‘The Rugby Player’ is an uplifting and stereotype-shattering documentary that tells the story of a mother, a son, and what it takes to be a hero. The film explores the lives of Mark Bingham, one of the passengers on United Flight 93 on 9/11, and his mother, Alice Hoagland, a former United Airlines flight attendant. ‘The Rugby Player‘ is a touching, funny and stirring portrait of how a son’s heroism can inspire a nation, and how a mother’s love can turn unfathomable loss into unshakable resolve. Utilizing footage shot by Bingham himself, this timely film provides keen insights for the national debates on LGBT rights, marriage equality and gay athletes in sports.
Anticipating ‘The Rugby Player’ screening on Wednesday, September 11, 2013 as part of the 2013 NewFest at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, we spoke with the films Director Scott Gracheff, as well as Mark’s mother Alice Hoagland about the legacy of United 93, the current state of LGBT equality, distribution strategies and much more. Be sure to catch this poignant film’s (sure to be) emotional screening at 5pm at the Walter Reade Theater.
Find Tickets & More Information on ‘The Rugby Player’ at 2013 NewFest – HERE
Scott, where did your original interest in documentary filmmaking originate?
Scott Gracheff: Probably when I realized in High School you can make a documentary instead of turning ina paper (laughs). I worked for PBS for over 10 years leading up to 9/11. I had been working in San Francisco on a number of PBS style documentaries. Normally the documentaries I worked on highlighted stories seldom heard in the media. Stories like Japanese Internment or Latino World War II soldiers. When I met Todd Sarner (Mark’s good friend and content advisor on ‘The Rugby Player‘) at a dinner party in 2002, he started talking about Mark. I felt very intrigued about him and realized he was someone I wanted to learn more about. As I did so, I learned how Mark was an amateur documentary filmmaker who captured virtually his whole life on video tape. Once we found that out we knew we had the material to make an engaging film.
Was this introduction to Mark’s story the result of a chance encounter?
Scott: It was a bit of a chance encounter. Todd and I had some mutual friends, we were at a party together and started talking. Like everyone, I was glued to the TV in the days and weeks following 9/11, but I had never seen anything about Mark or heard his name. That intrigued me. I think one of the strengths of the film is that it is an untold story of 9/11. At the same time, it is much more than a 9/11 film. It is a coming of age film.
How did you initially want to construct this narrative? Did it change over the course of research, development and production?
Scott: It certainly did. My filmmaking partners, Holly and Chris Million, had been working on this film for over 10 years. I could be wrong, but I think every documentary begins with a discovery. You do not really know what the story is when you first set out to tell it. At least you have a rough outline. It is always best to go out with a bit of a skeleton. At the beginning, I think this film was more of a generic biography, but given the fact it is a grass roots, independent production allowed the story to mature. It allowed us to discover what, we thought was, the most engaging part of the story which was the relationship Mark had with Alice. Once we discovered that we realized this was a film we needed to make. It took us a few years to get there though.
Alice, what was your initial reaction when proposed with the idea of the documentary?
Alice Hoagland: I was scared and very thrilled! My opinions were confirmed that my son needed a movie (laughs). I was just delighted to hear from Scott, Holly, Chris and Todd. Todd was Mark’s lifelong friend.
Scott: I think I was drinking a vodka and cranberry. That is how the conversation started, where Todd mentioned how that drink was Mark’s favorite.
What struck me about ‘The Rugby Player’ was how it was a portrait of an individual. Given the subject matter it is very easy to veer into sensationalism territory by including graphic 9/11 footage, Westboro Baptists Church footage and the likes. How did you navigate this space between a human drama and the possibility of sensationalism and/or politicization?
Scott: You can go a million different ways in documentary and especially a story as big as this one which is rooted in such a horrific event. I think had we had the means the complete the documentary a few years after 9/11 it would have been a more political film, but consequently would have become a less engaging one. For us, when we found our way with the story, we let Mark be our guide. I say that in terms of the footage because Mark shot the story of his life. We were just lucky enough to be able to put it together.
In terms of what stories to tell and what aspects of those stories, again, we looked to the footage and let that guide us. We wanted to get as much of Mark in the film as possible. This engages the audience on a personal and intimate level. You get to know him; you get to like him; you get to love him; you are saddened by what happened and, hopefully, you are inspired by him as well.
You layer his personality well. As the film progresses his personality unravels as opposed to being laid out at the beginning, making viewers work backwards. As I watched, I noticed that the three major aspects of Mark’s life up until his death were his experience playing Rugby, his internal dilemma as a closeted man and subsequent confidence coming out, as well as his desire to express himself artistically. How did these three things prepare him for his ultimate role on United 93?
Alice: I think that every day of Mark’s life prepared him for those last 15 minutes. This movie helps me to see how cohesive and orderly his life, as well as his progression in life. He was a un-self confident little boy who grew up to be a burly and powerful guy. He took the right courses and picked out the right personality traits he wanted so he became a remarkable person able to handle the moment in a terribly stressful situation.
