Angelo Pizzo, the screenwriter of the beloved sports movies “Rudy” and “Hoosiers,” makes his directing debut with “My All American,” the real-life story of University of Texas football legend Freddie Steinmark, who died in 1971 at age 22. Despite the hero’s untimely death, Freddie was so relentlessly optimistic and good hearted that the movie remains upbeat and inspirational. But be warned, it is a weepie.
Finn Wittrock, best known as the psychopathic Dandy Mott in the popular FX series “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” for which he received an Emmy nomination, stars as Freddie. Aaron Eckhart plays the iconic football coach Darrell Royal, who recruited Freddie and gave him a scholarship to play for the University of Texas despite his small size. And Irish actress Sarah Bolger plays Freddie’s supportive and steely sweetheart, Linda.
The director – along with his stars – attended a junket recently to promote “My All American.” (This is the first press event at which I’ve seen a nun. Turns out she reviews movies that have religious and inspirational themes.)
Following are edited highlights from a Q&A with Angelo Pizzo:
The poster says “from the man who wrote Rudy and Hoosiers.” What are the origins of the film and what’s it like competing with your own legend?
Angelo Pizzo: What happened with “Rudy” and “Hoosiers” over the years I never could have anticipated. Most of my friends have movies, some have been very successful, but they are ephemeral. They come and they go… And those two movies have sustained over the years in ways we had never anticipated. To me it’s kind of a freakish thing. I don’t even analyze it or understand why, but ultimately what they provided for me is the opportunity to make more movies, write more scripts and come across stories like this. And quite frankly, I’m offered stuff all the time in the genre… They’re all underdog stories, and they all bore me right now. But this came, in part, in a weird kind of way through Facebook. This guy (Bud Brigham) contacted me through Facebook. Whenever that happens I kind of just write it off, but he had optioned the book by a guy named Jim Dent, who wrote “Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story,” and the only reason I said, ‘Yes, I would read it,’ is because I was a great admirer of Jim. I had read other of his books. I thought he was a terrific writer.
What was it about the book that inspired you to make this film?
When I read the book, two things happened and that was, first of all, Freddie was an amazing character. He was a hero in the truest sense of the word. You look for a protagonist who is heroic, it’s hard to find – you can describe Rudy sort of as a hero but more by weird circumstance. The thing that made Rudy unique was his fundamental incapability of hearing the word no, so despite all rationale and reason, he kept on moving forward like the little engine that could and just didn’t let anyone define what was possible. And I found that very much a metaphor for the film business, quite frankly… All your life is filled with no’s. “Hoosiers” was turned down over 300 times in the course of four years, so that’s the only way to survive. You’re going to swim in a sea of no’s and then hopefully there’s an island of a yes somewhere and, occasionally, it happens.
How challenging was it writing about the emotional journey of the character in relation to his story as a football player?
You’re writing what would be categorized as a genre film. There are certain audience expectations, there are certain standards and certain conventions, and the decision about how you play into them, how you play away from them… Another way a friend of mine put it, writing a sports movie is like driving down a road full of potholes and clichés, and my job is to build a shock system so you don’t notice the big ones… I guess the only way of answering that question is to say I’m writing a movie that I want to see and that I would appreciate, and there’s no other way to put it. I don’t write from the outside in. That is I don’t premeditate. I don’t write from outline. I don’t write from thinking about the audience. I write from me as an audience member and me going through the journey, on the journey with this character, and I want to be surprised. I want to discover. I want to see characters evolve. I want to have things revealed about people I think I know about, that were not seen until I start finding their voices… Another way, if you believe in the shocker system, so I make a decision to write more with all of them, with all this systems in sync, they all have to say yes. When I do research, it’s mostly from the head up that I’m processing the information and using myself as a hard drive. But when I start writing, I write from my neck down. It’s all gut instinct and feel.
Talk about casting.
We knew the movie’s success would rise or fall on Freddie Steinmark and Coach Royal… I have to give credit to our casting directors who brought Finn in and said he’s really special and talked about him. I remember the first thing I said was, ‘Well, four years of Juilliard and the fact that Mike Nichols cast him (“Death of a Salesman” on Broadway), I think he’s got a lot going for him,’ but still he had to be the right actor, and he gave a reading that made me cry.
And the only thing that I had concerns about – of course he looks a lot like Freddie, and he’s also the right size, 5’9-10” – but the one thing he didn’t have is football. He’d never played football before. But the one thing Finn has that Freddie had, is a work ethic, a dedication to craft, a willingness to do whatever it took to get it right, so we assigned him a trainer, a football trainer, he worked out for six weeks before he got to the camp, and then we put him in the football camp with the rest of the football players. We kept on telling him, you know, there’s certain drills you can’t do because we can’t lose you. We don’t want a guy in a cast, you know? But we had to pull him out. I mean this guy wanted to do everything that everybody else did.
We collectively made decisions, but I trusted him. Especially this happens in the very best of circumstances in terms of your relationship with actor and director, by the last week or two, you shouldn’t ever tell an actor how to play that role. They should know that character better than you do because it’s a merging of who they are, the decision they’ve made about that character that had been agreed upon earlier, and the character itself, and so I completely trusted Finn. If I ever felt he was going off or there was an adjustment I wanted to make, I went in and he was selfless. Like Freddie, his ego never got in the way, he made the adjustment. And here’s the other thing, Finn gets it in terms of the big picture. I’ve worked with actors who are primarily concerned about themselves and their performance and how am I doing and so on and so on. And they lose track of ‘this is a scene and part of a movie.’ Finn got all that. His attitude was, ‘how do we make this scene better?’ Not ‘how do we make my performance better?’
Talk about casting Aaron Eckhart as Coach Royal.
We knew we were going to cast someone somewhat unknown for Freddie… But in terms of our budget, we knew we could afford more of a name actor, and the person I wanted was Aaron, because I’ve always admired him as an actor… I didn’t know him before we cast him. (But) he had a lot of my sense of who Aaron was, a lot of what Coach Royal had, which was kind of a tough exterior, a focus and an intensity, a meticulousness to the details and yet a vulnerability. The more I got to know Aaron, that certainly proved to be true.
There is the football story and there is the emotional journey of the character. How did you find the balance?
The emotional journey is the most important. The football is the least important. Sports in all of my movies are the least important part of it. I’m making this movie for people who could care less about football and sports, and the greatest compliments I get from “Rudy” still to this day, luckily, is they say, you know I hate football, I hate sports, I hate Notre Dame, but I love your movie. That’s my target audience.
What’s your next football movie?
I’m not doing any more sports movies. I’m done.