“Last Chance U” director Greg Whiteley isn’t offended if you ask him whether he drew inspiration from the seminal NBC series “Friday Night Lights.” In fact, as he told IndieWire, “I’m flattered by the comparison.”
That’s a good thing, because it’s hard to think of one without the other. The Netflix docu-series, set in the small college town of Scooba, Mississippi, chronicles a collegiate football program made up entirely of underdogs — players who could go all the way, but for various reasons have come to East Mississippi, in the hopes of returning to Division 1 football.
It’s a very human story, but “Last Chance U” doesn’t lack for excitement. There’s plenty of game day action, captured with some stunning photography using at least seven cameras. As Whiteley explains below, he even used a camera with a lens so long it took two people to carry it.
Whiteley was an already well-established documentarian with projects like “New York Doll” and “Mitt,” but “Last Chance U” was his first experience with episodic storytelling. The filmmaker says he quickly took to the form. “If I could go back in time, ‘Mitt’ and maybe even ‘New York Doll,’ would’ve been told over six hours. It’s just much better suited for the kinds of documentaries that we like to do,” he said.
IndieWire talked to Whiteley at this year’s SeriesFest in Denver, where the series was screened as a sneak peek. We discussed how Whiteley and his team (including Adam Leibowitz and Adam Ridley — he was very clear about acknowledging his collaborators) captured their subjects on an emotional and technical level. And he was very direct about how, after discovering the episodic model, he didn’t want to return to 90 minutes or less ever again. An edited transcript follows.
When you’re living with a documentary, like you have with “Mitt,” or like you have with “Last Chance U,” what is life like?
It’s exhausting but fun. As I’ve gotten older and my kids are older, that is my one regret, that I’m away from my favorite person on Earth [turns to wife Erin], my second and third favorite persons on Earth — I don’t tell them where they’re ranked, but they are ranked. But aside from that, it is so fun. That’s one of the perks of this job. Me, Adam Leibowitz, Adam Ridley — the three of us who have been doing this together the longest — we really feel like we’re nature photographers for people. We get to go in this brand new culture that we don’t know very much about.
In this case, it was in Scooba, Mississippi. And we get to meet a bunch of really interesting people, people passionate about what they do. To live with them, to have them open up their homes and their lives and their workspaces to us, I feel like in doing this job I get to live in several different careers. I get to become an academic advisor or a football coach or a presidential candidate. You create such empathy with this people that you’re following along. I love my job. Probably for that reason — I love to go to new places and meet new people.
“Last Chance U” was originally a GQ article. Did you read the article and then get inspired to take this on?
Well, no. Lucas Smith at Endgame brought me in. We had a meeting and we thought it would be great to do something in the world of junior college football. This was two years ago, that these discussions began, and most unscripted content back then was almost exclusively reality TV. We were very sensitive to that — we didn’t want to do that, we wanted to do something documentary-based. We started looking into schools in California — it seemed to make sense to start there, and they seemed interesting, but when we read the article…
My manager’s assistant Mark Cummins, who we ended up hiring to be a story producer on the show, he read the article, forwarded it to me and I immediately went, “This is it.” That’s when we brought in Conde Nast as partners. We flew out and met the school and it only stoked our fires by meeting. This is a place we wanted to film. This is where we wanted to be.
The first two episodes have such a real sense of place. What goes into making sure you capture that from the beginning?
I think in each of the films that we’ve done, we go and invest a ton in terms of personal time with the people that we’re filming. And we go on this journey with them and when it’s done, we’ve had this amazing, cathartic experience. It was true in an early film I did called “New York Doll,” it was true in a later movie when we chronicled a couple of inner city high school debaters, it’s definitely true in “Mitt.” Here, we went to this smaller little town in East Mississippi, population 700, we lived with them for four months, we went on this incredible journey with these players and coaches and administrators and educators, and when we were done, we were just looking at each other like, “What did we just witness? What happened to us?” The editorial process is a matter of just going back and recreating that, even if it’s just in a microcosmic form, recreating that experience so the audience could have the same feeling. And part of that was being introduced to Scooba, Mississippi and all its nuances and all its Southerness and all its dichotomies. We wanted to be authentic to that experience. You saw that in the opening episode. First few beats of that is we’re allowing the audience to encounter Scooba the same way we did.
I can’t be the first person who’s compared it to “Friday Night Lights.” Was that at all in your head as a specific influence?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I love that show. I love the pedigree of that show where it was a really great book and then it was a really bad movie and then it was a decent movie in the remake and then it was what I thought was a fantastic TV series. So yeah, we referenced it all the time. I’m flattered by the comparison.
