Facing the Nation
Filmmakers turned their cameras on Fenway's faithful for 'Still, We Believe'
Warning: "Still, We Believe: The Boston Red Sox Movie," the new film about the Sox' 2003 season, which opens Friday, contains explicit scenes of passion, betrayal, suffering, and prophecy. Otherwise, it is almost nothing like Mel Gibson's biblical epic about the last hours of Jesus of Nazareth.
Then again, Gibson's movie doesn't have Angry Bill.
Angry Bill -- real name Paul Costine of Watertown -- is a tormented Sox fan and logorrheic talk-radio caller whose mood swings rival Manny Ramirez's home run swings. Costine doesn't just suffer for the hapless BoSox. He suffers with a swagger. His suffering combines the best of Job, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Woody Allen. Costine, along with seven other Sox fans allotted prominent roles by filmmakers Paul Doyle Jr. and Bob Potter, emerges as the real star of the documentary, not Manny or Pedro or boy-wonder general manager Theo Epstein.
And like everything else about the project, say Doyle and Potter, that outcome was unscripted and utterly unpredictable when shooting began 15 months ago.
"It's easy to say we made a Red Sox film" when pitching the project to distributors, says Doyle, seated beside Potter in a Fenway Park grandstand one morning last week. "It's got Nomar dancing in the locker room, Derek Lowe at home. People get that. But a movie about fans -- do you buy that? I don't know."
Potter, who has been working with Doyle long enough to finish his sentences for him, mentions the scene near the end of their film when Costine is watching Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. First Costine predicts Trot Nixon's go-ahead home run -- on camera, no less -- and then he unravels with nosebleed intensity as the Yankees rally to win.
"If there's a way to nominate Angry Bill for an award, he deserves it," Potter says, shaking his head in admiration. "That whole scene was like a `Seinfeld' episode."
Red Sox fans may be pleasantly surprised by the film's intimacy and humor, since it's hard to imagine that the uptight John Harrington/Dan Duquette regime would have granted outsiders this kind of access or editorial control, or that there would be anything revealing left to say about a baseball team whose name pops up whenever "curse" and "futility" are Googled. Yet for Doyle and Potter, who have made other sports documentaries on soccer, rugby, college basketball, and rodeo, for example, "Still, We Believe" follows a formula the two have been perfecting for more than 20 years.
Doyle is an Emmy winner who has collaborated with Potter on most of his films. Potter has also produced independent features such as "King of the Jungle" and "A Brother's Kiss." The two are partners in Bombo Sports & Entertainment Co., a Manhattan-based production company that has cranked out biopics on Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Shaquille O'Neal, and other sports luminaries. On the drawing board are two more soccer films (one in 3-D), a documentary about the Army football team, and one about Duke basketball.
Doyle, who grew up outside New York City and is a Mets fan, hatched the idea for their latest film when, after making a documentary on the Manchester United soccer team, it struck him how poorly Major League Baseball was marketing itself.
"What better way than a film about a cool team in a cool town with cool fans?" says Doyle, who directed and edited the Sox film.
Potter, the film's producer, graduated from Milton Academy in 1978 and vividly recalls the Red Sox blowing a 14-game lead over the Yankees that year. He made the initial approach to Sox brass through his brother-in-law, an old pal of team president Larry Lucchino. At no point, says Potter, was there any "what about the Cubs or Cardinals?" discussion.
"There was no Plan B, because Paul and I never even have a Plan A," Potter says, rolling his eyes at Doyle as if such a notion were preposterous. "To add too much science to what we do is a dangerous thing," he continues. "Usually what we do is pretty good. But this time I really think we got it."
Conversations with Sox management began on the final day of the 2002 season, when Potter sat at Baltimore's Camden Yards with Lucchino and team vice president Dr. Charles Steinberg. No one in the organization ever said no to any request of theirs, according to Potter and Doyle. In addition, they got plenty of assistance from a variety of sources, including the Sox front office, in locating the core group of fans through which to tell the story.
