, and it was considered by the business a failure. However, where the movie took off is in the second tier. It did have a life of its own in the DVD and video realm, and of course now, that second tier is huge. But it’s not huge because of DVD and video. It’s because of pay-per-view. There’s a lot of people who hit that $4.99, $5.99 button on their cable remote.
4. Get Lucky
With Rudy and Hoosiers, we were just in the God loop. Everything seemed to kind of fall into place. The gods were with us in one way or another, and it all worked. In the third movie [I wrote], which is now called The Miracle Match, almost nothing worked. It was a clusterfuck. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. We were more experienced. We knew more, but it didn’t help. As someone described it, we got all the karma in the world in the first two movies, and in the third movie, the karma bank was closed.
5. Cast the Right Actors
Robert Altman said directing is 90 percent casting, and I think he’s right. You have to hire actors out of instinct and pray it just syncs up with the character. With Hoosiers, we were so lucky to get Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper. Honestly, Gene was in a low point in his career, and we had cast him for two years and couldn’t get a yes. In fact, one studio was willing to make the movie if we got rid of Gene and put in Burt Reynolds.
6. Seriously: Cast the Right Actors
With Rudy, the studio was pushing two guys for the role of Rudy who were not right for the part at all but had big names, and that was Brendan Fraser and Chris O’Donnell. They were both good-looking guys who were over six feet—not exactly the character that we were depicting here. But when David and I had lunch with Sean Astin, we realized he was just so much like the real Rudy, both in stature and personality, we knew we were going to fight to the death to get him.
7. Did We Mention Casting Is Important?
With My All American, we worked really hard to get the casting right in all the parts. I couldn’t think of a better actor for the role of Freddie Steinmark than Finn Wittrock. He had a lot of what Freddie had. During the shoot, he was meticulous and a competitor. But he was also tremendously humble and likable. And Aaron Eckhart as coach Darrell Royal is amazing in his own way. What he has in spades is intensity and strength, but at the same time a vulnerability. Beneath that veneer, there’s a sensitive beating heart.
8. Avoid Hiring Drug Addicts
On Miracle Match, we didn’t really want to hire Wes Bentley because he had a reputation for being troubled and difficult, but he wanted the part and the studio really wanted him. So we hired him for the co-lead with Gerry Butler. What we didn’t realize is that he was a heroin junkie, and he was shooting up. He obviously went to recovery and has been clean for a long time, but unfortunately he wasn’t for our movie. He was a very difficult guy to work with, and he caused a lot of dissention. What we were looking for was that kind of magic between he and Gerry Butler, and it was a strain and it didn’t work.
9. Make the Sports Action Believable
For the football scenes in My All American, every shot was thought out. We prepared like we were going to battle. [Former Texas quarterback and current Washington Redskins quarterback] Colt McCoy helped recruit the team. [Former Texas and Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver] Jordan Shipley played one of the players, Cotton Speyrer. The level of football was very high. This Texas team would’ve kicked the Notre Dame team from Rudy’s ass. And I think we have the best action of any football movie made yet.
10. Hold Your Breath and Hope
Making a movie is like giving birth or raising a child. You send them out in the world, you have the highest hopes and expectations, but you never really know. There are no guarantees. I can tell you that my expectations are high with My All American, in part because we went through the same testing we did in Rudy and Hoosiers, and we just killed it in testing with this new movie.
People going to see it may expect another Rudy or Hoosiers. Well, it’s not, but it is. It’s a cousin. It’s part of a larger family in terms of its tone and sensibility and the emotionality of it. It’s relatable, but in many ways it’s very different. One of the goals was to create something that gave people an authentic emotional experience in a movie house. Everybody says they love the movie and it’s so gratifying to hear, but honestly, I have no idea the fate of this movie. Because they don’t make movies like this anymore.