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Documentary filmmaker Greg Whiteley happened to walk by a TV display in Costco when he saw his alma mater, Brigham Young University, win the national cheerleading championship. Intrigued, he approached BYU about making a documentary about the squad. They weren’t interested, so he shelved the idea.
Years later, the idea came back to Whiteley when he was filming the Netflix football docuseries Last Chance U. Finding his way into a cheerleading practice, Whitley was floored by what he saw. “They seemed to be taking practice even more seriously than the football team,” he says. “It just never occurred to me that cheerleaders had a role outside of being on the sideline of a basketball or a football game.” That’s when he decided to make the Netflix six-part docuseries Cheer, about the little-known but wildly impressive Navarro College cheer team.
You could have filmed a lot of cheerleading teams. Why Navarro?
If you just do a Google search of top college cheerleading teams, Navarro is going to be one of the first hits you’ll get. And what was interesting about that is there were some name-brand schools like Texas Tech or Kentucky that showed up in the search — but the fact that I had never heard of this school in a rural part of Texas, and yet it’s considered to be one of the top teams in the world, just piqued our interest.
What surprised you most during filming?
How anonymous the cheerleaders were, even in their own small hometown. Corsicana, Texas, is an incredibly charming town that has the world’s greatest college cheerleading team, and yet nobody seemed to know. That and the number of injuries were the things that startled me the most.
Those injuries startled a lot of viewers, too. Having observed a lot of these injuries, how do you feel about that?
It was an unusual number of injuries, even for that team. But like Monica [Aldama, the school’s director of cheerleading] says, in order for them to be successful at Daytona, it’s necessary to devise a routine that presses the boundaries. As I talked to every single cheerleader about this issue, many of them have been doing it since they were 8 or 9 years old, so they are well aware of the risks. And my sense is that if Monica were to dumb down the routine in an effort to make it safer, the vast majority of cheerleaders who I talked to would simply go someplace else. I get nervous when I see young people getting hurt, but they weren’t doing it naively. They knew exactly the risks and they were happy to take them.
You didn’t feel that any of the cheerleaders themselves were concerned about their safety?
I never witnessed a single cheerleader expressing a concern. Now, that may be just the culture of the sport, where you’ve got a coach as dynamic and as accomplished as Monica, and maybe you do place a lot of trust in her. Where Monica sets herself apart is that she is such a stickler for detail — and this I think also goes to the issue of safety. She really drills and drills and drills so that the routine is polished in such a way that the routine itself is safer.
How did you decide which cheerleaders you were going to focus on?
Something I learned making Last Chance U is that if you show up on a college campus and turn on a camera, you’re going to have about 150 volunteers to be main subjects in your documentary. I observed the first practice, and there were a handful of people that jumped out at me in a similar way that those handful of people would jump out at me when I was making Last Chance. And I’ve just learned to trust those instincts.
Reports have circulated that you were in the middle of filming a second season but had to stop because of the pandemic. What’s the status of the series?
We’re still trying to figure that out. We were, of course, exploring the possibility of doing a second season — but the coronavirus, for obvious reasons, complicated all that. I would love to keep filming those people. But I don’t really have any good answers at this point.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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