Freddie Steinmark was no Rudy. He may have been an undersized, underestimated college football player, but he was a star for the championship Texas Longhorns teams of the late 1960s. But come Oct. 9, Steinmark will join Notre Dame’s Daniel Ruettiger in the cinematic pantheon of gridiron underdogs when My All American opens in theaters.
Finn Wittrock (American Horror Story) stars as the 165-pound defensive back who helped lead the 1969 Texas team to the college football national championship. Steinmark had been mostly ignored by the college scouts because of his small size, but Longhorn coach Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart) saw the way he threw himself around the field and gave him a scholarship. After the Longhorn’s greatest victory in years—a miraculous 15-14 comeback win against Arkansas with President Nixon in attendance—Steinmark’s jubilation was curtailed by a leg injury that, upon further examination, revealed a serious illness.
Several books have been written about Steinmark, who remains a celebrated hero in Texas and Colorado, where he grew up. Courage Beyond the Game, by Jim Dent, became the basis for the new film, which is written and directed by Angelo Pizzo, the screenwriter who penned Rudy and Hoosiers. “I read the book and I saw the movie in my head,” says Pizzo, who goes behind the camera for the first time.
Pizzo spent seven months in Texas working on the film, and the Indiana native quickly gained an appreciation for Longhorn football, which still honors Steinmark before taking the field at every home game. The filmmaker spoke to EW about sports movies, why he’s probably rooting for Texas against Notre Dame, and his biggest challenge in bringing Steinmark’s story to the big screen. Hook ’em Horns!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In many ways, I feel like Hoosiers perfected the underdog sports movie, so much so that so many sports movies today simply trace the template that you and director David Anspaugh outlined. But for you, what makes a great sports story?
ANGELO PIZZO: I think another writer said, “One of the things that’s difficult [about making sports movies] is you’re driving down a road full of pot holes and clichés. You are not going to avoid those pot holes, but you have to construct a kind of absorption system to not make people notice that you hit those holes.” Doing genre film of any kind, the skill of the filmmaker is to to take the familiar and make people feel like they’ve never seen it before. I don’t watch sports movies myself. I know the architecture. I know the options, the choices. But I’ve written too many locker room speeches myself. [Laughs] It’s actually painful for me to watch other sports movies.
With Hoosiers and Rudy, you’ve certainly dealt with very, very passionate fandoms. But Texas Longhorn football is certainly on par with Indiana high-school basketball and Notre Dame football. What did you find to be special about UT football?
The Notre Dame fan base feels they’re different, that they’re special, in a way that’s not comparable with any other school in the country. The University of Texas has a great context. The fans love their team, but they also know that up the road is Texas A&M, and down the road is Texas Tech and Baylor. They believe that their team is the standard bearer for the state, but it’s not like Notre Dame, which doesn’t even seem to acknowledge they’re in Indiana.
When you’re building a film around a tragic hero like Freddie, is there a temptation to turn him into a saint? How do you make him real and flawed and human and still deliver the story people want to see?
Well, you just pin-pointed my biggest challenge. I talked to his teammates, his girlfriend of four years, and his family, and I was desperate to find a flaw. But he was almost too perfect. He was humble. He was a leader. He went to mass every day. Nothing intimidated me more than writing a character and having people say, “Well, this guy is just too good. He’s too perfect.” But that’s who he was. And here’s the thing that was critical. The principal financier [UT alum Bud Brigham] asked me from the get-go, “How much of Rudy was true?” I said, “Maybe about 70 percent.” I had to composite characters. I had to compress time—because Rudy actually joined the Navy for three years out of high school—just to make it work as a movie. And he looked at me and said, “I don’t want 70 percent; I want 90 percent. I want to say, ‘The following is a true story.'” But the other thing that was important to [Brigham] was to create a role model, to create a hero that could be an inspiration for his own team. So there was nothing false or made up about the Freddie character. Freddie had a lot of confidence in himself, but he was extremely humble. He was very deferential. He was very giving. He wasn’t a rah-rah guy. He led by example more than by speech. That’s just who he was. He impacted everybody that he came in contact with. So the trick for me as a writer and filmmaker was to show how Freddie changed others, until we got to the last act where Freddie goes through his own change, as anybody would if they were faced with the news that he got.
That can’t be easy to play either.
In order to pull this off, I had to find the right actor, because it’s a very fine line that he is walking at all times. Once terrible things happen to him, then we’re home free. That’s more easy to write; it’s about a person trying to survive. Rather, there’s nothing really at stake when he’s just trying to get in to college and he’s not getting offered any scholarships. It’s not like death. And Finn Whitlock just intuitively found the right approach. He did a lot of research on Freddie and it’s in the script. But it’s one thing to just say the words, another thing to play it.
When I think of your sports movies, I think of Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing scores. He passed away in 2004, but should we expect something similar for My All American? I saw you hired John Paesano (The Maze Runner).
You hit it on the head. I talked to six different composers; they all wanted to do it. This kind of movie is a composer’s dream because the movies that most people do now are effects driven. They’re not melodic driven, classic symphonic scores. I end up hiring John, who probably had less credits than three of four of them, in part because he trained under Jerry Goldsmith for three years. [Laughs] I said, “My dream composer is Jerry, and if you can channel him while writing this score, that would be great.” He said, “I could do that.” And without being imitative, if you really understand and know scoring, you can hear the references from time to time. But it is completely of a piece. It’s a beautiful score. I’m thrilled with it. It’s a very important piece of the puzzle.