One-on-One with Todd Hickey
Bill Hupp, InterMat Staff Writer
Thankfully, however, award-winning filmmaker Todd Hickey — a former PA high school wrestler himself — decided to do just that. Now he and producer Kirk Ledger are touring the country, showcasing the fruits of their labor.
Takedowns and Falls tells the true story of veteran Coach Jeff Sweigard and his 2006-07 Central Dauphin (PA) High School Rams. It paints a wonderful portrait of the team’s personal and athletic trials and tribulations throughout the season, the ups and downs that might befall any high school wrestling team in America. Like any good documentary, every character brings a different quirk or endearing attribute to the table, and it’s easy to root for each kid as the drama of the season unfolds.
While the movie doesn’t focus on the larger community of Harrisburg as much as I had originally anticipated, it does feature a variety of outstanding original music, and the editing and cinematography are first-class, and at times, breathtaking.
Afterwards, Hickey was gracious enough to sit down with me and delve a little deeper into a project that has consumed much of his life for the past three years.
What was the biggest challenge in making this movie?
Hickey: Although we would all like to think of film as a medium of art, it is also a business, so people (investors, producers etc.) want to feel there is a good chance to make their money or sweat equity back. Documentaries are struggling to find funding and audiences, in general, and our film was no different. We spent a lot of time fundraising and pitching the project. I think our belief in the idea of the film was contagious, so we were able to get it off the ground.
We started shooting before we had the whole budget, so that presented some tense moments, and we raised money throughout the entire process, a little at a time and kept it going.
Outside of funding the film, I’d have to say editing it was the most challenging aspect. We shot a daunting 500 hours of footage. As with many docs, we had several possible films to make that lived in that raw footage. Shaping a film that would appeal to wrestling and non-wrestling fans alike was tricky and taxing.
We were editing for 2.5 years, during the course of which we went through three different editors and almost a dozen assistant editors. Docs of this size don’t pay as well as many other film or TV jobs, so it is difficult to keep people on board for long durations. In short, I guess there are two answers; getting the film off the ground and then getting it finished.
How did you decide on Central Dauphin High School, specifically? I remember you saying that this movie was originally supposed to compare PA wrestling geographically?
Hickey: (Producer) Kirk Ledger and I had wrestled for Coach Sweigard at Susquehanna (PA) Township in the late 80′s, and when Walter (Peppelman) lost in the ’06 PIAA state finals, we decided that maybe this was the time to make the documentary idea that we had been talking about for a decade and a half.
We initially imagined and wrote up the idea as more of a mosaic of PA wrestling, following four or five wrestlers from different areas of PA, chronicling and comparing each of their journeys on the road to a state title.
Once we got to PA and started shooting, we quickly realized that we were inspired by many of the personal stories and the “cast” that CD’s team provided the film. We thought it was important to build relationships, spending a lot of time with one team would help do that. So, we decided to make the film centered around this team, that is not the champs, but not the worst … Just your average PA high school wrestling team … or so we thought.
You’ve made many different documentaries before … What made this subject material so compelling in your mind?
Hickey: For any film to be compelling, you must care about what your characters are going through, and you have to be able to relate, or at least juxtapose, their experiences to your own.
Audiences will quickly engage with subjects that they believe are passionate about what they are doing. Wrestling is a very intense world that is not often exposed in film, and sports films in general have great built in arcs and obstacles. Our film also has some health elements that raise the stakes.
I feel that the film is compelling because at some point in the film you really start pulling for the cast, that you laugh when they do, and get sad when they are sad. As an audience member (and film maker) I really enjoy the time I spend with the cast during the film, and care about them and the outcome.
How do you think CD’s improbable state title run that year affected your movie?
Hickey: It would have been a different film. It would have been more of the mosaic that we talked about earlier. Like I mentioned earlier, although we decided to spend the majority of our time with CD, we did film all over PA and interviewed lots of coaches, wrestlers and CD’s opponents. (Some of which is in the DVD extras)
We were in the right place at the right time and enabled ourselves to capture, then share this moment in time.
What is your personal background with PA wrestling?
