Neil Hayes, author of the acclaimed book "When the Game Stands Tall" that premieres tonight as a Hollywood movie, wasn't showing very good posture.
He was beyond exhausted, haggard really, and Bob Ladouceur, the coach, maestro and largest figure in the narrative about the De La Salle (Concord, Calif.)
football program, wasn't about to mince words.
He never does.
"You look like (crap)," Ladouceur told him.
Said Hayes: "I feel like (crap)."
Hayes had just finished the manuscript for the book in 2004 following a feverish three-month turnaround after taking Ladouceur up on his offer to follow the Spartans and all the program's nuances for more than a year. It was an exhaustive and endless project.
Unlike virtually every newspaper piece he had written as a reporter and columnist for the Contra Costa Times and Chicago Sun-Times, Hayes wanted the two principal characters — Ladouceur and defensive coordinator Terry Eidson — to read his work before turning it in to editors.
He entered the De La Salle locker room and plopped down two copies of the manuscript.
"I told them before taking on the project there would be no surprises," Hayes said. "I thought that was fair. I'm not saying I was going to change everything they had a problem with, but I think they had the right to read it first."
Eidson, according to Hayes, began poring over the pages immediately.
"He must have called me 16 times that night," Hayes said with a giggle.
It was just what Hayes expected. Eidson, tightly strung and a stickler for detail, corrected and debated the author on numerous points. The two hashed things out over the next few days.
Hayes, however, hadn't heard from Ladouceur for almost a month until one day both crossed paths in the De La Salle coaching office.
"He looked at me, shrugged and said, ‘It's all true,' " Hayes said.
Ladouceur then turned and walked away.
"I thought that's all I really needed to hear," Hayes said. "I thought it was pretty high praise."
Over the next decade, the praise rose to remarkable heights.
Movie producer and Executive Vice President at Mandalay Entertainment Group David Zelon bought the rights to the book in 2009. Over the next four years, he found financial backers, hired director Thomas Carter ("Save the Last Dance," "Coach Carter") and the cast and crew followed.
On Saturday, Hayes, Ladouceur, Eidson joined Zelon, Carter along with the movies' stars — Jim Caviezel (he plays Ladouceur), Michael Chiklis (he plays Eidson), Laura Dern and Alexander Ludwig, among others – for media day in Hollywood.
Ladouceur and Eidson were largely interviewed together and clad in Jim Harbaugh khakis and De La Salle polo shirts.
"They looked like coaches, just as they are," Zelon said.
According to Hayes, it was a surreal scene to see the outer edges of this long improbable journey. The book was a mammoth undertaking and proved to be an expert blueprint of one of the country's most successful and revered high school sports programs.
But a road map and three decades of stomping on opponents — though compelling on paper — wasn't easy to convert into a two-hour big screen show.
It wasn't until Zelon read Hayes' epilogue that included Ladouceur's heart attack in 2003, the murder of highly popular Terrance Kelly the following July and subsequent end to the win streak a month later, was the vision of the movie complete.
Those three storylines are largely what the movie is built around and how the soul of the program — its brotherhood and commitment to one another — combats these very human setbacks.
Hayes and Zelon talked to us Saturday by phone about those setbacks, the challenges and triumphs of making this upbeat, inspirational film that opens nationwide Aug. 22, with special advanced shows Thursday, August 21 in select locations.
For more information, visit the Sony Pictures "When The Game Stands Tall" website
.Q&A with Neil Hayes (Author)Mitch Stephens:
What do you think you'll get out of Monday's premiere? What will it be like for you?
I'll probably spend more time studying the crowd than watching the movie. Every line of this movie has been dissected. We argued about it, we talked about it. Knowing what moments make the audience laugh or what makes them cry, to me that's the most fascinating part of it at this point. MS:
There have been some pre-screenings. What kind of feedback have you received there? NH:
I think the message comes through loud and clear and I think that's why the movie is resonating with people so much. I still don't have a lot of objectivity. I'm just too close. People will ask, what do you think about the movie and my response is, ‘No, what did you think?' I think their response is far more valuable at this point. … The studio didn't think we had to make too many changes from the pre-screenings. Our feedback was positive enough that we felt we didn't need to go back to the drawing board. We just had to tweak a little. MS:
What was the hardest part about selling the rights to your book to movie makers? NH:
Losing control. It's really that simple. I made every decision about that book. I really did. Of course editor's helped, but it goes from a solo effort to a team effort. That loss of control can be worrisome, especially when you respect and admire the two principal characters so much, and they're still with us. It's not like we're writing about Abraham Lincoln — we're writing about two contemporaries. I was always very concerned and very defensive about how those two might be portrayed and to make sure they were portrayed accurately.
