Gridiron Gang: Long journeys to the screen aren’t unusual in Hollywood, but when they take 16 years there’s usually an interesting tale to be told.
A case in point is the football drama “Gridiron Gang,” opening Friday via Sony. Directed by Phil Joanou, its screenplay by Jeff Maguire is based in part on the 1993 Emmy Award-winning documentary of the same name. Produced by Neal H. Moritz and Lee Stanley, “Gridiron” was executive produced by Shane Stanley and Michael Rachmil. Starring are The Rock, Xzibit, Leon Rippy and Kevin Dunn.
“Gridiron’s” story is inspired by real-life events involving a Los Angeles detention camp probation officer, played by The Rock, who puts together a football team, the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs, made up of tough juvenile offenders. Playing football teaches the kids self-respect and personal responsibility.
The true events behind the story were the focus of the 1993 documentary, which Lee Stanley directed and produced with his wife, Linda Stanley. Their son, Shane Stanley, co-produced the documentary and was its second unit director. The documentary looked at the Mustangs’ 1990 season, their first as a team. The Mustangs wound up playing a regional championship game against Montclair Prep High School, a strong local school that had lost only three games during the previous four years. Although the Mustangs lost 13-7, it was a great showing against tough competition.
To follow the years of twists and turns that preceded production of the new fiction film inspired by the original documentary, I caught up recently with Lee and Shane Stanley. “I had done about a half a dozen television specials about kids in lock-ups,” Lee told me. “It was known as the ‘Desperate Passage’ series. And the newspaper did an article about the football team and my wife Linda said, ‘You’ve got to do this.’ I said, ‘I really don’t want to do any more probing-of-youth stories.’ She said, ‘Just take a look at it.’ I read it and I knew I had to do it.
“At first we had a little bit of resistance from Coach Sean Porter (at Camp Vernon Kilpatrick, a maximum security juvenile detention facility in the Malibu mountains near L.A. with 112 kids) and rightfully so because we were invading his territory. What I mean by that is that we were going into the (prison) facility with cameras. About halfway through the day I realized I wasn’t getting any cooperation. He turned his back whenever the cameras rolled or pulled kids aside. I said, ‘We need to talk. Look, I’m going to make this thing whether I have your cooperation or not, but I understand your vision. I share it and my vision for this project it far exceeds a documentary.’ He said, ‘I believe in what you’re doing.’ And fortunately he said OK. He got it. And he was great. He’s the one that The Rock portrays in the film.”
The Stanleys worked on their documentary in 1990 and ’91, Lee said, “and it aired in ’93. I knew we had a jewel and I couldn’t get anybody interested in it (as a feature film). It got on television and literally every single studio except for one wanted the rights to do it, along with some actors and directors. This is way back in ’93. We went with a studio and were in development — and you know what that’s like. We watched something that we believed in that audiences responded to powerfully, literally drain down to something that frankly I wouldn’t want to be associated with. They just lost the heart and the passion of the piece.
“It went into turnaround. We got it back in four years and nobody wanted to touch it because it had money against it. The studio had just put money into it. And then we — Shane and myself — had people coming down that were really interested. Some (people thought that) maybe it’s really not popular any more. I said, ‘Look, good work stays popular. Good storytelling stays popular. It doesn’t have anything to do with seasons or years. We met with people and if they didn’t capture the vision, frankly we weren’t going to do it. And then we hooked up with some folks a few years later and we thought we had something there and then we met with the decision maker, the head of the company, and he really didn’t have a feeling for the piece. I said, ‘I’m done. I’d rather have it sit on a shelf than be done incorrectly. With the passion and the potential that this piece has I could say that because I knew what ‘Gridiron Gang’ the documentary did when it aired and the effect it had on viewers.”
