Netflix has made some dives into sports documentaries and sports documentary series before, including Last Chance U, Losers, Rising Phoenix, and, of course, The Last Dance (which was from a Netflix partnership with ESPN). Their newest effort is a five-part Untold series of sports documentaries, covering the 2004 Pacers-Pistons incident (Untold: Malice at the Palace, out now), boxer Christy Martin’s relationship with trainer Jim Martin (Untold: Deal with the Devil, premiering August 17), Caitlyn Jenner’s Olympic past and decision to transition (Untold: Caitlyn Jenner, premiering August 24), trash kingpin with Mafia ties Jimmy Galante’s time owning a minor-league hockey team (Untold: Crime and Penalties, premiering August 31), and tennis player Mardy Fish’s battles with anxiety and mental health (Untold: Breaking Point, premiering Sept. 7). The series is executive produced by Maclain and Chapman Way (known for Wild Wild Country, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, and more).
The Way brothers directed the last two films in the series (Crime and Penalties, Breaking Point) themselves, but worked with outside directors Floyd Russ , Laura Brownson and Crystal Moselle for the first three. The brothers spoke to AA about the series last week, with Chapman Way saying that it came about thanks to their interest in sports and their experience with Fish’s story in particular.
“We wrapped Wild Wild Country and we were excited about doing something in a different space. Mac and I grew up in an athletic family, we also grew up in a filmmaking family. Our first doc was a baseball documentary about a professional baseball team our grandfather owned (The Battered Bastards of Baseball), so it was a very natural fit for us to combine our love of sports and our love of filmmaking together.”
“And there was one particular story, the fifth film in this series, Mardy Fish, who was kind of the first professional athlete to go on the record about mental health issues. And we have a good friend from our high school that we grew up with, are buddies with, an American professional tennis player named Sam Querrey. And basically, when I was 17, 18, 19, I had spent a lot of time at Sam’s matches and had met Mardy behind the scenes, and I followed his whole struggle with mental health in 2012 and 2015 and always thought it would make such an incredible documentary.”
“Post-Wild Wild Country, we had this idea of doing this one-off sports documentary, and we started fleshing it out, and it soon segued into ‘Man, there’s quite a few of these stories that don’t seem to be super well-remembered,’ or maybe they are well-known but they need recontextualization of some sort. That’s when we got really passionate about doing this as a five-part series.”
Maclain Way said initial conversations with athletes not only helped stretch this into a series, but also gave that series its name.
“We were just so excited by the conversations that we began having with these professional athletes. We talked to hundreds of professional athletes, both as we were looking for stories to tell and then some of them were secondary or supporting characters in our films, and there was just something about this untold nature. That was such a word that kept popping up in our discussions. Even if they felt that they had been covered by sports media, they felt that their story hadn’t been told through their point of view and their lens and their journey.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re doing these puff pieces on these athletes, but we definitely did try to anchor the storytelling through their eyes and experiences. And I think in exchange for that, what we got was pretty raw and uncensored and unfiltered interviews for professional athletes, [a profession] I would say is notoriously difficult to get to open up and talk about struggles that they’ve had. And that was ultimately our criteria; no holds barred, let’s get into it, let’s talk about these stories, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let’s make something that audiences can really enjoy.”
Here’s a trailer for the series:
Chapman Way said they had long enjoyed the work of the other directors they chose here, and they thought those directors each brought something new to the table.
“Floyd, we were big fans of his short doc Zion, which was on Netflix; it was an incredible story, beautifully told, and really cinematic. It fit the bill of what we were looking to do with Untold, which was ‘Let’s elevate the sports genre, let’s heighten it, let’s score it big, let’s edit it at a quick pace, let’s bring our style of storytelling and find filmmakers who can match that, but also bring something new to the table.’ Floyd’s a commercial director, and he has such an incredible eye when it comes to visuals and lighting. He’s also a fearless storyteller, and we just knew he’d be the perfect choice for Malice.”
