‘Safety’ Director Reginald Hudlin Describes The Complicated Logistics Of Filming A Movie In Front Of 85,000 Screaming Clemson Fans
College football has an abundance of individual stories of great trials and tribulations. A vast number of student-athletes – particularly those in Division I football – willed themselves through adverse environments for a chance to play on Saturdays. Yet most of these stories don’t always have anything resembling a happy ending, with many of these kids falling short of loftier goals of going pro or even leaving school with a degree. Worse yet, too many dreams come to a sudden end because players end up in the crosshairs of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, better known as the NCAA.
Which is why what happened at Clemson University back in 2006 lives as the stuff of legend.
Safety, a new sports film directed by Reginald Hudlin that’s inspired by the true story of Ray McElrathbey and his younger brother Fahmarr, recently debuted on Disney+. The former Tigers safety made headlines when it was discovered that he was housing his younger sibling – an 11-year-old at the time – on campus as their mother was battling drug addiction back home in Atlanta. The McElrathbeys’ tale would make national news as Ray’s eligibility would be threatened for potential NCAA violations until eventually, he would be given a special waiver to receive assistance in caring for his kin.
This rare benevolence and the brothers’ perseverance would take well over a decade to be told again after Ray and Fahmarr agreed to license their story for a feature film. In 2019, it found both a home and a director thanks to Disney and one legendary filmmaker in Hudlin, who directed some of the top Black-themed films such as House Party and Boomerang, and worked as a producer on Django Unchained, an Oscar-nominee for Best Picture in 2013.
Hudlin spoke with Decider how Safety moved from concept to reality, how it differs from other sports films and the insanity of filming during an actual game at Clemson’s famed Memorial Stadium, AKA “Death Valley.”
DECIDER: For starters: how did you become aware of this story? Because at the time when this was happening, Clemson wasn’t Clemson — currently a two-time national championship program under Dabo Swinney, but then a fledgling outfit under Tommy Bowden. On the flip side, why did you decide to take it on? And how did Ray trust you to craft it for a film?
REGINALD HUDLIN: I didn’t know about the story when it went down, but then I got sent a copy of the script. I read the script, and I was like, “Oh my god! I’ve got to make this right away.” I mean, I just felt an urgency about it. It just seemed so important, so relevant to right now, so what our country needed right now. I was very fired up about it, and met the producers and then the studio. They were like, “Great! Let’s go make it.” I’m like, “Yay!” And then met Ray and Fay (Fahmarr), and they were just great guys. They lived up to everything you thought they would be. This quiet brother who clearly knows who he is and what he can do, completely honest about his life and his experience — just reinforced my desire to tell his story.
Knowing your career, while you’ve done quite a few feature films, this was your second feature film in the sports world. Safety is kind of categorized as a sports movie, yet football is a supporting character. In a lot of ways with your other sports flick, The Great White Hype (1996), the same could have been said about boxing. How did you try to strike the balance between emphasizing the larger story between Ray and Fay with the actual grind of football? And were you intent on making Safety not your typical sports film?
If you look at all my movies, I’d never repeat a genre. It’s like I did a teen movie (House Party, 1990), did a romantic comedy (Boomerang, 1992), Django‘s a Western. They’re all pretty different, right? The Great White Hype was more a satire on the absurdity of the boxing business, while this is a story of human triumph.
Sports is one of those things where the athletics are important because the athletics help define and clarify who the person is. They’re on that crucible of the playing field. There’s no excuses: either you make the play or you don’t. And that’s the thing about Ray’s whole life. At the end of the day, as unfair as his circumstances were, either he had to fix it or fail. He fixed it.
Viewers can certainly attest to that with how Ray (played by Jay Reeves) was portrayed in the film. Speaking of which, the real Ray made a cameo as one of the players. Even in a short time, a small moment like that can be a lot of work for someone who isn’t a trained actor, per se. How’d you guys decide to include him on the set that way? And how would you describe his experience on set?
Well, it’s interesting. Ray is not college age, but he’s still a very young man. The minute that — I think even before Jay got the part, he reached out to Ray. They realized they didn’t live far from each other. Jay was like, “Hey man, wanna go get something to eat?” And (Ray) goes, “Nah, I’m not hungry man. Let’s go to the gym.” Ray’s whole thing is, “I know who you are by how you work out.” They bonded.