Looking back at how the project finally got on a feature film track, Lee explained, “My son said, ‘Call Neal Moritz.’ Now Neal was involved initially. I said, ‘Neal, do you want to do ‘Gridiron Gang?’ And he said yes. I hadn’t talked to Neal in years. We met the following day or two days later and his first question was, ‘Who do you see starring?'”
“Neal was involved in ‘Gridiron Gang’ long before his success,” Shane pointed out. “I mean, Neal was (involved) way early. He was one of the guys I called back in ’93 before (his success with pictures like) ‘The Volcano’ or ‘S.W.A.T’ or ‘The Fast and the Furious.’ He was one of the producers that had called that we met with (about the idea of doing the project as a feature). There was something about Neal Moritz that my parents, who were really running with this show at the time, really admired and liked.”
“We had met with studio heads and actors and agents,” Lee noted. “The only thing Neal had done was ‘Juice,’ if you remember his first movie (a 1992 action thriller starring Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur). Neal came out to Agoura, where we lived at the time. He came out looking like a messenger boy, if you know how (casually) Neal dresses. What we responded to in Neal was, number 1, he wasn’t busy telling us how great he was. He literally was so passionate about ‘Gridiron Gang.’ And he got it. He understood it. So we decided to go with Neal. And, of course, Neal’s job was trying to get it with a company that could get it done.”
“We went and met with Neal and he said, ‘Who do you think should be in it?'” Shane continued. “Well, the night before my wife was watching the (cable) biography of The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), which coincidentally was on the night I was preparing for our time with Neal. She said, ‘Honey, get in here. You’ve got to see this.’ I went in there reluctantly. She was crying and watching this show. I watched the last 20 minutes and I got caught up and choked up on it and knew that The Rock had to play the coach.”
When Moritz asked who the Stanleys saw playing the key role of the coach, Shane said, “I said, ‘The Rock. He’s the only guy.’ And Neal said, ‘I’m meeting with him next week on something else. Get me a copy of ‘Gridiron Gang’ on DVD and we’ll take it from there.'”
“Dwayne saw the documentary and said to Neal, ‘I’ve got to do it. I want to do it,'” Lee recalled. “And we met with Dwayne. I’d never met him before and I really wasn’t that familiar with his work. We were going to take him up to the camp — it’s such a euphemism — to the juvenile prison. So we met him at a restaurant in Agoura. When Shane and I got there, needless to say, he was surrounded quickly by the locals. We stood back for a couple minutes (watching). What surprised us first and foremost was that he was on time, number 1. Then after a few minutes I just leaned in because we had to get up to the prison (where they were waiting for them) and said, ‘Excuse me. My name’s Lee Stanley.’ And this guy stood up and extended his hand and said, ‘Mr. Stanley, what an honor to meet you. I laughed, I cheered and I cried through the entire run of your documentary.’
“My first impression of Dwayne was, ‘What a class act!’ and after two years I can say, ‘What a class act!’ We went up to the facility an as we were about to go inside he said, ‘Lee, how should I act with these kids?’ I said, ‘Dwayne, they can tell a phony a mile away. Be yourself.’ And what so captured my knowing that Dwayne was the guy to play this was that we went in there and, of course, he was a movie star to these kids. He spoke to the group of kids. And I will tell you that after two or three minutes they forgot it was Dwayne Johnson, the movie star. All of a sudden, they realized they were talking to someone that, number one, could relate to them and, number 2, that cared about them. And we stayed for two hours. What was so important to me was that this picture honored the documentary.”
At Sony, Lee said, “We met with (production president) Matt Tolmach right away and Ange Giannetti (executive vp, production) and (Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman) Amy Pascal and they were right on board. They said, ‘That’s what we want.’ We walked into Matt’s office and I knew we were home. There was no Hollywood slick talk and all this. It was, ‘We like your documentary. We want to do it.’ And Ange said to me, ‘I still cry when I see it.’
