Balls Out: The Making of an Indie Sports Comedy with Director Andrew Disney

As an intern who worked on Balls Out from the first table read to the Tribeca Film Festival premiere, I can attest to the life-imitates-art nature of cinema coming into play once again as a rag-tag group of Texas moviemakers banded together to make an epic (and—as far as I know—only) flag-football comedy on a not-so-epic budget.

Fresh off his directing debut, Searching for Sonny (2011), director Andrew Disney was looking for a new project when writer Bradley Jackson saw Sonny and knew he’d found the perfect director for his script. “Andrew is a rare filmmaker who knows how to write to shoot and shoot to edit,” said Jackson. “In a world where comedies routinely look flat and uninspired, Andrew is a gifted visualist who can craft a pretty image while still making it hilarious.”

Soon after reading the script, Disney teamed up with Bradley’s Austin-based production company, Ralph Smyth Entertainment, to make an “epic sports movie for the guys that don’t deserve one” with a cast that included stars from Obvious Child (Jake Lacy), Twilight (Nikki Reed) and actors from online sketch groups like BriTANick, DERRICK Comedy, and Good Neighbor, who are now “Saturday Night Live” favorites, alongside their Balls Out co-stars Kate McKinnon and Jay Pharoah.

The story is about a group of 5th year college seniors who form an intramural football team before being forced into the real world. And though you might not guess it from the title and poster, as their intern throughout the process, I experienced a first-hand master class in how to make a successful independent feature film.

Last month, I got to talk with director Andrew Disney about how they convinced so many rising stars to be in their low-budget comedy, the on-set obstacles that come with shooting an ambitious sports movie on a modest indie budget, and how a director can best work with his writer, DP, actors, and distributor.

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Director Andrew Disney giving instruction on the set of Balls Out.

Andy Young (MM): How did you first meet writer Bradley Jackson, and what initially attracted you to his script?

Andrew Disney (AD): I met Bradley at the Austin Film Festival back in 2011 and he approached me with the script for Intramural. He just wanted notes, but I read it and thought it was so funny; it felt like Caddyshack or Wet Hot American Summer, like a movie I would have watched growing up over-and-over on VHS. Early on we had this mantra for making an “epic sports movie for the guys who don’t deserve one,” and I loved the idea of playing within genre and doing an epic sports movie for flag football, a very ‘un-epic’ sport.

MM: You wrote and directed your first film Searching for Sonny. This being your 2nd feature, how was the dynamic different working with a writer, be it in pre-production, on-set, or in the editing room?

AD: It takes pressure off to have someone who’s just worried about story and script on set. For me when you write and direct something, you see it all in your head and have this crystal-clear vision but you can get lost in it. When it’s a script you didn’t write, you really have to go over-and-over it to get it into your bones and collaboration becomes such a big part of the process. It was very free flowing working with Bradley.

MM: Where’d the idea come from to make individualized pitch videos to get your cast?

AD: If you’re doing an indie film, how do you stand out to an actor? You have to get through their agent or manager, and all they’re getting is a script and an offer (and the offer isn’t always amazing). So I think the pitch videos really helped showcase our vision, comedy, personality, and it made the actors feel wanted. In this business everybody wants to feel wanted, so if somebody comes at you saying “Hey, they made a video to show off how much they want you,” it makes people feel good, and we want to make those actors feel wanted.

MM: Your Kickstarter campaign was very successful in that you both raised all your funds and used it to grow your fan base. What lessons did you learn doing this campaign?

AD: Here are the crowdfunding tips I’ve got: 1) Keep it personal. Your first kickstarters will be friends and family who want to see you succeed. 2) Have a manageable goal. I think most of us over-estimate what we can pull in through crowdfunding. 3) You’re not raising money for a charity; the most successful kickstarters are selling a product. So at the end of the day, what will your backers get in return? 4) Follow through. Fortunately, I have amazing producers who are awesome on follow through, fulfilling all the prizes and what not. 5) This is not a one-time thing. You’ll probably be crowdfunding again, and you better leave people with a good taste in their mouth… feeling like they got their money’s worth and more.

