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“Making These Documentaries Is Like a Wild Goose Chase All Over the Globe”: Chapman and Maclain Way on Untold Volume 2

A shot from Untold Volume 2's "The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist"A shot from Untold Volume 2's episode "The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist"

Now in its second season, Untold—the Netflix documentary series executive produced by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way (Wild Wild Country)—continues to offer an intriguing selection of sports-centered stories. From covering the world’s most successful female boxer to the infamous “Malice at the Palace” brawl, Volume 1 of the series became popular for choosing to tell a side of a notable story you thought you knew—essentially a nonfiction offering of feature-length episodes packaged under the Untold umbrella. As a basketball fan, I was curious to see what Volume 2 would include.

Having premiered on August 16th and rolling out an episode per week since, Untold Volume 2 welcomes exciting new directors, hot-button stories and a confrontational leading character or two. From football linebacker Manti Te’o’s national media exposure after being “catfished” to the rise and fall of the popular basketball apparel company, And1, and the inner workings (and backroom dealings) of disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy, the recent episodes have been broad in what they cover and very specific in how and who.

Right before Untold Volume 2 premiered, I spoke with the Way Brothers about showrunning the series, what they look for in selecting new subjects to explore and how archival material can make the episode. 

Filmmaker: What goes into greenlighting an individual episode of Untold? Do you first need to secure participants willing to be interviewed? Do you need to know that a wealth of archival material exists? Are you looking for a diversity in the types of sports the series will cover? 

Chapman Way: There are a few priorities Mac and I have. Being that we’re more narrative-driven documentary filmmakers, we’re led by interesting subjects and characters rather than the sport [the subject is connected to] or a big championship game that needs to be documented. We have a list of stories that have lots of twists and reveals, elements an audience can hopefully be [engaged by] and learn more than they previously knew. After that, it’s about finding the right athletes willing to be honest and open on camera so that it works [within our] storytelling. As audience members, those are the kinds of films that Mac and I have always gravitated toward. It doesn’t work if we’re featuring athletes with big PR teams who are looking to make a puff piece or something that promotes their brand. 

Filmmaker: Last season you had episodes directed by nonfiction filmmakers with different professional backgrounds, including Laura Brownson (The Rachel Divide), Crystal Moselle (The Wolfpack) and Floyd Russ (Zion). For the second season, you’ve brought on a new group of directors. How do you select the filmmakers to tell these stories? Do they get hired and then assigned to a specific episode/story thread?

Chapman Way: It’s a bit of a unique series, in that it’s not like 10 different production companies coming in with 10 different directors and 10 different stories. Mac and I oversee the whole process and work very closely with each director, helping with the edits, the music, the DPs, etc. It’s a small team that collaborates on each of the episodes together and, early on, we all get into a room to work on story and discuss how to shape and structure each one. These hour-long conversations are the most fun part of the entire process and getting to choose other incredibly talented people like Floyd Russ, Laura Brownson, Crystal Moselle, David Terry Fine, Ryan Duffy or Tony Vainukuto to work with is a dream come true.

Maclain Way: There wasn’t a previous infrastructure or a series like Untold in place to invite and welcome these filmmakers into our sandbox with. What’s fun about showrunning a series like this is convincing great directors that they can bring their storytelling skills into the sports landscape, to tell these sports-centered stories. To be honest, a director on this series doesn’t need to previously have had an encyclopedic knowledge of sports or even the sport [their episode] is covering. It’s about storytelling, first and foremost. I don’t know if the filmmakers we work with would have chosen to tell these stories on their own, but we always want to collaborate and have them lean on us if they want to. Being intimidated by a lack of information of a particular sport falls by the wayside very quickly thanks to the kinds of stories the series is covering.

Filmmaker: You’ve alluded to working with various crews on the series, and I know that some positions (composer Brocker Way, for example, is credited with the score for each episode) are streamlined throughout. However, do the filmmakers bring their own teams and crews to their individual episodes? Is there a uniform Untold look or pace that each director adheres to? As the showrunners, how do you maintain that overarching style for a series while still bringing on these individual talents?

Chapman Way: Untold is somewhat run like a fictional show where Mac and I, as showrunners, hire the editors, the DPs, the composer, many of whom [work across] multiple episodes. Nate Gross, who edited the Malice at the Palace and Caitlyn Jenner episodes last year, [was brought back] to edit The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist for Volume Two and we’ve also worked with editor Neil Meiklejohn before, as Neil edited [the series] Wild Wild Country with us, as well as the Untold: Crime and Penalties episode last year and the episode that Mac and I directed, Untold: The Race of the Century, this year. We essentially put together the creative team and then bring directors on to work with that [pre-established] Untold team. What that allows us to do is retain a bit of a “unified Untold aesthetic,” so to speak. 

