Director's Chair: Angelo Pizzo - 'My All American'
Issue: November 1, 2015

Director's Chair: Angelo Pizzo - 'My All American'

Known for the 1980’s classic Hoosiers and the 1993 hit Rudy, screenwriter and now director Angelo Pizzo would appear to have a particular hankering for sports-related films. Case in point, his latest offering (and first as director), My All American (starring Aaron Eckhart and Finn Wittrock) for Clarius Entertainment, which is centered on an underdog football up-and-comer who is faced with a life-changing challenge. While football is certainly at the center of the movie, the filmmaker says it’s more about giving his audience good stories and strong characters with which they can make an emotional connection. As Pizzo puts it, “I just love great stories and I found myself in this niche, in this world that provides great stories to me. But I never take an attitude that my movies are sports movies – I think they’re stories with sports in them. If a film is just about the sport, they don’t work for a large population of the theater-going audience. The biggest compliment I can get is if someone can say to me, ‘Hey, I saw Rudy and I hate Notre Dame, I hate football and I actually hate sports, but I really loved that movie.’ That’s my goal — to get that person.”

Prior to the film’s opening, Pizzo spoke with Post from his home in Bloomington, IN, to discuss his latest project, making “sports movies,” and his directorial debut.

Post: So, I understand that you no longer live in LA?

Pizzo: “I was in LA for a better part of my life; I needed to escape that place. For my own psychological well-being. And I wanted to raise my two young sons in a healthy place, both physically and psychologically.”

Post: What’s the history behind your involvement in this film? Obviously you felt that this was an important story to tell?

Pizzo: “Yes. Let me just say that it all started when a man named Tony Jones contacted me through Facebook and asked me if I was interested in looking at a book that he optioned. I can tell you, that this happens on a regular basis. But what was different this time was that I was already familiar with the story from another book I read and the book [Courage Beyond The Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story] that this man Tony Jones had optioned was by an author I was familiar with named Jim Dent. I had read two other books of his, The Junction Boys, which was made into a movie, and Twelve Mighty Orphans. He’s an excellent writer. So I agreed to read [Courage Beyond The Game]. And when I read it, I actually saw it. I felt it. Something happened to me that rarely happens when reading a book — I cried. I never cry reading books. I do get emotional and cry at movies, but never reading books. And also, it struck me while reading this book, it has something that I find is really important in order to have a successful film — it had a great last 15 minutes. That is, it was extremely emotional and also very inspirational. And I felt that — intuitively my gut told me that this was a movie that I needed to direct. So I told Tony that I was interested. That was the beginning.”

Post: It seems that based on Hoosiers and Rudy, that you’re attracted to sports-based films?

Pizzo: “Well, here’s the thing. I went to grad school at USC [previously attending Indiana University] and I always felt that there was a movie about high school basketball in Indiana. I actually tried to find a writer but never found the right person, so I decided to take a whack at it myself. And that movie ended up getting made. And then followed very closely afterward by Rudy. So whether I liked it or not, I was a sport’s guy. It put me in that niche to this day. Probably at least 19 out of 20 projects people come to me with are sports. It wasn’t my plan, I can tell you. I did play football and I did play basketball, but I wasn’t a great player. 

“The point is, I’m not ‘Mr. Sports Guy,’ I just love great stories. But I’m not a guy who can complain. John Ford, when he got up to give a speech said, ‘My name’s John Ford, I make westerns.’ So, he embraced it. So it’s alright if I embrace making sports movies.”
Post: Were there any technical challenges with the shoot or the post process?

Pizzo: “Having never directed before, there was one part that caused me a little anxiety and there was another aspect of it that caused me a lot of concern. First, let me tell you a little background as far as me directing. In the three movies that David [Anspaugh] and I made, we kind of made them in the trenches together, hip to hip. I knew how to make movies — I’ve made movies before. And he was kind of my best friend, and roommate in college, so we basically made the movies together, picked the locations together, in the editing room and so forth and we kind of split up the responsibilities in pre-production.  

