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'Express' runs the ball well

September 23, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

GARY FLEDER'S "The Express," which hits theaters in October, is really two compelling movies in one. It's a great history lesson, offering kids a look at the real-life exploits of Ernie Davis, the trailblazing Syracuse University running back who in 1961 became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. But it's also a great drama about how both the athletes and coaches of that era were profoundly transformed by the civil rights movement, which initially had a far greater effect on society than on the football field.

It's also a genuine comeback for Fleder, who hasn't made a feature in five years (he's been directing TV pilots), and he finally seems poised to recapture the promise of his early career work on such films as "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" and "Kiss the Girls." Before Fleder began work on the film, he knew he had to have one key figure on board: Jim Brown, who was a star running back at Syracuse in the 1950s, helped recruit Davis (after Brown left to play in the NFL) and later become an action film star and civil rights activist. Fleder didn't simply want Brown's take on Davis, who died in 1963; he wanted to hear what the former football star thought of Ben Schwartzwalder, the legendary Syracuse coach who wasn't so enthralled by the civil rights fervor that was starting to sweep the nation.

"I wasn't crazy about the original script," Fleder told me over lunch recently. "I loved the genre and I thought Ernie was an intriguing character, but it didn't have any real conflict." Fleder started doing his own research, reading a lengthy Sports Illustrated article by William Nack that dealt with Davis, Brown and racism in college sports in the '60s. He also watched Spike Lee's documentary "Jim Brown All-American," which offered more insight into the era. Finally he called Brown, who lives here in L.A., and set up a meeting.

"Jim was skeptical," Fleder recalls. "He thought the first script was a little thin. It was superficial and cloying and didn't give enough dimension to the story. But when he started talking about his own experiences, especially his conflicts with Schwartzwalder and how he was told he couldn't date white girls, I started to see a lot more drama there. Jim told me something really amazing that put things in perspective. He said, 'You have to realize, in the civil rights movement, there had to be radicals and peacemakers, radicals like Malcolm X and peacemakers like Martin Luther King. At Syracuse, I was the radical and Ernie was the peacemaker, the guy everyone loved. But you needed both of us to make real changes."

Fleder shakes his head. "I have to give Jim Brown a ton of credit. He gave me a way in to tell this story. After talking to him, I knew we had a movie. Chuck Leavitt did a great page-one rewrite of the script. In fact, he didn't even look at the original script. I gave him the transcript of my talk with Jim and based on that, he said, 'I'm in.' Hearing Jim talk about the times was all he needed to convince him."


In RECENT years, Fleder had spent a lot of time directing for the small screen. It's not exactly glamorous work, but I know several directors who say it's an invaluable education in terms of communicating with actors, experimenting with new technology and being more economical in their work.

"If filmmakers would do more TV pilots, they'd probably make movies a lot faster," says Fleder. "It really helps you sharpen your craft."

It's also a great way to meet good screenwriters, which turned out to have a big influence on "The Express." Although he heaps praise on Leavitt's work on the script, after Fleder cast Dennis Quaid as Schwartzwalder he felt he needed a fresh eye to do some rewrites, especially on the film's football scenes. So he turned to John Lee Hancock, the director of "The Rookie" and writer-director of "The Alamo." Hancock and Fleder were pals, having met -- natch -- working on the pilot of a short-lived 1998 TV show called "L.A. Doctors." (Hancock wrote the pilot episode, Fleder directed it.) Fleder turned to the Texas-born Hancock since he was not only a gifted writer but the son of a high school football coach whose two brothers had played college football.

"John brought a lot of verisimilitude to the story," Fleder says. "He read the script and said, 'Everyone says Schwartzwalder is a great coach, but shouldn't we show it?' And he wrote a great sequence where you see why he's a good coach, drawing up a really innovative offense, as well as see how he worked with Ernie Davis and how Syracuse won football games. It was really good work. I shot the sequence exactly as he wrote it."

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