On Nov. 28, 2009, The New York Times printed a 1,370-word article that left many people in Medora, Ind., seeing red. While the article was factual, people who lived in and around the town of fewer than 700 residents felt that the writer only focused on the negative aspects of the town.
Like a high school basketball team that had an 0-22 record the previous season.
Then documentary filmmakers came knocking on doors. Who could blame them? The movie would have everything: economic hardship, troubled teenagers, an Indiana basketball team straight out of Hoosiers.
But it would take a year for two outsiders, Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart, to win over the school's administration and the people of the town. The two were so in love with the opportunity to do a documentary they were willing to finance it themselves, living cheaply and "eating Subway for almost every meal" while filming, says Rothbart.
The resulting film, Medora, focuses on the personal stories of a handful of the basketball players. Audiences see students interact with coaches at practice, deal with a tough loss in the locker room after a close game, and, in one student's case, get kicked off the team for missing too many practices. And how they face various challenges at home.
One student, Robby Armstrong, struggles with the decision of whether he will stay and help on his family farm after graduation, or pursue his dream to attend technical school.
Then there's Rusty Rogers, who recently returned to high school after working at a fast food restaurant to support himself and isn't sure where he'll be sleeping at night due to his family's hardships.
There are also scenes of the teens just being teens: getting ready for their homecoming game and dance, bowling with their friends and talking about girls.
The movie will be screened at the IMAX at the Indiana State Museum on Nov. 22. A number of the film's subjects will be on hand to answer questions following the movie. After the Nov. 22 premiere, the film will continue to be shown at the IMAX for at least two weeks.
The film will also be shown in Bloomington, Columbus and Fort Wayne in late November and early December.
While these won't be the first screenings in central Indiana, the filmmakers expect them to have the largest local audience. In July, the film won three prizes at the Indianapolis International Film Festival, including the Grand Jury Prize. It was also featured at Heartland Film Festival in October.
We're gonna do this
Cohn and Rothbart weren't actively looking for a documentary film subject nearly four years ago, but The New York Times article captured their attention. The two have known each other for many years, working together on FOUND magazine — a zine-style publication devoted to found notes and artifacts — and its ancillary projects, including books, movies and stage productions.
It was to be Cohn's first documentary feature. In 2009, he wrote and directed his first documentary short Dynamic Tom, about a self-described "cocksman" of a certain age, roaming the streets of Castleton.
Beyond creating and editing FOUND, Rothbart is a writer for GQ, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Grantland, the author of My Heart is an Idiot and The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, and a frequent contributor to public radio's This American Life.
Cohn, who was spending Thanksgiving with his mom in Indianapolis, and Rothbart, who was living in Michigan, traveled together to Medora a day or two after they read the article.
"We walked around the town," says Rothbart. "I remember it was eerily quiet and beautiful."
The trip was the first of many contacts they would make with the town over the next year. The school's athletic director at the time and in the film, Dennis Pace, met with Rothbart and Cohn during that first visit. After that, he recalls that even though Cohn was living in California, he would email and mentioned he was following the team online. When Cohn was in Indianapolis to visit his mom, he'd travel to Medora to check out a game.
Pace, who was quoted in The New York Times article, says "there were still some open wounds" weeks and months after its publication. But, "by the time we said yes, I trusted them. And Medora Community Schools Corp. Superintendent Dr. John Reed trusted them. It would have been easy for them not to do it. Had we not trusted them before they started, it probably wouldn't have happened."
Pace also spoke with the students — shooting was to start around tryouts for the 2010-11 season — so the players knew ahead of time that the season would be filmed.
"Normally you have months to plan and raise funds and do preproduction," says Cohn. "I got an email two weeks before the basketball season started in 2010. At that time, I lived in New York, Davy lived in L.A. I had a moment where I was like, 'I'm gonna do this.' " Cohn sublet his apartment and moved to Medora with assistant director/director of photography Rachael Counce.
For additional help, they enlisted IU students Andrea Lewis and Ellyn Church who found out about internships for the film via Craigslist. Cohn and Rothbart's friends would also swing through Medora from time to time and stay with them in a Seymour motel.
Cohn and Rothbart also credit associate producer David Yosha of Magnet Films in Indianapolis for lending them cameras and equipment. They hadn't had a chance to raise any funds before shooting, but they also didn't want to miss the opportunity. "He told us, 'Take whatever you need. Just take care of the stuff, get it back to me when you're done,' " says Rothbart.
Just normal guys
With permission, the next step was to meet with the subjects and gain their trust.
"We just let them know we're also from the Midwest, we're normal guys," says Cohn. "We appeared as a ragtag team and didn't have a large production company. But I think that helped ease the pressure."
