Interview: American Wrestler’s William Fichtner and Ali Afshar

Posted on May 3, 2017 at 8:00 am

Tonight only! A special event from Fathom: “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” a stirring sports story based on real events. William Fichtner, who plays the coach, and Ali Afshar, who produced the film and plays a character in the film, spoke to me about why these stories are so important and meaningful.

What makes somebody a good wrestler?

AA: Fight, fight, fight and more fight. If you have that burning desire in you, if you’re just one of those guys that does not like losing and you fight and you fight and you fight, that’s what makes you a good wrestler.

I’ve always wondered about wrestling — you are so intensely involved with your opponent more really than any other sport. Are you able to really kind of feel what the opponent’s strategy is while you’re in the middle of it?

AA: Yes. When he is kicking you in the butt, has you in a headlock, his elbow in your face? Yes, you definitely feel it but yes, you are right, it’s very intense. Any sport that lasts six minutes, that’s it, you can just imagine how intense it is, only six minutes long. So, it’s a full on, we used to call it legal fighting, this is before MMA and all the stuff you see now. So for us it was literally like — you are young, you’ve got all this energy, you’re male, you just want to fight. So it was the way to get out all our aggression but learn lessons, learn strategies, kind of like in life. If you try something, if you try a move, if you take a single leg takedown and it doesn’t work, you don’t give up. You go for a double leg. You don’t give up, you go for a switch. You don’t give up, you do a fireman’s carry. I think that’s the story for life where life will knock you down, life will not accept your first try, you’re going to have to try and fight and try and fight again and again and again. You don’t give up; you will succeed. I think it’s very parallel with the stuff that you have to do in the real world.

What makes somebody a good coach?

WF: I think great teachers, which coaches are, are the ones that you hear. You know the best teacher that I ever had, the best acting coach that I ever had wasn’t the person I was trying to see in the studio, he had too long of a waiting list so I went to the fallback guy. But the best was the one that I heard when I was a kid, the one whose voice speaks to you, that you understand. It’s communication. If you have that, than anything is possible. And I think that’s true in just about every facet of life. So to me those are the ones that made the difference, those are the ones you never forgot. I wasn’t a math wiz when I was a kid but one of my security questions that we all have to do these days is, “Who’s your favorite teacher?” And I still remember my seventh grade math teacher, that is my security question and he was the one, he was the one that I heard his voice, I heard what he was telling me and he was a great guy so I think that makes a great coach.

I just talked to for the first time in 20 years, I spoke to him a few months ago because word got to me that he wasn’t feeling well and I reconnected and had a whole hour on the phone with him, it was great.

This movie is set in the past and yet with its focus on suspicion of immigrants it seems to be very relevant to what’s going on today.

I experienced it and even though it’s 30-40 years ago it’s still a lot of the same stuff today especially with all this immigration stuff and the ban and the wall and all this tough stuff that’s going on right now. It’s really like not much has changed in certain ways and people need to realize people are people regardless of where you’re from. Yes, there’s going to be government and politics that aren’t representative of everyone. So, we have to really take it by a person by person basis, we can’t just say, “hey, this guy looks like this,” or “he’s that religion” or “he wears this kind of clothes,” “your skin tone is this way.”

Clearly I still think that’s an issue. I don’t think; I know it’s an issue. They might not come out and say it much but it is still there, it’s still underlying, it’s still boils up there. Being from a country like Iran which unfortunately right now is like the worst country to be from in America, you still want to be an American. When you actually sit down and talk to people, you just realize people are people, you just make friendships. So, I think that acceptance and anti-prejudice is really what I’d love to have people feel when they watch this movie.

What advice did Mr. Fichtner give you about acting?

AA: He used this word “rhythm.” Do you still use it?

WF: Every day of my life, brother.

AA: He has a certain rhythm and he elevates the game just by who he is in his craft and his talent to what he brings to it. George Kosturos, our lead in this movie did a fantastic job. This is pretty much his first real big acting job and being under the wing of Bill, being under the wing of Jon Voight in certain scenes, working with myself — you’re present and you’re connected.

Mr. Fichtner, what was it that brought to that role?

