Joe Mazzello's new film Undrafted makes an intramural baseball playoff game feel like the World Series, and though it's rooted in comedy, the film exposes a much bigger story about perseverance and passion. Undrafted features John Mazzello (Joe's real life brother), a talented player who has just found out he will not be drafted onto a Major League team.
Not only did Joe Mazzello write and direct the film, he also plays Patrick Murray, a very eager center fielder for the D-Backs. We spoke with Mazzello about the unique process of turning a memorable game with an eclectic team of guys into a film that uncovers so much more than just baseball.
PopWrapped: What inspired you to turn your brother's story into a film?
Joe Mazzello: If I was an actor my whole life, he was a baseball player his whole life. He really obsessed over this game and gave it everything he had. He was so good at it; just a great player, and he got really close. He got his draft card, which is kind of that step before you can get drafted; you have to get invited to the draft. So, it was looking like it might happen, but for whatever reasons, it just didn't.
We were kind of bummed about it, the whole family saw how much he worked for it. So one day I came home to NY and I was with my dad... and my dad always thinks he has the best idea for a movie, but it's always just like, the worst idea. So he's like you know, 'The dad is the martyr. He dies and the kids are devastated...' it's always stuff like that. So I was like 'Ok, what's your idea this time?' and he said, 'I gotta tell you about this game that your brother played at.' It was right after we found all this out. It was some silly, stupid intramural game, and he was telling me all about the game and about the people playing in it, and then he says, 'Look at this!' One of the people who was watching it actually recorded the final moment of the game.
And when I saw that I kind of said, you know, that would actually make a really great ending to a movie, to show the climax and then show the clip of it actually happening. And so that kind of stuck in my mind, and then I went back to LA and I was talking to a friend about it, and he said you should write it. And so I was like, ok, I think I will, and I talked to my brother and sat him down and said, 'Tell me all about your teammates.' And he was just going through these guys one by one, and I just couldn't believe how interesting and crazy and funny and unique these guys were. And I was just like, this thing is perfect! There is so much to draw from. There are so many stories to tell, and all of these guys were unique; it was going to be so easy to differentiate in the script, going to be easy when we film it.
I did little character breakdowns for everybody, and before I knew it, I had written the script so fast. I wrote the script in about two months, and I just felt like it was a story that had to be told. I wrote the last thirty pages in a day, and that never happens with me. I've written things before where I labor over it, but this one felt like it had to happen. And shortly thereafter, we got it funded and we were on set. It was really a dream.
PW: Are the other characters on the team in the film still based on specific people?
JM: Yeah, they're all real. They're all depicted in the movie. They're going to be getting together and have a little baseball reunion to watch the movie. I got to know a couple of the guys, and a few of the them are actually extras in the movie because we had to do a little extra shooting in New York just of pick-ups... and four or five of the guys made it into the movie, which is pretty cool. And my brother even does better. My brother actually has a line in it. So he got really into it.
PW: What was this casting process like to try and find these players from your brother's team?
JM: Well it started with Chace Crawford, and we've been friends probably for eight years now. I gave him the script first, and he was just like 'Joe, this is amazing. I love this. I want to be a part of it. You've got to get this thing made.' So it started there, getting him attached and coming on as executive producer.
And then we just sent it out and got amazing responses. Chace knew a couple of guys; he knew Toby Hemingway who is in the film; he knew Aaron Tveit because they had worked together before. He kind of called up these guys and gave them scripts. They responded to it, and Aaron was over the moon about it. Other guys like Tyler Hoechlin --we shared some representation, and he was given the script. He had played college baseball and was like, 'I will do anything to be in this movie.' Getting him on board was huge.
And with other guys we just auditioned, just your regular old auditions.
I really wanted to make sure that everyone we brought onto this thing was excited about it and wanted to do it because it was something they fell in love with rather than it just be a job for a time. I knew these guys would really have to get along. The script's basically twelve guys in a submarine the whole movie. If there's one bad apple, it could really weigh down the energy of the whole shoot. But, I just got amazing guys. They all worked so hard for me and they gave it everything they had. It was really a pleasure to work with every one of them.
PW: Were there challenges in filming such a comedic ensemble cast? Was the energy on set similar to the energy on screen?
JM: Yeah, yeah it was. I like to keep things loose. I was always at my best when I was an actor when I felt comfortable and happy and so that was the kind of set I wanted to run. I let the guys ad lib when they wanted to ad lib, and if they had ideas, I wanted them to feel free to bring them to me to try them out and see how they worked. Sometimes though, people were too funny. Matt Bush had to leave set whenever Chace was delivering a speech because he would lose it every time. And he's sitting right next to him all of the time, so we would just have to find a way to cut him out of the shot because he literally could not keep it together.
Then there were just the regular, typical shooting conflicts. Some of these guys were on TV shows -- Tyler was on Teen Wolf at the time, Billy Gardell was on Mike & Molly, Jim Belushi's schedule was difficult, and Aaron Tveit, the star lead, we only had him for half the shoot because he was on another project. So probably the most difficult part of shooting was jigsaw puzzling and getting everyone together to make sure we got everything we needed. But we shot some of these scenes over the course of three or four days. It was not your typical shoot, I'll say that.
PW: The film is so unique in the sense that it's shot over the course of a single game. Was is difficult to tell this story with only one setting?
JM: Those movies are difficult, and some of them are extremely successful when it happens. But my feeling was as long as you have enough characters that are interesting and funny and as long as every scene pops and the drama of it and the comedy work really well together and the story is flowing, what could be scene as a setback or as an obstacle to overcome by only having one location, ends up becoming one of the cooler things about the movie. You end up saying, 'And it was all shot at one game!' That suddenly takes on an interest of its own, but only if the movie's interesting. You could have two people in a room or whatever, and it really falls short because there's nothing interesting to talk about. But for me, you have the action of the game, you have the comedy with the characters, and then you have this underlying drama. And when it all came together I just felt like having over the course of one game was an asset.
PW: Even though the audience is absorbed into this one game, there's a much bigger story here about success in professional sports and the draft system. What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
JM: Well, my brother has a son now, and I keep telling him, 'John, have him play golf. Have him play golf because golf is a sport with a true meritocracy where if you score well, you do well.' It's all about that. So yeah there's a little bit of a commentary about the drafting process I guess, but really, the movie for me is about what you do after you spend your whole life on this one dream and it doesn't come true. Kind of like this 'coming of age' thing.
These guys are having an existential crisis about their lives because this thing they love kind of gave them nothing, and why to we do it and what do we do now? So it's kind of in that spot. And it's really about remembering that you do things because you love them, not because they necessarily are going to gratify you or give you something in return, and appreciating them just for that... and then using what you've learned from that experience to help you later in life. Yeah, all these guys, they don't play baseball anymore, but... one guy's working for the Yankees, another guy has a clinic where he teaches kids how to play baseball, my brother is a high school teacher and now he's a coach as well. Even from these moments where you think it's over and worth nothing, you find it's enriched your life quite a bit.
PW: Is there anything you haven't been asked about that you would like to share with readers?
JM: Oh, boy. I guess, I'm just so excited for readers to see this movie. And some people might think 'Oh, it's just a baseball movie,' but it's about so much more than that. It's about the love between a father and a son, the brotherly love between all these teammates, and the love between the teammates and this game. It's really about the relationships and it's about the individuals and the characters. And the game is like the backdrop. You walk into it thinking it's just this baseball comedy, and I think that by the end, it's going to really pull your heartstrings. So I just really can't wait for people to see it.
Undrafted hits theaters and iTunes on July 15th! Join the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #Undrafted.