It’s down to the small town vibe and that aesthetic, but also the fact that you’re capturing football on a scale that’s so much smaller than what we’re used to, given the way NFL has infected our lives.
Along those lines, what we think is great about “Friday Night Lights” is that the football is this backdrop and it provides a lot of juice and candy for the end of episodes, when you’ve got this game that you’ve been building all week for. That’s great and we definitely exploit that as well. But like “Friday Night Lights,” what makes that series great are these characters and the insides of their lives that you get to know — the behind-the-scenes, inside the locker room, in the classroom, in their homes. That’s something that I think “Friday Night Lights” the TV show gets exactly. We love that element of it and that’s what we aspired to do in this series.
Talk me through the technicalities of capturing all of the football. How many cameras did you have out there on game night?
We would have at any one time seven cameras running, plus the cameras that they were using to do their normal web feed. We had a full-time crew of four camera people all week and then we kept those people during the game and they were given different assignments. Then, we would bring in three extra camera people on game day, to give them camera positions. We would have two on the sideline who would be 15 yards ahead and 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage and then on up high — they call it tailback to linebackers — for that master shot.
In terms of capturing this, this isn’t something that falls into any genre you’ve done before. How much of it was learning on the job?
Well, I think growing up watching a lot of football was helpful. I went back and I had conversations with people who produced the college game of the week and the SEC game of the week. So, they walked us through how they shot games.
We also knew that we’re not [the HBO series] “Hard Knocks.” The way that we were going to shoot it was going to be much more cinematic. That affected our choice of lens, the frame rate that we were shooting at. It affected where we were putting cameras too, so it wasn’t enough for us to just be, “Okay, we got these great shots of this low shot of them gaining a first down.” We wanted to get that, but we’re also inside the huddle. We’re also on the sideline when the coach is right in a player’s face or another player is leaning over to another player expressing doubt or insecurity. We have, in addition to those seven cameras all running, 12 mics mic’d up and then two additional boom mics. We have potentially 14 sources of audio, including a separate little camera and an audio mic that we mount in the coach’s box. So that’s all captured as well.
Which is a great way to get some fun reaction shots.
Yeah, for sure. I think if all you did was film the coach’s box during a game, you could have a series.
This is such a technical question, but how much in the way of zoom lenses did you use?
Yeah, well, a lot. Of those seven cameras, three would be on a zoom and one of those would be a zoom that is as long as from the corner of this table almost to that table over there [approximately seven feet]. It would take two people to just carry just the lens. And that would allow us to get really, really close while still shooting at the frame rate that we wanted.
In terms of resources, did you have everything you needed to capture this?
No, you never feel that way, but in retrospect — we were just talking about this earlier — the places where we fell short in terms of resources required us to become creative and resourceful and the series was better off for it. Going back in time, I wouldn’t change anything, but if we were to do a Season 2, I think there are some things that we would be a little bit smarter about. We would deploy that lens I was describing much sooner. That was something that came to us halfway through the series. But those are small things. I really feel like if you have good interesting people who are embarking on a journey that has some stakes attached and they’re willing to give you access, you could almost shoot it on an iPhone and get some kind of tracking with it.
Thanks to Netflix, we didn’t shoot it on an iPhone. We were able to have a proper crew and to get quite creative. One of the things I’m proud of is that there is a poetry and a cinema-like quality to this take on sports that I think is unique. There are lots of sports documentaries and sports programming, but I think where we landed fits in a pretty unique spot.
There are some shots that I can think of off the top of my head right now that really struck me. And I was watching on a computer.
Well, we were very mindful of that. We knew that a good chunk of our audience would be watching on a computer. Nonetheless, there’s no excuse to get cheap about the aesthetic.
That’s a really important thing that I think we don’t talk about enough — the idea, especially when you’re creating for Netflix, of being conscious of smaller screen size . When you say that you were thinking about that, were there other specific things you did just to make sure?
Yeah. I don’t know how interesting you’ll find this, but you deliver to Netflix with surround sound. So, if you were playing at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, it would sound like you are right in the middle of a football game. We have sound being directed all over, but what we would also do is we would ask them, because we would be in this nice facility recording surround sound, we would say, “Okay, now turn it to just your computer speakers,” and we would make sure that it would pass muster there, because the levels become different. We were very sensitive to the fact that there are people who will watch this in some very robust home theaters — it’s going to be screened tonight in a very nice theater — but it also needs to sound clear and it is a different muscle. It is a different mix to do it for computers and so we had to get that right as well.
There’s so much beauty in some of the shots that you capture, which glorify the game and the accomplishments of the athletes. And at the same time, I love the fact that there’s no glamour to this story. This is a very underdog tale.
