How did the documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball, about indie baseball team the Portland Mavericks, come into being? Director Maclain Way, with a little help from his brother and co-director, Chapman, explains.
About four years ago, our team decided we were going to make a documentary on a baseball team called the Portland Mavericks. It all began when my grandmother hired my unemployed brother, Chapman, to help organize her house. Being an indie filmmaker, I’m sure he needed the $45. While helping clean the back office, he discovered a 1975 team photo of the Portland Mavericks among the clutter. He showed the picture to our producer, Juliana Lembi, and myself.
I had trouble believing what I was seeing: baseball team photos are usually so stale and boring, but these Mavericks had their jerseys on backwards and they were drinking beers and smoking pot and had their mascot dog running around. In the upper right hand corner was Bing [Russell], the owner of this baseball team and our grandfather, hoisting his beer bottle up in the air and saluting his rag-tag group of has-beens, never-weres, and hopeless dreamers looking for a second chance.
Growing up I knew that Bing owned a professional baseball team in the 1970s, but few details. We quickly discovered that, at the time, the Mavericks were the only remaining independent ball club in America. We learned that there used to be hundreds of independent ball clubs, but as Major League Baseball expanded across the country, these indie teams began to die off.
With this remarkable underdog story about an independent baseball team fighting against the entrenched powers of organized baseball, we set out to make our first feature-length documentary. We were determined to finance the documentary ourselves. Of course, by “finance” I mean I sold my car, Juliana gathered up her recent wedding money, and Chap applied for every credit card he could and maxed them all out. He even used that $45 from our grandmother.
Our first attempt at research was a simple Google search of the “Portland Mavericks.” What we saw was around three or four semi-informed articles about the team. No pictures and no videos on YouTube. It became clear that, except to a few die-hard Portlander baseball fans, the Mavericks were almost completely forgotten.
A few days later, we drove the thousand or so miles to Oregon and set up shop in the Multinomah County Library in downtown Portland. What followed was weeks of scanning and transferring archival newspaper articles stored on old microfilm. We ended up with over a thousand articles from the three different newspapers. Soon, a clearer picture of the team, its characters, and its never-before-told story began to take shape.
One of Chapman’s pet peeves is the presence of too many talking heads in documentaries, especially subjects who often have little to no personal connection to the story. After conducting a round of pre-interviews with many of the story’s subjects, we narrowed down the number of talking heads that would appear in the documentary to around 10. This was a difficult process and even had to cut out a few family members (sorry, Mom!).
Our first important aesthetic decision was to shoot the interviews on a studio stage and not in casual settings. A lot of fantastic documentaries capture great interview footage in homes, workplaces, or story-centric locations, but we felt that the archival footage should provide the visual setting for the film. Our interviews, filmed against an infinite white backdrop, would focus the audience’s attention on the storytelling and the feverish feel of 1970s Portland.
We filmed all of our interviews over the course of three days: two days in Portland and one in Los Angeles. Since three days was all we could afford, our time constraints made everything a tad stressful. But months of previous research and time spent crafting the story allowed us to be very efficient with our interview process. Many doc filmmakers spend months capturing hundreds of hours of interview footage which they then use to “find” their story. Chapman and I work a little differently, spending months before our first interview researching and crafting the narrative, so that we can be very precise with our questioning on interview day. The challenge in doing a talking-head documentary is the balancing act of getting questions answered that lend itself to the narrative you have been crafting, while also remaining open to new stories and ideas that didn’t surface in the research stage.
When we first started pre-preproduction, I remember telling Chapman, “We’re probably going to have to rely a lot on newspaper articles and photos, because there’s no way footage will still be lying around.” But we had to try. My strategy was to cold-call local Portland news stations and tell them about our documentary. At first it was slow, but we persevered. Within a few months we had collected footage from the Oregon Historical Society, Portland news stations, our grandmother’s attic, and Oscar-nominee Todd Field’s sock drawer.
I remember getting our first batch of film back from the lab. We all sat down and pressed “play.” It was exhilarating. I saw the Mavericks move for the first time, and actually play baseball. They were getting base hits, stealing bases and scoring runs. About halfway through, though, they were still getting base hits, stealing bases and scoring runs. At the end of the reel, they were still getting base hits, stealing bases and scoring runs. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed, but I was being naive.
I discovered why I was only seeing “highlights” of games; games were not recorded in the way we are accustomed to today. Rather, the camera man would flick his camera on-and-off for each pitch, and would continue filming on the occasional base hit, stolen base, or scored run. Then whatever was filmed that day would be taken back to the news station, edited down to 30-60 seconds of highlight footage, which would be broadcasted that evening and then archived in the basement. Obviously, we realized it was going to be difficult making an archival documentary out of just highlight footage. Crafting the narrative we had intended from the beginning was going to require a lot of time spent editing and re-writing the story in the editing room.
The Editing Room
Chapman quit his job and moved back home, where we set up our makeshift editing bay in my mother’s guest room. Our first pass was an assembly cut of the doc. This was two hours of just talking-head footage from beginning to end. And it was…awful. No music, no graphics, no archival footage, images, or newspapers. However, our belief was that if we could craft a captivating narrative out of just the talking-head footage, it would only get better as we began to pepper in all of the other visual elements. Over the next 18 months we inserted the archival footage, pictures, graphics, animation, etc. Our goal was to create a fast-paced 80 minute documentary that would match the look and feel of the wild Mavericks, while also exploring the differences between indie ball and the world of organized baseball.
Once we finally got to the fine cutting stage, we had a small group of trusted minds–including our two producers Juliana Lembi and Nancy Schafer, and Todd Field–offer insightful feedback and notes. We also hooked up with a talented editor, Neil Meiklejohn, who helped polish the cut before our Sundance premiere.
Chapman is actually a musician and works with our older brother, Brocker, on various music projects. They put together a strong team for the score, including Grammy-winning producer Tom Biller (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Where the Wild Things Are), Ali Helnwein (composer, conductor, Emmy-winning Touch of Evil) who conducted the instrumentalists, and Neal Morgan (Joanna Newsom, Robin Pecknold) for percussion arrangements.
About a week after receiving our acceptance from Sundance, we all met up at Brocker’s apartment in Silver Lake. Chapman and I basically slept on the couch next to Brocker’s desk for that month while he composed day and night. This arrangement, while not the most common professional practice, allowed us to make a film with a tight fit between story and score. The instrumentation featured a chamber ensemble blended with the hammond organ and other band-oriented instruments such as guitar, piano, bass, and drums. Brocker believed that the orchestral sound of a small ensemble could carry the audience through a different set of experiences than is typically found in a sports doc.
We spent a ton of time discussing the themes of the film as Brocker honed in on a central perspective from which the music was oriented and built from there. A major strategy for him compositionally was to put the audience in the same stadium as those fans. That dictated a lot in the score in terms of its structure and development of the major motives: small ambient cues foreshadow larger themes to come; themes return in bi-tonal fashion like ghosts from happier times. It was a blast for us to experiment with various compositional devices like these to push the story in different directions. And to be my older brother’s boss for a while was a good time.
We truly believe that it is an exciting time to be a documentary filmmaker. With a great story, a minimal amount of money, and a talented group of friends or family, you can really create something that has the ability to profoundly impact a wide audience. We have now taken the documentary across the country to festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, and the Los Angeles Film Festival. Hearing the enthusiastic response from audiences (many of whom don’t even like baseball) has been an absolute thrill. MM
The Battered Bastards of Baseball premiered on Netflix on Friday, July 11. Watch the trailer here:
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