“Laura Brownson as well is someone that we had met with who has a massive love for sports stories and underdog stories. We had seen her film Rachel Divide and seen how talented she is with more verite-style filmmaking, where she can follow athletes around. The Christy Martin episode, she spent a few days out in West Virginia with a camera and Christy walking and talking. She’s so good at bringing that intimacy to the screen.”
“Crystal Moselle is just a fantastic filmmaker that we’ve been a fan of since The Wolfpack, Skate Kitchen, and Betty, and she has just an incredible knack for sitting in a room with a person and really getting to the heart of their story in a really honest, raw, and visceral way.”
Maclain Way said it wasn’t about finding people who were necessarily already immersed in sports, but rather people who could tell great stories.
“Part of our criteria with filmmakers, and this is Chap and I’s position too, I wouldn’t say we’re sports encyclopedias. We’re mutually a fan of sports, but that wasn’t a criteria to become a big part of the collaboration in making this series. We were just really interested in people that had a real good grounded grasp in storytelling.”
Malice at the Palace, the first Untold documentary to come out, is already drawing a lot of attention. It’s an interesting choice for a documentary, as it’s on an event that still brings up raw emotions for many, including some of the players involved. Maclain Way said it was a good fit for Untold given the availability of some not-previously-seen footage, and given the perspectives Russ’ team was able to get from some of the players involved.
“Early on, we were given access to a bunch of footage that had never before been seen, camera angles that had never been shown before. So right off the bat, that was a very enticing way into the story. And then as [the Malice team] started talking to Jermaine (O’Neal) and Metta World Peace and Stephen (Jackson), it became very clear that they felt that this is a story that is misremembered, that has been misunderstood. They felt that at the time they were muzzled from speaking out and speaking their truth. It was very exciting for us as producers to give them the opportunity, with this never-before-seen footage, to tell the Malice at the Palace story.”
“As well, we filed a FOIA request and were given security camera angles, documents, police reports, access to a whole bunch of stuff that had never really seen the light of day. So with all three of those elements, we felt this could make for a fantastic documentary.”
Here’s a clip from that documentary:
The most unusual subject here may be Crime and Penalties, on Jimmy Galante and his minor-league hockey team. The Netflix description of it has to be read to be believed:
What happens when a trash magnate with mafia ties buys a minor league hockey team and puts his 17-year-old son in charge? A roaring, brawling, bruising, bananas, yet short-lived success, that ultimately gets rocked by the FBI. In 2004, Jimmy Galante created the Trashers, a UHL ice hockey team in Danbury, CT, and installed his The Mighty Ducks-obsessed teen son A.J. as general manager. (If something sounds familiar about Tony and A.J.: Allegedly The Sopranos was based on Galante and his family.) A.J. wanted to create a blend of pro wrestling and The Mighty Ducks — “a combo of my favorite things, heroes and villains.” The result was a team of misfits combining rough play and record-breaking penalty minutes that drew a loud and loyal fanbase, including some celebrities and coverage on ESPN. Then the FBI showed up to put a lid on the Trashers and Jimmy Galante.
Chapman Way said the Crime and Penalties material felt impossible to make up.
“It’s one of those stories that if you brought it up in a writers’ room, you’d probably get thrown out of the room. It’s that strange and wild.”
Maclain Way said he and Chapman had previously heard a small bit about this story, but they felt it deserved much more coverage.
“This was just a story that we had known a little bit about. When it happened, it had been covered in sports media. But again, it was one of those things where you could read the printed word, but we just felt that bringing it onto screen would give it such a wonderful energy. Honestly, we were sold from the very first conversation we had with AJ and Jimmy Galante. They were hilarious, they were funny. They could talk about things in their lives that were difficult, such as Jimmy going to prison for almost ten years, but they’re the type of people that could tell it and make you laugh.”
Maclain Way said that comedic sensibility makes Crime and Penalties much different from the other films in this series, and from the Ways’ previous work.