WF: I was living in Prague at the time, two years ago and my wife was over there with my younger son, I came back like a week before spring break because I had a meeting and I came back here. I got a call from my manager. I read the script on this Tuesday had a conversation with Ali on a Wednesday traveled on a Thursday and started shooting on a Friday. It was not a story that I needed to read over and over to be talked into, that’s for sure. It only took one read. I knew Jon Voight was involved with it and I read it and I just absolutely loved it on a first read. I just trusted everything about it, just one of those, you go with your gut feeling. Two days later we were shooting in Petaluma,in his hometown on a very limited budget, on a 18 days schedule and it definitely was 5 pounds of bologna in a 2 pound bag but three weeks later the film was wrapped and here we are two years later.

And I’m so proud because a lot of times little films like this, they may not see the light of day. The folks at Warner Brothers really got the film, we do have a limited release and so on May 3rd we get a single day release in scattered theater throughout US. So, I can tell you one thing, I know I always said from the beginning please have it playing in a theater in Buffalo, New York, my hometown because I’m going to pack that theater and I’m hoping that some people see it because it could make a difference on the future like being in theaters after that depending on how we do on that day. But no matter what happens with the film, I love this movie as much as any film I could have ever worked on and I don’t say that lightly, I think it’s a very special story, I think it’s an incredible period piece.

I’ve seen a half of dozen screenings of it over the last year. I’ve taken friends and representatives to this film and I’ve yet to have anybody have a reaction that is different from anybody else. People walk out of this movie and go, “What an amazing story, what a timeless thing, what an important film for people to see right now.” It’s truly inspiring. I just love sitting back — I don’t say anything, I just let them all say it and I just say “Yes.” It’s kind of a great feeling. I think that was the intention and it does not fail to deliver.

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Actors Sports

Bleed for This

Posted on November 17, 2016 at 5:44 pm

Copyright Sony 2016
Copyright Sony 2016
We watch sports for the skill.

We love sports for the heart.

Sports stories give us heroes whose determination and courage is constantly tested. The athletes who face those challenges — who live for those challenges — can help us understand and face our own. Vinny Pazienza was a great boxer, but what made him heroic was not his skill in the ring or his unprecedented wins in three different weight classes. It was his comeback from injuries he got in a deadly car crash, including a broken neck so severe that it was not clear whether he would ever walk again. He was given the choice between spinal fusion that would guarantee that he could walk but would prevent him from getting back in the ring, or six months in a Torquemada-style halo contraption literally screwed into his skull, where the slightest bump could paralyze him forever but, if everything went perfectly he might regain enough mobility to fight again, he chose the halo. He ended up resuming his training — against the advice of his doctors — and removing the halo after three months, then returning to boxing. Let me put it this way: knocked down worse by life than by any opponent in the ring, he was up by 9.

For his first film in more than ten years, writer/director Ben Younger (“Prime,” “Boiler Room”) tells the true story of one of the greatest comebacks of all time. Miles Teller, himself a survivor of a serious car accident, plays Pazienza, known as Vinnie Paz. We first see him sweating out the last few minutes before a weigh-in, swathed in plastic wrap, on a stationary bike, determined to make weight so he can still qualify as a lightweight. He just makes it, stripped down to a thong. That night, instead of getting some rest, he stays up most of the night playing blackjack and having sex. But the next day, he wins.

Vinnie loves his fights. After each one, he’s ready for the next. His mother listens from the next room, holding her rosary and lighting candles as his sister watches the fights on television. But his father (Ciaran Hinds) is literally in his corner, urging him on and arguing with his fight promoters. Vinnie switches to a new trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), who has a sometime drinking problem but who has taken fighters all the way to the top. Kevin persuades him to stop trying to qualify for the junior welterweight class and put on some extra weight to fight as a junior middleweight. Things go pretty well until the car accident.

And that is how he learns who he is. Vinnie has never stopped for anything and nothing has stopped him. He worked hard at boxing, but never considered why or whether it mattered to him. Literally and metaphorically immobilized, he discovers that the combination of recklessness and determination gives him a way to get back in the ring.

Teller is one of the best young actors working today, and he makes Vinnie’s physicality real. His chemistry with Eckert gives what could be yet another boxing story hold our attention, even without the usual romance. Younger makes the family scenes of a rowdy middle class Italian vibrant — you can almost smell the oregano. And the story of resilience and redemption is always welcome, especially when it is as well told as it is here.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, brutal fight scenes, and graphic and disturbing images including a fatal car accident, surgery, and other medical procedures. Characters smoke and drink, including alcohol abuse.