“We all met — Shane and myself and Neal and also writer Jeff Maguire, who had written the script 10 years ago that we loved and, of course, sent through all the rewrites and everything. It became the monster. Jeff was no longer on the project and they brought in a couple other writers. They were all good writers, but they were the wrong writers (for this project). They just didn’t understand it. They were trying to sensationalize it. And with a piece that was as powerful as we believed ‘Gridiron Gang’ was, you don’t need to veer off the track. You don’t need to make it something that it is not.”
When they met, Lee observed, “‘What’s important to me is that we honor the documentary.’ Everybody was on the same page. And then Matt Tolmach looked at me and he said, ‘Lee, I understand that you told Neal that we can film at the actual prison.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I did say that.’ And he said, ‘Good because we had a pay or play with Dwayne and we can’t film it unless we do do it at the actual prison.’ Well, I made a dash for the phone after that because I’d not gotten permission yet! You know, I’ve done so many commercial television specials through probation, but I felt adamant about it, as did Shane, that the picture had to be shot in the facility where we filmed the documentary and where the true story takes place because we wanted our crew and our cast to feel, number 1, that feeling of being locked up and, number 2, having real hardcore kids all around them.
“I met with the then chief probation officer, Paul Higa. I had a 10-page presentation for him. I’d known Paul and Paul is a character in the film because he was the director of the camp when we made our documentary. He was now chief probation officer. I made my presentation. He didn’t say a thing for 10 pages, which makes you nervous. Anyway, when I was all done I said, ‘That’s it, Paul.’ He looked me and said, ‘Lee, I have one question? How will the kids benefit — meaning the inmates?’ And I said, ‘Specifically, this is what we will do. Shane and I will do a film class every Tuesday night and we will teach those kids who want to learn.’ So 25 kids (participated). We maxed out every Tuesday night with the same kids in the film class.”
They wound up doing a 14-week class. “We started before we started filming,” Lee added. “We had department heads come in to teach. Of course, Dwayne came in and Phil Joanou, our director, came in. And then during the daytime I would bring or Shane would bring out the kids and let them go to different departments — the cameraman, the sound man, wardrobe, make-up — so they could have an exchange with the department head and see exactly what they were doing. We also had the privilege (of hiring) a couple of kids who had been locked up in the past. We hired a kid I had helped years ago who had locked up in that facility. He was already in the union and he was a set builder and he worked on the picture.
“We took over the prison — and I mean that. I said to Paul Higa, ‘I need the keys to the kingdom here.’ And he said, ‘You’ll have it.’ The staff knew me because I’d done other projects there and they could not have been more cooperative. Everybody’s fear, of course, was that there would be an escape. Shane and I came up with a detailed plan on how we could bring in 300 crew and cast, how we could make our movie, move prisoners around and not have any incidents. And after six weeks (of filming) we did not have one incident.”
As for the challenges of production, Shane observed, “We did a wise thing. Before we started shooting a foot of film we had the cast and the entire crew down at Sony and we screened the documentary. Everybody got it. All of a sudden, number 1, they knew the story we were telling and, number 2, it really bonded us. It brought us together because they understood what we wanted to do. They experienced the documentary and then when they got to the location they were each given a three- or four-page outline of the requirements as far as their comings and goings (in the facility), no exchange from the inmates, don’t give them anything, don’t take anything and be considerate of the colors that you wear. As you know, these kids kill for colors.
“Most of these kids are active gang members and, as you know, gangs have colors. They’ve got logos. The most notorious gangs in our city are the Crips and Bloods. The Crips are blue. The Bloods are red. What happens is, if you have a guy that’s a Crip that’s in that prison and you have a soundman or somebody working on your production that walks in wearing red, it sends a charge through him that you can’t explain. His friends have died for that color. He’s killed for that color. It’s a respect issue. It’s, ‘We respect you guys enough to understand what you’ve lived and died for and we’re not going to go there. We’re not going to infringe upon it.’ We wore neutral colors. We asked the cast to wear neutral, earth tones, blacks, whites — no reds, no blues and no sports caps because a lot of gangs hide their colors and logos within the sports teams now so they can stay ahead of the cops and the probation officers.”
