TailSlate had an opportunity to talk with the directors/producers of this high school sports documentary, Gregg Backer and Evan Kanew this past week.
Tail Slate: Did you get a chance to go over the questions I sent in advance?
Gregg and Evan: We did. Good questions.
Tail Slate: I started my time as a journalist covering hard news, so my journey to becoming a film critic was a bit different than that of most.
Greg and Evan: You might be more interested in Evan because of his background, so I’m going to let Evan introduce himself and the film. As you know we are both producers and directors of the film. Evan wrote the film. Evan started as a writer in CA. Back in the 1900s I was a factchecker/researcher at the LA Weekly.
Tail Slate: One of my first jobs in journalism was as a contributor to Stars and Stripes: Pacific Region, while I was stationed in South Korea.
Gregg and Evan: Very different kinds of publications.
Tail Slate: I loved the LA Weekly. I miss it.
Gregg and Evan: I loved it. It was great. I was making peanuts. Great place to work, great place to learn about journalism and to learn a lot about pop culture. I loved working there.
Tail Slate: They broke some big stories. Okay, first question is to hear the background of how All In came to be made.
Gregg and Evan: We came onboard thanks to connections to the community themselves. We were introduced to the story by one of our producing colleagues, Jeff Bowler. Speaking of L.A., he’s an L.A. guy now but he comes from the area and actually attended St. Bernard’s back in the 1990s. He introduced us to Nate Bilotta who is in the film and ultimately came on board as a producer; helping us do the grass-roots funding to make the film. He was such an integral part of the fabric of the community of the school. He’s a football hall of famer, he is a true ‘lifer’ at St. Bernard and so he is in the film as well and through them telling us the story of their experience and what the school was going through as well, Greg and I looked at each other and said “this a home-run” to mix sports metaphors. This is just a great story. It had underdogs, it had family, it had kids, it had some humor; it had a real challenge that was the kind of filming journey you want to see in a story.
Tail Slate: I looked up the fundraising records of the Bernardian foundation and saw that their fundraising had been next to nothing comparatively in the years leading up to 2019-2020 year when it increased tenfold; while the school was doing its own fundraising to survive. That is very telling of what a catalyst these events were in trying to keep the school alive.
Gregg and Evan: we’ve talked about this in some other interviews. One of the mottoes of the football coach, Tom Bingham, one he liked to say to his team was, “bad things happen, what are you gonna do.” That was something that resonated with his team on the field, something that inspired the community and I think it is something that will actually jump off of the screen that anyone who is seeing the film can relate to. Like we say, “s**t happens.” We can all relate to that.
Tail Slate: It is a great anthem for this story, for what you’ve created.
Gregg and Evan: The team had a choice as to how they played on the field. The community had a choice about their commitment to raising the money that you just talked about; and they went out and did the hard work. It was that choice that produced the effort that you just researched and described. I want to add to that one of the things that really caught us. I mean, this is a true story. So, Nate reaches out to this guy, Jeff. Jeff reaches out to us and we take a trip to Fitchburg, MA, right at the beginning of Covid-19. We go to this diner, it’s Nate, myself, Tom, Jeff, Linda and Evan. We meet Tom and Linda and their personalities just jump off. You just feel their passion. They were so inspiring. They said, we don’t have a choice. I don’t know how we are going to pay for this, I don’t know how we’re going to raise money but we gotta do this because it was a story about this small school in a town that’s been impacted by the mills closing down and the storefronts are empty. And this is happening all over the country so even though we were being told this story about this small school and small town that overcame these David versus Goliath odds, this is happening everywhere. They figured out a way to raise money and change the business plan of the school so that it could be effective, run efficiently and actually stay open. But with a pivot. It doesn’t need to be a 600-student school any longer. It’s a 250-student school and they will not run up losses every year, and they can stay open. It is a lesson that we think can be taught to other schools. We read about other schools in St Louis, Buffalo, Colorado and Los Angeles, all closing. They don’t need to close. They need to convince the diocese that they can stay open and run the building, even though the diocese still owns it. They can do this without losing $600,000 annually and can actually break even and have an amazing Catholic school education and Catholic school experience. That is what got us. Evan and I have produced 15 or 20 documentaries but we’d never done an independently financed one. This was our first time trying this and it was tough.
Tail Slate: So you faced a similar challenge in making this film, albeit on a smaller scale than what was happening at the school.
Gregg and Evan: Yeah. And ultimately it was the passion of the community. A lot of the money for the production budget was raised within the community. We were also “Ail In”. We were hopeful we could raise 100% of the funds for the film within the community. We raised around 70% of the budget within the community. So Evan and I were all in ourselves, and our other partner Jeff and Brad, so we put in our own money.
Tail Slate: Which you will hopefully get back.
Gregg and Evan: To be honest with you, we didn’t really do this for the money.
Tail Slate: I know that. Documentary filmmakers do not do what they do for the money.
Gregg and Evan: We did it because we were very passionate about the project. When we’d raised 70% of the money, we both felt we had a responsibility to get this out.
Tail Slate: It is a story that needed to be told, that’s definitely true. Another question on the list I gave you was what is your personal favorite film; other than projects you were involved with?
Gregg and Evan: I’m going to take the first one Evan; I know you have your own. Evan replied, if you say Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the interview might be over. Greg: That’s true. But I’m going with a documentary. My favorite by far is Hoop Dreams. I like the idea of following a story that was originally supposed to be a 30 minute piece for PBS. And because of things that happened, it became a four or five year plan. That is what Even and I love, is being able to follow a story for a long time. I would like to a three or four year documentary, especially with no limit on budget.