“David would be in charge of the set. So, he was the one who shot the scenes, basically created the performances. I wasn’t worried about shooting anything because I directed second units, I directed commercials, I was fairly confident I knew what the movie looked like. The director really needs to know how to communicate — it’s about communication and personal skills and that’s never been a problem for me. But I never really worked with actors. I never worked with them on the set, creating performances or helping them do their best work, communicating what I wanted. So, because I had never done it, I was a little intimidated by it. Until we had our first week of rehearsal. [I realized] it wasn’t just me — our team, [producer] Paul Schiff was very involved, and our cast was phenomenal. They helped me do my best work. We found a shared goal and it was really not a problem. In fact, I really enjoyed working with actors and the performances are really fantastic.

“The thing, technically, that really intimidated me was, we had 17 days of football, and it was very ambitious what we were trying to do. We really had to shoot like two seasons of Texas football and one season of high school football, and I was extremely particular and very sensitive and aware of how football is shot. Every night we had movie night, with a cinematographer, a football coordinator, first AD and storyboard artist, and we would watch a football movie and I would point out what I liked and didn’t like, and what philosophy was driving the choices.

“I worked with another aspect I had never worked with before and that was CG. So we shot all these games in stadiums that were virtually empty with the exception of maybe 200 extras that we put into the little sections and then piled them. So, when you see the movie, you’ll see full stadiums and very realistic enthusiastic crowds that weren’t really there.” 

Post: How would you sum up your first-time directing experience?

Pizzo: “With the two E’s. It was the most exhilarating and exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Post: Would you do it again?

Pizzo: “In a heartbeat. I’m very excited to do it. I learned a lot. And having been in the trenches and worked the way I did on other movies, after the first week of shooting it didn’t feel all that different from what I’ve done, except for making many, many more decisions. That’s the thing about directing that you can’t ever possibly describe and not sound like you’re exaggerating. You literally make thousands of decisions a day. The most important decisions you make are working with the actors and the cinematographer. I applied a philosophy which I believe very strongly in — I think it’s important that a director knows exactly what he wants and have the ability to communicate it and at the same time be open and flexible enough that when someone comes to you with a better idea, you can say, ‘Great, let’s do that instead.’”

Post: Your cinematographer was Frank G. DeMarco? What did he shoot on? 

Pizzo: “Yes. He shot on Arri Alexa. One of the great advantages that I had in shooting the football scenes was that every scene was shot with five cameras. I obviously didn’t have to worry about burning through film. I felt sorry for our editor, he had something like 10 hours of football footage to go through. It was pretty overwhelming.”

Post: Your editor was Dan Zimmerman?

Pizzo: “Yes, amazing guy. In a very calculated way, I hired Dan and Frankie for two different reasons. I hired Dan because he had such a passion for this story and a passion for college football, too. He was a player and good player in college. That was helpful for our shorthand in some ways. On the other hand, I actually hired Frankie because he didn’t know much about football and one of the things I didn’t want to get caught up in was having a cinematographer that knows the football language, which we don’t consciously think about, that those football fans that watch football on TV, there’s a visual language that we watch the game with that is part of shorthand. So I was very aware that I’m making this film for people who are not football fans, who do not follow it and do not understand it. So I wanted a guy to look at the game with fresh eyes — from storytelling eyes. I had told him, ‘I’m going to do certain things because I know the game very well, I’ve watched thousands of games, so help me see it in a fresh way,’ and he did.” 

Post: How early did you integrate post into the shoot?

Pizzo: “Honestly, I didn’t. I didn’t want to look at anything. I don’t think I even looked at dailies. All I asked of Dan was, tell me if I’m making a mistake. Tell me what we’re missing. And if we are, make sure we’re on the same set. Especially with the football stuff. As I said, we had a lot of pages of football to cover. And him being a football guy and knowing how to tell a story, with images, football wise, I knew I’d get the straight stuff from him. He called a few times and said, ‘Hey, can you make sure you get this or that.’ But I honestly was focused on the day I was shooting and the next day. Not what we did. What we did was what we did. We would live with that. I followed the same philosophy I have about writing. When I’m writing a screenplay, I never look back. I never re-read anything I write until I get to the end. It’s all about a flow — about finding that narrative flow and not second guessing yourself. When I’m trying to get a sense of momentum and narrative flow I just need to keep on turning the page. So, I just didn’t see any point in looking at what I shot.”

Post: When did Dan come into the mix?