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The Panthers strategize during a pivotal flag football game.

MM: What kind of visual research did you have going in, and what’s your pre-production process with your Director of Photography, Jeffrey Waldron, like?

AD: The first thing I do is put together a lookbook: here’s the influences, what characters should look like, what locations should look like…basically a big Pinterest board. Then Waldron and I got together and watched a ton of movies, everything from Teen Wolf to Remember the Titans and Rocky, trying to figure out stylistically what we wanted to do. Then the big thing Waldron and I do is we shot list the entire film together. We don’t storyboard, but we have a shared Google Doc that we’re just connected to in a room for a week and we just shot list every scene. It’s exciting because we’ve laid out every shot so that once we get to set…for me, I want to have the least amount of decisions to make on-set as possible. Decisions take time. If you can get all the decisions out of the way, it can make you so much sharper on set and give you more time with your actors.

MM: What are some of the challenges that go into shooting a big-budget sports movie on a shoestring budget?

AD: A lot of it is just time and man-power; you’re trying to make all these football scenes look so cool, and you have to shoot so much but don’t have nearly as much time, as many resources or even the same kind of lights the big productions would have. And ensemble films are always tricky; there was a specific scene in a bar where the two main teams, the Panthers and Titans, have a standoff. And there’s so many speaking parts, so many characters, and you have to get so much coverage and more shots takes more time.

MM: I want to talk about your directing style. Usually, you have the actors do the scene as scripted and then give them “freebies” to improvise. Have you always done this as a director or was this something you developed over time?

AD: When I first started making movies I’d always ask actors, “What do directors you like working with do that you like?” Jason Dohring, the lead in Searching for Sonny, told me about ‘the freebie.’ You only get the freebie when the director gets what they want. So, once I feel like I have something in the can that’s from the page, I give the actor the freebie and they know all the pressure’s off. And that’s where some of the best stuff can come from because they can do what they want. Sometimes it’s useless, but sometimes it’s the weirdest, funniest stuff and it makes it into the cut. It’s all about doing whatever it takes to get what you want because there are so many people counting on you. You want give them what they need to be awesome and funny on the screen.

MM: Once you get to post-production, what is your process working with your editor? How do you feel about test screenings?

AD: We had a pretty unconventional set up on Balls Out; I’m an editor and I think a lot of filmmakers coming up now are also editors. This generation knows how to cut. So, the editor [Kody Gibson] and I both had workstations. We would trade off on sequences and send project files back and forth. For us, it cut down on time trying to explain what I wanted. Instead I could just show it or do it. Probably not for everyone, but for us it worked.

And I love test screenings, especially for comedy. Jokes either work or they don’t and test audiences will let you know. We did five test screenings and sometimes your favorite jokes just have to go. But in the end, it all makes for a funnier, snappier movie.

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Andrew Disney presides over the final game in Balls Out.

MM: Your distributor, Orion Pictures, changed your title (originally Intramural) and marketing materials, which is a reality for indies that comes along with distribution. How did you feel about that?

AD: I feel so lucky and grateful that a big distributor wanted our film, and when it comes to stuff like the title change, I totally defer to them. They’re the experts on marketing it and getting more people see it, so if more people end up seeing the movie I’m all for it. The movie’s the same, so that’s all I care about.

MM: What advice do you have for moviemakers trying to get their first feature off the ground?

AD: The age-old answer: If you want to direct or write, you’ve got to direct or write. When I look back at my younger years I just think, “I had so much time, and there was so much more I could’ve done.” I just didn’t know how much material I could produce. You just have to figure out what that one movie you’ve always wanted to make is, and then figure out how the hell you’re gonna direct it or get the money to squeeze it through. If you want to be a writer or director, you have to be a little delusional and think, “I don’t care what people are going to say or what’s going to happen. I’m going to make this no matter what.”

Balls Out opens in select theaters and on VOD June 19th, 2015.

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