Maclain Way: Of course, each filmmaker has their own fingerprint on these stories as, just by the nature of how documentaries are made, they’re traveling to meet interview subjects, spending lots of time with them, getting dinners with them and entering into their world. Those are their [connections]. It would be very different if they were bringing [the subjects out] to Los Angeles and shooting on a lot where the entire production was being filmed under one roof. I remember when [The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist directors] Ryan Duffy and Tony Vainuku returned from Illinois—they had shot Manti Te’o’s interview right outside of Chicago, as Manti was at training camp with the Chicago Bears at the time—and it was like they had just come back from the Willy Wonka chocolate factory [laughs]. They were thrilled by the interview Manti gave and told us that, at the conclusion of the interview [that lasted two or three days], Manti monologued for a bit. I remember booting up the interview the following Monday once the footage had been transcoded and being absolutely blown away. So, while Chapman and I don’t get to live and experience every single moment you see on Untold, we eventually get to see what our collaborators are doing and feel extraordinarily grateful toward everyone putting it together.

Filmmaker: When you’re viewing rough cuts that might be endless in length, how do you come to determine the right length for each episode? The Manti Te’o episode is separated into two parts, one hour each, but many of the others are within the 65-70 minute range, give or take. Is it a situation in which, not being confined to the network standard of 44 minutes, you’re given some freedom in determining the duration of each episode? 

Chapman Way: This is a cliche, but we try to make each episode the length we feel it should be. That said, Mac and I are usually of the mindset that things should be slimmed and trimmed down as much as possible. We want each story to be really tight, to move fast. For us, that happens to often fall between the 70-80 minute mark. That’s where the sweet spot is for news/sports stories. However, with The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, as we got into production and interviewed both Manti, then Naya (the person behind the online identity), then the two Deadspin journalists who had their own narrative arc and investigative approach to the story when they first broke it, we realized that the amount of twists and turns [in the story] warranted a two-parter. The story is pretty nuanced and, in order to get it right, we had to give both Naya and Manti room to tell their story without us cutting it down too much. That was our bridge.

Maclain Way: You raise an interesting question though, because when we first conceived of the series, I think the way it was pitched to Netflix (and even in our heads) was that each episode would be just under one hour in length. I don’t know what happened, but eventually we found the stories [we had chosen] more and more compelling and were putting a lot of time and resources into each. The final runtimes reflect that. Many episodes’ runtimes went upwards of 70-80 minutes and some were an hour. Netflix has been entirely supportive, creatively, throughout the whole series, and we were a little nervous about the idea of dropping all of these episodes on a single day, to be streamed all at once. It felt like it would be too much upfront, so we were excited by [the decision] to release episodes on a weekly basis. So yes, it did somewhat begin as television/episodic with the runtimes and a [binge-rollout] approach, but over the years the project morphed into everyone approaching each episode as a single, self-contained documentary feature. 

Filmmaker: In the press notes for the episode you directed on the Australian yachting team’s 1983 America’s Cup, The Race of the Century, you mention how Australians today would gripe, “You’re telling that story again?” But to the rest of the world (or for many of us, at least), the team’s victory is a story we’re not unanimously familiar with. When choosing these stories, do you prefer a viewer not know much about the subject matter beforehand, or are you looking to attract and surprise the diehards who are coming to the material with their own preconceived opinions? For example, for those that know the name “Tim Donaghy,” it comes with a lot of built-in baggage.

Chapman Way: Tim Donaghy was definitely one of the more complex [episodes], in that we were aware of the discourse around him and what audiences would be hoping to learn and find out. Broadly speaking, I think Mac and I enjoy sports without having encyclopedic knowledge of every league, team or athlete. We make these [episodes] for an audience that doesn’t necessarily need to know much about the sport or the athlete in order to enjoy them. We’re more attracted to the characters, their personalities and the adventures they took throughout their lives. That’s what attracts Mac and I, so ideally, a viewer wouldn’t need to know anything about sports in order to watch this series. At the same time, we don’t try to make a lowest common denominator version of the story—if you do know the story, I think [the series] is elevated enough and offers enough new insights into the subjects for someone to learn and experience something new from. 

Maclain Way: We’d like to have a balance. The profile of the subject or how notorious it is does impact your decision-making process in terms of how you tell the story. For instance, with Manti Te’o, Tim Donaghy or the “Malice at the Palace,” they’re all pretty well-known sports stories. Therefore, many of the conversations with the filmmakers, producers and editors were centered around, “Since audiences are going to bring their own preexisting understanding of these stories to the material, how can we subvert those expectations? How can we wrestle with those expectations or amplify their understanding and expectations [of the episode]?” Whereas for something like the 1983 America’s Cup, the challenge there was the section of the story in which we had to explain what the America’s Cup was and the history behind it. We’re somewhat assuming that viewers wouldn’t be familiar with the sport of yacht racing, at least in a way that we wouldn’t have to worry about with [episodes] on Manti Te’o or the “Malice at the Palace.” You don’t need to explain those worlds [to American audiences] to the same degree you would the world of high-performance yacht racing! But the variety of subjects the series covers does keep it fresh, I think, and allows us to tell different kinds of stories.