“We said, ‘It’s all about respect with these kids,'” Lee pointed out. “And what I wanted to teach my cast and crew was we’re going into their house and we don’t want to lose their respect because we need their cooperation. I wasn’t concerned about probation’s cooperation. I knew we had to win the respect of the kids because if we didn’t they could riot, they could make life miserable for us. The other thing with the color issue is that the kids know that we’re not Bloods or Crips, but what happens is that opposing gang members within the camp if we had not honored that color restriction would have provoked their enemy in the camp by pointing out the colors (we were wearing). So the first few days some of the people forgot. I understand that. Wardrobe was standing by with neutral colors for everybody. I’m not going to lie to you. The day we finished shooting at the camp it was amazing how many red and blue shirts came out when we left the facility finally!”
“We were working in a functioning prison with 112 to 121 kids,” Shane added. “We had to move, shepherd, and herd them all the time. These kids have got to be (following a routine of) bed, eating, shower, bathroom, classroom and we used this place and we broke their routine. We interrupted their flow constantly because we had needs as a film. And because of the incredible level of respect that we demanded the crew treated these kids with, as you know, when you do that you get respect back. The kids never complained. They never made a deal out of the fact that they couldn’t sleep in their own beds that night (because) we were having them sleeping in other places. Because of the way we treated the kids, I can assure you that’s why we got back the cooperation we did in moving them around so much.”
“Shane and I went up there a week before and told the kids in assemblies when they were in their dormitories exactly what we were doing,” Lee said, “why we were making the film, what it meant to us and how we needed their support. We fielded questions. They had some pretty good questions. And then when Dwayne and Xzibit came up I brought them into the dorm and introduced them. So, in other words, it wasn’t us against them. But at the same time, my crew knew that could not have any contact with the kids. And it worked.”
The film worked not only thanks to the performances by The Rock as coach Sean Porter and Xzibit as coach Malcolm Moore, Lee pointed out, but also because of director Phil Joanou: “My biggest concern was not The Rock, because he is that coach. He knocked it out of the park. Xzibit did a fantastic job. My initial concern was that we had to find a director that the studio would approve of who could capture it and grab it. And, of course, Neal selected Phil Joanou. We met Phil here and then went up to the facility. And Phil walked in at 5 feet 7 and 120 pounds.
“My first thought was, ‘How is this guy going to wrangle 112 prisoners, a cast, a crew and Dwayne The Rock Johnson let alone me and Shane? How is this guy going to pull this one off?’ By the end of our lunch, I thought, ‘Boy nobody can do it like this guy.’ What was so humbling was when Phil said to me at the end of our lunch, ‘I’ve got one concern.’ He said, ‘My major concern is that I won’t live up to your documentary.’ I can say now that the film is done, Phil did a fantastic job. I’m very proud of him. I don’t think anybody could have done a better job than Phil Joanou.”
Looking back over the 16-year period that it took to go from the documentary film to the feature film, Lee told me, “All these years, we never lost the passion for ‘Gridiron Gang’ as we’ve never lost the passion for other projects that we’ve set our hand to. And the reason is that I knew all the elements were there. I knew that although the piece was ‘a football story,’ it’s not (just) a football story. I know it’s dealing with some of the most violent kids in our nation, but they’re kids. Shane and I and my wife, Linda, never gave up, compromised or said, ‘Let’s just go get it done.’ I can tell you I could not be more pleased.”
“Our hope for the project is that it will instill a passion for people to invest in the kids, care for the kids and if you’re a parent to parent your kids,” Shane added. “That’s what’s most important when you look back and say, ‘Why did you make the film?’ It’s most important to us to instill a passion in people and to (create) hope where there’s very minimal hope and to never give up.”