’12 Mighty Orphans’ Director:"‘We Need to Help Kids Dream Again"
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Sometimes all you need is a chance. Circumstances in life may sometimes prohibit you from fulfilling your potential but that hope for a better tomorrow always seems to persist.
Legendary Texas high school football coach Rusty Russell knew this all too well. He shocked his family, friends, and colleagues during the Great Depression so he could teach and coach football at an orphanage. Taking a group of seemingly forgotten boys, many of whom didn’t even own a pair of shoes, to playing for the Texas state championship, Russell never forgot where he came from. For all of his success in life, he was once an orphan too.
Russell, and this collection of scrawny, undersized football players is the subject of a new movie opening in theaters this weekend called 12 Mighty Orphans. Directed by Ty Roberts (The Iron Orchard), the movie features an impressive cast that includes Luke Wilson (The Royal Tenenbaums), Martin Sheen (The West Wing, The Way), Robert Duvall (The Apostle), Vinessa Shaw (3:10 to Yuma), and Wayne Knight (Seinfeld, Jurassic Park). Endearing and motivating, the movie serves as a prime example that you can achieve something of significance even if the odds seem stacked against you. All you need is a dream and somebody to believe in you.
I recently spoke to Ty Roberts about what was so special about this “mighty” group, Russell’s deep story of personal redemption, and the importance of helping kids (and adults for that matter) dream again.
This movie is such a testament to anyone who believes they are on the margins and don’t hold any significance in the world. You can make a difference. You do have value if you just put your mind to it. From your perspective, as a director, could you comment a bit?
To me, changing, guiding and, and inspiring young lives is such a part of who I am. I'm a father with two young kids and a wife. It's just part of our life. It really hit me on a deep level where if we can guide children, give them the chance to dream, give them hope, and allow them to pursue their wildest dreams, then we're doing our jobs. And I just feel like I connected with Rusty Russell on a super deep level. When he led a championship team at Temple High School here in Texas, to go to an orphanage that really didn't have anything, let alone a football team, to not really having a firm academic structure, he and his wife went in turned that around and really made these kids believers. They taught these kids that they are something in life and if they work hard at it, they are going to be able to do whatever they want to do.
And you did see that. It's really amazing. You had kids who went on to play in the NFL. (One of these kids,) Miller Moseley, worked on the Manhattan Project and later became a renowned physicist at TCU (Texas Christian University). He was just a brilliant, brilliant mind. He got his start there with Rusty and probably had one of his math or science classes. They used football as a way to motivate and as a way to see those results. I think sports is wonderful with that. It just covered all the bases for me on what I felt like would be a meaningful story right now. And lo and behold, I had no clue what we were about to face in 2020. So, even more relevant in that way, coming out of the Great Depression in the movie and the Mights being a real source of inspiration for a lot of folks who are struggling, facing uncertainty, and huge difficulties in their lives. So, it's just very timely in that regard. It feels very fitting.
Like so many underdog stories, this one shows us a group of kids who couldn’t win based on size and skill alone. They had to figure out how to win with innovative strategies, ones that would come to define modern football. What was so special about this group?
Rusty played the hand he was dealt. He cobbled together the team and they were undersized. They were scrawny, but they were scrappy, and they were quick. He worked with what he had, and he was just a very innovative, smart guy. He was a survivor, a World War I veteran, who came back and played football. He nearly went blind after being gassed during the war. He was just a fighter. Obviously, that applied to his real life as well as his professional life. He figured out, if I try to go toe to toe with these bigger teams, it's not going to happen. I'm going to have to get smart here and thoughtful. We use a couple of concepts in the movie that we felt were really interesting and fun. It was moving quick, it was running, it was throwing the ball. They say Rusty came up with it. He was later credited as being one of the great passing coaches of all time.
This movie has a great cast. Luke Wilson, Vinessa Shaw, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, just to name a few. Does having so much “firepower” so to speak at your disposal make your job as a director more challenging, or much easier?
It was exciting, it was intimidating and then I came to learn, easier. That’s because when you're working with such professionals, and I believe the spirit of the movie already put everybody into a sort of a mode of there's a deeper meaning here, a bigger cause of why we're doing this. It's just a heartwarming story. It’s about kids who are much less fortunate and there's a call here. I think everybody came in into it with a really positive, open mind. What was slightly intimidating at times is that you are dealing with a Martin Sheen or Robert Duvall or Wayne Knight or Luke Wilson. I knew Luke was going to be a team player and we saw eye to eye on a lot of it, so I was less intimidated by him.
But at the same time, as a director, you want to be very productive. You want to be concise and very clear on what we need and what they need. You don't want to overwhelm anybody. And so, I tried to be as a cohesive with our original plan as I could, which was let's follow the script. Let's look to bring these characters to life. And I trust you as unbelievable actors with a long history and professional approach to this. I trust you guys to take it where you want it to. I just made minor adjustments. It made my work super easy as a director in a lot of ways. I was honored and really just floored that I had this cast. I had moments where I just couldn't believe that I had the opportunity to work with these guys. I felt really honored by it. They made me look really good.
The book that this is based on takes readers on a deep story of personal redemption. As a director, how did you make sure to bring these elements into the final product that people will see on screen?
For Lane Garrison (co-screenwriter) and I, our first of objective was to honor Rusty and capture the spirit of his trajectory at the home (orphanage). The book follows multiple seasons. It's a big book and squeezing it down into a couple hours was a real challenge. And so, we threaded that story together based on Rusty and his backstory with World War I and being an orphan himself. That was hugely impactful to his life, obviously, and was sort of a pinnacle moment when he decided to go to the orphanage. To me, it was just a selfless act. I just thought it was so admirable of him to do that. Not many people would do that at the height of their career just leave it all to take on such a challenge.
In the end, Rusty had to realize and have that moment where he saw the higher meaning there. He and his wife Juanita really created a loving, caring atmosphere, where these kids could feel protected as if they had their own family. All the kids absolutely loved that home and felt like it was a blessing for them to have gone there, in many ways, because of how supportive it was and just the loving and caring environment it provided.
Rusty was a model human being. I think that it’s important today to realize that it's not always about the fame, the glory, the money, or anything like that. Sometimes you’ve just got to do a good thing. There are rewards within that, that are super powerful, more powerful than anything.
After people have seen 12 Mighty Orphans what would you like audiences to take away from the viewing experience? What is your greatest hope for the movie?
I hope they walk out of the theater and just have a little pep in their step and have a good outlook on life and where we are headed. We need to realize that it really is up to us, each and every person, to guide our lives and make the choices that we want to make to fulfill our dreams.
We just need to really have hope and to keep up the good fight. We need to realize we're all in this together. We need to help kids dream again. With my two kids, I'm always constantly trying to push them towards their dreams and to really shape their lives around that. It's hard to figure out what that is sometimes.
That's what Rusty was so great about, just instilling a sense of hope. Sometimes you just need a little bit of hope and believe that you can pull this off. I think we're all doing everything we can. After such a tough year, folks are feeling pretty blue and down. And I feel like there's a sense of hope in this movie that is undeniable.
Watch a Trailer for 12 Mighty Orphans:
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