“Tonally, it’s very different from the other ones. It’s probably the most comical documentary we’ve ever made. But really, it just started with the buy-in from these professional players and the Galante family, and we just knew that we had to sink our teeth into it and bring it to a wide audience.”
On a more serious note, the Breaking Point story on Fish came with some surprises for Maclain Way, as even while he knew some of Fish’s story thanks to his connection through Querrie, he didn’t know the details of how bad Fish’s battles with anxiety had gotten.
“One of the components that really surprised me wasn’t covered too much in the media at the time, because Mardy wasn’t at that point fully 100 percent forthcoming with what he was struggling with. There were months on end where he couldn’t even leave his house. Talking to his wife and talking to his family about how he was holed up inside his home, and suffering from panic attacks, he said he felt like he was dying. These were happening every five to 10 minutes. Some days, he couldn’t even get out of bed. He talked to the media about his struggles with anxiety disorder, but hearing him be really 100 percent open and honest with how bad that struggle was gave us very interesting insight into his story as filmmakers.”
While work on Breaking Point and this series as a whole has been underway for a long time, that documentary subject seems extremely relevant now following the increase in conversations about athletes’ mental health surrounding Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and others. And Maclain Way said he and Chapman are optimistic their documentary on Fish will resonate with people interested in that conversation.
“We 100 percent hope so. In the Mardy Fish episode, we really dive into the pseudoscience behind some sports psychology and mental toughness and all these things that athletes are taught as children on how to conduct themselves. We are seeing it come to fruition with athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles.”
“I think it’s the right time; these athletes are finally feeling comfortable in coming forward and being honest with the issues that they struggle with. Millions of Americans struggle with mental health issues and anxiety issues, and hearing that people at the top end of their craft and their profession struggle with these same things is something that I think is, I don’t know if comforting is the right word, but I think it’s something that helps us all feel a little bit less lonely and less isolated with our issues.”
As for the biggest surprises found while making this series, Chapman Way said Martin’s story particularly stood out for him.
“The most surprising thing in making the series for me was the Christy Martin story. It was the one I actually knew absolutely zero about it going into it. And spending time with her and getting to really learn her incredible life journey and the grit and the resilience and the battle in her, that was the most pleasant and biggest surprise for me making this series.”
Maclain Way said his biggest surprise was realizing how different each of these documentaries was.
“One of the most surprising things was that I assumed there was going to be a little bit of a formula here to follow, but all of these stories were so diverse in their storytelling, in the stories that they actually were, that they each just became their own feature-length documentary films.”
He said while they were somewhat anticipating it, it was also a bit surprising to see just how much work went into producing five documentaries that would be released over the span of five weeks.
“There’s just an element of making five sports films. We knew it would be a gargantuan task, and it was. We had a blast making it. It was one of the most fun things I think we’ve ever professionally worked on. But I think we maybe almost underestimated that these things don’t cut themselves, and they don’t score themselves, and they don’t edit themselves, and they don’t make themselves. We had such amazing collaborators from our directors to our editors to our producers to Netflix as creative partner.
As for that weekly release, it’s a change for the Ways, as the six-part Wild Wild Country (also on Netflix) came out all at once. But Maclain Way said he’s optimistic it will work well, with the early installments inspiring viewers to check out future ones when they come out.
“We’re super excited about the weekly release. It’s a little different than what we did on Wild Wild Country, which was the all-at-once binge model, which we love too. But this is different for us as well. Hopefully audiences will look forward to these and come back week after week. We’re really proud of all five of these as a whole.”
And Chapman Way said he’s optimistic that these five documentaries will be just the beginning for Untold.
“Our hope is that this is Vol. 1, that we can do a Vol. 2, 3, 4, 5. We would love to continue the series for years to come and have it be a home for sports fans and non-sports fans alike who really want thrilling and exciting storytelling.”
[Photo from The Envoy Web]