You are right, he was a rugby player and that taught him how to be forceful, think on his feet and be a leader. He was able to pull the best talents of his friends, this pickup team of guys he was able to amass on 9/11, and coordinate them. Somebody told me that Mark was so tall he was probably just hopping over the seats and letting the shorter guys charge down the aisle. All of those characteristics helped every single one of the guys on that plane. Todd Beamer was a basketball player; Tom Burnett was a college quarterback; Jeremy Glick was also a rugby player and a judo enthusiast. It was wonderful that they were able to work together to make a difference, and what a difference they made! They spared America the sight of the capitol dome enflamed, as well as the list of senators and congressmen on the rolls of the dead.
People ask me if I am sorry flight 93 did not get all the attention, but if that is the price that those guys paid for saving so many lives, then so be it. In fact, United 93 has gotten a lot of attention. There was not very much good news that came out of 9/11, but what happened over the skies of Pittsburgh was really good news.
When you visit the site of the accident, what is the atmosphere like for you personally?
Alice: It changes. The most compelling, for me, was when I went back with the film crew. It is very different now, but at first it was more beautiful. It was raw. There was folk art. People had come to use the little expanse of a chain link fence to leave their mark and to leave memento’s for those who died. It is a windblown place in the winter and hot in the summer. I remember the first time I went there, which was a week after 9/11. There was an army of media people there. The moon rose up in the Eastern sky and was huge. For a minute the whole place seemed very magical. There were others who claimed to see their loved ones walking out of the hemlocks. Somehow I was thankful that the place Mark and his fellow pickup team died was in a bucolic setting. It was quite lovely.
Scott: I have been there once, and it was with Alice. For me it is going there as an observer. I do not have that personal, intimate connection Alice (and so many others) have there. I think it is a reverential place, and you feel that when you are there.
Speaking from a filmmaking point of view, I thought it was interesting how you included a group interview as a significant aspect of the narrative as opposed to the single “talking head” approach. How did this strategy move the narrative along in a way that was cohesive to your goals?
Scott: We got to see Mark’s family interact with each other while talking about him. If you can achieve an energy with the group dynamic, ideally the camera becomes observational and people start talking to each other in a natural way. Since much of their dialogue is overdubbing images shot by Mark it creates less of a wall between past and present.
What audience are you targeting with this film and what is your strategy to meet this audience?
Scott: The good news, as a filmmaking team we are all on the same page in terms of moving forward and trying to get this film seen by as many people as possible. We are in a very interesting time in terms of filmmaking. We are starting to see the more antiquated forms of distribution crumbling around us, and I do not necessarily see this as a bad thing. A lot of filmmakers these days have found success with a hybrid of traditional/DIY form of distribution, which is what we are looking into. We want to choose any path we can so that the most eyeballs on the planet can see this film. Also, we just started the festival circuit so our options are open right now and we are looking to work with people who will best meet that goal.
As far as going off and seeing the film on its specific festival run, it is an interesting experience. It is very rewarding, as a filmmaker, when people are engaged by your film at an emotional level and luckily that has been the case here. The tough part of being a filmmaker is you will always see the little things you may want to change. I was at a screening of Errol Morris’ ‘Tabloid’ a few years back where someone asked him how he knew a documentary is “finished”. He said it is easy because everyone starts yelling at you. Luckily in our case this was not what happened. We were lucky since, after many years of working on the film, we have a powerful and engaging story that is relevant with today.
As far as our target audience, it is the wide audience. We have started our festival run on the LGBT circuit and are happy about that because the audience is there and want to hear Mark’s story. If you have seen the film, it is not edited for a gay audience. If anything, it is edited for a “mainstream” audience because when Mark comes out it is from a shock point of view and that was by design. Of course the real hope is that if people have some preconceived notions about LGBT rights I hope Mark’s story challenges them.
I feel like the educational route is something to consider as the film is very indicative of a modern US condition, especially in relation to the evolving nature of LGBT rights. Perhaps bringing the film to college campuses and high schools around the country would be beneficial…
Alice: That is a wonderful idea! Maybe I will get lucky enough to be invited and I will talk about my son to anyone who will listen. For example, the young LGBT people who are just now coming out and becoming aware of their own sexuality, this would be the film I would like them to see.
Scott: Our producer Holly Million is putting together a national tour of the film with a robust education outreach initiative. We are already talking to the California organization of Universities as far as getting the film in at the college level. We would love to see it at the High School level, especially as being part of some anti-bullying initiatives and overall LGBT history.
Since you will be playing the film in New York on September 11, how are you anticipating the event?
Alice: Emotions are going to be pretty high! I spent the morning with some 9/11 family members. There is no place like New York in gaining appreciation for the horrific event that was 9/11. It is an honor for me to be able to show this movie in New York City. I am so grateful that Mark’s life turned out to be so remarkably salient, timely and important. I know Mark had no idea but he would be very pleased to know that is being looked up to as a gay role model that he, in his life, complained there were not enough of.
To wrap everything together, in a brief description, can each of you disclose what you would like audiences to take away from Mark’s life after the credits roll?
Scott: I would hope the audience comes away with viewing the film what I came away with while making the film, which is to live your life without fear.
Alice: Mark was a big believer in everyone having a good time. One of his big goals in life was that everyone would know each other, enjoy each others company and love each other. I have learned an awful lot from my son and what I hope the audience will take away is that we are all members of a very large community: the human family. The LGBT community deserves enfranchisement within this larger group. It is important to grab onto life because it will pass you by if you do not seize the moment.
– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed On Site by Steve Rickinson