17 Mar Interview with David Zelon
Join me as I speak with David Zelon, producer and writer of the 2014 release “When the Game Stands Tall”.
David Zelon is a producer and actor, known for Never Back Down (2008), Into the Blue(2005), Soul Surfer (2011) and When the Game Stands Tall (2014).
EASLEY: Coach Bob De La Salle has won three hundred and ninety-nine career football games in his time at De La Salle high school in California. He is known for his one hundred fifty one game winning streak. When The Game Stands Tall released in August 2014. We had the privilege of sitting down with producer, David Zelon, to talk about the making of the film. So glad to have David Zelon on the phone today.
David, thanks for joining us on inContext.
ZELON: Thanks for having me on the show, Michael. I appreciate it.
E: Let’s start with this incredible story. We’ve got a three hundred and ninety nine career game win over thirty four years. Then we have what’s known as one hundred and fifty one- The Streak. I love that.
Z: Streak. One hundred and fifty one straight games. Twelve seasons in a row undefeated.
E: So we’ve got Bob Ladouceur.He’s twenty five years old when he’s hired by De La Salle?
Z: He’s hired as a teacher, a religion teacher. The B side of the job was head football coach.
E: Isn’t that funny? See, typically you’re hired as the coach and teach history, right?
Z: Exactly, what drive is that?
E: Neil Hayes writes the story; that’s quite a journey; a year of following these guys around, and then he writes a book.
Z: Neil was a writer. He was a writer up in the area and they were writing about them so they were constantly across the news and he was intrigued by what was going on there. He saw that there was a phenomenon happening and Coach Lad knew him. A couple times he said, “I want to write a book of what you’re doing up here.” Lad said, “On one condition only. You’ve got to spend an entire year with us. You can’t drop in and out. If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to have a full experience, 6 am in the morning; all year long, twelve months, then you can write about us.” Then Neil said, “Ok, I’m going to do that.”
The book came out, which was a fantastic account not only of that year, but of the whole program, and the history of it, and how Lad got involved and how Coach Terry Eidson who’ve been with Lad thirty two of the thirty four years; how he got involved and how they developed the techniques, the teaching techniques that took kids and allowed them to reach a higher level, a much greater result than any other coaches in the country. I think that’s what’s really the critical point here, Michael. We have to look at this as a teaching evaluation.
E: Well he was a different guy, Coach Lad. I watched a forty one minute interview with him and the guy was striking as an educator.
Z: That’s his thing; he doesn’t call himself a coach; he calls himself a teacher. Let me ask you a question. Imagine there was a classroom in this country and their SAT scores were twenty five-thirty percent higher than any other classroom in the country and it’s been that way for twenty years. Wouldn’t you say, “What’s going on in that classroom?” “How is that teacher teaching, to get such an amazing result?” That’s what this movie is; this movie is an exploration into the techniques that he used to get kids to reach a higher level. But you know what the interesting thing is, what it comes down to is? All this stuff, all this coaching, all this and he says it in the book, and he says it to you when he talks about it, his secret weapon was love.
E: Yeah, he loved those kids!
Z: He got them to love each other on an emotional level, much more deeply than any other team in the country and that’s what turned the tide. Yes, they were good coaches; yes, they trained hard, but you know what? There’s a lot of schools around the country with good coaches that train hard and a lot of schools that have more talent, raw talent. You talk about a school with eleven hundred kids.
You know, when they went down and played Poly, which was a big school in Southern California, five thousand kids at Polytech high school and he gets his kids to beat other teams, purely because their emotional connection with each other is so strong that when it comes time on the field to really show their grit; they can do it greater than any other team and have done it that way for twenty five years. When it happens for that long in a row, you can’t deny it; you can’t call it a single phenomenon.
E: It’s not a fluke. How were you first introduced to the book and the story, and what got you interested in turning it to film?
Z: My son was a junior and was playing high school football at Santa Monica High School. He was one of the best players on the team. He was a blue chip athlete; I was a blue chip Dad. Man, I was so into the high school football and I was a strength and conditioning coach for the team as well, because it was a innercity school, and they didn’t have a coach. I was cleaning up the equipment room one day and I found the book.
