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Don Handfield, director of the inspirational movie ‘Touchback’, about a man who looks back at his life and to the injury that ended his dreams of becoming a promising high-school football player, talks about the movie in the production notes.
“As a director, I find three feeling words to describe the world of the film, words that then serve as a clear way for me to communicate my vision to the people around me. For ‘Touchback’ the words were authentic, beautiful and worn. These words guide the choices made on the film from the very first day of pre-production.
“I saw twenty or thirty choices for Murphy’s truck, none of which were all of these words. The hero truck for old Murphy was finally found on a location scout, when I saw it as we drove by. The truck was rusted to beauty with red tape over one of the tail pipes. I first used it as an example, and when a similar truck couldn’t be found, sent the production knocking on the door to ask about it. When the family that owned it refused to sell it because they loved it so much, I knew we had the right vehicle.
“Because of the level of authenticity we wanted to achieve it was important to shoot this film on location in the Midwest. We also never shot on a stage.
“Some of our key locations – like the factory – were shot as is, right down to the grease on the keyboards of the 1980s computers inside it.
“A majority of the locations weren’t ready to go, or needed to be adapted for the period aspect of 1991, and my Production Designer, Roshelle Berliner, and her team did an incredible job making the many locations we did have to dress seem as authentic as the ones we didn’t.
“Morgan Gillio came on and did a masterful job with props, and I can’t say enough about our makeup artist, Barney Burman. He won an Academy Award for ‘Star Trek’ just after our first fall splinter shoot, and thankfully stayed with us for principal photography in the spring. His work on the age makeup of the character helped create the reality of the time travel aspect of the film.
“As far as the style of cinematography, I am not a big fan of hand held. It has a time and place, but I think it’s overused. I wanted the frames and the style of the film to evoke some of the classic films of t the last few decades. ‘Deer Hunter’ and ‘Days of Heaven’ were visual inspirations for the look and feel of the film.
“Football action was always a big part of Touchback, and it was something that was always foremost in my mind to try and capture in the best way possible. A lot of sports scenes captured for film come off feeling flat, forced. I spent years trying to figure out how to address this, so when the opportunity came, ‘Touchback’ wouldn’t have those shortcomings if possible.
“The first thing we did was a splinter shoot of a real high school football game in the fall of 2009, before we had cast, prepped, or done anything. It was an opportunity to capture real Midwest football action at relatively little cost. We found two real high school football teams in rural Ohio, and I had several DPs come out to shoot the game, including a crew from NFL films.
This allowed us to get many pieces of the game – real action pieces – and some set piece shots (like the Pinto on the bluff) – that would have been impossible on our budget and inordinately expensive for any production – but were inexpensive because we were just, for the most part, capturing reality. These uniforms the real high school teams played in then became the battle uniforms (and numbers!) for our fictional David vs. Goliath.
“The second thing that helped our football sequences was getting lucky. When this project was set up at a studio several years ago (with a different director and a much larger budget) – it landed in the hands of Mark Ellis, one of the best sports coordinators in the business. He did the football for ‘Varsity Blues’, ‘Invincible’, ‘We Are Marshall’ and many other blockbuster sports films.
When the film was greenlit again, years later, with an indie budget, he actually reached out to us because he had fallen in love with the script and wanted to be a part of the movie. I can’t speak highly enough about Mark and what he brought to the table as part of the filmmaking team. He made the football scenes we recreated better than reality.
“The third thing we did was cast lead actors who could really play football. Brian Presley was actually a state championship quarterback in high school and even played the position for a spell in college at Arkansas. Chris Hall, the star receiver, was played by Mark Blucas, a former Division I basketball player for Wake Forest and a high school football star in his own right.
Now we had a team of actors who could pitch and catch like the real thing. In fact, Mark Ellis talked about having to do something he called a “Texas Switch” which is so common in sports movies – actor drops back, camera pans away as stuntman throws ball to another stuntman who catches ball and dives to the ground out of frame as actor stands up like he just caught the ball. We didn’t have to do that on ‘Touchback’. Because Brian could really throw bombs and Mark Blucas could really catch them. Most of the time.
“I wanted ‘Touchback’ to feel and sound like a timeless love story. For that, I knew most of the movie should be classical score, orchestrated and played by live musicians. I went through many possible composers and ultimately settled on William Ross. His music was always so emotional, and he was one of the few composers that had the breadth of range needed to be able to cover the wide range of musical styles needed for ‘Touchback’. The action pieces for the football game, the love themes, the darker moments, Bill can do it all and has been a joy to work with.”