McG is known for his directing many action pieces, but this time he steps outside his genre and directs a very serious film with Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, and Anthony Mackie. November 14, 1970 will never be forgotten in the town of Huntington, West Virginia where the entire Marshall football team, staff, and fans were killed in the biggest plane crash in college sports history. A new movie out December 22nd We Are Marshall looks at the aftermath of the people of this community and the struggle to keep the football program going. Director McG reflects back on the process of making the movie and the real life stories behind the characters he learned about.
Listen to the McG CYInterview:
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Chris Yandek: This is really a movie about a town of people moving on and does the reformation of the football program help them or is it something more than that?
MCG: “We have always maintained that this is in fact not a football picture. This is a picture about rising from the ashes and learning to believe in hope again. This is a tragedy that happened to this town. There was a plane crash November 14, 1970. Yeah it took a lot of the football team, but it took a lot of the great leaders of the community. There were six doctors in this town and four of them were on board. You just have that kind of tragedy and it immediately affects everyone. It took a lot of strength, a lot of belief, and a lot of courage to pick yourself up one boot at a time and move forward into the light.”
CY: You directed both Charlie’s Angels films and have also been a producer for The O.C., but how did you end up as the director for this very serious film and how did you find out about the story or did you read the script?
MCG: “Well, I was looking to improve as a storyteller and get 180 degrees away from what I’ve been known for. I am proud of what I’ve done in the past, but by the same time I want to improve as a filmmaker and grow and I am very attracted to true stories and a lot of stories say based on or inspired by and our story is a true story. This is a true story because we took Hollywood out of the equation and we simply told the truth of how this community, this small town in Huntington, West Virginia comes back from the brink.”
CY: Before directing the film, did you go to the town of Huntington, West Virginia to take in the atmosphere so you could replicate the college town of Marshall University?
MCG: “Absolutely. I went anonymously three times. The first thing is I got off the plane and went to the crash site. I just tried to breathe in the essence and the magnitude of the event. I just searched my spirit to find the strength and asked myself if I was the right guy to tell this story. I then walked down into the town and did a lot of listening. The more stories I heard the more serious it became. I just realized when people come up to you and say, hey, I lost both my parents in this tragedy. You realize you aren’t just making a garden variety picture. These are real lives and there is a responsibility and you have to handle yourself with integrity. I want to make sure we did that and like I said take Hollywood out of it and really represent the actual story and truth and get it out there and share it with everybody else so during the holidays everyone can get in touch with what matters most which is humanity and community coming together.”
CY: What’s the most moving story or historical research that you did for the film through that process?
MCG: “Well, on a positive note, the character Matthew Fox plays is a guy named Red Dawson. This is one of the coaches of the team that had one foot on the plane who was gonna fly back to Huntington and agreed to go do a scouting trip in replacement of another coach. He’s all but on the plane and he decides ok I will go out there and scout for you and he gives up his seat out of the kindness of his heart. Now everyone goes on to parish that evening and this character Red Dawson is alive and lives. He has to really contend with survivor’s guilt. It’s a very real thing. You see a lot of guys coming back from Vietnam or certainly we see it with Iraq and all their buddies are gone. They can’t find meaning or existence to why they are still alive. The real Red Dawson for 36 years hasn’t really been part of this community and through the catharsis and through the healing of the picture, he has re integrated himself back into the community. That’s gotta be the most emotional rewarding element of this whole process.”
CY: Did you and Matthew McConaughey share a vision on this project together before it was even starting to be filmed?
MCG: “Absolutely. He wanted to grow as an actor and I wanted to grow as a filmmaker. In this picture Matthew has a wife and three children. He is a dedicated family man. He’s not just the good looking guy who ultimately gets the girl. I just really responded to the big heartiness of Matthew McConaughey in real life. He’s a guy that went down to Louisiana and helped out with Katrina. He had no agenda, no political stands to take. He just wanted to help and that’s got a lot to do with the character in the film who came from Wooster, Ohio and wanted to go over to Marshall and help. It turns out that’s exactly what the doctor ordered, to help the town rediscover their strength, their spirit, and get back on their feet again.”
CY: One scene in the movie has the Marshall coaching staff going to West Virginia to meet up with Bobby Bowden who was the coach at West Virginia at the time to teach them the veer offense. How did you find out about that event and why did you put it in the film?
MCG: “Well, I just thought it was a pretty interesting anecdote. Marshall and West Virginia, big time rival and you wouldn’t think people would be like that. Got a kick out of the fact that Bobby Bowden was the coach there at the time. The character McConaughey plays is a big believer in the power I which is a type of offense and they needed to change to a type of offense called the veer and West Virginia was running that.
So they went up there and just boldly asked for help. Out of the kindness of his heart Bobby Bowden cose to help them out, shared the playbook and as it turns out he had painted a crucifix on the back of the West Virginia helmets painted green in respect of Marshall University and the letters MU for Marshall University. It’s just a very, very touching true anecdote of what happened and I just thought it deserved to be in the picture.”
CY: Matthew is a big sports fan especially of Texas college football where he went. Any idea if he seeked any advice from any football coach, anyone else in sports, or what he did to prepare for the role?
