Go behind the scenes of the real-life football drama
We Are Marshall tells the tragic story of the 1970 Marshall University football program, and the following year of the 1971 season.
November 14, 1970, Marshall University played a game against East Carolina University. On the flight back home to West Virginia, the plane crashed killing all 75 people, including 37 members of the team and staff.
After the crash, the school had to make a decision whether to continue with the program or not. With the death of head coach, Rick Tolley, the school had to find a new leader - Jack Lengyel and eventually keep the program; they started focusing on the next season, with their remaining players - mostly including freshmen and sophomores (freshmen were not allowed on the chartered flights) and new recruits.
Those 10 months are the focus of We Are Marshall. Matthew McConaughey plays coach Lengyel; Matthew Fox is Red Dawson, a coach from the 1970 team who was brought back - he did not board the flight in Carolina. Also starring in the film are David Strathairn, as the dean of Marshall University, and Ian McShane as one of the father's of the players, and a member of the board of directors. Breaking away from his action routes, McG directs the film.
I had the chance to visit the set of the film in Atlanta, Georgia. We were first led over by bus to a warehouse where they were shooting the interiors of the locker room of the Marshall University football team.
The game - September 25, 1971 - the first at home in West Virginia following the horrific events of the previous year.
The scene - halftime - Marshall Thundering Hurd is up 3-0; the team's spirits are up, but they must stay up to finish and win the game.
As unit producer Ernie Malik explains to us, this has been an extremely emotional set - Matthew McConaughey is one of the most inspirational actors he's worked with; he's embodied Jack and everything he's stood for. He said, "Football is only a canvas for the movie, everything else is created by the emotions of the actors."
Most of this film is of the actual events and exactly how they happened including that first home game which Marshall University won in the most dramatic fashions 15-13 - on the last play of the game.
After getting the introduction in the locker room, we toured the production offices of Sweet Tea Pictures inside the warehouse; it was there that we spoke to the technical football coordinator, Mark Ellis - Mark has worked on numerous films, including Invincible, Friday Night Lights, and "The Program".
We Are Marshall was written by 26-year-old, Jamie Linden, who was obsessed with the story in 2000 while in college at Florida State University. Once he found out the history behind the tragedy, he was off and running. But his story, and how this film came to be, has sort of a Hollywood ending as well; after finishing school, a group of friends took a road trip to LA. "I graduated college - and a marketing major is so broad; I had no idea what I wanted to do. So California was really far away and it seemed like a good place, and we had tickets to The Price is Right; we all went. It took us forever to get there and we barely made it to the show; we literally got in that morning, and we had a good story because we literally just got in. So they called me up and I won a Tuscan wine server cart - which is $675, and I won $5,000. After I won $5,000 I had $1,000 to my name and I thought well that's a sign, 'I should stay.' What you want to do, finds you."
So if someone who wasn't even alive when the events happened is the most unlikely candidate to write this story, in your mind, you're probably thinking McG is the most unlikely person to direct this film. After working in the music video world for a few years, McG decided he was destined for more than just 3 minutes of satisfaction. He went on to direct the "Charlie's Angels" films starring Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz.
But, that's not where he wanted to end up; he didn't want to be 'that guy.' But, he'll even admit, he wouldn't be the person he'd think of either. "I get it, if you want to make a very compelling, serious drama, you don't think, 'G-d damn it, let's get McG.' I'm more known for karate and explosions because of the "Charlie's Angels" thing. But, any filmmaker tries to do what's right on any given film; and I tried to do what's right on the Charlie's Angels picture which was a really notable film from some old TV shows that were really good at the time/female action pictures which I changed a little bit. And now with this, I'll be able to get back with my roots; I came from the theater, I come from a very dramatic place, I've had a lot of sadness in my own personal life I've had to overcome. And I'm very comfortable telling stories like that, so I'm a little frustrated that people only think of me in that 'pop-candy' world and that's not who I am. So I'm just trying to improve as a director and become a better story teller and tell very patient stories."
He told us this movie is going have the feel of The Graduate or The G-dfather - with a McG spin. "It's going to have no cuts, it's going to be very patient, it's not going to have any needle drops. It's going to be reminiscent of the types of films of that period, which is, like I said, 180 degrees removed from 'oh, McG, the music video guy with the lame name, and this that and the other,' I get it, but I'm really trying to show the world who I really am. Cause it's the privilege of the audience to work in short hand and say, 'Oh, I know that guy; he used to do Gap commercials and then the "Charlie's Angels", so he's a cheeseball.' It's fairly put and it's the privilege of the audience, but I know that's not who I really am and I hope this picture shows the world that."
We Are Marshall opens in theaters December 22nd; it's rated PG.