T. J. Martin is still reeling. One month ago the Seattle native and his directing partner, Dan Lindsay, won an Oscar for Undefeated, their documentary about a North Memphis high school football team’s run to the playoffs. “The Academy Awards were always something I watched and thought, ‘Well, I’ll never win one of those,’” Martin says. “I have to remind myself that this actually happened.” This Friday, he’ll be back in Seattle to present the film at the Varsity Theatre. But first, while walking his girlfriend’s dog in LA, he took a few minutes to talk about overcoming his antifootball bias.
I watched the film last night with my wife—who hates football—and she turned to me at the end with tears in her eyes and said, “I loved it.” I don’t know how that compares to winning an Oscar, but there you go.
That’s always my favorite compliment, when people come up to us and say, “I wanted to hate your movie so badly, but I cried four times.” Going into the film, to be honest with you, I was not much of a football fan at all. I wouldn’t say I despised the sport, but I definitely didn’t have an affinity for it. Ostensibly it’s a sports film, but to us it’s so much more than that.
Did you set out to make a movie about a football team, and this just happened to be the one you found?
Our producer, Rich Middlemas, went to the University of Tennessee, and he actively follows their football recruiting—to the point that it’s probably unhealthy. He was on the message boards and saw people talking about this kid, O. C. Brown, and when he did some searching, he found an article about how he was living part-time with his coach in order to get his grades up. So we knew the idea of this kid shuttling between these two disparate communities while being courted by all of these colleges was just an interesting space, and we saw an opportunity to make a really intimate coming-of-age film about O. C. But then we met some of the other players and the coach, and we were like, “This is amazing.”
How did the kids react to you and the cameras?
Coach Bill put it best: You have managers and water boys and all of these people in different departments in the team. So if you’re playing a game and you come off the field and someone hands you a water bottle, you don’t even pay attention to that person. And we became one of those departments.
You mentioned that you really didn’t have an affinity for football before this. From your high school days, did you have preconceived notions about high school athletes that you brought to the production?
Well, I was a high school athlete. I played basketball. My preconceived notion was just a bias against football. [laughs] Basketball’s a better sport—that’s my preconceived notion.