Being authentic worked. Rothbart showed up a month after Cohn moved there, and says the subjects had already warmed up to Cohn. "People in the community started to understand we were in it for the long haul," says Rothbart, "that we weren't drive-by filmmakers."
"I think the main thing I've learned in documentary filmmaking," Rothbart adds, "is people are really eager to tell their stories. You'd think it would be intrusive to ask someone to reveal the most personal details of his life. But if you show curiosity, compassion, that helps. And you can't fake that. People were very generous to us. The kids and their families opened their lives and trusted us to tell their stories respectfully."
For instance, one student, Dylan McSoley, talks on camera about his dad friending him on Facebook — even though the student doesn't know his dad. The filmmakers also filmed McSoley leaving a phone message to invite his dad to an upcoming basketball game in the dad's town. (See sidebar for a Q&A with McSoley.) But the scene is just that — a matter-of-fact depiction, not a reality show-esque confession.
Cohn agrees that it helps to care about the subjects.
"We grew to love them," he says. "They're struggling with the same things people in small towns struggle with, but their courage and their hard work, their positivity in the face of their significant challenges, it's inspiring."
Telling a story
Even though this was their first feature-length film, Cohn and Rothbart already had some of the tools they needed.
"We both went to school for creative writing," says Cohn. "Storytelling is storytelling. Filmmaking uses the same principles. As soon as you meet each character, you know what will happen by the end of the movie or not."
While they were filming, the two would frequently discuss what they were trying to do with the film's story. To get ideas of how they would eventually edit the piece, they would watch documentary films in their motel at night, including Hands on a Hard Body, Murderball, Racing Dreams and American Movie. They also had a blueprint they used as they filmed.
Rothbart adds that working with Ira Glass on This American Life was helpful in narrowing stories to essential information.
To get some help with the editing process, Rothbart and Cohn started a fundraiser on Kickstarter. Until then, they had mostly been paying out of their own pockets for travel and other expenses. That's why they had up to five people sharing two hotel rooms over six or seven months. They also took additional trips to Medora to film the graduation and other events.
"When we realized we had 600 hours of footage, it was like if someone were to hand you an ax, point you to a forest, and tell you, 'Now go build a house,' " says Rothbart. "So we wanted help from an editor. Our goal was to raise $18,000 with Kickstarter. We needed more than that, but thought that was just what we had a chance to raise."
That was important because if a Kickstarter project doesn't reach its goal, the project doesn't get any funds.
"We didn't realize how deeply the film would resonate with people, and we reached people beyond Indiana and our circle of friends," says Rothbart. "The response was incredible. The movie really has struck a chord with people. We raised $65,000. That gave us a great feeling and allowed us to hire a great freelance editor in New York, Vanessa Roworth, who helped over a year and a half."
Cohn adds that they were hesitant. "I like Kickstarter," he says, "but I don't like asking people for their hard-earned money. We wanted to give some awesome prizes, so backers would receive the DVD, their name in the credits, a T-shirt. If people were willing to donate, we wanted to make sure that they would get back more than what they gave."
Distilling and blending
In addition to Roworth, they enlisted Mary Manhardt, who also edited Racing Dreams and American Teen, documentaries that, like Medora, focus on multiple characters.
"The biggest challenge for Vanessa and I and Mary," says Cohn, "is how do you distill these stories and blend them so they all fit together? Ultimately, we wanted the team to be a metaphor for the town and to show what's happening in small towns and the poverty in small towns as experienced by the characters."
The issue of poverty — though apparent in the film — was also one that Cohn and Rothbart approached cautiously.
"We have a deep respect for all the subjects of the film and townspeople of Medora," says Rothbart. "We could probably take the footage we have and cut something that is mean in spirit and it would be a lame film, or at least not something I'd be interested in seeing. We imagined that we would ultimately let the film show our admiration for the players and the families and the coaches who are heroic to us."
"Yes they live in an economically deprived area," adds Cohn, "but you see the kids being kids. You see them go to homecoming and have their funny moments. We wanted to make people cry, yeah, but also to make people laugh, to make people think. It wasn't just one thing. We were very conscientious of the poverty stuff, but it gets repetitive to show trailers and run-down buildings. If you show that just a couple times, then you get it. There are trailer parks, but it's about more than just that. That's just one side to the story. It's still a great place to live. We found the people to be extremely nice, and poverty doesn't define these kids. I get upset when documentaries and films use that, when they just show the depressed state of things to get a reaction out of people. I wasn't interested in doing that."
If anything, says Pace, the subjects weren't even sure what story was there to tell — at least not until they saw the final product.
The filmmakers were also conscientious of their music choices — they didn't want to manipulate the audience into feeling something that wasn't there.
They had some help from musicians they knew from their hometown in Michigan, and originally wanted to have a folky sound. But when Beachside Films — a subsidiary of Big Beach Films (Little Miss Sunshine) — came on board, they offered guidance and suggested adding a couple musicians from Nashville, giving the movie more of a blues-rock feel.