Family discussion: Who helped Vinnie the most? Why did fighting matter so much to him?

If you like this, try: “The Fighter” and “Creed”

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Based on a true story Drama Sports

Interview: Gotham Chopra on the Audience Network Series “The Religion of Sports”

Posted on November 7, 2016 at 3:33 pm

Gotham Chopra talked to me about his new series for the Audience Network, “The Religion of Sports,” created with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and NFL Hall of Famer Michael Strahan and premiering November 15, 2016.

Have you always been a big sports fan?

Yes, I have. I grew up in Boston Massachusetts during the 80’s and 90’s and so I’ve just always been a big Celtics, Red Sox, Bruins fan, really a diehard fan of those teams but I would say in general a lover of all sports.

It’s so different being a Red Sox fan now than it was prior to 2004. Not that I would ever go back but there was a sort of magic about that cursed existence. It created a sort of community that is very different than what it is now. They won three championships since then and they are one of those elite institutions now. They have become the Catholic Church where they were sort of the scrappy cults before then.

So what is it that makes sports so visceral and so tribal?

Yes, I think what’s unique about sports is that like religion they create a sense of community, a sense of belonging. Wrigley Field is a sacred space, like it’s a holy land. People go on pilgrimages.

So everything that we associate with religion actually happens in sports. Whereas traditionally religion requires faith and you have to believe in this and you have to do that and they have this dogma and everything, sports requires attendance. If you watch the World Series whether you are a Cleveland fan or you’re a Cubs fan, a miracle is going to happen. You just have to show up and I think that is pretty unique to sports. It is not a metaphor, it is not an allegory, it is a spiritual thing and even people who don’t aren’t even fans, they participate. That last game of the World Series people watched from all walks of life because it’s bigger than sports. That’s why I am very much a true believer. Being a fan is sort of something greater than yourself, it’s really is.

Do you think that there are cultural differences or temperament differences between say fans of baseball, football, basketball, hockey?

Yes, there definitely are. For sure it’s no different than politics, as we are watching some other holy war going on right now. If you come from different cultural backgrounds you are drawn to certain things. Part of what’s been fascinating about working on this series is I’ve been able to explore sports that I never really knew much about. So rodeo and NASCAR and stuff like that. It’s been fascinating to watch those.

One of the episodes is about a Scottish football league. The two city teams in Glasgow the Celtic and Rangers, one which is predominantly Catholic in terms of their fan base and one one predominantly Protestant. In this country let’s there are big rivalries but when you go to a place like that they say, “Wait, hold on, first let us talk about the Crusades, then let’s talk about the Reformation.” You have to go back several centuries to understand the roots of this rivalry. So that certainly has its different cultural complexion than what we necessarily see here.

That being said, there are also certain things that are very similar across all sports, not just from the fans’ perspective but from the athlete’s perspective.

What makes somebody a great athlete?

First of all, certainly they have a gifts, physical gifts, athletic gifts. I’ve been fortunate to work with Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady and David Ortiz, some of the most leading athletes in their respective sports, and I can see there is a competitiveness, there is a commitment, there is a discipline, there is a ambition to be the greatest that I think definitely unites the people at the top. Oftentimes you see with the best athletes that they are not the most physically gifted. There are guys who are and girls who are physically stronger, faster or that are more athletic or whatever but for whatever reason these ones that are so committed to their craft, the ones who are so disciplined no matter the consequence, that is what puts them over the top. And again to sort of spiritualize it there is a sort of almost like a martial arts discipline, even if you watch sort of Kobe Bryant go through a practice by himself it’s a monk in a monastery. I mean there is a routine there that is spiritual that I think is really admirable for me.

What were some of the biggest technological and production challenges of making this series?

We’ve been fortunate and a lot of credit goes to my executive producing partners, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady, you have guys like that who can help you get access but getting access both with athletes and but also in leagues can be very challenging. How do you get on the track at the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR? Great storytelling depends on characters and in this case access and so that can be an incredible challenge. I think even once you get it because these are, even these more niche sports are so covered to death.

