The highly-anticipated movie about Alabama’s head coach Nick Saban, Gamechanger, is slated to premiere in Birmingham’s Carmike Summit 16 Theater next Tuesday evening. It’s an authorized biographical film about Coach Saban that gives a detailed behind-the-scenes look at not just his work as the leader of the Crimson Tide football program but his background as well.
The film was made by Memphis-based Flashlight Media Group, company comprised of two Birmingham natives, University of Alabama alumni and lifelong Crimson Tide fans, Trey Reynolds and Grant Guffin. The duo previously produced a series of five documentaries for the university, Defining Moments. Released only as DVD in 2008, the series looked at five of the most legendary plays in Alabama football.
For Gamechanger, the pair spent two months during this off-season following Coach Saban around constantly and then spent almost as much time tracking down former players, coaches and other notables to contribute to the project.
With the theatrical release looming the two are incredibly busy right now but were kind enough to take some time this week to chat with Roll Bama Roll about the film and their impressions of Coach Saban and his impact on Alabama football.
Roll Bama Roll: What should viewers expect with this film?
Trey Reynolds: It is a personal biography of Coach Saban that is interwoven with how he has changed the Alabama program over the past three years. The way we explain it to everyone, and the way we pitched it to Coach Saban, is that he is recognized as a phenomenal leader an great coach but he is also a bit of a mystery to everyone as well. We want to pull back the curtain to that. We told him we wanted to watch him work, watch how he does things, and then weave in the biography as well. We wanted to show how that created his approach to what he does today.
Grant Guffin: Most of all we hope that what we have is an entertaining film. I hope that people – certainly Alabama fans but others that might be interested in Coach Saban or college football – will show up at the theater, watch it and be entertained.
RBR: Did you two have any idea what you were getting into when you decided to make this movie?
TR: We both grew up in Alabama and know the school and its history and are avid fans of the football program. So we are intimately familiar with the Alabama culture and traditions. Since we had previously worked with the school on the Defining Moments series we were able to introduce ourselves to the athletic department and all the guys that work over there and form a good relationship. So it wasn’t intimidating because of that. In fact the only intimidating part was if Coach Saban would actually let us do it. We approached Jimmy Sexton, Nick Saban’s agent in February or March (of 2009) and through the summer Coach Saban heard about it and eventually agreed to the project.
RBR: How did it come about?
TR: Coach Saban agreed to do the project by the time the 2009 season started but it took a long time for him to warm up to the idea of allowing us access. At that point it was just a question of "when" not "if." After the season and following winning the national championship there were a number of people that came after him to do different projects. But since he had already agreed to do our project he was like, "yeah, we’re sticking with these guys."
RBR: So it wasn’t a question so much of doing the project as much as he didn’t want the distraction during the season?
GG: I think he was still reluctant even though he had agreed to the project. This was such a different concept that I think he had some concerns about how intrusive it was going to be to his own life. I would paint him as reluctant So even though he wanted to get through the season first he also wanted to meet with us to ask some questions as well before going forward.
RBR: So most of the filming you did for this was over the course of this off-season, correct?
TR: The majority of it was but because we were working with and licensing it through the school we have access to a lot of the behind-the-scenes footage that the university shot that the public doesn’t get to see. A lot of that is going to be incorporated into the film. It was basically a four-month production.
RBR: What kind of access were you able to get?
TR: We were with Coach Saban almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week for almost two months. Trailing him, following him and filming everything through spring practice and A-Day. We flew with him to California for an ESPN shoot. We flew with him to West Virginia for his hometown visit. We spent time at his lake house in Tuscaloosa and at Lake Burton in Georgia. We traveled with him to the Crimson Caravan stops. Just an incredible number of events and activities he had to handle over two months of the off season. And he gave us complete access to all of it.
RBR: Do you feel that that gives a reasonable sense of what his work schedule and approach is like during the regular season?
GG: I think it’s a lot more intense for him during the season. There are a lot of things that are requirements of the job for him as the head of that program that just don’t fit into the regular season when his priority is almost 100 percent focused on the development of the football team and preparing for the next game on the schedule. But there are parts of his job that are things he needs to do like making these appearances as well as some downtime for himself and his family, and all those fit best in his schedule during the off season after recruiting is done.