E: Get out.
Z: I swear. I sat down on some smelly old shoulder pads and I’m always looking for movies. You know, I’m a movie producer, and I read about the first thirty pages and I was like, “Oh man, what is this?” I knew right away there was a special story here.
E: How long ago had Neil written the book before you found it?
Z: He wrote the original book around 2001 and he wrote two years later an epilogue to it. What happened was, the first book I read was a hardcover went to a hundred twenty five games in a streak and it ended in 2001. That was when that book was published. The Streak went on to one hundred and fifty one, but when I read the book even though I saw some great things there, what I couldn’t find was the narrative. It was the story about a team that always wins and never loses. Then I met Neil and he said, “No, read the softcover, there’s a thirty page epilogue. In the epilogue is the entire movie.
E: What year did you read it?
Z: I read it in the spring of 2009.
E: Ok, 2009.
Z: Now, I hadn’t heard the story, but after I got involved with the book, the first thing I did was I went into my son’s high school football coach, and I said, “Hey, have you ever heard of this book?” He took it out of his briefcase. He had a copy in his briefcase that he carried with him.
E: Perfect (laughter)
Z: Then I went to the Athletic Director, and I said, “Norm, have you ever heard of this book?” He had a copy on his book shelf in his office.
Z: Yeah, crazy story man.
E: So how hard was it to pitch?
Z: The first year I didn’t get any traction at all, because I didn’t realize what I really had. Then by chance I produced Soul Surfer in 2010 and then once I did Soul Surfer I had a much better understanding of how to frame the story, in order to get a studio and to be able to make the movie. The success of Soul Surfer also helped because I could say, “Hey, I know the genre. I just did an inspirational sports movie called Soul Surfer, Hey let’s do this football movie.” Everybody agreed that it was a good idea.
E: David, as a producer from a book to a screenplay of course is a whole set of magic. As a producer you know the end of the story, and the people….and the trailer is the end of the story. How do you refrain that to say, “I’ve got a great story here and I’ve got to tell it in such a way, that yes, we know we win in the end.” Take us through that process.
Z: Well, ultimately it has to be greater than…like the program is greater than winning in the end. Because winning in the end is not enough for the story. What has to happen is, there has to be an emotional transition that an arc of a character is so great that it makes such an impression on you as the viewer. You know all great movies are about the arc of a character. Where does one start with and where does one end up? For this, it’s really the team; what happens to this team? I think ultimately at the end of the story, we don’t lose. It was about this coach and his players. Would they follow him? Listen to him? Do everything he said to pick themselves up from the ashes of losing The Streak and all the things that happened in the movie? In that, comes the teaching; life is greater than a football game. Get great at life and winning football games will be easy. That’s what he said to them, “Be great in life and winning football games will be easy.”
One of the opening lines of the movie really sums up a lot of the movie. He’s being interviewed and the guy asked him about The Streak and he said, “ No, no, no, you don’t understand. Winning a lot of high school football games is doable. Teaching kids there’s more to life, that’s hard.”
E: Dave Ramsey, the financial guru on broadcast always talks about a twenty year overnight success. You work like a dog for twenty years and then all of a sudden, “Hey, you’re successful.”
Z: Here’s what’s interesting. He took over the program in ‘79 and The Streak went to 2000 and ended at the beginning of 2004 season, so it was 1992-2004. In there, when he took over this team, he got so good, so quickly that teams didn’t want to play him anymore. That’s when the program really took off. Most high school football teams play the same ten or twelve teams every year. They’re in the same area with each other. Well, when half of those teams said, “We don’t want to play you anymore.” Bob said, “Ok, I understand that. Let us just have enough games so we can win our play offs and go into the play off system. The other games we’ll just book who we want to book.” They said, “Fine.” What he did was, he and Terry, they went out and booked games against teams in other states that were great teams. When he knew there was a great team in Maryland; when he knew there was a great team in Texas; or Florida, they’d call up and book games against them. So for the second half of The Streak, this was a team that was playing against the best teams in the system, half the season. It wasn’t like they had one or two tough games; they were playing against state champions two or three times a year of other states and beating everybody, beating everybody. Mater Dei which is one of the biggest best, most solid football programs in Southern California, huge great program, four years in a row, De La Salle beat them. Hands down easy, was never even a contest.
