The Ann Arbor, Michigan-raised Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart have worn a lot of creative hats. Rothbart created the eclectic, cult magazine Found, has contributed to NPR’s This American Life, written for The New Yorker, Grantland, The New York Times, GQ and other publications, authored a book of personal essays, My Heart Is an Idiot, and a collection of stories, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas. Cohn, meanwhile, created the Found spinoff play FOUND: People Find Stuff. Now It’s a Show, has directed both short films, and material for Comedy Central, Fuse, and most recently, ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series. Throughout it all, their work has shown an empathy and an ear for quirky American characters and stories. Which leads us to their latest project, co-directing Medora, which premieres on PBS tonight (March 31st at 10 pm; check local listings).
“Rothbart and Cohn’s sensitive handling of their stories makes Medora a powerful testament to one little town’s determination to survive,” wrote the Columbia Journalism Review. “Medora exerts an unshakable hold,” wrote Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post. “No spoilers here, but there won’t be a dry eye in the house. Thanks to filmmakers of unfailing sensitivity, as well as protagonists of exceptional character and resolve, Medora earns every tear.”
I had an email conversation with the filmmakers about how this tiny town in Indiana called to their documentary instincts. (Answers from both except where noted.)
What led you to make this film?
We’ve always been fascinated by other people’s stories. What would it be like, we wondered, to live in a state where basketball means everything and play for a team that never wins? And what is lost when our country’s small towns fade off the map? The day after reading a New York Times piece about the town of Medora, the two of us drove from Ann Arbor down to Medora to check out the town with our own eyes. We met the head coach and several players, and spent a couple of hours wandering around town (it didn’t take long — the town is tiny).
We were struck by Medora’s eerie, beautiful silence and stillness, and by the kindness and openness of the people we met. It felt like we’d traversed not only a couple of hundred miles south but also a couple of decades back in time. At the end of the night, standing in a gentle snow on empty Main Street, we looked at each other, and agreed: As passionate basketball fans, documentary film junkies, and proud Midwesterners, a movie about Medora was the one we were born to make.
How difficult was the decision to actually move to Medora to start this documentary?
Andrew: The only hard part for me, was that it was so sudden. We only got permission from the school two weeks prior to the 2011 season so we didn’t have much time to think about it. Typically, with a production this large, you’d have several months to raise funds, do pre-production, and the like. We had to make the decision rather quickly whether we were going to do it or not. We both knew this was a film we felt like we were born to make, and really believed there was a great story there, so that part wasn’t hard. But the logistics of picking up and moving across the country (I was living in Brooklyn, and Davy in L.A.) was challenging.
Upon arrival and the beginning stages of filming what was the mood of the town given your presence? How were you taken in? How difficult was it to actually start to get the real story to unfold as the people grew to understand your goal with this film?
Davy: In the beginning it was a little hard. Some folks were more skeptical than others. But I find that if you show genuine interest in people’s lives and real curiosity, people are willing to open up to you. That trust isn’t earned overnight, but because we were there for so long, and eventually became so ingrained within the community, you catch these raw and often intimate moments on camera.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film, especially the kids on the Medora team?
Spending so much time with these kids and their three coaches — a cop, a preacher, and a stonecutter — was a profoundly meaningful experience. Every day, we were moved by the people of Medora’s generosity in opening their lives to us so completely, and their inspiring courage, heart, and resilience. Living for months on end within the community, attending every practice and game, dining at the Quik Stop, sipping drinks at Perry Street Tavern, we felt ourselves becoming a part of the fabric of the town. We knew we’d become honorary locals when people stopped us on the street, not to ask why we were filming kids at the park but to ask us for details about the previous night’s basketball game.
And after spending so much time with these players, gaining such deep insight into the searing challenges they often faced in their home lives, we couldn’t help but become the Medora Hornets’ biggest fans, desperately hoping they’d get that first elusive win. At the end of a close game, we’d have tears in our eyes, trying to stay focused on filming the action instead of abandoning our cameras to cheer the team on. We’ve attended hundreds of high school, college, and professional basketball games in our lives, but never felt so invested in rooting for an underdog to prevail.
What was your goal with making this film?
Andrew: At first we thought it was just a basketball story about a team trying to win one game. Eventually, as the process unfolded, we began to see the struggling basketball team as a central metaphor for the town. Not only is the team struggling to compete, but the town is, as well. Telling the story of the town and the value of small towns across the country eventually became the goal of the film; asking the question: What is missed when towns like Medora fade off the map?
So would you call it a sports documentary? What does this film teach its viewers about the overlying power, beauty and meaning of sports, beyond simply winning and losing?
Davy: It’s what I’d call a “slice of life” documentary. The basketball season and the story of this team trying to end this epic losing streak is the central storyline throughout the film, without a doubt. But it’s really an intimate, personal, and raw look at four boys’ lives in a small town in southern Indiana. It gives audiences a glimpse of the challenges and also the triumphs of kids living in places like Medora.
Andrew: I think it shows the power of sports to unite us. It also shows how even the small victories in life should be celebrated. It gives a realistic look at high school athletics in America, as well. So often we only celebrate the “champions” in athletics. I think, especially in amateur sports, it’s important to show the other values and lessons that can be learned in amateur athletics.
In particular, what did this experience teach you, and what does this film teach the viewer about the culture of Indiana High School basketball?
Davy: Hopefully, folks can get a sense of how big high school basketball still is in the state of Indiana. I think most people know, but hopefully it can bring audiences into the world of high school basketball there just a little bit more. It’s such an intense experience, this is just a taste of it.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?
Editing 600 hours of footage into an 80-minute film was a huge challenge.
What does this film expose about the current state of the country, especially the Midwest?
Andrew: It shows a way of life that’s fading away. Towns like Medora, and there are thousands of them across the country, are disappearing. I think it’s important for folks to ask themselves what these small communities mean to the country. Davy and I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we think it’s an important question to ask.
Davy: Not many folks are from a town of less than 500 people. Hopefully the film gives some insight to what living in a town like Medora is like. It’s such a unique experience, and one people will get to see when they watch the film.
How has your life changed, personally and professionally since your time spent in Medora?
Andrew: That part of the country will always have a special place in my heart. I learned so much about myself, and this great country, and about filmmaking during my time there. Meeting the people who live in Medora was such a profound experience, that even if the film hadn’t gone anywhere, it was still an amazing time in my life.
What are your three favorite films?
Hoop Dreams, Hands on a Hardbody, Dark Days.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Go do it. The technology is there and the tools are in the hands of the people now. Don’t wait for someone to give you the green light. Just go make a film!
Lastly, what do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film? (This question is meant literally.)
The Waffle House in Seymour, Indiana.