RBR: What was the biggest surprise for you to learn in the course of making this film?
TR: Because we live in Memphis and aren’t in Tuscaloosa and around the program all the time, we sometimes succumb to the same stereotypes about Coach Saban that a lot of people have. That he’s extremely focused, hard-nosed, hard to approach, intimidating type of guy. But after being with him as much as we were we came to see he is focused and he is driven. That part is pretty much spot on. But he is also very kind-hearted, he’s funny and witty. He jokes around. And we got to see the side of him you can’t ever see when he’s doing an interview or standing on the sideline. The fact is he’s a very likable guy.
GG: I think people have the perception that Coach Saban is sort of a machine. And he’s human just like anyone else. He came from a humble background and through hard work and God given ability and the mind he’s been given and the experience he has had, through trial and error at coaching stops across the country.
RBR: Do you have any idea what is the secret to the man’s success?
TB: Once you get on the inside and see it up close and personal you realize it’s not magic and it’s certainly not coincidence that he’s creating these championship teams. It’s by design. And that design is down to the most minute detail. And it’s not micro-managing because he simply doesn’t have time to do that kind of micromanaging in an organization of that size, there’s no way that he could, its finding a philosophy that works down to the detail and finding people that are talented and capable to make it reality. It’s surrounding yourself with those types of people and imparting that philosophy into them so they can carry it out on a day to day basis.
RBR: So what is left for him to accomplish?
TR: He’s 58 years old and he’s coached with the best at every level of the game. He’s learned everything there is about a college program, the student athletes, the university, the facilities the business side of it. At heart I believe he’s not just a coach but a secondary coach and I believe he’d want to still play if he possibly could. But with all this experience he’s figured the right way to handle all these things and he has his system in place. It is impressive. It is a fine tuned organization.
GG: The phenomenal part of this story, that will remain untold even after this film debuts, is that he’s figured out how to win championships and produce phenomenal young players out of his program and not just how to do all that quickly but how to reproduce it at a different school. Something that he really seemed frustrated by or aggravated about himself was how they followed the national championship at LSU (in 2003). He is such a brilliant man and such a quick study, it will be fascinating to watch the Alabama team this year and see what he learned from that first experience.
RBR: How long do you think Coach Saban will stay at Alabama?
GG: I think he will stay the head coach at Alabama until he retires. Based on what we’ve seen and heard and what we’ve come to understand what drives him and motivates him. I think he’s found the place he wants to be. He’s figured out a philosophy and a process that really works. Through the trials of his career he’s learned the college game is what he was made to do. He’s come back to it at Alabama. He is a fully mature coach now and he’s at a place where the resources are there for him to realize what he is capable of.
TR: From being with him and friends of his it is obvious that he loves the college game and that being the head coach of a major college program is what he wants to do. As he puts it "the table has been set" at Alabama and he has all the resources at his disposal so why would he go anywhere else?
RBR: Do you feel there are any similarities between Coach Saban and Coach Bryant?
TR: I think they have a shared philosophy on the technical aspects of the game: The X’s and O’s, how you coach a player, how you prepare a team to play, how you get 11 guys to do their job and focus on their one task throughout the game. When we did the Defining Moments episode on Coach Bryant’s 315th win, we spent a lot of time with the guys that were coached by him. And you hear them talk about Bear Bryant and you hear the things he said, and then we did this project and we heard Coach Saban saying the exact same things. So I think there are some valid comparisons there.
GG: Coach Saban is not a guy that is intimidated by a great legacy like that. In fact I think he’s the kind of guy that not only embraces that legacy but has figured out a way to turn that legacy into yet another tool to build the machine that is Alabama football nowadays. I know he has a great deal of respect and admiration and friendship with Gene Stallings. So I would venture to say that if Coach Bryant were around these days the two of them would have been close as well. Because at heart they both loved the game and are darned good at coaching it.
RBR: Were there any lessons you learned from Coach Saban that you’ve been able to apply to your own life and professionally?
