THE GAME OF THEIR LIVES
interview with author Geoffrey Douglas
THE GAME OF THEIR LIVES
Recently, my wife and I had dinner with our good friends Geoffrey Douglas and Landon Hall. Geoffrey teaches English at UMass and is a freelance writer. He's had three books published, one of which, The Game of Their Lives, has been optioned and re-optioned for years as a motion picture project. He's become a veteran of the maze-like experience most "players" find when they deal in our elusive industry. At the time of our dinner, he was feeling hopeful about his project going to film but was also extremely cautious in his optimism because he had been down this road many times before. As it turns out, this story has a very happy ending! He's one of the lucky ones and, we who strive to succeed against great odds, need to hear these kinds of gratifying stories once in a while.
The Game of Their Lives is the story of an improbable victory, an almost miraculous victory in fact, of eleven young American immigrant men, truck drivers, grave diggers, postal workers--Haitians, Yugoslavians, Italians, and Irish, (about half the team was based in St Louis) who were thrown together in 1950 to form the U.S. World Cup soccer team who then went down to Brazil and beat England in the World Cup which, which at the time and maybe still today, was the most extraordinary upset in the history of American sports. A true story of overcoming the impossible.
HSC: You found out about this story from an article in the paper?
GD: Yes, it was '94, and in '94 the World Cup was venued in the U.S., and one of the host stadiums was Foxboro in Boston, and at that time I was living right outside of Boston. I read the Globe on a Sunday, right before the first game, and of course they always do these retrospectives. And there was this story about the last time the U.S. kicked any ass in the World Cup, and it was this incredible story about these 11 unlikely guys, and I read it and I thought it would be a terrific book. The names of the players were listed in the story and five of them were still alive, and I called information and I reached one of them and I talked to him on the phone. And that did it, I mean that really did it for me. I started writing the proposal that day.
HSC: Now how did the movie option happen?
GD: It was initially optioned by an independent producer by the name of Peter Newman, who now runs Peter Newman Productions in New York. The book came out in February or March of '96 and it was optioned in November. He paid $5,000 a year. He was very hopeful that he could make a movie out of it, and we went through several incarnations in this pursuit. He had at least two different teams of screenwriters/directors. One was a British team, the other was American. But he couldn't raise the money to make the movie, but he wouldn't give up, and I got my $5,000 check every year for six years. And then a year and a half ago he sold his option to Crusader Entertainment. The company is owned by a guy named Philip Anschutz, who is one of the richest men in the U.S.
HSC: Tell us about the process of torment and the doubt you experienced leading up to your victory.
GD: Well, there wasn't much doubt really. After about two or three years I just STOPPED thinking it was ever going to be a movie and just thought it was nice to get a check every November. I mean, I never expected it to happen. After all, Peter had been so ecstatically optimistic in the beginning when he first contacted me. And I'd gone out to St. Louis and met with guys from the the first screenwriter/director team. And also the players (of the five men who were still alive, four of them had also met the team. These guys still live in St. Louis). So there was this huge fanfare and show of optimism, and then the screenplay was written (which I didn't like very much, but then again I think maybe that's because I don't know how to read screenplays). But Peter just couldn't get the money to make the movie. So I began to lose hope. And then he got a new team which included Wayne Wang, who's made number of movies in Hollywood. But that screenplay didn't trigger the needed funds either.
HSC: Were you involved at all with these teams?
GD: No I wasn't at all.
HSC: But they did call you?
GD: They did call me occasionally for factual backup.
HSC: And did they meet with the players?
GD: The first team did. The second didn't. But Peter Newman was, in both cases, just over-the-top ecstatic about how we were going to do this, and unfortunately it just didn't happen. The first team probably went until '98, and then he re-upped the whole thing with the second group, and that crashed in about 2000. They had about four or five different schemes to raise the money. They were going to get the money from Paramount, they were going to get the money from MGM, etc.
HSC: Did he (Newman) finance the scripts himself?
GD: Yes he did. He's an independent producer, he doesn't have a lot of money, and I think this must have cost him several hundred thousand dollars. He told me several times that never in his life had he been so in the hole for a movie. I mean, he really believed in the film. Anyway, he finally sold his option to Denver-based Crusader, as I mentioned earlier. Philip Anschutz also owns most of Major League Soccer, I think five of the ten teams. And they're losing a lot of money every year. So what he had decided to do was to generate a screenplay written from a story about soccer that would energize America about this game.
So his producer, the guy who runs Crusader for him, approached Peter, and he sold the option to Crusader, and I think that was in the spring of 2002 or winter of 2001. And at that point I was still just very happy if I could get my check every year from Peter. Never expected the movie to happen, I hardly ever thought about it. And Peter called me up and told me it was going to happen and I still wasn't very hopeful because it was the third incarnation now, but from that time on, things really began to happen.
After much back-and-forthing, Crusader hired this team of Angelo Pizzo and David Anspaugh, who are the writer and director for Hoosiers. And they proceeded to write a screenplay which bore very little resemblance to either of the first two screenplays, and by the way, there wasn't much resemblance to my book either, but that's okay.
HSC: There are very few people who can say that they've had the experience of creating something that people spend millions of dollars to produce and which will be seen all over the world. So this is miraculous, and must have been a tremendously fulfilling experience for you. So my question is, you've been through the game of "Hey Baby, it's gonna happen," but it doesn't. Then all of a sudden you begin to get into the fast lane with this thing. What was it like and what happened?
