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SXSW 2019: An Interview With “Mack Wrestles” Co-Directors Erin Sanger and Taylor Hess

Erin Sanger and Taylor Hess are co-directors on the ESPN Films 30 for 30 short “Mack Wrestles.” The documentary short, which had its world premiere at the festival on March 8, is about a transgender student-athlete, Mack Beggsin Texas and the controversy that surrounds him.

We spoke with the co-directors , and here’s what they had to say about filming it:

Mack Wrestles

Are you on the ground at SXSW?

Erin: We got here on the 7th, our premiere was the night of the 8th and we’re going back to NY on the 13th.

Is this your first time here? I know you both have your own careers, but have either of you been to SXSW?

Erin: We’ve actually been here together before.

Taylor: Yeah, we were here with a short narrative actually a few years ago that we premiered here. So it’s nice bringing another film back here. It’s a great festival.

How did you end up working together originally?

Erin: Originally I had seen Taylor act. We had a mutual friend and I had seen Taylor act in one of his films and thought she was great in it, and would be great for a role I’d written. So we connected and I sent her the script and she ended up playing one of the leads in it.

Oh, that’s so cool!

Taylor: Yeah.

What led you two to working together on “Mack Wrestles?”

Taylor: I was working at a documentary company and I was kind of itching to branch off and make something of my own. I knew that Erin had done a lot of great doc work, and I’d worked with her before, so I wanted to work with her on something. We were kind of going back and forth on a couple different story ideas and the one that ended up happening was “Mack Wrestles.”

It came about because this ESPN reporter, Katie Barnes, had written this really amazing article about Mack and we were both very moved by the article. And I think we both felt like it could be a great film. We were writing treatments, and pitching it, and we were trying to find a way to make it. Then everything just magically started falling into place, and we were able to make the movie we had imagined, which was very lucky.

So you kind of had an idea of how you wanted to tell the story from the beginning. How much did Mack’s point of view factor into that?

Erin: Well, Mack and Nancy [Mack’s grandma, pictured with him above] — we really lucked out with them. They were great to work with; they were very open with us and very honest in their interviews. So a lot of the structure of the film was shaped around powerful moments from their interviews. We also just inevitably had to construct the film around what happened, both in the past and the present. When Mack was no longer on the national team that was a huge shift in our story, so we kind of had to reexamine what the film looked like after that.

Taylor: I would say that the end — the actual final result that people can see — is very close, I think, to what we initially imagined while we were first having phone calls with Mack and Nancy. We were first imagining what the film might be about, and then of course we met them in person, and a lot changes in production.

I think the thing that first really drew us in was the relationship between Mack and Nancy, the power of Mack as one person making so many waves — not only in his community, not only on his wrestling team, not only in Texas, not only in the country, but in the whole world. We felt like he was kind of this huge symbol so we wanted to tell a story that was about him as a person — like a human story — but also capturing this huge effect of what happened to him and the ripples that it had.

It’s obvious from watching the film that Mack’s family was very supportive. But did you experience any pushback from Mack’s family, friends or coaches?

Taylor: I would say, of the family that’s in the film, everyone was incredibly supportive and we didn’t have any push back from them. Push back we did receive was from outsiders who didn’t necessarily want to be connected to this sort of controversial subject matter.

Erin: Yeah, and a lot of his teammates were open. I think not all of them were 18, so some of their parents maybe didn’t want them to be speaking with us. We wanted to talk to more coaches and couldn’t. I think at the end of the day we were so happy with the access that we had with Mack and Nancy and the insular family.

It would’ve been great to have more — to have more of Mack’s influences and to have people that touched him and his life, but it wasn’t a disappointment to not have everybody be so open and willing. I think it was actually unique that Mack and Nancy were so open to having us come and wanting to share. It’s hard to get people to share, especially about something that’s so controversial, like Mack’s wins two years in a row.

Is there anything about a documentary short format that you feel lends itself better to Mack’s story?

Erin: That’s funny; I think that was our challenge with making this work as a short because it’s such a complex story and the characters are so dynamic. I don’t know that Mack’s story needs to be a short. We felt like it could have also been a feature. Our challenge was sort of condensing all of this material we had, because it was so interesting, into 25 minutes.

Taylor: That said, yeah that was a major challenge, but the fact that it is a 25-minute film I think is very exciting. As a piece of work for people to ingest, I think it’s just enough time for people to question their assumptions, ask questions, think about the way that they have approached different kinds of people in their lives.

I think it just penetrates people just enough that it can open a whole new door if they’re willing to — or interested in — learning more about Mack and his story, and so many other trans athletes who are struggling with similar things. You can get really in there with him but it’s also not diving too deep in all the issues. It lends itself for people to kind of want to learn more on their own accord.