Fortunately, I was surrounded by a bunch of film makers who felt the same way, who had that same respect for Bob and Terry. We banged heads occasionally, but I don't think you make a good movie without doing that. … I said from the start, it's my book but it's your movie. I'm not a filmmaker. I can pretend that I know what studios want or audiences want. I said from the beginning that I had a shot of my vision for things, and I executed that. At the end of the day, I was one of many people who had a vision for this project. MS:
Was the process about what you expected? NH:
I don't know what I expected. Even today I didn't know what was going on. … I don't know what to expect in the premiere. I didn't know what to expect on the set of the movie. I'll say this, it was emotionally and physically challenging. It was as challenging as anything I've ever done. Part of it is that you're losing that control. Part of it is you care about these people so much. MS:
Were there frustrating moments? NH:
Sure. But part of that was me being naïve to the movie process. There were days or a scene I didn't like or I thought didn't work. I'd be angry. So much of it was I didn't see the big picture because I hadn't gone through it. Later, I'd be like ‘Oh, I get it now.'MS:
When did you get it about De La Salle football? When was the moment you thought it could be a book or even movie? NH:
There were three moments.
The first was in the locker room when a couple of players reached out to Lad (Ladouceur) for an answer and he said: ‘Why do I always have to be the problem-solver. You guys figure it out.' I'd never heard a football coach like that and I had a lot of experience in the college ranks and NFL.
The next two were quotes from Ladouceur himself in 2002. One was early that year and I was pestering him to do the book and he said ‘The game by itself doesn't stand tall.' (The entire quote was this: "The game by itself doesn't stand tall without intangibles. In a certain sense, it's barbarism. The violence isn't what attracts me to it. It's getting kids to play together and get along with each other. The game should be a teaching tool. It doesn't stand tall on its own.")
The other quote from Lad was about true humility. (The entire quote was: "Kids respect true humility and that you stand for something more than winning. They'll fight for you and your program if you stand for more than that. It boils down to what you believe in as a person and I'm talking about how life should be lived and how people should be treated. Kids see all of that. It's a whole package of things that have nothing to do with standing in front of a team with a piece of chalk. You can know who to block and what play to call but it has no meaning unless the kids know who you are. Our kids aren't fighting for wins. They're fighting for a belief in what we stand for.")
I knew at that point I had to do this. All my instincts were screaming that this would make a great story, unlike any football story I had ever done before. MS:
Did you need any more push to get it done? NH:
I spent so much time nosing around, coming by and hanging out with the team and coaches. One summer's day, the coaches were cleaning out their offices and they had this big giant dumpster. They were throwing away trophies and "Coach of the Year" awards they had stuffed under a file cabinet. I mean, they really didn't care about that stuff and that made them even more likable. The more time I spent around those guys the more time I wanted to spend around them.MS:
And they were all good with it? You hanging around?NH:
I kind of wore them out (laugh). When you're around them every day, helping them clean stuff and joking with them, then suddenly you're part of the inner circle. The fact I was there every day even though I had a full-time job and young kids, I think they respected that.MS:
To their humility, how did Ladouceur take to this movie business? NH:
When we invited him to New Orleans (for the filming of the movie in spring of 2013), Lad was like ‘It's a long flight. I don't want to stay in a hotel room.' (laughter). I said, ‘Lad, it's all expenses paid. You're going to get a per diem while you're there. You'll be treated like a king.' He kept saying, ‘I don't know, I don't know.' Like (Eidson) said: ‘The one person on the campus who is least interested in the movie is the one person who the movie is about.' MS:
How was it when Ladouceur and Eidson got there (to New Orleans)? NH:
All the heads were turning. All the production people and movie stars wanted to see this guy. You could hear the murmurs as Bob and Terry were finally on set. Finally one of the producers said to Lad, 'It must be pretty surreal watching a movie about your life,' to which Bob said: 'You know, I haven't even really thought about it.' The funny thing, he really hadn't. MS:
Do you have any advice for young writers who might have a chance to go through this process?