Hickey: I grew up in Harrisburg and wrestled in middle and high school. I was not very good and an underachiever in the sport. In college I missed wrestling, and realized that instead of trying hard I was always looking for an excuse, or an easy way out. But at that point it was too late to use this new found revelation in wrestling, so I made a promise to myself that I would never half-ass something I loved to do again. This attitude drives me as an adult and as a filmmaker. If you want to be good at something you have to love it, you have to really try, and you can’t be afraid to fail. I saw a quote the other day on a wrestling Web site “In wrestling there are no losers. Just winners and learners.” I can relate to that.
How much did your prior relationship with Coach Sweigard help in the making of this film? Did your impressions of him change as you spent the year around he and his team?
Hickey: It helped us a lot. He enabled this film to happen. Coach told us he would have never let someone that didn’t wrestle for him have this sort of access to him and his team. He wanted to be sure that things were not taken out of context, or misunderstood by someone who is not familiar with him or the sport.
I think it also helped because once the team realized we had been student-athletes under Coach Sweigard we got some credibility, we had that in common.
As always, having a past we had a shorthand and lots of old stories that we could talk about that helped us segue into conversations and have fun during down time. He is a really funny guy, and made us feel comfortable and welcome. That carried over to how other people treated us too, which helped.
I would say my impression of him solidified more so than changed. I have always had a lot of respect for him, but now 15-plus years removed from being a high school kid and a coach, we are now both adults and my respect for him progressed to that perspective.
Do you have a favorite moment of the film?
Hickey: For sure … It would be hard to pick one. I have several favorite moments. Lots of little smiles and comments. I am still affected by the ups and downs of the season and cast. When Tony Dallago wins in the state semis ranks up there, as does the end of the film.
How did making this documentary compare with other ones that you’ve made or been involved with?
Hickey: I served as the cinematographer (director of photography) on the other documentaries I have worked on. This is the first film that I produced, directed and shot. So, this has been the most, top to bottom, intensive experience. This is often referred to as a “passion project.”
As far as story/subject, all of the docs I have been a part of have been about people who are trying to, in their own way, make the world a better place, either in broad strokes, one on one, by working on oneself or leading by example. In this case a man trying to teach life lessons via the sport of wrestling.
How did you think this movie was going to play with non-wrestling fans? And what has the general response been?
Hickey: It has been playing very well to non-wrestling fans. After every screening we have had people come up to us and say something along the lines of “I was only here because my boyfriend, but I loved it!” We have been saying for along time, if we can get the girlfriends to like it we will be OK, and break out of the niche and reach mass audiences.
That being said, it is also important that wrestling fans enjoy the film too. The wrestling community has been so supportive throughout this whole process. We wanted to make an authentic and honest film that everyone could enjoy.
Where are you planning on showing the film in the future?
Hickey: We just did a screening in Arizona with Sunkist Kids … We are looking into screening at Fargo in July … And we are booking more screenings in LA, New York, the Northwest, a drive-in theater in Virginia. Kirk Ledger and I are planning on doing another theatrical run in the fall to lead up to wrestling season. We are also doing screenings with booster clubs and teams as benefits and stuff like that. We want to bring it to wherever people want to see it. Several screenings have happened because people e-mail us and ask us to bring it to their town. Those screenings tend to very well because of the local support and grass roots-style promo.
Takedowns and Falls was produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker Todd Hickey. Todd attended the Radio-Television-Film Department at Temple University in Philadelphia then apprenticed under directors Spike Jonze, Paul Boyd, Billie Woodriff and D.P.’s Daniel Pearl, Roberto Schieffer, Chewy Chaves, and Amy Vincent. His first narrative feature film as a D.P. After Sex, is an ensemble piece staring Mila Kunis, Emmanulle Chriqui, Taryn Manning, Jane Seymour and John Witherspoon. Todd also lensed the award-winning documentary “Freestyle, the art of Rhyme” for director Kevin Fitzgerald and “Sonny Boy,” directed by Soleil Moon-Frye. Todd recently penned the story for The Hungry Rabbit Jumps, a script written by Robert Tannen, currently in production and starring Nicolas Cage, January Jones and Guy Pearce. Todd’s work has appeared on MTV, MTV2, MTV Europe, VH1, Much Music, and Fuse.