You’ve mentioned making it a short when you felt it could’ve been a feature, and having a bit of a struggle getting people to speak, but what would you say was the hardest part of making “Mack Wrestles”?

Taylor: Erin said this a little bit earlier, and she also said it yesterday I think in our Q & A, and I think she’s right: When Mack got cut from the men’s national team, we had to rejigger what the story was going to be. We were planning on meeting him up there and suddenly there was this big disappointing news that we were having to grapple with. That was a little tricky because we weren’t really sure.

One of our mentors on the project said, ‘Whenever you’re making a documentary, when something unexpected happens, that’s when your movie comes alive.’ So I think that it was great in the sense that we were able to pivot, but it was disappointing for Mack and disappointing for us. We were like his number one cheerleaders too, along with Nancy. We really wanted him to go and wanted him to succeed, and I think we all felt kind of bummed. Not only as filmmakers with a story, but also as Mack’s cheerleaders. So that was hard; it was a stressful couple of weeks.

Yeah, I don’t think I would’ve guessed that, because when you watch it you feel like the filmmakers know the story. Are there other stories in the realm of sports or with ESPN that either or both of you are interested in telling?

Erin: I love ESPN Films 30 for 30; I think it’s a tremendous storytelling platform. I’m working on a couple of other non-sports projects right now that are using my time, but I would absolutely tell another sports story after the experience of doing this one. And I say that being a non-sporting person myself.

Taylor: Yeah, I really feel like sports is a microcosm to investigate and explore all kinds of things. It’s like a mirror that reflects society back. You can see so much what’s happening on a field among teenagers, parents, athletes — all kinds of relationships that are so neat to explore.

Which is why, like Erin said, I love the 30 for 30 and there’s so many good stories that they’ve put out. I also am working on something else right now that’s not sports-related, but I feel very passionate about sports stories, and I hope to do more in the future.

That’s really fitting, because I was going to ask what other projects you have for the future, and it seems like you both are working on things. I’d love to hear about those.

Erin: I pivot back and forth between narrative and documentary, so I’ve been working on a long-term feature-length project following veterans’ families finding a new normal in the face of severe traumatic brain injuries. I’m working on that, but I’m also working on some different narrative projects currently.

Taylor: I am working at Vox Media; I’m producing two episodes for a documentary series for Netflix called “Explained.” So I’m working on that and I’ve also just finished a short documentary that I directed with Noah Hupp, who edited “Mack Wrestles.” We just finished that; it’s called “Guts.” And a couple other things too, but those are the most current.

It seems that you are both interested in projects that have a sort of social activism bent. Is that the road that you plan on taking for the future, or something you think will work into all of your projects?

Taylor: Social justice is interesting because I don’t feel a call to right society’s wrongs or anything. I do feel like making things, like I mentioned earlier, that have people question their assumptions and to question their relations to the people in their lives, and the people who they’re always interacting with.

It’s all connected to society and culture and the way we relate to each other, so yeah, all of that interests me. I don’t know if I can be presumptuous enough to say that I’m interested in social justice because I don’t know if films can actually make a difference. I can hope that they can. The short answer is ‘yes,’ and the long answer is ‘it’s complicated.’

Yeah, and I think it does make a difference, when you see the impact that hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo have. It’s interesting to look at the role media plays in our culture.

Taylor: Yeah, and definitely just having ESPN behind this project feels like a huge win for everybody because it’s super brave. The story is about a trans person. They don’t have stories about trans people very often. It feels like a major step forward, in a lot of ways. I’m really proud of that.

Yeah, I agree. So you’ve been to SXSW for a couple of premieres now. What is your favorite part about being here and what really excites you about it?

Erin: I feel like, other than being the most fun festival of all, SXSW takes a lot of risks in its programming. They program a lot of really bold, edgy work, and elevate voices that might not be heard at other places. I’ve noticed with this festival there’s a really communal, celebratory atmosphere among the filmmakers. Everyone is incredibly grateful to be here and be able to celebrate each others’ work.

Taylor: Yeah, and I would say, kind of along the lines of that, the diversity of the kind of stuff that’s here — not only like tech and music, but also within the film programming. Yesterday I went to a talk and Mark Cuban was walking off the stage, and today I was at an episodic pilot, so there’s just all kinds of things. And there’s feature films world premieres.

My parents were here for the first time; they’d never been to Austin and they’d never been to a film festival, I think other than Cleveland. I got to kind of see it through their eyes a little bit and they were really blown away by being in the center of such an artsy, cool, interdisciplinary environment.

“Mack Wrestles” will be playing one more time at SXSW, on March 16 at the Alamo Drafthouse on S. Lamar Boulevard.

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Featured image credit: ESPN Films

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