I got the chance recently to chat with Thomas Carter, director of “When the Game Stands Tall.”
Spake: Do you think sports films have significantly evolved in the pasty decade or so?
Carter: I haven’t really tracked them. I guess in “Friday Night Lights” we saw an edgier look. It was more of a critical eye of our obsession with sports and the damage it can do.
Spake: What draws you to sports movies like “Coach Carter” and “When the Game Stands Tall?”
Carter: “Coach Cater” I was interested in because I’m a big champion of education. That movie was very much about a coach who took a bold stand to focus on student rather than athlete. “When the Game Stands Tall” is just an inspiring story because coach Bob Ladouceur is interested in building young men or character not just on the field, but off the field. A sense of loyalty, commitment, brotherhood, selflessness, discipline, personal responsibility, he wants to instill these principles in these kids. He’s as much a teacher as he is a coach.
Spake: I find it interesting that most sports movies focus on a team’s rise to victory, but in “When the Game Stands Tall,” the Spartans are already on top and have everything to lose. Then when their streak does finally end, the film plays like a tale of redemption.
Carter: You’re absolutely right. The challenge of making the film was figuring out how do you make a movie about a team that never loses. That’s why we chose to start the movie towards the end of the streak to see where the team would grow and come to together as brothers. It gave me something to stretch for as a storyteller.
Spake: What do you think is the greatest sports-related movie ever made?
Carter: I’m a big fan of “Remember the Titans.” I also really like “Moneyball,” which isn’t purely a sports movie, but it is another way of looking at sports.
Spake: Many years before you directed “Coach Carter,” you played a character in “The White Shadow,” a television series about a basketball team at an inner-city high school. How did your work on that show impact your career in show business?
Carter: “The White Shadow” is where I first began to direct. I was afforded the opportunity to go to film school on the job.
Spake: Did you play basketball at all before landing a role in “The White Shadow?”
Carter: I did play basketball. Strangely enough, I didn’t play high school sports because I was in the theater department. But I was playing a lot of sandlot basketball and those games are very aggressive in Los Angeles.
Spake: Do you play basketball anymore or any other sports for that matter?
Carter: No, but I am a huge basketball fan and am a season ticket holder for the Lakers.
Spake: In addition to sports, a lot of the projects you take on seem to have a dance-related theme. You notably directed “Swing Kids,” “Save the Last Dance,” and even a couple episodes of “Fame.” What’s your attraction to the dance genre?
Carter: I’ve just always been excited by music. Even when I did the pilot for “Miami Vice” I put music in a television show in a way it hadn’t really been used before. I just find it to be a great way to accentuate the drama or create great psychological subtext.
Spake: Was the Spartans 151 game winning streak a story you followed or did you first read about it in Neil Hayes novel, which inspired this film?
Carter: Neil Hayes’ book is a great account of that. He followed them for a whole year. I first heard about it by reading an early draft of the script and from there I jumped in to do the research.
Spake: Did you ever get to meet coach Bob Ladouceur or any of the real life players who inspired this story?
Carter: Yeah, I met Bob Ladouceur and went to two state championship games in the course of developing this movie. I think that we caught the essence of them.
Spake: Is there a particular figure or event in sports history you would love to bring to the screen?
Carter: For years I was interested in developing a project about Jackie Robinson. I became friends with Rachel Robinson, his widow, and she’s such a fantastic lady. Other than that I don’t have a particular movie I’d like to do, although I am interested in doing something with the San Antonio Spurs.
Spake: As a basketball fan, how do you feel about LeBron going back to Cleveland?
Carter: I was never routing for Miami so I think it’s fantastic he’s playing for Cleveland again.
• Ahwatukee native and Arizona State University graduate Nick Spake has been working as a film critic for nine years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com.