I would say trust your instinct. Every bone in my body was telling me this was a great story. I got, ‘It's too regional, it's too this or that.' I was like, ‘No, I know what I'm talking about. I've been around the game.' I had to dig my heels in. I knew it was a great story 12 years ago and no one believed it.Showtimes, in your areaQ&A with David Zelon (Executive Vice President, Mandalay)Mitch Stephens:
Can you believe the premiere is almost here? What are you going through now?
It's kind of like a race. A long race. The closer you get to the finish line, you just find a way to run a little harder. Try a little more. When you're a year out, you have a lot of time to get things done. When you're three weeks out now you're involved in the marketing of it, you're trying to get the country to see the movie, to get professional athletes to see the movie, to tweet something. MS:
So the story is, you found Neil's book while cleaning out a coach's locker of your son's high school team? That's how this all began? DZ:
I was sitting around a bunch of smelly shoulder pads and I started reading the book. Thirty pages in I thought, 'This is a fantastic book, a fantastic story.' So I reached out to find out (Hayes) had moved from Northern California to Chicago.
Once you met him, was everything pretty much in order? DZ:
The hardcover book covered the win streak until 125. He asked me if I read the soft cover, which added a 30-page epilogue. I was sort of struggling to find the narrative of the movie. It's hard to make a movie about a team that never loses. The epilogue had all the conflict I needed to go forward. It took four years, but we got all the pieces in place.MS:
Once you got those pieces in place, how did the shoot go? DZ:
It was busy shoot. We had two units, the football unit with all the plays and the other acting unit. … I'd spend time going back and forth to each unit. I was involved with every facet of the movie. It was something very near and dear to me. My relationship with my son and the fact he played high school football. It was the kind of movie I was supposed to make in my life. I wanted to be present in every second of it. MS:
How did Ladouceur and Eidson gravitate toward the movie? DZ:
It was interesting. I met them early on. Every year I would go up and watch a De La Salle game in Northern California and I'd tell them we're moving forward, that we have a script going and we have a director because they never really believed that it would happen. So finally after visiting them four years in a row, I finally told them, ‘Hey guys, we're making this movie. We're going to shoot it this spring in New Orleans. It took me four years but I got it all together.' MS:
High school coaches aren't often on movie sets. How was it for them to be in the limelight? DZ:
Interesting thing with both of these men is their message to their teams was to be humble and don't push yourself into the limelight, that this is a team thing and not an individual thing. Now they're thrust into the spotlight with the making of a big movie. … Bob especially was uncomfortable. Because he doesn't like to take a position out front like he's the big head coach and that the streak was because of how great he is. He always believed it was a team thing. He's handled it very well, but he always made it clear that this is not a movie about him. The movie is about his team, that a team is a singular entity.
But by the same token they were very forthcoming every time we had questions, whether dialogue questions or character or plot questions. They always gave us their unfiltered view of things and it really helped make the movie better. It made it authentic. MS:
The movie is inspired by a true story, but there are, like any movies, a few liberties. Can you explain that process? DZ:
It's difficult to make a movie about a living person. You have to condense time and you have to move things out of their natural chronological order. For people who are alive, they say, it didn't happen exactly like that. We understand that, but to get a three-act structure for a movie, we have to do these kinds of things. We don't have time to develop 30 different characters. We have to take five of them and turn them into one person. That's the biggest challenge. MS:
There seem to be more and more movies with high school sports as a backdrop, or in this case the forefront. Why?DZ:
It represents a time in all of our lives that is very special. It's also a nostalgic time too, about the person we all become. We all remember that time fondly, so it takes us back to our own high school experience. That's what makes high school movies so compelling to so many people.
Are you nervous about the coming weeks? DZ:
I guess there's an element of anxiousness there, a little anxiety, but the process, the journey for me has been very, very fulfilling. And whatever happens, as successful as I want it to be, I couldn't be happier about the final movie, about the final picture and what we produced. It was the exact movie I set out to make. I hope that it garners us a big fat audience and box office return, but there's nothing about the movie that I would have changed, that I'm not happy with. The film itself was everything I set out to do.