GG: I’ve started eating oatmeal cream pies as often as possible. He turned me onto oatmeal cream pies and coffee.
TR: You step foot in that football complex even the things hanging on the walls in the hallway are designed for a purpose. And the way people greet you is with a purpose. Everything about that organization is impressive and for somebody that is a Bama fan before I was a filmmaker, I was simply blown away. The man is a brilliant organizational manager and anyone who has an opportunity to spend time in that football complex can’t help but see that. It makes us look at ourselves as an organization and ask what can we do to have that kind of excellence in the details of what we are doing.
RBR: How have people reacted to the prospect of this film this so far?
GG: The response for us has been overwhelming. When Trey and I had the conversation about this as an idea it was a project we thought that would go straight to DVD. In the course of the 2009 season as the team kept winning and then eventually winning the national championship, we eventually realized that it had the potential to be a much bigger project.
RBR: What made you decide to make it a theatrical release?
GG: When word got out that we were doing this we immediately started getting inquiries from all over the country. From alumni groups, from theater chains, from media outlets. It’s been an overwhelming response and I think that speaks to the interest in and appreciation for Nick Saban that Alabama fans have as well as the excitement that exists around Alabama football these days. But also I think it speaks for the respect people have for Coach Saban on a national level
TR: The reason why this is a theatrical release is because the access Coach Saban gave us, we considered it very special and unique. The fanbase at Alabama is a special and unique fanbase in college football. We thought the release of the film needed to be special and unique. Having Gamechanger in the theaters makes it something special like that, something unique and different. It just felt like it was what it called for. Everyone we tell about it has been pumped and excited about it and everyone that has seen the film, we’ve got nothing but positive responses from.
RBR: How wide a theatrical release will the movie get?
GG: Right now we are looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 theaters that are across the state of Alabama and neighboring states. Beyond that we’ve heard from theater chains and alumni groups wanting to book theaters in other markets. We are handing the theater chain offers and handling them on a case-by-case basis and looking to see what we think will be the market in those areas. In terms of alumni groups what we have done is create a package solution where if they can rent a theater in their town we’ll provide the film to them for a flat fee. We’re waiting to hear back from the heads of a couple alumni chapters to set it up.
RBR: It seems obvious the film will be popular among Alabama supporters but what about beyond the fanbase for the team?
GG: Our expectations are realistic there. He’s a pretty polarizing figure. Alabama fans and some other love him but then there’s… a pretty sizable group that feels quite differently about him. And that’s OK. But I think if people look at the subject matter and the film objectively, look at Coach Saban objectively… they can’t dismiss this guy is doing something impressive. He’s done something nobody else has done in the history of the sport in winning national championships at two different schools.
RBR: How has the interest in the film helped interest in Flashlight Media?
TR: We’re a boutique production company that has been growing the last ten years. This definitely does nothing but help our business. When people see we have a filmmakers eye and we like to tell stories it helps us tremendously. We are working on a number of feature film projects, we also do corporate commercial work. And a lot of eyes are coming to us and people are more interested in what we can do for them. All that has been extremely positive for us.
RBR: What’s next?
TR: We are in pre production on some feature film projects that are not sports related in nature. We have some projects that are based on some books either we’ve optioned the rights for or that partners of ours have optioned the rights for. We hope we’ll have another theatrical release coming on the heels of this one but we’ll have to wait and see. In the mean time we are also doing some sports documentary work as well.
RBR: So, how is Alabama going to do this season?
TR: They are gonna win it all again, what do you think?
GG: National Championship number 14. Line it up.
TR: We’ve been so busy making the film we haven’t really been able to follow the team but from what we hear from the coaches and people close to the program, they are really focused on the day in and day out details of how to focus and compete. There’s not a lot of talk of the (2009) national championship. They are back to the process and their schedule. All that doesn’t matter. That was last year. This is a new team and a new identity. It’s time to get back to handling it one day at a time. If you spend a lot of time in that building and around Coach Saban and his staff, everything they have at their disposal they have found a way to turn it into a positive to help build the kind of program that can sustain a very high level of success over the long haul.