Tail Slate: The reason I ask that question in that way is that Stephen Spielberg once said that the film he most wanted to remake was Lawrence of Arabia. This was in the 1980s and he said it would cost at least $300 million to do it.
Gregg and Evan: Imagine what those numbers would be today. So why did he do West Side Story instead?
Tail Slate: I suppose I could call him and ask him, but I don’t think he would take the call.
Gregg and Evan: Evan said, “in some ways I have to take the cop-out response as I’m the kind of person who cannot pick just one of anything. I actually have only one child, but if I had to pick my favorite child…well, I could pick my only daughter. But I have a really difficult time picking one favorite movie. I could pick Star Wars, well the first three that were released. I could also pick Rocky, which has resonance with this movie as an underdog story. I’m a journalist by trade, I love journalism movies like All the President’s Men, Absence of Malice and more recently I loved Spotlight.
Tail Slate: So did I.
Gregg and Evan: I love buddy pictures and I cannot get away from sports movie. Please don’t make me pick one.
Tail Slate: Did you see my comment about your film probably being the best high school sports documentary since Hoop Dreams?”
Gregg and Evan: Alex shared that with us. Say that one more time please.
Tail Slate: I said that…
Gregg and Evan: We heard you. We just wanted to hear you say it again. Thank you for saying that. The fact that it resonates with you that way means that a great story was presented to us and it means we didn’t screw it up. We tried to stay out of the way. The community did the hard work, the players and the team did the hard work and the fact that it landed that way with you is so gratifying as a storyteller, so again, thanks for saying that.
Tail Slate: You’re quite welcome. I only said it because it’s true in my mind.
Gregg and Evan: I want to mention one other favorite movie. Going to documentaries, we both saw a documentary in 2014, I believe it came out in 2013 (Reporter’s Note: it was released in 2013) called Undefeated. When we saw that, we looked at each other. When we came across All In, we both felt like itt has a lot of pieces like Undefeated. Because of the genres. We both have backgrounds in sports journalism. I want to amplify that. When I watched Undefeated on Netflix, you know how they suggest other movies you might enjoy watching. There was nothing else out there like Undefeated. I said to Gregg that All In would fit in right there. I don’t know if I ever told Evan this story, the first time I went to Tom’s house and I was talking to his wife Rebecca and I mentioned that All In might remind people of Undefeated. I expected she’d never heard of it and she pulled the DVD of Undefeated out of a drawer. They did know about it.
Tail Slate: My other favorite sports documentary is The Other Dream Team. Do you think that the success of the fundraising drive to save the school owes a part of that success to the performance of the football team on the field?
Gregg and Evan: As the treasurer of the school, Nick Pellitier puts it in the film at one point, he said there were two parallel races running in tandem. While they were not completely disconnected, and the team was feeling the weight of it; the fundraising committee was trying its best to shield the team from that pressure. It was not completely, parallel, sequestered parallel races, they were going to intersect. As hard as the steering committee worked to raise that money and as hard as the kids worked on the field to take their fate into their own hands, neither was going to succeed on their own.
Tail Slate: To contrast, I think of Friday Night Lights (the movie, not the TV series) and the incredible pressure those players were under. It is visceral, it flows off of the screen. No one was doing anything to shield those students from that pressure and that is what makes Tom Bingham so different.
Gregg and Evan: As we were working in post-production one of the challenges we discovered was not getting away from either one of the parallel stories for too long. At the end of the second act and the beginning of the third act, there were some twists along the way but the two stories came together. Their fates were intertwined.
Tail Slate: As you point out also, this is a trend across the nation, small schools being forced to close.
Gregg and Evan: They can’t run it just like a business completely, it is an educational institution, but they have to think of it as a small business as well as a school. First they had to raise the money to go independent, but then how do they keep the budget, on track so that they would not run at a deficit. They figured it out, they’ve raised a lot of money and they are going to be very, very successful. There is a model here of how to do this.
Tail Slate: Let me share an anecdote on that topic. One of the jobs I had when I worked at a private school was collecting the tuition. I got a call from an actor whose star was fading, responding to my message about the overdue tuition payment. “I feel like I’m dealing with American Express instead of a school” was their comment. My reply was “while we are a school and do our best to be flexible and accommodating, we must run the school like a business in that we cannot keep the lights on and the employees paid if the parents do not pay their tuition.” The parent did not like that.
Gregg and Evan: St. Bernard was very lucky that Linda Anderson brought this breath of fresh air when she came aboard as principal when she did. She brought a different look on what the budget should look like. I give a lot of credit to Linda and the board at St. Bernard and looking at their plan with a new view.
Tail Slate: They would not have succeeded if Linda had been an administrator already at a Catholic school with the mindset that the dioceses instill in their school administrators.
Gregg and Evan: I’m not sure if they brought Linda in to be the last captain of the sinking ship but she turned her inexperience into fresh thinking and used that to her advantage. Her leadership was precocious, she was young and she’d never held a school administration post before. Instead of steering that ship into the iceberg, she steered the school around it and off into the sunset.
Tail Slate: From looking at the school’s website now, it is clear that the school is thriving.
Gregg and Evan: I think they underestimated how smart she is. She’s actually getting her graduate education degree from Harvard while working at St. Bernard.
Tail Slate: Thanks for your time.