Yeah. We were very sensitive to the fact that this, in particular, is a topic that gets overly romanticized in our culture. At the same time, there is a poetry to this game and the way that these athletes play it that also needed to be honored. So for us, it was finding that balance between the complicated, authentic, nuanced story that was happening in the real lives of these people, but still being open to the real beauty that can be captured when you’re watching people with this kind of athletic prowess perform.
In terms of interviewing your subjects and interviewing the people, were there times when it was tough to get them engaged? Given that it’s not easy to talk about the fact that some bad choices and bad luck have put them in this position.
It really wasn’t. I was so touched by the level of trust and the ability that these people had to open up their lives, to speak candidly about what it was they were going through. I think part of it was if you’re playing junior college football, there is a tendency to believe that you have been forgotten. Most of these high level athletes were the center of their respective universes, whether it was a big time high school in a city like Miami or a smaller school in Mississippi. You were written about and talked about and for whatever reason, because you didn’t qualify academically or you got injured or you got into some trouble and you lost that Division 1 scholarship which would’ve continued on your trajectory of being in the spotlight, you now find yourself in Scooba, Mississippi, population 600, and you are wondering if the rest of the world has just forgotten about you. I wonder if there was a little bit of, “Well, great. There’s somebody that’s willing to come to us and pay attention to us and tell our story.” For whatever the reason, I found that it was never hard to get people to speak candidly to us and to be open to us on camera.
In terms of thinking episodically, when you started with this, was it always going to be a series with Netflix?
Was it always going to be six episodes?
Yeah, always. But here’s what was great about Netflix, we went to them and we said, “Well, how long do you want each of these episodes,” and they said, “We don’t care. Just make it great.” And so that was our mantra. We kept asking ourselves, “All right, this episode right here, it feels right to end at an hour and five minutes.” It’s not a hard 52 minutes like if a network might mandate. The other thing that I think was different about us is that we thought strictly in terms of act breaks and we were treating this like one long film. So we picked an inciting incident for the whole six hours. That doesn’t mean that each chapter doesn’t have its own rise to climax and a resolution at the end, but we were very mindful of the overall story that we were telling. We treated this, in many respects, like one long feature-length film.
There’s been some interesting discussion lately in television criticism about the fact that that approach leads to a great season of television, but on an episodic level, it isn’t always the most engaging, because you get into the rhythm of wanting there to be a complete story every hour. Was that something you were at all thinking about?
Yes, we needed each of the six chapters of the film to be able to stand alone. They needed to be something that was pleasing and cathartic in and of itself and it also needed to fit in a bigger story. I think other writers have been able to pull that off. It’s not like we were breaking new ground by trying to do that, but yeah, it was something we were sensitive to.
In terms of editing each individual episode, since you didn’t have any rules about what the length could be, how hard did you push yourselves to make sure that anything you were keeping really needed to be in?
We were pretty maniacal. I think the series could have easily been 20 hours long. But, we were sensitive to the fact that, just as we would be if we were making a 90-minute documentary film, we know that there are great scenes that you’re going to leave on the floor. That was definitely true here, but the series is made better by making those tough editorial choices. I’ve always felt like you’re in a really good place when you are cutting stuff that is just absolutely killing you to cut.
What struck you about taking on episodes for the first time?
We loved the freedom of being able to tell a story in a longer form. For a 90-minute film, I finished a project which I shot for six years and we edited that six years of the footage down to 90 minutes and there are things to this day that I lament and go, “Gosh, it’s too bad that we didn’t have time to tell that story.” On six hours, there are fewer casualties like that. You’re able to find through lines and stories and mine some of those scenes that you would otherwise just have to jettison. I love the longer format. I think it’s uniquely suited for the kinds of documentary stories that we love. If I could go back in time, “Mitt” and maybe even “New York Doll,” would’ve been told over six hours. It’s just much better suited for the kinds of documentaries that we like to do.
When you say we, do you mean you and your partners?
Yeah, me, and I can’t say enough about Adam Leibowitz and Adam Ridley. There’s a whole host of others and we should just give you all of their names. I feel so selfish being the one being here speaking for everybody, but yeah.
Do you feel like, in general, people are going to be taking on the format more?
Yeah. I think this is the future. I think we’re at the ground floor. I hope Netflix has us back. I want to be creating this content for the rest of my life.
Just long form documentary?
So you don’t necessarily see yourself going back to film at all?
Oh sure. Occasionally, there will be a subject where, “That feels like 90 minutes to me,” or, “That feels like 60 minutes to me.” But, to have this as an option, and historically the high watermark for filmmaking was a feature length film, I think that’s going to change. I think the high watermark for storytelling in a cinematic way will be in this long form way.