A welcome familiar face on DN, Director John Merizalde swaps the skates of his roller rink music video doc for the touchline action of the US National Paralympic Soccer Team (or ‘football’ team for those of us in the rest of the world), in rousing documentary 2-3-1 which celebrates the players’ athleticism without shying away from the traumatic injuries they have had to overcome in order to represent their country internationally. John shares how a personal love of the game shaped an approach which jettisons the narrative and visual cliches of a typical sports doc.
I know 2-3-1 was a real labour of love for you, how did the project come about?
I’ve always been a huge soccer fanatic. Back in July, I was shooting a commercial and the producer overheard how much I wanted to do something with the sport. This producer – Jefferis Gray – happened to have a very unique connection to the US Paralympic Soccer Team. Not only was he friends with the coach and had known some players from years back, he was actually working on developing some projects with them. We both realized the Paralympics were coming up and it would be a great opportunity to make a short film, in order to bring more awareness and attention to these athletes. Coincidentally, they happened to be at a training camp in Rome, GA – close to my hometown Atlanta – so that helped. With the aid of my production company, Whitelist, we rented a camera package (with massive support from Panavision) and headed out to Rome with some friends. It all happened pretty fast.
How did you find the correct balance of presenting the players as athletes, but also keeping their disabilities front and centre?
One of the key goals from the beginning was to make sure this wasn’t a sob story. I wasn’t interested in portraying these guys as weak or needing sympathy. I feel like we’ve all seen that a million times. What interested me was the opportunity to show these guys in a heroic light, just as you would see Messi or Ronaldo or any other superstar. All of them are really honest and open about their disabilities, so there was never any weirdness or difficulty in handling that. If anything, their ownership of these flaws allowed us to highlight what made them so amazing. These men all have very diverse backgrounds, and some of them have endured incredible tribulations and harrowing near-death experiences. Despite whatever their history is, they don’t use their disability as an excuse. That idea really motivated the piece.
I wasn’t interested in portraying these guys as weak or needing sympathy. I feel like we’ve all seen that a million times.
How ‘scripted’ was the documentary?
A few months before we shot, Jefferis had compiled interviews with some of the players – some snippets of which actually made it into the final film. Apart from that, their was no script or treatment – it was all done very organically. There was a vague idea of structure and theme, but we allowed ourselves to discover most of it while filming. It’s also difficult to have full control when shooting an event like a training camp – so we understood we would have to be very flexible.
There’s a shared fluidity to the on and off field camera work, what led you to that style as opposed to a more typical action vs static approach?
I can’t talk about the visual style without giving credit to our amazing DP, Sean Conaty. I’ve admired his work for years, so I was thrilled we finally had this chance to work together. For the two weeks leading up to the shoot, we had many conversations about the look and what we could do to differentiate this piece from other sports docs. Make no mistake, this was a run-n-gun affair, but we had no intention of having a “doc-style” look. We laid out many of the tropes that pervade sports pieces and tried to avoid those, including obvious devices like the action v. static style.
Ultimately I think what informed our approach was the fact that we both have a shared love of the sport. Sean and I both grew up playing and following soccer. I think there’s a problem where directors who don’t have any passion or understanding of a sport are then hired to photograph it, often resulting in a perpetuation of stereotypes and conventions. We tried to put together a cohesive love letter not only to these athletes, but to the sport.
Were any of the players concerned about how they’d be portrayed? What were their reactions to the final film?
It can be pretty intimidating to act natural around a big steadicam. I think at first, like with any documentary subjects, there was a little hesitancy. These guys are used to giving lots of interviews, but never are they followed around everyday with cameras pointed in their faces. There was definitely a steep curve in settling in, but luckily we had the full support of Coach Stuart, which helped the players warm up to us. Once we were able to communicate to them what we wanted (and showed them some footage), there was full trust. The reaction after the film was great! I think everyone was really happy with how it turned out. Even the US Soccer Federation loved it and ended up blasting it on all their social media.
We tried to put together a cohesive love letter not only to these athletes, but to the sport.
The film closes with a chant of “USA, USA”, yet 2-3-1 feels like much more than a nationalistic promo piece. What do you want viewers to take away from the experience?
There was never any attempt at any kind of nationalism, although I can definitely see how that may be perceived. The chant itself is actually something I noticed while we were there. Before every game, the team huddles together and the coach says a few words. And at the end of every speech, the players chant a round of “USA”. It pumps them up before each match, and is an obvious call when you remember that they’re all there representing their national team. There’s a strong undercurrent of patriotism that inhabits a lot of these players, and it would be disingenuous to ignore that. We took the chant recording and enhanced it with our sound designer to give it a fuller, more ‘stadium’ like feeling. It’s a stylistic bridge that also alludes to the coming games in Rio that they will face.
Overall my goal was to introduce a new audience to these players, and inform some questions that people may have. One of the most common things that people say when they see them is, “they don’t look disabled”. There’s a reason traumatic brain injury is also called an ‘invisible injury’. At first glance many of these players may not seem impaired since they aren’t missing a limb or are in a wheelchair. Their scars and their battles are hidden, but that doesn’t make them any less real. Hopefully the film can bring awareness to this but also display some of the heroism that these players possess. I hope it can inspire others.
Any new projects in the pipeline you can share with us?
I’ve been wrapped up in the commercial world, but hoping to shoot a narrative short sometime soon. Maybe some music vids can be squeezed in as well!