‘Underdogs’ to Debut at the Cleveland International Film Festival

'Underdogs' in production in North Canton, Ohio
The one thing Doug Dearth loved about Underdogs filming in North Canton is that he could finally show his family how thrilling it was to have a movie made in your own backyard.

Especially when you’re one the making the movie – and your family always wondered what it was you actually did on a movie set.

“I grew up in that area of Ohio, and I have always wanted to bring a film back to my home state and shoot it there,” says Dearth, who served as director and producer. “Our executive producer also has his business in Ohio and has always been a big advocate for keeping jobs in the community. So it was a win, win for both of us. Also, if you are going to tell a story about the love of high school football, there's no better place to do it, than in the Midwest.”

Underdogs tells the tale of a last place high school football team no one expects to win and a local inventor fighting for the intellectual rights of his invention. It is based in part on true events.

The film will debut on April 9 at 8:40 p.m. at the 37th Annual Cleveland International Film Festival. It stars Richard Portnow, D.B. Sweeney, Melora Walters, William Mapother and Natalie Imbruglia – along with a number of Northeast Ohio actors and actresses, including Patricia Valestin and Joseph Primes. View the trailer at the end of this article.

Midwest Movie Maker recently sat down with Dearth (via email) to talk about Underdogs and filmmaking in the Midwest.

Midwest Movie Maker (MMM): Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you get into film? And who are some of your influences?

Filmmaker and Canton native Doug Dearth
Doug Dearth (DD): I have been in the film business going on 20 years. It is not something that I studied in school initially, as I grew up in Ohio and wasn't around the film business too much back then. When I moved to Los Angeles around 1990-ish, I became interested in acting. I attended acting school in San Francisco at the Actor's Conservatory Theater and then continued studying at the Joanne Baron/DW Brown Studio in Santa Monica. As I continued in my acting career, I went to work for New Crime Productions, a new production company owned by John Cusack. We became friends, and I wanted to learn more about film production. I started out as his personal assistant and over the years moved on to develop and co-produce several movies with him. John has been a very big influence on my career; I learned so much from him during those years. 

MMM: What got you into the director’s chair?

DD: I have always loved acting, but the more I studied and learned about film, the more I became interested in developing and producing films of my own. I was very lucky working with Cusack. I spent many days on set watching him work, as well as great directors such as Bruce Beresford, Clint Eastwood, Terrence Malik, Woody Allen and so on. Over time, I began developing strong creative opinions of my own about the direction a film or project should go. So finally I thought I should just step up and direct my own project. And it seems to be something I am okay at. I certainly enjoy it tremendously. And love working with the actors and crew.

MMM: Tell me a bit about Underdogs. In a nutshell, what’s it about?

DD: Underdogs is based on the inspirational true events of a high school football team no one expected to succeed, as well as a local inventor fighting for the rights to his invention.

The film focuses on the Knights, a lousy team that has become an easy target. Just when they begin to give up hope, a new coach arrives, helping the team see its true potential.

At the same time, quarterback Bobby Burkett falls in love with a cheerleader from a rival team. This enrages the team's star, John Handon, a bratty rich kid who has his eye on the same girl.

Meanwhile, Bobby's father is waging his own war with Handon’s dad, whose crooked corporation is suing him over an invention he patented.  So, although this is a football movie, it delves a little deeper and shows how these stories can represent hope for an entire community.

MMM: How did the story come to you? Or rather, how did you know this story needed to be told?

DD: I was approached by a gentleman who had the idea for the story. I have always loved sports movies and thought the community struggle at the core of this story was very interesting. I also felt it was a really sweet and pure story, something that might lift people's spirits. Most family films or teen movies these days seem to be about vampires, zombies or aliens. I thought that a throw-back to classic family and sports films would be fun, especially if we could put a contemporary twist on it with an indie style and great music. (The soundtrack features The Black Keys, Blues Traveler, Patrick Stump [Fallout Boy], Rob Schwartzman [Rooney], Brett Dennen and others.)

MMM: The trailer mentions that the story was inspired by true events. Can you talk about those for a bit?

DD: The story was based on two different true events, that we took the liberty of combining into one story. The first being a surprising championship season by the St. Thomas Knights, a small division four high school football team, that went from a long loosing streak to beating much larger schools, ending in a championship season.

The other storyline in the film is one of a small town inventor who invents an energy saving space heater. And his former boss sues him for the intellectual ownership rights.

Lastly, the film delves into the issue of large manufacturing companies outsourcing their jobs overseas. And entire communities at risk because of the potential job loss. 

MMM: How did Underdogs come together as a feature?

DD: Underdogs came together extremely fast by Hollywood standards. I was working on some corporate projects for a client and he approached me with a film idea. I immediately hired a friend of mine - a writer and a die-hard football fan – and began developing the script. We burned the candle at both ends to finish the script in about three months. We went directly into pre-production and were able to have a completed film from concept to delivery in just a little over a year. This was only possible by having an independent financier who was really excited and aggressive to get the film made.

MMM: Tell me about the decision made to shoot in North Canton? Why was that the best decision for the film? And how did you like shooting in your hometown?

DD: The decision to film in North Canton was exciting to me as I grew up in that area of Ohio. I have always wanted to bring a film back to my home state and shoot it there. Our Executive Producer also has his business in Ohio and has always been a big advocate for keeping jobs in the community. So it was a win, win for both of us. Also, if you are going to tell a story about the love of high school football, there's no better place to do it, than in the Midwest! It was satisfying to shoot in my home state, as my family got to come out and visit the set, and finally see that I do work for a living. Also, the communities in the Midwest are fantastic in their support of filming. They all come out and participate as extras, and open their doors to the cast and crew, to show them their hospitality.

MMM: What familiar locations will those who grew up in that area recognize?

DD: We filmed at three local high schools; St. Thomas Aquinas in Louisville, Central Catholic in Canton and Green High School in Green. We also filmed at the radio station in Canton, WHBC, and several local business as well as the courthouse in Massillon.

MMM: Where and when might you return to the Midwest for your next feature?

DD: No plans as of yet, but am looking for scripts and documentary ideas that can be shot on the Midwest, as I'd love to return soon.

MMM: What one piece of advice would you give an aspiring filmmaker (producer, director, screenwriter, actor) from and living in the Midwest?

DD: I have to offer two pieces of advice.

1. Find, write or develop great material. Everyone is looking for great material, doesn't matter where it comes from. But be sure to take the time to do it right and present it with your very best foot forward.  

2. Be yourself. Be proud of being from the Midwest! And bring the qualities and work ethic that we were raised with to your work. 

Finally, get involved with your local film commissions. Work with them to support the ideas of state incentives to draw filmmakers to our states. Ohio's 35 percent tax incentive program was a huge help to us. And many films are now looking at shooting in Ohio and the Midwest because of these incentives. This brings work to our communities and gives us a chance to do what we love - make movies.


TRLR UNDERDOGS V6Alt from One In A Row Films on Vimeo.

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