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Father, Son Filmmaking Team Tell Story of Young Offenders Who Find Focus in Football


An upcoming film called the "Gridiron Gang" takes viewers behind the walls of a juvenile prison to highlight the role of sports in providing direction for troubled youth. The movie was based on a documentary by a father and son team, Lee and Shane Stanley, who spoke with VOA's Mike O'Sullivan about their efforts to get the story onto the Hollywood big screen.

Starring Dwayne Johnson, the actor known as The Rock, and the actor and rap star Xzibit, Gridiron Gang tells the story of teenaged boys in a detention center, and a counselor who thinks football can turn their lives around.

Johnson: "According to the teaching staff, the inmates here have trouble responding to authority, being a member of a team, and accepting criticism. One activity can improve them in all these areas. "

Supervisor: "So you want to start a football team?"

Johnson: "Exactly."

Supervisor: "Your neck is way, way out on this."

Lee Stanley, who co-produced the new movie about the football team, says most of the inmates are gang members who are inspired by the counselor.

"And he believed that giving them a common goal, teaching them something to commit to and to fight for together, rather than opposed to each other, it would diminish the gang ties, dissolve the gang ties, and cause them to have a common goal called 'we're a team,'" he said.

The feature film is based on a documentary that Lee Stanley and his wife Linda made in 1993. They told the story of Camp Kilpatrick, a juvenile facility near Los Angeles.

Lee Stanley's son, Shane, co-produced and helped direct the original documentary, and was an executive producer on the feature film. He says both recount the football team's miracle first season, when the once-violent gang members came within reach of the championship of a collegiate sports league.

"As you see in the documentary, as you see in the motion picture, they had three weeks to form a team with these killers, and most of them had never even thrown a football," said Shane. "Most had never exercised or done drills. Their only exercise was running their own in the hood [inner-city neighborhood] and running from police. And these kids went on to play for the state championship that year."

Johnson: "Everybody listen up. The gridiron is a football field. On the gridiron, we do it my way. Not your way. Your way got you here. Whatever gang you claim, whatever hood you're from, this is your hood now."

The original documentary won an Emmy Award for Lee Stanley, and virtually every Hollywood studio wanted to turn the story into a feature film. The Stanleys hoped to keep it authentic, and finally decided to work with Sony Pictures, under one condition.

"One of the things that Shane and I felt very strongly about was the film had to be shot at the actual prison, for two reasons," said Lee Stanley. "Number one, we didn't want Hollywood's version of a juvenile prison and number two, we wanted the ambience, if I can use that word, of our crew knowing that they and our actors were actually working in a working prison. Those kids over there in those uniforms are prisoners."

Then came another challenge, getting permission to film at the detention camp from the county probation office, which runs the facility. Lee Stanley met with probation chief Paul Higa, who listened for 10 minutes.

"[He] didn't say a thing, which only made me nervous," he said. "And then he looked at me and he said, 'I have one question. How will the kids benefit?'"

The filmmakers promised to work with the inmates, teaching a film class to explain the production process. The Stanleys, director Phil Joanou, the stars, cast and crewmembers gave the youthful inmates an inside view of the movie business.

There were many potential pitfalls. Cast and crewmembers were asked not to wear gang colors - reds, for example - or the logos of sports teams, which are often used to identify gang affiliation.

The studio was worried about legal liability if there was violence. A crew member might misplace a tool that could be used as a weapon. But a studio executive backed up the producers and the filming continued. The filmmakers say not a single incident marred the production process during six hard weeks of filming.

Lee and Shane Stanley say Gridiron Gang is intended to entertain, but like their documentary, the feature also has a purpose - making audiences aware of juvenile crime, and how adults, especially parents, can give youngsters direction.

"The problem with juvenile crime is not getting solved in this country," said Lee Stanley. "And of course juvenile crime turns into adult crime. And what I'm hoping is that people will realize, number one, that there is a kid inside these kids, these criminals. But secondly, it begins in the home. If a kid is not parented properly, there's a lot of guys on the street that'll bring them up, and teach them how to kill, how to stab, how to rob, how to deal [drugs], whatever they need."

All of the Stanley's projects have inspirational themes. An upcoming film called Ironmen is the true story of the father-son triathletes Dick and Ricky Hoyt. Son Ricky is disabled but the father and son work together as a team in grueling contests involving swimming, biking and running. Upcoming films also include the story of NASCAR auto racer Kelly Sutton, who has multiple sclerosis, and the story of a young man who is living with Down syndrome.

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