GD: I was seriously broke. I had borrowed money from family, I hadn't been able to sell a fourth book. Then I got the call from Peter. He was again, as is his way, wildly enthusiastic about this, only this time there was something different. He kept telling me, "you don't understand, we don't need the money, the money is already there. The only thing that stops a movie production is money and this guy's got it. He's going to make your movie." And, SLOWLY, I began to believe him. And, whereas I usually only talked to him once every few months, I started talking with him every few weeks. He called me up with an update when they had just signed the Hoosiers people, which was big news. And then there were beginnings of press stories about it--there was a little story in USA Today. The screenplay was written, and things began to look real when in September, 2002, they announced tryouts in six different cities for extras and for the main cast. There were tryouts in all the cities in which Philip Anschutz owns teams, because they used his stadiums.
Their criteria was that you had to be able to play soccer at an advanced collegiate level to even be considered for the film, and they would consider acting skills after that. And that's why the cast is what it is, because most of the actors including Gerry Butler (from Tomb Raiders) played soccer in college. Wes Bentley of American Beauty might have been the exception.
HSC: So you began to get the scent that this was the real deal.
GD: Yeah, these guys were really serious. But I still wouldn't let myself believe it. I had believed it too many times, and there was too much money involved, and it was too big a deal for my career, and I really just didn't want to believe it because I didn't want to be disappointed again. So I tried not to, and when anybody asked me how the movie project was going I would say, "well, they're doing tryouts but this whole thing will probably go south tomorrow. There will be a catastrophe, there will be a depression, there will be another terrorist attack; it's not going to happen."
And then over the course of the winter they signed the players they had to sign and I kept getting calls from Peter that "it was getting closer." There were a few setbacks, some budget problems, but over the course of it all the thing was moving forward. If I would check my name or the film's name on the Internet there would always be more stuff, and I began to believe it. I got pretty excited, and by this spring I was allowing myself to tell friends, "you know, I think my last book might be a movie pretty soon." And as I was saying it I was thinking "oh no Geoffrey, don't go there." Because on a bad day I would think it could just crash, but, at the same time, it really began to be more concrete. I got a call from Peter mid-to-late spring this year that they had got the budget approved and they were going to start filming in June. So now we were a month away and I was really believing it now.
My first concern was the money, because there was a lot of money involved, and my second concern is now the effect on my career. But I really wanted to get the money because it would make a difference in my life.
But then the roof caved in again. Basically what happened was that there were some seemingly irreconcilable budget disagreements, and Anspaugh and Pizzo walked off. And at that point I thought there was no movie. I felt devastated.
Just as it seemed the most hopeless, Peter called me and told me that there was a reconciliation and Anspaugh and Pizzo were back. He told me they'd opened an office in St. Louis, hired a personnel director, a lawyer, an accountant, and even started a payroll.
They were supposed to start principal photography on the 16th of June, and by the time this whole walkout thing had worked itself out it was already the 6th. At this point I'm going nuts. I couldn't work, I couldn't think about anything else. Is something going to happen? Is there going to be a terrorist attack? Is Philip Anschutz going to have a heart attack? I mean, something is going to happen to screw this up, and I was frantic. I had gone from trying not to think about it, with quite a lot of success actually, and in the space of three months I was thinking about nothing else!
The days ticked down until finally it was the 16th of June, and lo and behold, they started to shoot the movie. But I hadn't received a check yet. Payment was supposed to occur upon the start of principal photography. I call Peter and he calls them, and there was a holdup, they needed a W-4 from me, which I had already sent them.
We're two days into the movie, three days in, still no check. I was in Canada with my girlfriend, driving up the beautiful coast of Nova Scotia and stopping at pay phones because her cell phone wouldn't work, I don't have one. I'm stopping at pay phones in little restaurants on the side of the road, calling my agent saying, "did you get the check yet, did you get the check yet?" Crusader would say that they're cutting the check the next day, then the next day there would be no check.
It was a week after production began that he got the check. I was in the vestibule in some little restaurant, and I called and my agent's receptionist said that it still hadn't come, then the phone went silent for a moment, then she came back and said "you still there, cause the check just came in." I said "the check?!" and she said "I'm looking at it." And I started whooping! That was really the end of the ordeal.
HSC: Tell me what it was like going to the set in St. Louis with your son.
G: Ah, just really great. In early July we went out there and they were about three weeks into shooting, and they were in their last week of shooting in St. Louis. They were then going to go where they are now, in Brazil. So we went down to Missouri, and I know nothing about the film business, but I saw an entire two blocks of St. Louis, in the middle of the night, turned into New York circa 1950. Taxi cabs, New York City buses, all the storefronts had been made over with permission from the owners (they pay all the owners). Lots of old little DeSotos and Packards, all these guys in their 1940's outfits. And I watched it. I was there on the set with David Anspaugh, the director, and he brought me up to the monitor, I watched the scenes through the monitor. It was a total thrill, you know, my son was speechless the whole time. Although he tried not to be. He tried to act very cool, like this happened to him every day. And we met the actors and talked to them, and I was sort of introduced as the guy who made this happen.
There was a moment there when I'm feeling pretty irrelevant, one o'clock in the morning with a couple hundred people milling around, and I had this thought: wait a minute, as irrelevant as I feel now, I realize there's only one person in this entire area without whom none of this could have happened, and that's me. That was really a major moment in my life.
We thank Mr. Douglas very much for so honestly sharing his unique and fascinating experience.
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