Too Deep Zone: Leaf!
by Mike Tanier
The Bryn Mawr Film Institute, located in the wealthy suburbs just west of Philadelphia, holds Open Screen Mondays each month. The mini-festivals at the historic theatre are an important destination for independent filmmakers and local cinemaphiles. Directors screen short trailers or clips of their films-in-progress, then engage the audience in question-and-answer sessions.
In November, Tim Carr arrived at BMFI with a brief trailer for a most unusual film. The trailer began with a shot of a football player running across the field. Then, backlit by a cloud-dappled sky, a quarterback throws a long pass. Title cards tell the story: "In 1998, he signed a contract worth 31.25 million dollars. He became the first rookie quarterback since 1983 to win his first two starts."
The scene switches to black and white. The quarterback is alone on the bench. His uniform number 16 can now clearly be seen. He stands, rips off his helmet, and throws it to the ground in disgust. A close-up shows the helmet rolling on the turf. Another title card: "'He's a nightmare you can't even imagine,' -- former teammate Rodney Harrison."
In color again, the camera zooms behind the quarterback as he gazes out at the autumn sky. The name on the jersey fills the screen: Leaf.
Carr knew that football fans would be immediately familiar with the film's subject: Ryan Leaf, one of the greatest busts in NFL history. But he was gambling with the independent film crowd. After the trailer, several audience members asked questions about his film: Leaf: An Almost True Story. A Russian viewer with no knowledge of Leaf or American football in general found the trailer fascinating. "I knew then that it might have an audience among the indie crowd," Carr said of his latest labor of love.
Carr knew that he could move forward. Leaf: An Almost True Story is coming in 2007.
An Unconventional Sports Story
Carr, a 30-yea- old Delaware native, has been acting in movies and television for over a decade. He has appeared on Law and Order, Oz, Ed, and One Life to Live, and in movies like Man on the Moon and Rounders. He has a small role in Rocky Balboa, playing one of Rocky Junior's friends.
With substantial roles hard to come by, Carr began to focus his efforts on writing, producing, and directing. His first production, a romantic comedy called The Wrong Fortune Cookie, was released in 2002. He then co-produced and starred in 13th Grade, a coming-of-age comedy that features Carr as a high school senior forced attend an extra year of school and Dustin Diamond (a.k.a. Screech) as a Hollywood superstar forced to complete his education.
Carr returned to the director's chair with A Deeper Shade of Soul, a comedy in which all of the characters are speaking in rhyme but Carr's main character. "It's a story where everyone is on a completely different planet," Carr says of the film, which was received a limited release in 2006. "The main character is trying to blend, but the more he tries, the worse it works out."
After finishing A Deeper Shade of Soul, Carr wanted to tackle a sports-themed project. "I was looking for something unconventional, a story that hadn't been done before," said Carr. He considered a list of very unconventional sports personalities: Maurice Clarett, Jeff George, soccer star George Best, Billy Ripken (the working title for the Ripken film would have been F*** Face), before settling on Leaf. "There have been a lot of sports inspirationals like Rudy. Has there been a cautionary tale yet? Is there a flip side?"
After doing some research, Carr was convinced that Leaf would make a compelling film subject. The trick would be convincing skeptics in both the football community and the indie film crowd. "Not many football films make the festival circuit," Carr explained, which is why he was so encouraged by his reception at Bryn Mawr. As for football fans, the key was to frame his controversial subject properly. "This is a guy who put himself in a pickle and spent his whole career getting out of it."
Carr plans to paint Leaf as a deeply flawed but ultimately sympathetic character. That will require all of his skills as a writer, director, and actor.
Beer Dumping, Locker Room Shouting â€¦ and Humanizing
In the weeks leading up to the 1998 draft, media attention focused almost exclusively on two players: Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Manning, the four-year college starter with NFL bloodlines and a rep as a leader on the field and a boy scout off it, was the likely top pick. Leaf, an exceptional athlete who took the college football world by storm in his final season at Washington State, was the dark horse candidate to supplant him. After months of speculation, the Colts took Manning with the first pick in the draft. The Chargers selected Leaf with the second pick.
The rest is history. Leaf did indeed win his first two starts of the 1998 season, but that had more to do with the Chargers defense than with Leaf's abilities as a quarterback. In his third game, Leaf completed just one of 15 pass attempts, and he led the Chargers on a 1-5 stretch before getting benched. He was injured for all of the 1999 season, then played poorly for the 1-15 Chargers before getting released.
Leaf's on-field problems were more than matched by his off-field issues. He fought with teammates, screamed at fans, and dumped pitchers of beer on reporters. He played golf when he was supposed to be recovering from injuries. There were indications before he reached the NFL that Leaf was immature and hard to deal with -- he once threw a football at a reporter who criticized his Washington State team, and he isn't even included on his high school's Wall of Fame. But nothing prepared the Chargers for the circus Leaf created. After the Chargers gave up on him, Leaf began a long sojourn around the NFL, his reputation following him to stops in Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Seattle.
As Carr began his script, he discovered that he had plenty of Leaf antics to reenact. The locker room tirade at San Diego journalist Jay Posner will be recreated frame for frame, with Carr playing Leaf (Posner recently agreed to participate in the film). "I will be dumping a beer on someone's head," Carr says of a notorious incident at a Washington bar, where Leaf, in town for a charity function, took umbrage at a college reporter's questions. Carr is also recreating an alleged incident in which Junior Seau tricked the rookie Leaf into buying an expensive dinner for the Chargers' veterans. Leaf refused to pay, so Seau (so the story goes) ignored Leaf's red practice jersey and sacked him the next day in practice, standing over the millionaire rookie and taunting, "Will you pay now?"