Filmmaker: You mentioned the “Malice at the Palace” incident. Of course, there’s a throughline between that episode and this season’s Operation Flagrant Foul, disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy [Donaghy was one of the referees who officiated that evening’s game between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers at The Palace of Auburn Hills]. Being a basketball fan, the archival material became recontextualized for me once I was made aware of who was refereeing that game (and what he was up to behind the scenes). How did you envision archival footage factoring into the series? Are you working with a team of archival producers on each episode?

Chapman Way: Since we first started our careers, all of Mac and I’s documentaries have been archival-driven, from The Battered Bastards of Baseball to Wild Wild Country and now Untold. Archival material is incredibly important to our style of filmmaking, but no, it’s not like we have a big archival production team. It’s a small group of producers, plus Mac and I. Our motto is “no stone left unturned” when looking for material. We go through people’s houses, their garages, their storage units, the archives of local news stations, overseas. We know that the backbone to a lot of these episodes is the archival material and how important it is to obtain. Part of the fun of making these documentaries is that it’s like a wild goose chase all over the globe. You find a small piece of gold, then keep going. You get pumped, you find some clip that’s never been transferred or seen before and your excitement builds from there.

Maclain Way: When I think of the more interesting footage we’ve found, I find myself thinking more of the variety of avenues we took to find it. Take “Malice at the Palace,” for example. The footage [we found] was essentially obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) at the Auburn Hills Police Department. They had retained all of the tapes from that night, now stored in boxes and considered a closed case. Nonetheless, it was kept it in their archives and the footage was available to us via the FOIA, which no one had ever asked them for before. The police department turned the tapes over to us and all of a sudden we had an amazing wall of archival materials to sort through. 

We had a similar experience with the episode on Caitlyn Jenner. Caitlyn’s mother, who was living in Idaho, had a storage unit full of 8mm films of Caitlyn ice skating when she was very young. We sent a PA up there to track down and digitize the footage and I think that stuff would’ve rotted away had we not gotten our hands on it. In every episode, there are these little miracles that happen to make the documentary possible, so we celebrate the moments when we obtain that footage because we know how crucial it is.

Filmmaker: I love the material from Tim Donaghy’s wedding and how that personal footage and photos add to the characterization of who he is. I was also unaware of there having been a Delaware County referee circuit [many future NBA referees, including Donaghy, were raised in Delaware County (Delco, for short), right outside of Philadelphia].

Chapman Way: That was the first thing that popped out at us in the Tim Donaghy [episode]. We were like, “All these referees are from Delaware County? What are the odds of that? That’s so weird.”

Maclain Way: I’m not ashamed to admit it: I just binge-watched Mare of Easttown and I was like “Hell yeah, we’re back in Delco!” What a fascinating world, what a fascinating place in the United States.

Filmmaker: If the series were to continue for a third season, are there other sports stories you’ve been itching to explore? Perhaps the “frozen envelope” conspiracy theory of the 1985 NBA draft or Michael Jordan’s brief stint with the Washington Wizards? What have you been wishing for the series to cover that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to?

Chapman Way: Our dream is certainly to keep making more volumes of Untold, as Netflix has been a very cool partner on this. If we have the opportunity to make a Volume Three or a Volume Four, we do have a list of stories that Mac and I would love [to cover]. At the top of that list would be [tennis player] Monica Seles’s rivalry with Steffi Graf. There hasn’t been a “women’s sports rivalry” film [in a while] and Monica and Steffi’s would make for an incredible story. I think that’s at the top of our list. What else, Mac?

Maclain Way: Yeah, women’s tennis in the 1980s and ’90s is an area in which where there’s been a dearth of [films] in the sports-doc [genre]. I’m also a sucker for surf documentaries. Our father [Rick Way] was a nonfiction filmmaker who made a surf documentary and I grew up watching Bruce Brown [The Endless Summer] films and [Dana Brown’s] Step into Liquid nonstop. I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of sports, but I do have an encyclopedic knowledge of surf documentaries and yet I’ve never had a chance to make one. I loved [Chris Smith’s] 100 Foot Wave from a few years ago and thought it was super well done. It might be a little too esoteric, but [American surfer] Kelly Slater is doing some crazy stuff with his wave pool right now that could be fun [laughs]. Surfing is a part of the Summer Olympics now too. Maybe we could make a cool nature/surfing documentary—à la Bruce Brown as more of a passion project for us on the side, but I’d love to do something with it.

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