Continuing the tradition of bringing top-notch talent and guests to its students, the Ringling College of Art and Design Studio Lab, a collaboration between the college and Semkhor’s David Shapiro, welcomed Hollywood screenwriter Angelo Pizzo, author of seminal sports films Rudy and Hoosiers, to campus to teach a masterclass with producer Paul Schiff and talk and screen their latest film, My All American. Based on the inspiring true story of 1960s University of Texas football player Freddie Steinmark, who rose from gridiron underdog to school icon, and starring Finn Wittrock as Steinmark and Aaron Eckhart as the coach who gave him a chance, the film marks Pizzo’s first as director and the starting point for two Ringling alums, Harrison Stagner and Nick Lennon, who served as interns on the film.
“It’s not the sport itself that you’re watching – it’s the canvas,” said Pizzo, asked about his apparent affinity for the sports film genre. “It’s about the characters, their struggles, their journeys and their success or failure.” Sports provide the backdrop, with definite winners and losers and set rules. “That’s not always true in life,” Pizzo continued. “It provides you a great canvas to use sports as metaphor.” In addition, there’s a special place that sports hold in American society, said Pizzo, that allows these stories to resonate. “There’s a familiarity and a connection with sport and American culture,” he said. Everyone has a connection to some sport, whether it be real or imagined, that transcends the scoreboard. “It’s a form of community and how people come together,” Pizzo said. “And all of us have a need for community.”
As for Steinmark’s story in particular, Pizzo said there were two things that immediately struck him upon reading the source material, Jim Dent’s Courage Beyond the Game, that convinced him it was a story worth telling. First off, Pizzo says he choked up while reading the story, (“And I never choke up reading books.”) and he saw in there, instantly, perhaps the greatest final ten minutes he’d ever written for film, a climax he calls “phenomenal.”
“There was an opportunity to do something special,” Pizzo said. “This has the most emotionality of any movie I’ve ever done.”
Though many have tried, Pizzo was the first to get permission from the family to tell Steinmark’s story on film, a responsibility he took seriously. “You’re lucky to get 50%,” he said of the amount of truth typically found in a Hollywood ‘true’ story, admitting that his own Rudy probably clocked in around 70%, having excised the title character’s brief stint in the Navy and created the groundskeeper character as a composite. “With this film, I’d say 90% is true,” Pizzo said. “All the important aspects are true.”
As for Ringling’s Stagner and Lennon, producer Schiff had only glowing reviews, though he admits there was initial reticence from the department heads who would be taking on the unproven young creatives in a high-pressure environment. “A couple weeks into the show, both department heads came to me individually and said, ‘Thank you so much for these guys. They’re fantastic,’” said Schiff, who described a mature approach from the pair, willing to demonstrate the knowledge they gained at Ringling while knowing when to step back and learn from others. “They struck that balance beautifully.”
Though screened yesterday for Ringling students and the curious community, My All American doesn’t hit theaters officially till November.
“It’s a story that has always inspired the University of Texas football team,” said Pizzo, “and you’ll see why when you see this movie.”