All of these athletes are used to cameras in their faces so trying to get something unique and true out of them can be challenging. And I think what I’ve been lucky about is that we tried to make this series less about just getting the biggest names in sports and instead it is very much about the culture around sports, and finding great fans around which you could tell their stories, those tend to be people who want to share their stories, who want to speak about why this thing is so important to them, that’s an incredible benefit.

Tell me about your project with David Ortiz.

I’ve been working with him all summer pretty much chronicling his last season. It’s a series for ESPN and they have run a number of digital shorts. I just drop in with him for 48 hours at a pivotal time in the season, so like opening day or his last series against the Yankees, stuff like that and just be with him as he was going through that.

And the greatest thing about the athletes especially at that level is like they physically can’t do it anymore even though David had an amazing year but they have to sort of give up something that they love as much as they ever did. I’m a filmmaker, you are a writer, we can kind of keep on doing this and get better at it and get passionate about it over and over again, pretty much for as long as we live. With athletes — I don’t even think David is 40 years old. They have to give it up and then what? And so I think it is fortunate to sort of be able to sort of chronicle a little bit of that over the last few months.

What have you learned about how people show their enthusiasm for teams and athletes?

People practice their faith in a lot of different ways. Attendance is probably the most common one but then of course the bigger the league the more difficult it is. It is super expensive to go to some of these games. Actually what I love is like going to the local dirt track in South Carolina on a Wednesday night. It’s the equivalent of going to the community church as opposed to sort of traveling to the Vatican, right? And you see people practicing their faith really at the grassroots level and so it’s inexpensive, it’s accessible, you can go touch the cars, you can really be a part of it, feel the dirt and again I’m not speaking in metaphors. You have to wash your clothes like eight times to get that dirt out once you come back from the race. So I think at the local level like our baseball episode is at the minor league level where the line between the athlete and the fan is a lot more blurred I guess that it necessarily is at the highest level, the professional level and I think for me to sort of be able to see the faith practiced at that level was pretty inspiring.

And superstition — when the Red Sox were in the World Series I couldn’t watch in a room I had to stand outside of my house and watch through the window holding my favorite baseball bat. There’s not a sports fan alive who doesn’t have some version of that, who wears only this jersey or eats only that food. The bigger the game, the bigger the superstition.

Some fan activities are totally ritualistic and the amazing thing about sports. There is a stereotype associated with the fans who paint their faces, that they come from a sort of economic class but I’ve seen deans of major universities do the same thing. You know they are the most sort of academic, intellectual people but then when they enter into this realm suddenly this tribe thing takes over and again they’re sitting side-by-side with people that they have nothing else in common with. I’ve not lived in Boston for years, like for actually more than half of my life, but I still go back every season, I try to go to an opening day or I go to a game or whatever and literally as I’m sitting there and listening, especially in like a political climate like this election, you listen to what people are talking about, I have nothing in common with these people except for this shared devotion to this thing and I think that’s a good thing. It’s fascinating to me, that sort of sense of belonging really cuts across everything.

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Documentary Sports Television

Exclusive Clip: My Many Sons

Posted on October 4, 2016 at 7:00 am

“My Many Sons” follows the true story of legendary basketball coach Don Meyer (Judge Reinhold), who, despite becoming wheelchair-bound after a nearly fatal car wreck, passed Bobby Knight to become the most winning basketball coach in NCAA history. Produced by Brad Wilson (“A Family Thing,” “Becoming Jesse Tate,” “Set Apart”) and Casey Bond and directed by Ralph E. Portillo (“The Last Great Ride,” “Big Brother Trouble”), this inspirational motion picture is a story of character, relationships, and turning young boys into men. We are pleased to present an exclusive clip.

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Spiritual films Sports Trailers, Previews, and Clips

Trailer Exclusive: “My Many Sons,” the story of Basketball Coach Don Meyer

Posted on August 16, 2016 at 2:23 pm

Don Meyer is the winningest coach in college basketball history. He continued to coach and win following a near-fatal car accident that left him confined to a wheelchair. More important than the games won or the challenges overcome are the lessons in courage, integrity, and dedication he taught a generation of young players. “My Many Sons” is his story, with Judge Reinhold playing the lead role.

Here is the real Don Meyer accepting his 2009 Espy Award.

There is a book about Meyer called How Lucky Can You Be.

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Based on a true story Sports Trailers, Previews, and Clips
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