"Music is really tricky for any movie, but for a documentary it's even trickier. You don't want to feel like you're manipulating the audience because it's real life," says Cohn. "Most of the time, music in movies is too over the top. With me with music, I don't want to make an audience feel a certain way, I just want it to support the scene. If it's done well you don't really notice it."
Keep it open!
In addition to editing down the stories of the players and their families, Cohn and Rothbart had additional footage of education experts. School consolidation is briefly mentioned via on-screen text and a graphic showing how other high schools in Indiana compare to Medora's 70 or so students and small pool of potential basketball players. But they ultimately decided to leave out that footage to keep the focus on the story as told by the characters' experience. They plan to include it and other extras on the DVD release of the movie.
Yet it is clear how people from the area feel about school consolidation. At an Indianapolis International Film Festival screening in July, audience members from Medora and the surrounding area applauded when the film briefly mentioned that a recent bill to consolidate Medora's high school failed. The film also shows a school board budget meeting that discusses a significant deficit for the following school year, so the reason for consolidation is not entirely ignored.
Other parts of the movie elicited emotional responses as well.
During one game in the movie, now former coach Justin Gilbert says while watching the film for the first time he could remember "basically the entire game. I was remembering other things throughout that game, the first half, the game plan at halftime, that it was their homecoming and the gym was at full capacity that night."
The film also brought back memories for Pace. "Those emotions come back, like when they're so close and then lose a heartbreaker, or when they're not close at all and you just want it to be over for them. You don't want to see those kids getting beat up like that. It's emotional."
An audience member from the Indianapolis International Film Festival screening who is from Brownstown and has family friends from Medora also had a strong reaction.
"I watched the movie with my friend, Margaret, who also grew up in southern Indiana," says Amy Weir, who now lives in Indianapolis. "We felt the plight of the team was the shared plight of the entire town. We wanted the high school basketball team to win so that Medora itself could win. It was difficult to see the old photos taken of Medora when it was in its heyday in the 1950s because we could also see what the future had in store for Medora. Many of the families must have watched their fortunes wane over the successive decades with despair. I think everyone loves an underdog, and Medora makes an appealing underdog."
Craig Mince, board president of the Indianapolis International Film Festival, found the film appealing for the same reasons.
"I think everyone approaches the film differently, depending on their own backgrounds," says Mince. "Here in Indiana, the story of the underdog — not only the team but the town — hits everyone differently and it's been fascinating to see everyone's reactions."
Perks of being an outsider
Mince recalls an audience member at one screening who still has a skirt she made while a student at Medora in 1963. It's just one example, he says, of "the kind of response or heartstrings this movie will tug on and how different it is for everybody, whether they react to the struggles of the basketball team or the struggles of a small town."
He adds that because Rothbart and Cohn weren't from Medora, they had an advantage in making this movie.
"Because they were outsiders, I think they could appreciate it," says Mince. "They knew that there was a story here that needed to be told. I think it makes it that much more real. If the film was made by someone local, he or she would have taken it in a different direction. They showed what happened in that 2010-11 season. This is it. This is Medora from a city standpoint and from a basketball team standpoint, and it's about these children and where they are at in life."
The movie doesn't only affect audiences in Indiana, but also across the country.
"One striking thing to me is even at a screening in New York or Colorado or Texas, we get a reaction. At one screening a guy came up to us and said he grew up in Medora," says Rothbart. "He didn't actually grow up in Medora, but he did grow up in a small town that was similar."
The film has also attracted attention from distributors. In addition to a few of the film's subjects attending the film at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, a representative of Independent Lens approached the filmmakers there. The film will be broadcast on PBS in the spring.
While they were still filming, a friend who works for Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi helped get them and others — Wren Arthur, Michael Clark, Tim Foley and Alex Turtletaub — signed on as executive producers. Cohn and Rothbart say that Buscemi and Tucci gave them some notes during the editing process; Buscemi helped them choose their opening scene. The film also has had screenings around the country starting on Nov. 12.
"I had no expectations when we went to make this movie," says Cohn. "We wanted to make a movie and we have high standards for ourselves. If we made a movie we liked, others would like it. That's what makes great art. It's not whether will you make your money back. We just woke up every day and thought about the story. Doing it DIY gave us the freedom to try new things. It was a chance for us to learn and do it on our own. Looking back, you can tell in the film that we had that freedom to not worry about the burden of expectations."
Rothbart adds, "We felt like it was a special story that was really fascinating, and an important story to tell. We knew we had something special with this. With any art we work on, if it's something I'm proud of, there's a good chance someone will else will like it too. You don't make music to be a rock star, but you do it because you want to make music."