But individual scenes don't make a coherent movie. Carr had to frame a narrative. He opted to use the mock-umentary storytelling style popularized in films like A Mighty Wind and Best in Show. Staged reenactments and scripted scenes will be interspersed with interviews of sportswriters and football players like Hugh Douglas, who faced Leaf on the field in 1998 and 2001. Carr has also cast actors to play hardcore football fans whose memories of Leaf represent "the conscience of each team's fans." Keith Bullard, who earned favorable reviews in the 2003 comedy The Negro Zone, plays the San Diego fan. Deena Martin (Simone from Dazed and Confused, Christy from Swingers) plays the Tampa Bay fan. I appear as one of the sportswriters. "I'm telling the story through the eyes of sportswriters and sports fans and folks," Carr says of the unique narrative approach.
Carr separated Leaf's story into chapters, one for each stop on his NFL journey. The Chargers and Cowboys chapters are the longest, but Carr uses Leaf's brief stops in Tampa and Seattle to humanize his subject as a fading prospect desperate to make amends. Carr called the Seahawks chapter of his story the hardest five pages he ever wrote (Leaf never played a down for the Seahawks), but he feels that it's an important part of the tale. "The Seahawks chapter is very internal," he explains. "It shows that while he didn't come full circle, he was trying. And people were starting to stick their necks out for him." Still, most of the action focuses on Leaf's tumultuous tenure in San Diego.
Carr spent the fall shooting his trailer and doing much of the primary casting. Aside from Leaf himself (played by Carr), the most recognizable face in the Leaf saga is Junior Seau, the future Hall of Fame linebacker who was the Chargers' undisputed leader in the late 1990s. Carr tapped Eric "The Smoke" Moran, a professional wrestler and star of The Black Ninja, to play the NFL legend. Moran will portray Seau in reenactments and in scripted "interviews." "I did a lot of homework studying Junior's interviews and mannerisms so I could do the man justice," Moran explained.
Football fans will recognize other characters in the movie; actors have been cast as Bobby Beathard, Jerry Jones, Mike Holmgren, and others. Carr is still searching for an actor to portray Rodney Harrison and recite the "nightmare" line. Carr also plans to cast a Peyton Manning. "Manning isn't a big player in the story, but I definitely want his presence to be felt. It's hard to mention one without the other. It's like heads and tails."
Carr will use high school and college football players as extras during the football action sequences. "It will be indie, but it won't be hokey," Carr said of the on-field scenes. "It won't be me against a pee-wee squad." Carr doesn't have the budget to shoot a movie that looks like Any Given Sunday or Friday Night Lights, so he'll compensate with black-and-white footage and tight camera angles which "make the hits look a lot harder." The football scenes won't be straight-from-the-playbook incidents from Leaf's career, but they'll effectively illustrate Leaf's on-field struggles.
Carr spent four months lifting weights to look more convincing as an NFL player. He also worked with current and former college coaches on proper stance, posture, and throwing mechanics, taking 50 or 60 snaps per day so he looks like a real quarterback. Carr is also preparing for another aspect of a quarterback's life: taking sacks. The last day of football filming will be "sack day;" Carr will get hit over and over again in various jerseys, with the footage edited in to appropriate times in the movie. Sack day comes last, according to Carr, because "if I break a rib, I'm not going to get up the next day for filming." One of the people sacking Carr will be Moran. "This is the third film where I had to physically harm my co-star," Moran said. "I am going to handle Tim in stunt fashion. He won't feel a thing."
The finished product should include action, humor, and more than a little pathos. It may even include Leaf. Carr contacted Leaf (now a college coach) about the project. While Leaf is understandably wary of the national media, he didn't immediately denounce the project, and he left open the possibility of future conversations and even a cameo. "I was bracing to get cursed out," admits Carr, who stressed to Leaf that while the movie would show all his foibles, it wouldn't be a hatchet job.
A Story to Share
Looking back at Carr's body of work, it's easy to see what attracted him to Leaf. Like the character in A Deeper Shade of Soul, Leaf spent much of his career trying to blend in. But the more he tried, the worse it worked out.
Carr has gotten a lot of encouragement for his project, both from the indie film crowd and from fans in San Diego. He has also gotten his share of hate mail. "People write and tell me that Leaf's a bum, I'm a bum, and why am I doing a movie on this bum?" Carr said. But like any good director, Carr is empathetic toward his subject. "He brought it upon himself, but I kind of feel for this guy."
Carr began shooting scenes with Moran in early December. He will be shooting through February. He hopes to have a rough cut available to screen for a select audience before the NFL draft. "He'll live forever in draft week," Carr said of Leaf, explaining his rush to assemble even a rough version of the film. The announcement that Robert DeNiro has added a sports category to the Tribeca Film Festival has further hastened Carr's efforts. Once the film is finished, Carr will work the festival circuit. But he feels that Leaf: An Almost True Story has the kind of broad box office to attract a major distributor.
"Sports fans love to share stories," Carr said. "This is my chance to share a story with everyone." It's a strange story, a cautionary tale of an NFL misfit, a reviled character whose career is long over when it should be entering its peak. But if Ed Wood is suitable movie fodder, why not Leaf? He was, for a few years, a nightmare like we couldn't imagine, but Carr is banking on Leaf's story as a curious tale that football fans and cinema buffs would love to relive.