It’s easy to assume that, after four seasons of chronicling life in and around junior college football, the creative team behind Netflix’s documentary series “Last Chance U” would be largely unfazed by the prospect of a new year spent in locker rooms and classrooms. As the team, including series director Greg Whiteley, closed out a half-decade filming action on and off the field, the expertise was definitely there.
But if there were preseason jitters, it was on their side of the camera.
“I actually think we are a lot more nervous than the players are. I’ve entered every single season doing this show, even if we’re at a school where we filmed the year previously, and all the players are pretty much different. I’m filled with a very similar set of anxieties,” Whiteley told IndieWire. “Who are the main players that we’re going to focus on? And are we going to be able to do something that was as good or better than the year before? This is the last year we’re going to do it. Let’s not deliver a stinker. Those first few days, all of us as a crew, we feel an amalgamation of those two anxieties. The players, they’re just playing. After nine minutes of us being there, they don’t really care.”
For the show’s final football season, “Last Chance U” embedded with the team and staff at Laney College, a community college near downtown Oakland. It’s the show’s second move, after previous stops at Scooba’s East Mississippi Community College and Independence Community College in the Kansas city of the same name.
But this season’s change to California is more than simply an aesthetic-driven change of pace. The show’s opening credits swap out the usual drumline routine for a streetside drum set performance by Oakland musician Chukwudi Hodge. Mac Dre pumps through a speaker in the Laney locker room. The establishing shots of the city are peppered will taller buildings, denser streets, and plenty more care and foot traffic. An episode later in the season takes an even fuller view of the city, examining police-community relations and the growing effects of gentrification.
“There’s this really interesting transitional period that Oakland is going through that we felt was exactly germane to these players’ lives,” Whiteley said. “There’s a number of players that had to commute either by BART or in a family car, sometimes as long as two hours to get the campus. That’s just something we’d never experienced before. In the past, we’d always had all the players living in dorms on campus, and they were sort of stuck there. In this instance, you had players mostly, if not exclusively, living in a home, either their home or someone’s home, or they were in between homes. Many of them were working jobs during the season. And so it was really interesting to film that dynamic.”
While the players continue to be a main focus of the series, “Last Chance U” also thrives on showing how those individuals fit within a community. The first four seasons were in relatively decentralized, rural areas. Capturing that same non-gameday intimacy in and around the city of Oakland led to some technological adaptations.
“The new Sony Venice camera allows you to detach just the lens with a little bit of the body attached to the lens. The body of the camera can be tethered with a long cable, so you can actually just stow it away into a duffel bag and have it under a chair. And so that frees up the cameraperson to be much lighter and much smaller. That helped us to shoot in confined spaces a little bit better, whether that was in a car, or a bar or a BART station,” Whiteley said.
“Last Chance U” pairs the heightened competitive emotion of a football game with an immersive sensory experience. The show’s camera crew, stationed at various angles around the field, manage to stay nearly invisible as they film the circus catches and bone-crunching sacks from the sidelines. A key component of the show’s final product is what the audience hears along with those images.
“Mic’ing the pad has always been a real chore to do. In Season 1, we didn’t have any idea what we were doing. We just didn’t have the budget that we would have in subsequent seasons. And consequently, we were losing mics left and right in the middle of games because they just weren’t properly wired into the pads,” Whiteley said. “We learned that we had to allocate enough time. Each day that there was a practice and each day that there was a game, somebody was going in, and wiring pads so that they would be secure enough to last an entire game or an entire practice. Particularly when players’ faces are concealed by face masks, you need to hear their voices. So many great moments that are happening on the field or on the sidelines are only captured by those mics.”
Sometimes these cameras manage to pick up conversations that are less than flattering for at least one party involved. Other, less spontaneous components of the show involve conversations with family members who have strained relationships with the featured players of a given season. In the case of “Last Chance U: Laney,” the show foregrounds the perspective of the players, while also interviewing the parents at the center of stories from the past, in whatever city they may currently be.
“There would be no show if we simply edited out every uncomfortable, offensive thing that was said or done. By that same token, the show is made better if we do everything we can as storytellers to try and give proper context to why a father may be behaving in a certain way why a player may be behaving a certain way, why a coach might have said something. The story becomes more interesting, not less, when you don’t treat those people like villains and antagonists in your movie script, but instead as real human beings whose stories are complicated and nuanced. If you honor that, I think the show becomes better, not worse,” Whiteley said.
While some players embrace the extra chance to showcase their talents and resolve, “Last Chance U” has been something of a mixed bag for coaches. Aside from one of the season’s best additions — a regular check-in between assistant coaches at a local sports bar — the guy who serves as the face of the program is more entrenched in his position and his methods. Head coach John Beam, with four decades on the high school and college level, didn’t necessarily have the same concerns about reputation or conduct that past coaches have found themselves juggling, for one reason or another.
“He’s a more seasoned version of other coaches that we’ve filmed. He’s had more experience now than they have had. And I think by virtue of that experience, there’s a certain level of confidence that Coach Beam has,” Whiteley said. “That issue was never really raised with me. He felt that, ‘Hey, if you come and film me at my school, I have nothing to hide. I’ve got a way that I coach and I’ve got a program I’m very proud of and I can’t wait to show it to the world.'”
The fact that the football season takes place in the fall meant that all of the on-field footage was in the can before the events of this spring. Still, as another testament to the idea that these stories are rooted in more than just in-game performance, production process on a TV season continues well after students come back from winter break.
“The players’ and the coaches’ lives that you’ve been filming, they keep going. Things keep happening to them. If you could, you’d keep filming,” Whiteley said. “Covid-19 shortened that window of time that we’ve typically taken in previous seasons to do pick-up shoots. There’s no time to go home and interview this uncle that this person referenced. In some cases, we would love to go and film their new location, whether they transfer to a new school or they haven’t transferred to new school and they’re now at home. Those kinds of visits were greatly reduced.”
Whiteley said that he’s stayed in contact with past players and that there’s still room to catch up with some of them on camera, should the opportunity arise. But for now, the attention has shifted to East L.A. Community College, the subject of a new show’s first basketball season. The ability to do those same kind of follow-up visits and interviews has been curbed by the current national health conditions, but the show does have a full season of game and practice footage to work with. There’s still no definitive word on a title for this new series, but it’ll be following in a “Last Chance U” tradition that on the football side has found anchors for its thoughtful visual and emotional storytelling in a number of key contributors.
“Because of where our heart ultimately lies, we’re going to show those players in their full breadth,” Whiteley said. “And it’s a team effort. We’ve got Terry Zumalt, who’s the director of photography. Daniel McDonald, who is the co-director along with me on a number of these episodes. I think just because of the goodness of those people, players just trusted what we were trying to do. And they they wanted to help us tell their stories.”
“Last Chance U” is available to stream in its entirety on Netflix.