Despite the global pandemic, filmmaker Scott Marshutz has just completed his first full-length documentary Let ‘Em Play. His film follows four disabled student athletes into the high-stakes world of international Paralympics competition.
On a cold rainy evening in Basingstoke I managed to catch-up with a Scott in a significantly sunnier LA ahead of the film’s digital release…
So Scott, you’ve just completed your first full length documentary Let ‘Em Play. Can you tell us a bit about the project? How it came about and how did you meet the athletes who are featured?
Back in 2016 I was a freelance journalist and was invited to a para-athletic event called the Angel City Games, held at UCLA. I didn’t know anything about it and when I got there my jaw literally dropped – it was incredible. In the US it is really an under-served community in comparison to other countries but through my research I discovered that California had just adopted new rules for disabled high school athletes.
I also learnt that there were coaches who were trying to set up programmes for disabled athletes at the collegiate level. A few months after the games, I met my associate producer Rich Robert who worked as a track & field official for many years and he and I started to talk to some of the younger para athletes who had potential and it took a good year to narrow it down to the four we feature in the movie.
How has the current global situation affected the project? Did the delay to the Tokyo Olympics affect the narrative?
We got really lucky because we did the last pickup interview for this project the day the Governor of California ordered us to shelter. Literally as I was packing up the hard drive to send to the editor, we were all sent indoors. If we hadn’t been able to do that, the film wouldn’t be done by now. All the post-production we were able to do remotely. So thank God for the internet and digital work flow!
Our original plan was to get the film out in advance of the 2020 Paralympic Games as pre-event content. But instead of holding the film out we decided we still wanted to release it with the potential that it could be broadcast again later.
Did you know much about para athletics prior to starting the project? What were the takeaways for you?
I knew a little bit, but I didn’t know how the athletes were classified. That was the educational part for me. I am still in touch with the athletes and their families. We spent a lot of time together over 3 and a half years. They are great people. Both the athletes and their parents are so happy with the movie. I guess after the project I took away the importance of raising the profile of these young athletes and para athletics overall.
Looking back, how has your background in journalism shaped your style of filmmaking and story telling?
My background in journalism has definitely shaped my style of film-making. I think story telling is by far the greatest skill. You can have amazing cinematography, the best editors and sound design but if your story is weak that will diminish the quality of the film.
After I got out of the military, I didn’t actually major in film, I majored in journalism but I was always drawn to film. My dad was a commercial director in New York and my mum was really into film. She took me to some of the documentaries which came out in the 60s. Some of the filmmakers of that time were hugely influential on me, the likes of Maysles brothers, Bruce Brown and D.A. Pennebaker.
When I was 10 I went to see Endless Summer. I was always drawn to music and sports documentaries and the desire to make my own documentary has always been there. With this project the stars aligned to make that finally happen.
Are there current film makers today which you take inspiration from?
I’m big fan of Alison Ellwood, an Australian director, who most recently directed a film about The Go Go’s. Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki I’m a huge fan of. There are a lot of great filmmakers out there right now. You kind of steal a little bit from all of them when you make your own!
What projects are you working on at the moment? Is there anything in the pipeline you can talk about?
Obviously, the present situation isn’t allowing us to go and shoot right now but I do have one project currently in development, which is based on a true story. Previously I wrote an article about a girl who had really bad ADHD and got addicted to methamphetamine, which sent her on a ten-year nightmare. It’s a true story with a happy ending. I would love to make a documentary about it but there is no visual evidence, so we are looking at making it into a drama or horror film.
What advice would you give to people who want to make the move from journalism to film?
Well I am late in my career so it needed to happen now or not at all. I think if you are a good storyteller the transition isn’t as hard. For me working with a talented DP like Andriy Semenyuk was really important. Surround yourself with producers and crew members that buy into the story and are as passionate about it as you are. A team that believes in the story you are trying to tell is key, especially if budgets are tight.
Finally, despite the current situation, were you able to have any sort of wrap party?
We did manage a wrap party of sorts. Andriy and I went to a seafood place for some lunch after the last pickup. We had to sit outside because of the new social distancing rules, so we found a park to sit in and eat our fish sandwiches and drink a beer and just then it started raining, which kind added insult to injury!
More details for Let ‘Em Play can be found here .
A link to Scott’s website is here