But going back again, how does it happen? How do you do that? Year after year? High school football is especially hard because you only have one or two really good players on the team, maybe three. Then all of a sudden next year, you’ve only got one, so your team really suffers from it. He never had that problem. He coached kids up to a level that was incredible. I asked him, the very first time I ever met him, I said, “ What could come out of this movie? If you could say anything about this movie, what message would you want it to say?” He said, “I would want kids to know that they are capable of so much more than they think they are.” That’s where he got his kids. He got them to a level that was much greater than they could of ever got to on their own. So then you have to say, “Well how did he get them to that level?” And it’s these commitment cards that he makes them fill out every week. You know that whole thing?
E: Every week? I didn’t know it was every week.
Z: Every Monday, when they start the new week during season, each kid fills out a card. It has three goals on it, Mike: my workout goal for the week, my practice goal, and my game goal. After Monday’s practice, every kid on the team stands up and reads his cards to the team and he says, “I commit that my workout goal, I’ll be able to do five hundred push ups every day after work.” He reads all of his goals and then when he reads his goals, he gives the card to another kid on the team and he says, “I’ll commit to you,” and the kids says, “I’ll make sure you do your goals.”
Z: Accountability. Exactly. Saturday, after Friday nights game, they get up and read cards. “Now you get up and you read my card.” And you said, “I have David’s card, and he committed to five hundred pushups every day after work. I watched him do it. He committed to not dropping any passes; in practice he only dropped one, but everything else he was perfect.” Then the game he committed to catching eight balls for two touchdowns and then the coaches comment, on whether or not he lived up to his game goal. Every week, week in and week out, whether or not you play or not, those are your goals and everyone is accountable to everybody else.
E: Let’s talk a little bit about faith based movies in the industry. You’ve tackled two projects that were patently faith based, right? What’s the part of David Zelon that attracts them to those stories?
Z: Good question. I think it’s pure and it’s direct and it’s unimpeded. I think that those stories have a lot of emotional content to them and I didn’t pick these stories because they were faith based; I picked them because I like the stories and they just happen to have faith in them. You know when I picked up the football book, I didn’t say, “Oh, this is a faith based story.” I didn’t realize how faith based actually, until I had done Soul Surfer. I said, “You know what? This guy doesn’t preach to these kids, but he teaches religion and he lives a faithful life.” In a sense, he walks the talk so when he says, “Hey, be humble and don’t go out there and exalt yourself and be like “Oh, I’m Mr. Star Football Player.” He doesn’t do that as a coach and clearly he could do that greater than any coach in the country. He’s humble and he lives his life that way and the kids, therefore copy that behaviour. I think some stories are really faith driven stories, Courageous, and Fireproof, and movies like that, Heaven is For Real. They are driven purely by the faith component. I think in the movies that I did, there was a balance and faith was one of the components that made it an interesting story, but it wasn’t about faith.I think that if faith is going to work in a movie, it has to be organic to the story, you can’t make it up. That audience won’t accept that, so it’s hard to find great stories that are inspiring, that have great visuals, and also have an organic faith component to them. So I was lucky enough to find two.
E: And they’re incredibly family friendly.
Z: Well, specifically, we made it PG, because we wanted families to go to them. We wanted families to talk about this because ultimately Bob is coaching sixty teenage boys, but the vices and mechanisms to get these great results are easily applied in a family situation. If you said, “Ok, I want my family to operate on a much higher level than they are right now and be closer emotionally and be closer in everything that we do, and really be more involved with each other and you’d be committed to this cause each week.” You know what? You would have a close family.
Then the Thursday night meetings.
E: Tell us about them.
