Released this April on Amazon Prime, the documentary series “All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines” follows the University’s football team from their spring trip to Rome to the 2018 Outback Bowl. The series offers glimpses of the lives of student athletes like leaders Rashan Gary, Karan Higdon and the various quarterbacks as well as the enigmatic Coach Jim Harbaugh. Amazon paid the University over $2 million for the rights to create this must-watch series for fans of Michigan football. Recently, The Daily had a chance to speak with director Jim Jorden about tackling this ambitious project.
The Michigan Daily: How did the idea for this documentary come about?
Jim Jorden: Amazon has a series with the NFL called “All or Nothing.” A couple years ago, the first one came out with the Arizona Cardinals. When I watched that show, I thought, “Wow, this would be a perfect distribution model for college football.” Usually these shows run once a week as the season goes on or maybe a one-hour episode when the season’s over. This was eight one-hour episodes that came out half a year later. As a storyteller, you have a chance to look at all the material for the whole season and shape the story in a special way. And with eight hours, you have the time to tell a really good story. I thought we should try to do this for college football. I arranged a meeting with Amazon. They were interested in three programs: Alabama, UCLA and Michigan. Amazon liked Michigan best based on the alumni, winningest team of all time and how interesting Coach Harbaugh is, especially as a dad with four young kids. But for covering college, they’re kids. The thing you always have to keep in mind is in the NFL, they’re pros and it’s a job, but in college they’re students. A big pitch for the project was wanting to put the “student” back in student athlete and “college” back in college football. We really tried to show the whole college experience.
TMD: What were the logistics of covering such a large team and organization?
JJ: I helped start “Hard Knocks” back in 2001 with the Baltimore Ravens. When we did “Hard Knocks” each year with the NFL and HBO, we would come in with a small army and take over. The college setting is so intimate, so we wanted to be a fly on the wall with a small group. We only had two cameras and relied heavily on Michigan’s internal camera staff to help us with footage. We didn’t have a big crew at all. And when you’re shooting over the course of a whole football season, you don’t have to shoot so much stuff. We have sayings like, “don’t shoot everything, shoot the right things.” Then when we edit, “work with what you have, not what you don’t have.” We didn’t want to shoot a ton of stuff or bother people, just be at the right place at the right time and document the right things. And we wore Michigan gear. We really were a part of the Michigan team. We’ll all be fans of Michigan forever now because you get to know everybody, and you understand where they’re coming from.
TMD: Did you use your own game footage?
JJ: We tried to never use anything shot by a network. We shot everything ourselves because we shot with a different style. I found that shooting sports comes down to three things: Lenses, angles and film speed. You can have the same camera standing next to the same person, but if they’re shooting at different speeds it looks different. If one person’s down lower or higher, it looks different. We tried to capture the games in a way that TV doesn’t do: A lot closer, a lot more personal. We wanted it to feel like you’re on the sidelines.
TMD: A lot of the intimate interviews happened in cars as the subjects were driving around Ann Arbor. Why did you choose this set up?
JJ: One thing that Amazon was really keen on was never having an interview where anybody spoke in the past tense like I’m doing now. Sometimes in this show, you’ll see really well-lit interviews where it’s taking place after the actual filming is done. Amazon didn’t want to have that and there wasn’t time to take out of someone’s schedule for interviews like that. We just filmed it on the fly, while we’re going around. A car was a great time to talk to somebody because we’re just driving, they can just talk as they drive and it’s not distracting. A lot of times there’s interviews with guys just sitting in the field. We were just trying to get everybody right in the moment.
TMD: Something that really struck me were the class differences between players and, essentially, why they play. There was a sharp contrast between Rashan Gary and his mother eating at Red Lobster, while Wilton Speight and his girlfriend ate out at Black Pearl. Was this comparison intentional? And were there other greater themes you wanted to convey?
JJ: We just followed people around wherever they naturally wanted to go. We weren’t from Ann Arbor so for me there wasn’t any difference between restaurants. We never tried to get in the way of anybody doing something that they wouldn’t naturally do. Back in the day, there was this movie called “Broadcast News” about journalism. This soldier was going to put his shoe on and the cameraman missed it. So, the cameraman said, “Oh wait, can you put that shoe on again?” And the director said, “No, no, no! You cannot have them re-put on the shoe. They have to do everything the way they would normally do it.” That’s how we are: We don’t want to stage anything, we don’t want anyone to do anything that’s out of the ordinary. If you like fast food or a seven-course meal, it’s totally up to you and we’ll just go and hang out. We try to never get in anyone’s face, always shoot with long lenses and far away. We never want to ruin the natural setting of a scene.
TMD: With so many people on and associated with the team, what narrative arcs were you most interested in exploring?
JJ: We wanted to see how from the beginning of the season to its end, student athletes balance everything they have to do. A lot of times Amazon wanted us to script out what the story arcs were going to be, but we didn’t know. With all the injuries at quarterback this year, that became a very compelling storyline. Florida State started its season last year as the #1 or #2 team in the country. They lost their quarterback in the season opener and by the end of the season their entire coaching staff had left the school. Michigan went through three quarterbacks, but they still held it together. They won eight games and I think they laid the foundation for the future. Injuries really determine the fate of a college football team more than anything else. And Michigan certainly had them last year and still did really well. What’s great about social media today is that you can read people’s comments about the show right away. The common denominator of the messages and the reviews were that people didn’t realize how great the coaching staff did at holding everything together. They really faced a lot of different adversities. That’s what life is: How do you get up after you get knocked down?
TMD: Were there any concerns from the organization about revealing their playbook or other sensitive information?
JJ: I’ve done these shows in a lot of different sports for a long time now. There’s not a single one of these shows that ever is produced where the team doesn’t have final approval over material. If you’re a team, why would you? Why would you let someone come in and just do whatever they want? Michigan looked at everything as every sports team deserves. They changed very little material, which is a credit to them to let us tell the story the way it really was. Most things were so minor. Like sometimes we had the wrong play call. We’re looking at something for how it’s shot. Is it in focus? Is it framed well? Can you hear well? Sometimes we would take a play call that wasn’t actually that play and put it together. They said, “No, that’s not the play.” So, we’d find the right call and put it in. Some other teams and organizations in the past try to craft a story a certain way and to their own liking. Michigan didn’t do that. They let what really happened show on the screen. That’s the reason why the show has been received in such a positive manner: It’s authentic and real.
TMD: Will there be another season? Would the focus still be on Michigan?
JJ: Don’t know. Everybody seems to hope so. Sandy Montag, who is an agent for the likes of Bob Costa and Mike Tirico, a super-agent, he’s the guy who put the deal together. He said, in his career, this was the most difficult deal because it involved Amazon, Michigan and the Big Ten. The show would not have happened without Sandy. Can he do it again for another year? We’ll see. And no one has ever followed a sports team for more than one season. It would be awesome if Michigan were the first college team, or really sports team at any level, to do two seasons in a row.