Pizzo: “He was there at the beginning — on the job the very first day. He would get the footage and break it down. We didn’t have a conversation every day. Maybe once a week. We had a great working relationship. The best way to describe Dan and Frankie is to say, on my next movie, they’ll be my editor and cinematographer.”

Post: Where did you do the post?

Pizzo: “In LA – we rented some editing facilities.”

Post: What are your thoughts about the post process. Do you enjoy it? 

Pizzo: “I love it. It’s where the movie is made. Honestly, the thing about post that’s different about shooting, is there’s not the same pressure. You don’t have these 14-hour days, and it’s not this big machine. You can work hard and put a few hours in. It’s very measured and calm. There’s just a way of feeling the movie out in a kind of proper way.

“Of course one of the other exciting things, after you do a rough cut and you see it over and over again, is when you add the music and sound. It’s so much fun and it just grows and blooms and there’s so many more dimensions than you ever could have imagined. The most exciting time for me in post is when you’re on the sound stage with the orchestra and you’re hearing the music in full force for the first time.”

Post: I wanted to ask you about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker.

Pizzo: “It’s tremendous. Obviously, in sports films it’s big how you modulate the crowd and where you put your sound effects on the field — there are certain movies you watch, every hit it’s like the Titanic hitting the iceberg. You have to pick and choose. Again, there are so many decision to make. Some of them are very fine — very subtle.

“But with music — with the kinds of films I make that are very emotional — there’s a very fine line between sentiment and sentimentality. When we were in the studio, we felt like something was feeling off – [the orchestra] was a bit too much. And we learned that they want to go big — it’s their nature. They want to pull in as many instruments as possible — often times it’s to the detriment of the film. It’s a judgement call. I basically pull back a lot and try to save it for the last 10 minutes — the big stuff. The last 10 minutes of the movie, there’s not a lot of dialogue. It’s all action and music. And if you lock into the movie emotionally, you’re not going to have a problem with music. But if you just disconnect and are not there, you’re gonna say that this music is demanding that I feel these things that I’m not feeling. But in the last 10 minutes of the movie, I’m putting all my chips in. I didn’t hold back. It’s like riding a bucking bronco. I just let the reigns go. But one of the biggest challenges in an emotional film is knowing when to hold it and when to let it go.”

Post: You mentioned earlier about a CG crowd. This isn’t the kind of film I would think of as having a lot of VFX, but I don’t know any movie now that doesn’t have some.

Pizzo: “In our case, it simply would not have been possible to make this movie without CG. We couldn’t have done this movie 30 years ago and look remotely realistic at all. The stadiums in Texas and Arkansas don’t exist anymore, so part of it was not just filling up empty stadiums with crowds, but it’s also building stadiums that don’t exist. It would have been possible 20 years ago to do this, but it would have been so prohibitively expensive — it just simply wouldn’t have been worth while. The price and the cost of CG has gone down and goes down yearly. So it was part of the fate of this movie — it was meant to be. That’s how I look at it.”

Post: Did the film turn out the way you hoped it would? 

Pizzo: “Yes, and I’ll tell you it’s a living, breathing organism. I know a lot of writers and if a writer says that the director got 50 percent of what they wanted on screen, that’s a pretty big deal. And I can say, with Rudy and Hoosiers, it was closer to 80 or 85 percent. I didn’t direct them, but what I did realize in making this film, there’s a lot of extenuating factors that change and alter the movie you think you’re shooting. The reason is, there are actors and they bring a different dynamic to it. For example, I didn’t have a strong sense of Freddie’s girlfriend. We cast an actress name Sarah Bolger who was so amazing and their chemistry was so amazing. My only regret was that I didn’t have more scenes with them. One of the most powerful and emotional scenes in the movie I wrote literally a week before we shot it, was the second to last week of the shoot. It was something that occurred to me that I had to take advantage of was how good they were together and how good they were individually. So movies are evolving, growing organisms and I don’t even remember what I originally imagined the movie to be but this is what’s most important. I knew what my intentions were and what I wanted audiences to walk out of the theater with and I can tell you, in terms of testing this and the metrics of being in theaters from screenings, that I accomplished this goal. It’s a very emotional experience.”

For more on My All American, check out our INTERVIEW with editor Dan Zimmerman.