Almost Famous

 

A team of Longhorn filmmakers pays homage to the greatest sports movies of all time by making the greatest intramural flag football movie … of all time.

In the opening sequence of a short video entitled “Be in Intramural—Jake Lacy,” a group of not-very-athletic-looking guys clad in basketball shorts and sweatbands bound around UT’s intramural fields playing flag football in the slow-motion style of legendary sports films like Rocky and Hoosiers. At one point, a player dives for a game-winning catch as his exposed beer belly jiggles gloriously. It’s a short but elaborate production, the work of writer/producer Bradley Jackson, BS ’07, Life Member, and director Andrew Disney, and it was made for one reason: to entice actor Jake Lacy, best known as Pete from The Office on NBC. Jackson and Disney created custom video pleas for Lacy and several other up-and-coming comedy stars. These were people they admired and desperately wanted for their micro-budget, independent feature film, Intramural. Miraculously, the plan worked.

6T6A2180Scheduled to be released next fall, Intramural tells the inspirational story of a team of misfit college students that comes together for one last run at an intramural title. The tag line for the film is, “The epic sports movie … for the guys who don’t deserve one.” Disney, whose debut feature Searching for Sonny won 14 awards on the festival circuit in 2011, says that his main objective with casting was just to populate the set with people who would make him laugh.

Lacy, who plays the film’s hero, a fifth-year senior named Caleb Fuller, remembers being charmed by the custom video, which also included seven reasons why he should come to Austin this summer—naturally, tacos made the list twice. Lacy thought the script was hilarious, but he says it was the video that really tipped the scale. “They talked about how I would be the hero of a classic sports film, and then Bradley caught a ball thrown from off screen and said, ‘Thanks, Tom Brady!’ That got me pretty good.”

In addition to Lacy, the final Intramural cast includes Saturday Night Live cast members Jay Pharoah and Kate McKinnon, as well as Twilight star Nikki Reed, Beck Bennett (the guy who talks to kids in those AT&T commercials), and Nick Kocher and Brian McElhaney, who make up the sketch comedy group BriTANicK and were just named two of the top 10 comics to watch by Variety. They may not be household names yet, but according to Lindsey Weissmueller, who co-cast the film with Nancy Nayor, they will be soon. Weissmueller makes a habit of watching improv and stand-up comedy shows around Los Angeles, looking for the next big thing. “They are definitely buzzing in casting circles,” she says. “They are kind of cool comedians. They have this air of legitimacy and street cred.”

McKinnon, for example—the blonde, dimpled newcomer with a killer Ellen Degeneres impression—had one of the most successful debuts on SNL in recent memory. And this past August, on the same day Intramural wrapped filming in Austin, it was announced that Bennett would be joining the cast of the show’s 2013-14 season.

They are definitely buzzing in casting circles. They are kind of cool comedians. They have this air of legitimacy and street cred.”

Weissmueller says she can easily see this group as part of the next generation of comedy all-stars. In fact, Jackson and his fellow producers Andrew Lee, BS ’06, David Ward, and Russell Groves, ’04, are aspiring to a very particular model of success: Wet Hot American Summer. This 2001 comedy about a group of dysfunctional camp counselors has achieved an almost mythical status in the comedy world. At the time it was released, most of the cast members were fairly unknown, but now they’re some of the biggest names in the industry: Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and Molly Shannon, to name just a few. “It wasn’t a huge theatrical success,” Lacy says, “but it was this slow build where everyone realized that this may be the defining comedy of the last decade.”

Can Intramural do the same thing? When you spend time on the set with Jackson, it seems completely plausible. As we sat on the bleachers on a clear night at Manor High School watching the crew set up for another action shot on the field, Jackson—wearing a vintage Longhorn T-shirt—was smiling like a kid in a candy store. Intramural is Jackson’s first feature film script and, in his words, his baby. During his sophomore year at UT, he decided it was time to tackle a feature screenplay and, as a devoted scholar of the sports genre, he knew exactly where the plot beats should go. “There’s always a big game,” he says. “There’s always a moment where somebody dies or gets hurt, and the team has to suck for a while, and then there’s a montage where they get better.”

At the time, a lot of Jackson’s friends were playing intramural sports and would come home with overblown stories of heroism. “I was like, ‘Really, you think you’re the next Tom Brady because you threw a touchdown pass in an intramural football league?’ But you can’t deny it; we’ve all been there.” He says he knew there was a comedy in there somewhere—the unfit and uncoordinated masses getting in on the thrill of athletic competition.

6T6A0367For the next three years, Intramural sat on the shelf as Jackson moved on to other projects and finished his degree in UT’s Radio-Television-Film department. But he would always go back and rewrite a bit of the script here and there. It wasn’t until Jackson, Lee, and Groves formed their own production company, Ralph Smyth Entertainment, and won $100,000 for their short film The Man Who Never Cried, that they saw their moment to break into feature films.

Jackson sent the Intramural script to his partners and the project gained momentum from there. Over this past summer in Austin, the guys made good on their promises to actors and showed them a great time in Texas. Mercifully, many of the shoots in July and August were held at night. On one of those summer nights, the film crew was eating breakfast at 8 p.m. and rehearsing a rather complicated action sequence that involved plays meticulously choreographed by an on-set football coordinator. As we watched the scene unfold, Jackson took out his iPhone and showed me a polished trailer that made the movie look like it was already a hit. Long before shooting wrapped on Intramural, the movie had an official website, Facebook page, Twitter handle, and YouTube channel. And Lee says there’s already an ambitious marketing plan in the works that will involve behind-the-scenes content, online contests, and a screening tour at college campuses.

The fate of any movie is uncertain, of course, but it’s hard to spend time on the set of Intramural and not come away with the impression that the movie and its cast and crew are barreling toward their futures in the business. Disney says the energy on the set was unique—you could sense that a lot of people were on the verge of their big breaks. “It feels like such a fever dream to me now,” Disney said a few days after the film finished shooting in August. He had just spent 11 brutally hot days filming tricky football action, but what he remembered most was exactly what he had dreamed of seeing all along. The exhausted cast and crew got together to watch the scenes they had just shot—and they laughed until they cried.

Almost Famous

Top, from left: Alex Brast; Donnie Amadi; Kirk Johnson, BS ’07; Beck Bennett; Henry Smith III; and Mathew Broussard.

Middle, Disney directs the Panthers team.

Bottom, Jake Lacey, Andrew Disney, and Nikki Reed.

Photos by Ryan Green Photography.

 

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