Z: At the end of these meetings, they go through all of their football checklist after Thursday night practice; next day is Friday’s game. After all the checklists and everythings done, Coach Lad says, “Ok, anybody who wants to speak now, can speak.” All the coaches go to the back of the room; it takes a minute or two and all of a sudden one at a time, these sixteen, seventeen, eighteen year olds stand up and they start talking; not about football, but how much they love each other; and how each other-their relationships have helped their lives, and helped their families lives; and how being on the team has changed them. One at a time, they just stand up and they pour their hearts out. One kid said, “My grandfather is dying of cancer. You all know that. He can’t come to practice anymore, he can’t even come to games, but everyday when I get home from practice, he’s waiting for me to say, “How did practice go? You guys going to win the championship?” He said, “You guys, the progress that we’ve made as a team, is what’s keeping him alive and I can’t ever thank you for that.” The next kid stands up and says, “I’m playing tomorrow nights game for your grandfather.” Come on! Come on!
How do you beat that team? It’s impossible. You know how come I know it’s impossible? Because they didn’t. Because nobody could.
E: We’re talking to Dave Zelon, the producer of When The Game Stands Tall. It’s out now. It will be available on DVD very soon as well.
David, you work with Jim Caviezel, tell us a little bit about translating Coach Lad to Jim Caviezel.
Z: You know it was actually a very easy jump for Jim, I think. We didn’t know it at the time but Jim’s dad had played for John Wooden.
Z: Jim had been around an iconic coach. He understood the thinking of an iconic coach. Coach Lad and Coach Wooden are very similar in all their approaches on how to coach and teach. Jim is also a little introvert and quiet and Lad is a little introvert and quiet, and Jim is a very athletic guy. He was a big time basketball player, big basketball fan, big basketball family. So between the sports and the faith component and how he related to Coach Lad on that level, and how he related to Coach Lad on the level of an iconic coach, it was a perfect fit. We couldn’t have got a better actor for it.
E: What was David’s Zelon take away from this film? You’ve got obviously passionate energy around the story and the film. Sounds like a phenomenal product. When you went home and you did your final edits, and you said, “That was it?”
Z: I think and first and foremost, I would probably say, “Relief on some level, and here’s why.”
When you make a story about somebody’s life who’s still alive, there’s an enormous responsibility there. Don’t forget movies are unique. Rudy was made twenty two years ago, yet we still see it playing all the time, so you got to tell a story that the guy who’s alive approves us, and is happy with. So you never just see a final cut, it’s such a long process, but after we saw a cut, we really understood what this movie was, I thought “Yeah, this message is clear and Coach Lad is going to be happy with the movie.” We sent it to him and he was. He called back and said, “You got it right. Good job.” So on that level I think I was very happy and on the last and most important level, I think that what we set out to do which was, change the way kids approach playing football and change the way coaches coach football, we will be successful with. That’s a big deal, you know when you can use a movie with a positive edge, so I think coaches will watch this movie and coach differently. I think they will go out and read the book and watch the documentaries and study Lad’s techniques and apply them to their own teams and make them better.
I said that to Caviezel the first time I met him. He has three young children. I said, “Jim, my kids are grown. I’ve been through it all, Peewee Baseball, Little League Soccer, every little kids sport you going to go to, basketball, and all your kids are going to be coached by people that may be good coaches or may not. But if you make this movie, coaches across the country will see it and they’ll be better coaches because of it, and maybe, just maybe, one of those coaches will coach your kids.
E: You know maybe the analogy of a coach and an educator, I mean we could go back to Hoosiers, there’s so many movies that we love to watch. You mention Rudy. We love to watch them again, again, and again. What is it about that from a storyteller, as well as real life story telling, David, that’s so compelling, that’s so equalizing?
Z: I think we’re all obsessed with superheroes, you know and on some level, they are all superheroes. There’s somebody who’s come back from something devastating to do something great. You never make stories about people who do something great and are famous immediately. It’s just not interesting. You make stories about people who have struggled, who have overcome obstacle after obstacle, and then accomplished something great. That is an emotional ride that we all like to take. Movies are about emotions, about making people laugh, and making people cry. The more you can do of either, the better the movie, and so that’s what we aim for as filmmakers. It’s hard to find stories that do that. Melodrama doesn’t do that; real drama does that. So when you get one, you hold on and you make it as great as you can. I think we all like watching those stories because we identify, you know. We all have struggles; everybody has struggles in their life. Other people can struggle and overcome and do something great. It gives us all hope and hope is a good thing.