Ray bonded with the whole cast and got very involved in their physical training. Because his whole thing is like, “I know you guys are working out, but now you guys are going to work out the way I work out.” Which is a whole other thing, but that bonded them all with each other. The entire crew and cast had Ray right there as a touchstone while making the movie, which helped everybody.
And it comes off that way because you’re asking these actors and stunt doubles to portray actual football — which is not that easy. That kind of sports choreography is incredibly complicated.
Right. Right. And when you look at that whole team, you had a lot of guys who were playing for Alabama. Playing for Georgia. Some of them had played in the pros. There was a lot of pressure on the actors to make sure their football games were legitimate, because they were playing alongside guys who were 1000 percent legit.
So, while football is the film’s backdrop, Clemson itself is quite the central figure in the story – not only because Ray is playing for the team, but because they’re running afoul of the NCAA. This is one of the exceptionally rare instances where the NCAA ruled in favor of the student-athlete and the school. Considering that you’re making this for Disney+, and Disney (through ESPN) has relationships with Clemson and NCAA, were there times when you kind of felt the story could ruffle a few feathers? Because the NCAA is still, in a lot of ways — and deservedly so — seen as this big, bad villain in a lot of lives of student athletes.
Yeah. At the end of the day, I had to be faithful to Ray’s story. Talking to Ray, he was like, “Look, I chose Clemson because of the family ethos of the program. When it came down to it, that family attitude was real.” And with the NCAA, the truth is, they ultimately did give him that waiver. It was like, “Let’s be real about the consequences of the rule, to the point that (specifying one scene) you have an 11-year-old boy walking in the rain.”
But at the end of the day, Ray took the stance that he took — “I’m adopting my brother” — before this even happens. “You understand that I have planted my flag in terms of his position, so now it’s on your move.” He forced their hand, and they stepped up, which is great. I said, “Look, I’m just going to tell the truth as it is with this story, and everyone will come to their own conclusions.”
You can’t imagine doing this in the era of COVID-19 now, but you did shoot in front of a real, in-game crowd at Clemson, which has the best-known atmospheres in all of sports. While it’s hard to imagine doing that now, what was the process like? Trying to work with the school, and working with the NCAA as well? How much time did you have to do the scene? How were you able to get all of these moving parts around, keeping 80,000 people engaged without doing a crazy amount of shooting? How were you able to put all of this together?
Well, the school was very supportive of the movie. We went to them and we said, “Hey, we don’t want to use CG. We want to have a real Clemson crowd — not one scene, but four plays.” And they were like, “Yeah, we will support that. We’ll let you guys shoot at halftime… well, really half of halftime.” Which means we had 10 minutes. So in most movies, they’re shooting one play during halftime. We’re shooting four. So it’s a lot. We announced to the crowd at the beginning of the game, we’re like, “Look, we’re going to be shooting this scene during halftime. Please stay in your seats, don’t go to the bathroom, don’t get a hot dog, don’t get a t-shirt. Just hang out for us.” And sure enough, 85,000 people stayed in their seats. Incredible!
We knew we wouldn’t be able to communicate using walkie talkies or cellphones, so we had flags. Went back to before the 18th-century, like we’re in a schooner. But the fact is, 10 minutes, four scenes, and we had rehearsed the players and the camera positions within an inch of their lives. But we knew there’d be no do-overs. We had to just nail it. So we’re running it, I tell my actors, I say, “Look, when you run down this hill, the crowd’s gonna yell. Don’t let that volume — which is going to become a physical thing — spike your adrenaline to the fact that you lose it and twist your ankle, you fall. We have no time for do-overs. You guys have got to stay focused.” So they’re like, “Got it.”
Dude, the crowd is so loud. The stands actually have a noise meter. It was the third-loudest crowd in the history of the stadium. Forget the players losing it, I start losing it. (Laugh.) Every hair is on end, I’m like, “What is this?” The crowd runs down, they run all four plays: Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! We get it all done, they’re running on field for seven and a half minutes. We actually had time to spare! Twenty-three cameras, all the coverage was an incredible achievement.