Monday, December 9, 2013

An Interview with Davy Rothbart: Medora, Basketball and Small-town America

Davy Rothbart's new film Medora has been called the best basketball documentary since Hoop Dreams.
Co-directors and producers Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart—both Ann Arbor natives—spent a year living in small-town Medora, Indiana, chronicling the Medora Hornets varsity basketball team, which was riding a brutal years-long losing streak amid the backdrop of a post-industrial town dealing with poverty and drug abuse. Inspired by an article in the New York Times, it took a year of persistence and trust-building for Rothbart and company to get the people of Medora to agree to have them become part of their lives.

With a crew of fellow Ann Arborites, Cohn and Rothbart turned three years of hard work into Medora, a documentary earning unanimously positive reviews, with the The New York Times writing, “There won't be a dry eye in the house.”

Rothbart, also the creator of FOUND Magazine, took time to speak with me from Indianapolis prior to a screening in the middle of a 20-city tour to promote the film.

We could imagine ourselves telling this story and moving to
Medora for eight months or a year - Davy Rothbart
Rich Retyi: What was it about the New York Times article that appealed to you?

Davy Rothbart: We (co-director and co-producer Andy Cohn) love basketball—we’re basketball nuts. We met on a basketball court at Bryant School in Ann Arbor and we’re documentary junkies—like Hoops Dreams and Dark Days. I read the article and saw potential there. We drove to Medora the next day to check it out and see what it was all about. We met coaches and players, watched practice and walked around the town. There was this eerie stillness. We went to lone bar called the Perry Street Tavern and we were just like, wow. We could imagine ourselves telling this story and moving to Medora for eight months or a year.

There was an immediate openness from the town and we had a two-hour talk with the coaches, listening to stories about the team and the players. It was a great setup for an amazing story. The team is trying to get one single win, so every game has the drama and intensity of a championship game.

Going in, we didn’t know what other stories we’d learn but we knew they’d be compelling. It was the opportunity to also tell the story of small-town America. Even 30-40 mins outside of Ann Arbor there are places not that different than Medora. It’s a story we’re familiar with. I’ve been all across America and you drive through Medora-like towns that are fading off the map. This was a chance to go in deep and spend a year in one of those small towns.

RR: What was the town’s reaction to your project following the New York Times article which wasn’t the most flattering portrayal of Medora?

DR: There was a lot of initial reluctance to the story. John Branch is a great writer, but his story is an honest look at the town. People felt hurt by it—that it only portrayed one aspect of the town. Our goal was to film everything and show all sides of this community. We believe these small towns have value. We weren’t trying to make any points—we didn’t have some hidden agenda. 

It took us a year to get permission to make the film. Eventually, through persistence, they trusted us and the sensitivity that we planned to take. A year after we first visited Medora, they said okay and let us in. The athletic director and superintendent of the school went to bat for us—putting themselves on the line—and they believed we could do something special. The rest of the town agreed to let us in and since the film was released, the response has been really positive.

The team is trying to get one single win, so every game has
the drama and intensity of a championship game.
RR: What’s your relationship with basketball? 

DR: I grew up in Ann Arbor and Ypsi and love playing basketball. We’d shovel off the court at Wheeler Park and play in the winter. We didn’t drink much in high school, so we played basketball. Eberwhite, Burns Park. We’d play at midnight or 4 a.m. We played constantly. We weren’t that good and couldn’t make the teams at Pioneer and Huron.

I started a hoops team at Community High after I graduated. It wasn’t an official team but it felt official. We played the an Ann Arbor rec league but we held two practices a week, we had uniforms, everything.

I think about the dynamic with the coaches and players, thinking back to my days of coaching. Not trying just to win games but trying to provide guidance off the court. 

I’m a big Michigan basketball fan and I’m a big Pistons fan too. I’ve always been drawn to high school sports and even in college when we could, we’d drive down south somewhere warm and always go to these small towns and watch high school games. It’s drama and something so unique—parents, players, girlfriends— a slice of life.

RR: You lived in Medora for nearly a year. What was that experience like?

DR: We got to Medora a week or two before the start of the season, so instead of trying to rent a house in town, we stayed in Seymour, about 20 miles away. It was the closest town with a motel that had wifi. We drove to Medora every day. A lot of kids lived in the towns surrounding Medora, some even smaller than Medora, that had lost their schools. 

