When “30 for 30” began in 2009 as a celebration of three decades of ESPN, its creators saw the series as a bit of a two-way player. On the one hand, it was a chance to bring a variety of filmmakers’ perspectives on the documentary form to an audience beyond arthouse cinemas. At the same time, it was an opportunity for the sports documentary to evolve.
“Part of the original premise was that sports documentaries generally were like a very closed system,” said series co-creator Connor Schell, “with small group of networks [and] people who were all very talented, [but] people were sort of controlling the conversation, and we had made a real effort to make sure that within ‘30 for 30’ we would continue to evolve and push forward the genre.”
One decade and over 100 films later, “30 for 30” has its own two-way player, a director and producer who came up through both sides of the filmmaking process: ESPN Films producer Marquis Daisy. With “30 for 30,” Daisy continues to push the series forward by fostering diverse filmmaking perspectives and bringing to bear his own incisive point of view on how sports reflects our culture and teaches us about ourselves.
Watch how Marquis Daisy’s filmmaking perspective and incredible work ethic helped build “30 for 30” into a premium platform in the video below.
Daisy began his career on the other side of the premium cable divide, working as a production assistant for HBO Sports, and from there was recruited by filmmaker Jason Hehir to become part of his production team. While working with the “30 for 30” team on Hehir’s film “Bernie and Ernie,” he caught the eye of ESPN vice president and original content executive producer John Dahl.
“It’s like in sports, where you see who’s successful and you kind of go for others in their group,” Dahl said, highlighting how Daisy advocated for involving more internal ESPN producers with the series. “We threw him into the fire early on. He directed a ‘30 for 30’ really less than a year [after] joining us. Now that’s ambitious, and he was not intimidated by that at all.”
Nor was Daisy intimidated by the complexity of that first film’s subject. Randy Moss, one of the greatest NFL wide-receivers of all time and holder of the single-season touchdown reception record among other honors, has been equally legendary for his contentious relationship with the media. But traveling to Moss’ hometown of Rand, West Virginia, Daisy saw a story that no one had told throughout the entirety of Moss’ hyper-analyzed career.
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“He willed that Randy Moss documentary into existence,” Hehir said of the project, which was not originally slated to be a “30 for 30” film, but ended up taking such a revisionist approach to the popular understanding of Moss’ career that ESPN producers felt the story needed to be part of the series.
It was a story Daisy knew well from growing up a world away in Brooklyn — a tale of high-school athletes who achieve All-American honors and the adoration and respect of their communities, but are unable to capitalize on that athletic success. Moss was the transcendent talent of West Virginia football, so good at catching the ball under pressure that “mossed” became a verb.
But he was almost eaten alive by the economic forces and societal expectations that can make the path to pro-athletics so potentially treacherous. Daisy saw a shadow of the corner store that he grew up around in the titular “Rand University,” which was the nickname for a (now closed) 7-11 where former Rand football giants hung out at as adults.
“In every film that I do, I try and insert a little bit of my own background into it [and try to] tell a little bit of my own story and what I see in these celebrated athletes,” Daisy said. “I grew up in a situation where a lot of our top athletes had gone on to become All-Americans and have the respect of sports. But for whatever reason, years later, you could find them just in front of the corner store.”
The film provides an indelible sense of place, and can’t help but offer a new view on a familiar subject. That has remained a virtue of Daisy’s filmmaking and the “30 for 30” series as a whole. “Rand University” gives context to who Moss appeared to be when he hit the national stage — as well as who he really was.
In addition to his work as a director, Daisy has helped shape other filmmakers’ visions of “30 for 30” and ESPN Films so that they achieve that same level of empathetic viewer engagement with a story. He has served as a producer on a wide variety of projects, from “The ‘85 Bears” and “VICK” to “The Dominican Dream” and “Baltimore Boys,” finding ways across all phases of production to organize the relationship between sports stories and the larger ideas that always lie behind “30 for 30” subjects.
“I’m just trying to lay out the bare bones of what we’re actually talking about and leave the audience with a decision to make on the back end of how they should feel,” Daisy said, noting that he structures narrative information so that larger societal forces and emotional resonances come through as clearly as sound and picture.
That skill applies to everything from globe-spanning subjects like “The Infinite Race” and“Be Water” to wild phenomena like “I Hate Christian Laettner” and “Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies” and the difficult work of understanding sports figures like “VICK” and “The Life and Trials of Oscar Pistorius.”
Through it all, Daisy helps filmmakers organize and solve shooting challenges, find the right material that will keep both newcomers and fans alike engaged, and provides guidance during the editing process so that every “30 for 30,” as he puts it, gets “the audience to tune in to celebrate a particular story but then [allows] the audience to go on a journey with the subject matter.”
That guiding principle helps Daisy find ways to unite “30 for 30” films while also giving filmmakers the freedom to bring their own sensibilities to individual projects, which in turn gives the series a diversity of perspectives that has served it just as well.
“I always felt like even if they didn’t immediately get my vision or my idea, they wanted to see it and they wanted to give me the opportunity and the freedom to create that and show it to them,” said Rudy Valdez, director of the recent “30 for 30” film “Breakaway,” about WNBA star Maya Moore’s efforts to overturn the wrongful conviction of her eventual husband, Jonathan Irons.
Valdez brought a verité approach to his shooting style and a concept of breaking through Moore’s cultivated public persona as a perennial MVP by being in the car or on the couch with her, which strikes a notable contrast to the often archive-heavy approach of “30 for 30” films. But Daisy and the ESPN team were far more interested in capturing the best version of Moore’s story than adhering to a particular style or narrative construction.
“I think the biggest compliment I can give [Daisy] other than just being a great person, a great producer, being a great collaborator, is that he really knows his audience,” Valdez said, adding that Daisy’s notes all stem from one overarching mission: “How do we frame this idea so that our audience grasps it in the right way?”
In recent years, the series has embraced the racial and socioeconomic issues that have yielded reckonings in every facet of modern-day culture, including sports. “30 for 30” now mines stories emerging from the rise of athlete activism and heightened political consciousness across leagues, bringing additional nuance to stories that have only previously been understood through the wins and losses on the field, and tells stories that weren’t being told before.
In many ways, this has always been the series’ mission, but Daisy has broadened and refined what it actually means in practice. “We’ve been really smart with staying in front of the curve to tell those stories and to incorporate those stories into our films, because really it’s just a reflection of a society and a reflection of life,” Daisy said.
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Ultimately, Daisy’s work on “30 for 30” is a case study in mining universal truths from the microcosm of the sports world. By implication, the series has posed one question above all: Who’s the audience for powerful and timely sports documentaries? The answer is: everyone. —Sarah Shachat