Co-owner Tom Werner suggested Foxborough native Jim Connors, who runs a Sox-centric bar in Santa Monica, Calif. The Boston Fire Department nominated Steve Craven, who works at the Huntington Avenue firehouse. And radio station WEEI-AM recommended two of its regular callers, Costine and Jermaine Evans, both of whom, in sports-talk parlance, bring a lot to the table when psychoanalyzing the team and its fans (including themselves).
Costine, who turned up at last week's red-carpet premiere at the Loews Boston Common with a posse worthy of Snoop Dogg, admits he had some initial qualms about participating in the project.
"I'm an assassin on the radio, but nobody knows my face. So yeah, it was a little intimidating," he says, standing not far from the Pesky Pole in Fenway's right-field seats. "But I also never thought it would wind up on the movie screen. I figured maybe a TV movie. And I'm not shy, so I had fun with it."
Craven, standing beside Costine, says he, too, had few preconceived notions about how the film would look or his role in it.
"They could make you look good or horrible or anything in between," says Craven, who says he's pleased with the results.
Doyle and Potter interviewed about 100 fans before settling on eight to follow closely once the season began. Some plans were junked along the way, they concede. Doyle had intended to travel to Afghanistan to profile a Sox fan serving in the military, he says, but as the July 4 weekend series against the Yankees approached, he reconsidered for reasons of his own safety and relevance to the tone of the film.
"It seemed cool to do at one point," Doyle recalls. "But then I thought, `That's war over there. People are dying. This is baseball. So let's be real here.' "
The focus on fans paid other dividends, says Doyle, notably by allowing players ample time to get comfortable with cameras in the clubhouse. "There was no need to be in their face," he says. "By midseason, we could do pretty much anything we wanted."
Among subjects left largely untouched were controversies such as Ramirez's sore-throat incident ("We had nothing revelatory to add," Doyle says) and the "cowboy up" rallying cry that energized the Fenway faithful for much of last season (Doyle: "You end up explaining stuff, which we're not well-suited for."). There's no celebrity narrator, either, or veteran commentator such as ESPN's Peter Gammons (who does appear briefly) to limn such subjects as the Curse or the ill-fated bullpen-by-committee.
"I think it's a cooler feel -- more like you're at the movies -- than if you have a David Halberstam or David McCullough framing the story," explains Potter, who deployed as many as four camera crews to follow the eight fans during the team's dramatic march to the brink of the World Series.
With 250 hours of film shot, though, there were bound to be many scenes left on the editing-room floor. And there were. Most involved the Sox players interacting in the clubhouse or elsewhere off the field, though one took place during the climactic playoff game, when a fan made an uncharitable remark about Pedro Martinez. Doyle dropped the scene not because Lucchino objected to it but because he thought it played against the fan's true nature, "and that bothered me," he says.
Costing "somewhat less than $2 million," according to Potter and Doyle, "Still, We Believe" opens this weekend in theaters in Eastern Massachusetts. Should it do well locally, they say, it's possible the film would get a limited tryout in Chicago, St. Louis, or other baseball-hungry cities. "Our strength could be our weakness," says Doyle. "It could be a success just in New England, because the Red Sox are such a part of the region's tapestry. But it might not play anywhere else, and that's OK."
Potter disagrees with another of Doyle's contentions: that the film would have been a tougher sell had the Red Sox made it to the World Series and faced off against the equally championship-challenged Chicago Cubs. Doyle's reasoning? Major League Baseball would have peddled its own 2003 highlight film and thereby trumped their efforts. Counters Potter, "Now that I know what we did, there would have been an audience for it."
Still, when he recalls moments like Game 5 of the Oakland playoff series, when the Red Sox came back to beat the A's, Potter says he and Doyle took the same roller-coaster ride fans did.
"I was pacing around my living room, thinking, entirely selfishly, `The film! The film!' " says Potter, laughing. "Paul and I are always nervous, but it would be a joke not to say we got considerably lucky with this one."
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.