The whole state is intense about basketball. Medora is too small to field a football or baseball team, like a lot of small-town schools, and there are so many farming communities in Indiana that winter is the only season they have time to play sports. You only need five kids and a ball for a basketball team. Medora’s high school has 60 kids—about 30 boys—but their gym is the size of Pioneer High School’s. It’s huge. The schools with 2,000 kids have gyms like college arenas. 

Our entire filmmaking team is from Ann Arbor: me and Andrew (Cohn), Rachel (Dengiz), Pete (Leix) and Mike (Smith). We had around six people in Medora, not the entire time, but the whole team was there for weeks at a time. We shared one little motel room suite at a travel lodge, we’d shoot all day and at the end of the night look at the footage.

We made great relationships with everyone in Medora. I tripled the number of times I’d been to church. The assistant coach was a preacher and I went to many of his services with the players. The head coach was a cop. I’ve ridden in the back of a cop car but never up front. He worked night shift and for hours we’d drive around these little towns and talk. 

 "I’ve ridden in the back of a cop car but never up front."

RR: How did this experience differ from your other film projects?

DR: This is my first full-length feature documentary. I was more the subject of My Heart is An Idiot, but that’s David’s (Meiklejohn) film. My previous experiences were amazing but those other projects were filmed over two or three weeks. We put two or three years into this project and made incredible relationships. The camaraderie we have with our own friends, collaborating so closely, was also an amazing thing.

But it was exhausting. We weren’t sure what stories to tell—following 12-15 players, coaches and their families. For some of the main characters, we documented their sisters, brothers, uncles. It was 12-14 hours of filming a day and at the end of it not thinking we filmed enough. We ended up with 600 hours of footage. Editing took a long long time.

Part of your funding came through Kickstarter. What was that experience like?
We didn’t get permission to do the film until right before the season started so we didn’t spend six months or a year fundraising like you might. We didn’t have time. So we borrowed equipment and funded the first eight months out of our pockets. I dropped in $10-15,000 of my own money at the start. I was doing freelance magazine writing from Medora to help pay for things.

We finished shooting and we needed money to hire an editor and get some help. That’s when we did our Kickstarter, setting a $18,000 goal, knowing it was a fraction of what we needed but trying to be realistic. We ended up with $65,000.

We also had a lot of help from Steve Buscemi and Stanley Tucci who came on board as executive producers. It was amazing not just in a financial sense but their involvement leant integrity to the project. We thought we had an incredible story but once we put the Kickstarter video up, we saw just how much it resonated. What was amazing was how many strangers contributed to the film—dsome gave $1,000, some gave $5,000.

One of the Kickstarter incentives was to come to New York City for the world premiere. Two guys and their wives came and they were awesome people. These weren’t rich guys. This was a lot of money to them but and to have them thrilled with how the film turned out and to build friendships with those guys was great. They met the players, saw the film and we hung out until 3 a.m.

The $65,000 we raised took us to a rough cut, but we still needed so much more that. Beachside Films (a subsidiary of Big Beach Films, which has produced films like Little Miss Sunshine, Kings of Summer and Our Idiot Brother) came in and took us on, giving us more resources and funds to complete the movie.

RR: How did you choose the music for the film? It's definitely got a Michigan flavor to it.

DR: Our music supervisor was Jeremy Peters from Ghostly International.  He did an amazing job turning us on to music we might not have known about. We’d show him specific scenes and tell him the sound we wanted and he’d give us options. People are always asking about the two Chris Bathgate songs that are in the film.

One of my favorite rappers is Count Mack (Vaughn Taormina) from Detroit. He’s a rapper and visual artist and a filmmaker too. We got three of his songs in the film because we’re such fans but we had to cut back and ended up using just one. He’s a genius. Another great Michigan band we have on The Press Delete. Their song is in the closing credits and we wanted it to perfectly capture the spirit of the film. It’s a gorgeous song called Small Town. It’s the perfect end note.

Learn more about the film at

Medora makes its Michigan debut on Thursday, December 12 at 7 p.m. at the Michigan Theater. Rothbart and Cohn, along with a number of subjects from the film, will be on hand for a Q&A session following the film. Medora is also streaming on iTunes, Vimeo and VUDU.


  1. SOO Jealous - Davy's work is brilliant. Thanks for publishing

  2. by the way - you have the most difficult capcha's I've ever encountered.

  3. We have it setup so it's extra terrible for you, GastroBoy.

  4. Thanks for the feedback, A2Gastro. How's that fantasy team doing heading into what I expect must be the playoffs?

  5. HA! Good memory Mr. Retyi. I'm 8 points down half way through round one of the playoffs ...that's right - I made the playoffs!