MU alumnus brings Oscar-winning documentary to True/False

Saturday, March 3, 2012 | 6:51 p.m. CST; updated 10:40 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 15, 2012
Dan Lindsay is visiting Columbia for the True/False Film Fest. Lindsay graduated from MU in 2001 with a marketing degree but went on to build a career as a filmmaker after graduation. He has directed a variety of projects; his most recent "Undefeated," a documentary about a high school football team, won an Oscar in the category of best documentary feature.

COLUMBIA — Dan Lindsay embraces what he doesn’t know. He is a co-director of "Undefeated," the 2012 Academy Award winner for best documentary feature and one of the films at this year’s True/False Film Fest.

The MU alumnus sold investors on the project by convincing them his inexperience was a virtue; his own naivete would help mold a more creative project. The pitch worked, and Lindsay, who knew “just enough to get by,” had his movie.

Next showing


When: 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Jesse Auditorium.

“I’m excited that I feel like I know enough to work, but there’s so much more to learn,” he said.

An unexpected path

Lindsay had no intention or desire to make an Oscar-winning film. There was a time when the former accounting major had no desire to make movies of any sort. His personal narrative was supposed to be different.

He grew up hoping to attend the University of Illinois, but when the school rejected his application for early admission into its accounting program, that dream died. On his mother’s recommendation, he decided to look in to MU. He made his first visit to Columbia on a cold January day, and although he took a campus tour during an ice storm, he said MU felt like the college for him.

His first real taste of directing came during Greek Week with his fraternity, Beta Theta Phi. He directed all of their skits, including one campy tale about second-rate superheroes, including Captain Canada whose only super power is that he’s really good looking. In the skit, the group tried to save a small-town school after an earthquake, but the students ended up saving themselves. Lindsay said he thinks the skit still has potential.

It wasn’t until a realization during his junior-year that he gave serious consideration to a more creative career. “I started envisioning my life as an accountant, and that was not a good vision,” he said.

He considered dropping out to move to Los Angeles, but his parents convinced him to hold off on such plans. Instead, he went for a summer and studied film at the University of Southern California. He returned to Columbia as Ragtag Cinema opened its doors, and it exposed Lindsay to an intriguing new world.

“I started going to films at Ragtag and saw independent films that I’d never seen and documentaries that I would have never been exposed to,” Lindsay said. “That really was a big influence on me and was kind of where I fell in love with independent film.”

Lindsay graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marketing in 2001. That fall, he set off with friends for LA.

Finding a filmmaking foothold

It didn’t take Lindsay long to catch his first big break. It came while he was waiting to copy his resume at Kinko’s.

“I literally was in LA for like a week,” Lindsay said. “Cody (Shearer) was in front of me in line, and his fax was taking forever to go through. I started getting upset, and he started laughing at me, which made me more upset. We started talking, and he took my resume.”

Lindsay doesn’t try too hard to explain the type of character Shearer is. “Just Google him,” he said.

Shearer was a personal friend of Bill Clinton and had been embroiled in controversy in the late ’90s. On the day he was holding up Lindsay in line, he happened to have a job offer; Lindsay got his first taste of documentary filmmaking with Shearer, traveling across the country, interviewing people about their reactions to 9/11 for a short film titled "Why Us?"

For the next five years, Lindsay paid his bills with income from video production jobs and spent a considerable amount of time living in LA, preparing himself for the career he hoped to someday have.

“I’m so happy that I had time to just kind of hang around. You need to live a life before you can start making stuff about life. ... You can get caught in a bubble where you don’t experience life like everyone else,” he said.

Lindsay also caught up on what he had missed as an adolescent.

“I didn’t grow up in a very artistic family,” he said. “We didn’t really value the arts at all in my family. I was probably 24 before I saw 'The Godfather,' and I’m a filmmaker. It’s ridiculous.”

With a little living and a lot of research, Lindsay tackled his first feature-length documentary with the 2008 release of "Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong," a story of four men in search of hope, acceptance and success. Completing the documentary served as a pseudo-film school and gave Lindsay a crash course in filmmaking basics.

“That is why I love making films because it’s like the antithesis of accounting,” Lindsay said. “With accounting, there’s one way to do it, and everything has to line up, and you know when your balance sheet is right you’ve done the right thing. In films, there is no right answer and there never will be. You’re constantly learning more and discovering new ways of doing things."

Still Lindsay is hesitant to embrace his success, “I still am wondering why people would actually pay us to do something because I’m scared to death that I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said.

Journey to the winner's circle

When he began filming at Manassas High School in North Memphis, Tenn., with his co-director, T.J. Martin, they set out to make a documentary that would feel like a scripted feature.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we followed the story with that thought in mind,” Lindsay said.

What began as a story of one player — O.C. Brown, a road grader of an offensive lineman with major collegiate potential — quickly grew into much more. As the film unfolds, Lindsay, always conscientious of finding the appropriate narrative arc, introduces viewers to head coach Bill Courtney, senior lineman Montrail “Money” Brown and junior linebacker Chavis Daniels. The transformations each undergoes belie the unscripted reality of the film.

“Watching an audience watch 'Undefeated' is a very personally moving experience for me,” Lindsay said. “To know how much work we put into that and to see it work for people … it kind of makes you never want to do anything other than that.”

The film also had a positive effect on the kids it covered, which was not lost on Lindsay.

“North Memphis is an environment where there’s not a lot of consistency,” he said. “A lot of those kids hop around — they live with an auntie, they live with their grandmother, then they live with their mom — so there’s not a lot of consistency in their lives. And that football team is one thing that is consistent. ... For 'Money' in particular, just taking an interest in his life, I think, meant a lot to him.”

The filmmaker in him planned to end his Academy Award's acceptance speech on a strong note, so he saved the dedication of his award to North Memphis for last. But when the microphones were cut and Robert Downey Jr. hurried him off the stage he lost his chance. When he spoke to the students at Manassas later, though, they didn’t care. The film was their reward, they told him.

Stories like "Money’s" aren’t unique to North Memphis. Following the first showing of "Undefeated" on Thursday, Lindsay said people overcome tall odds every day and everyone has a story to share. Stories create a common ground, a way to understand and participate in a cultural dialogue, he said.

“I think that’s why we, as people, love entertainment because it is a reflection of how we live our lives anyway,” he said. “It’s a reflection of how we talk to each other. We talk to each other in stories.”

For Lindsay, the conversation is just beginning. As he and Martin search for their next project, he’s keeping an open mind. Whatever tale they tell next, documentary or not, Lindsay’s focus will be on serving the story, not the other way around.

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