MCG: “Well, I know he does a lot of talking to Mack Brown who is the coach there. I know he really called upon the advice of his father who moved on in the 90s and gave him anecdotes as just keep living and play to the whistle blows, things that are real simple, but actually if you think about it mean a whole lot. I was really taken by something he got from Lance Armstrong who obviously knows a great deal about pain as a fellow Texas guy, he is buddies with McConaughey. Armstrong told Matthew, ‘Hey. Pain can last a moment, it can last a day, it can last a week, it can last a long..long time, but it can’t last forever and the only thing that can last forever is if you quit.’ I know he took that attitude and obviously a guy like Armstrong one of the greatest athletes of our time overcoming cancer, you gotta take it pretty seriously when it comes from him.”
CY: Do you feel Matthew pulled the role off even though he hasn’t done as many serious movie roles in his career?
MCG: “Yeah. It’s an entirely new Matthew McConaughey. He is very earnest and he knew what he was up against and understood the challenges. He went out there and told the truth. He gained 15 pounds. He changed a lot physically. He really went to the extra mile to show he is passionate about acting. He’s got some moves up his sleeve.”
CY: Anthony Mackie plays Nate Ruffin who is one of a handful of Marshall football players that wasn’t on the plane when it crashed and he does his best to stand up for the program so it doesn’t get canceled. How did he do in his role as the player who has had it rough, but wants to play football to tribute all the guys who had passed away?
MCG: “Well, he did a lot of research and he did a lot talking to the family members of Nate Ruffin. I just think Anthony is one of the most talented actors of his generation. He went from Million Dollar Baby, obviously he was selected by Clint Eastwood who is a very serious guy and populates his film with the best actors in the world. Really, his story is of a guy that his arm was hurt, real, real hurt, and the coaches said you can’t go. At that time they didn’t travel the injured players. Obviously the crash happened and he lost all of his buddies. He took it upon himself to rally the students, rally the community, and keep on fighting in honor of those who had fallen. Sometimes it’s the spirit of the youth that inspires us all and keeps it going. His arch in the movie is just so emotional and now Nate Ruffin has passed on in 2001. He lost a long battle to leukemia. It’s just part of the inspirational true story. It’s just a movie that will make you feel great for the holidays. It will just make you believe in the triumph of the human spirit. That’s got a lot to do with Anthony Mackie’s performance.”
CY: Any favorite story or moment on set you’d like to share?
MCG: “Well, I am just so glad that the real Red Dawson, the guy Matthew Fox portrays who switched seats with another coach and ultimately that’s the decision that spared him his life. I am just so glad after 36 years of being outside the community he has decided to reintegrate back into the community. That’s definitely what means the most. That really touches me and that we’ve done more than make a film. That’s just what I will take with me and just the community wasn’t so excited about us making this film and telling the story and as we made and did it honestly 200 to 300 people would show up every day and we called upon the strength of all those people. That colors the film. It just feels very rewarding as I only know about action pictures and disposable entertainment and this is so different.”
CY: Did you learn what college football tradition is all about and how much it would mean to a small city like Huntington, West Virginia where Marshall University is?
MCG: “Yeah, because Marshall University is not a university of privilege. This is Huntington, West Virginia. The Ohio River runs through there. You got a steel mill that is 50 yards away from the President of the University’s office and then you got coal mines throughout the hills. These are bluecollar people that have to work for everything they get and it’s the kind of town that shuts down on Saturdays so everyone can come together, go to the game, and it’s a very spiritual community. You realize that’s a great sense of source of identity. When that’s taken away from you it’s shocking and cuts to the core. When you rebuild it you see how everyone just bleeds green in that case. It goes for every city and every town that roots for their home team.”
CY: You have been a producer on The OC. Some people are saying this is its last season. Has the show run its course and is this the last season or can it continue after this season?
MCG: “I don’t know. It may be indeed the last season of the show because the shows like this have the definite life span. I am very proud of that show. The guy who runs it for us is this guy Josh Schwartz who I think is the Cameron Crowe of our generation. He is really a great storyteller. When he feels it’s time to wrap it up he will wrap it up. You never know. It could be four and out for The OC or it may come back for a fourth season. We are sort of in the middle of making that decision. We are going to make it by February or March and do what’s right.”
CY: How hard is it by today’s standards to be a successful Hollywood director and work with a cast like the one in We Are Marshall?
MCG: “I don’t know. I studied psychology. I was going to be a psychiatrist. I was ready to go to med school and do the whole thing. I just do a lot of listening and I apply that to them. You partner with a guy like McConaughey, you partner with Cameron Diaz, you partner with Bill Murray, and you bring them into the process and get them to feel propriety. Usually these are smart people. They know how to be great and you are wise to do a lot of listening and you meet in the middle and you just get the work done. I don’t know. It’s challenging, but I enjoy the challenge. It’s just a wonderful experience and it’s fun when you make a film and people go to it to emote and in this picture you hear the audible sobbing and then you hear the audible laughter and then you see people leaving the theater with a little bit of spring in their step. It’s just great to be part of one that lasts a long time.”
CY: Finally, do you feel anybody in this film or anyone’s part of this film could be nominated for an Academy Award?
MCG: “I don’t know. There is some talk about Matthew Fox and what he has done in this picture because he hits so many beats and shows so much dexterity and he’s such a man of integrity. I just think people are coming out of there absolutely blown away by his performance. My hats off to Matthew Fox, I wish him the best.”
We Are Marshall is in movie theaters nationwide December 22, 2006.
You can check out the official website for the movie at http://wearemarshall-themovie.warnerbros.com/ for more information.
You can find more information about McG at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0629334/
A special thanks to Jeff Freedman and the people at Warner Bros. for coordinating this interview.
McG on CYInterview.com – Photo Credit: Warner Brothers