E: You mentioned the character arc earlier on and just what you articulated that really is the character arc, right? Because we have this opportunity for success that precludes the character and then he or she is hit by this obstacle that it’s impossible to overcome and then a mentor or friend or someone comes along and encourages them down the road and that is our life isn’t it? What’s the difference between the person that can’t go beyond that hump and say, “Hey, I can go back and surf. I can go back and play again.” It’s not just about this goal of winning or getting back in the water.
Z: Exactly, I mean, I think one of my favorite sequences that appears in both films is when Bethany on one hand goes to Thailand after the tsunami and the De La Salle Team goes to the Veterans hospital after their second loss and they see people in much worse shape than them. They see people who are struggling for survival; they see people who have really lost enormous amounts of their life; and their life is put into better perspective and they’ve learned something and from that. It propels them forward to overcome the last few obstacles and reach greatness.
E: What part of the film is your favorite? I know that’s hard to answer, but if you had to pick a favorite scene?
Z: It’s not even a scene. I’m going to give you two. The first one isn’t even a scene that we shot. It’s at the very beginning of the movie, there’s a quick little set up. You hear Coach Ladd do a little speech and then we go to real footage of the De La Salle players. We had gotten it from the local television station up there of the De La Salle players walking on the field at the beginning of the game. It’s old footage, probably ten, eleven years old shown on film; it’s a little bit rickety looking, but there’s a certain confidence and knowing this in their eyes, in their posture, in the way that they carry themselves. But they’re not celebrating; they’re not jumping around and acting silly; they’re just walking on the field. And it’s real, and it’s palpable and you can feel it, and you understand exactly who they are. That scene always gets me like, “Wow look at the level these guys got up to.”
My second favorite scene, well…my favorite shot is at the end of the movie. When Chris, our star player is going for the record, has to make a choice between you know, doing the right thing or doing something individual for himself. He makes an enormous self sacrifice. That was also inspired by something real that happened to the team. You know, they sacrificed at the end of the game. So I thought we captured that moment really well. It was the final result. The final culmination of the whole movie in one moment. Movies are made up of lots of moments. You won’t remember a whole movie, but you’ll remember great moments. I think when Chris makes this piece of self sacrifice at the very end of the movie, that moment is pure and it’s attentioned well and it’s what we wanted the movie to boil down too. I think that’s my favorite moment.
E: David, everything you said is counter how we look at professional sports today. Yes, of course it is. That’s why Coach Lad never moved it up to a different level. Because Coach Lad is not about winning. Coach Lad is about teaching boys to become young men. Collegiate Football is about winning and professional football is about winning. That’s why Coach Lad never left high school football because he didn’t care that much about winning and that’s why he stopped coaching at three hundred ninety nine victories instead of going to four hundred. You have got to walk the talk baby, or else nobody’s going to follow.
E: We’ve been talking to David Zelon, producer of When The Game Stands Tall. Thank you for your time sir.
Z: Alright man. Thank you for interviewing. Thank you having me on the show.
E: As you heard David Zelon talk about Coach Lad, as they refer to him, it’s the story of Coach Lad, of his values, of what he was committed to, how he taught them, and when we look at the Christian life, isn’t it based on what we believe? Isn’t it based on your commitment to Christ? Isn’t it based on my commitment to Christ? Our accountability to be the kind of people that we want to be? To be the kind of dads, moms, women, men, young adults? To be the kind of person Christ wants us to be. Never underestimate the way He will use you as you’re committed to the good things, the right things to follow Him. You will never waste time following Christ, no matter how hard the decision may seem at the time. You will always do well to follow Him, to obey His Word, to worship and honor Him, to make it more about Christ and less about yourself. In a culture, in a world that worships self, that worships free agency we might say, all about me, to follow Jesus Christ is to serve a King and a Saviour, a greater a greater cause, a greater Kingdom, than just our wants, and our needs. This is Michael Easley inContext.