There is nothing very “Hollywood” about England’s pub football league – the popular name given to the loosely organised collection of fixtures that take place on public pitches every Sunday, operating outside of the country’s official 24-level football pyramid. And yet the story of one player who left the United States to launch an international career in exactly these surroundings has now been projected onto cinema screens on both sides of the Atlantic.
Filmed in the weeks leading up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, Rise & Shine: the Jay DeMerit Story tells the tale of how Green Bay native Jay DeMerit headed to England at the age of 23, after failing to secure a place at any Major League Soccer clubs. Against all the odds, he climbed up from the pub leagues and through the amateur divisions before securing a professional contract with Watford and then helped the club win promotion to the country’s Premier League.
It was the defender’s subsequent call-up to USA’s FIFA World Cup squad that prompted the makers of Rise & Shine to produce the documentary, but the making of the film itself turned out to be an adventure on a scale comparable to DeMerit’s own rollercoaster career.
“It’s always a huge deal in the US when an American player gets into the English Premier League and there had already been some ideas kicking around of turning Jay’s story into a real Hollywood-style picture with actors playing the parts, but nothing had come of it,” explains Nick Lewis, who co-directed the film along with Ranko Tutulugdzija, a college soccer colleague of DeMerit.
“As the World Cup got closer, Ranko and I were discussing how the story could be told best as a documentary and we both agreed that it had to be filmed straightaway, since Jay was about to leave England at the end of the season.”
Lewis, it should be explained, is an attorney, while Tutulugdzija is an acupuncturist, and neither of them had originally planned to direct the film.
“We had a professional English director all lined up for the project but then, just before we came over to shoot the film, his wife suffered pregnancy complications and he had to cancel,” Lewis explains. “Suddenly we had to decide whether to call it all off or go ahead on our own. I could talk for an hour about what we did and the discussions we had, but essentially we made up our minds to do it.
“The situation kind of mirrored Jay’s story a bit, because we had no plan and no résumé – just like when he set off for England. All we had was an idea in our minds and the dedication to get it done.”
During the subsequent hectic period of shooting the film, the amateur directors travelled to Green Bay, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, London, Watford, Johannesburg and Rustenburg, grabbing interviews with DeMerit’s friends, family members and team-mates along the way, as well as filming the varied locations that formed the backdrop to his career.
Even when the filming was completed, there was still the major headache of finding the funds to complete the project. To save money, most of the editing process was carried out on a laptop, but the two men still needed additional financing to help get the film distributed, and to secure expensive rights to the footage of DeMerit in action.
With no personal backers to turn to, the pair went instead to kickstarter.com – a fundraising website for creative projects. Promising their donors rewards ranging from free copies of the film to the boots which DeMerit wore in South Africa, they were finally able to raise their full target of USD 215,000.
A chance encounter with a former FIFA employee at New York’s Kicking and Screening football film festival then provided another boost. Attending the festival in his new role as a freelance film-maker, one-time head of FIFA’s World Cup office Alex Klosterkemper was so impressed by the documentary’s message that he passed on a copy to world football’s governing body. FIFA Films, the department which oversees the external use of competition footage, agreed to let the film-makers use the shots of Jay in action at a reduced rate.
“The project would probably have been dead without the footage rights, so that was the moment when we knew it was really going to happen,” recalls Tutulugdzija. “Again, it was just like the journey Jay went on. I doubt he ever thought he would be in the players’ tunnel at a FIFA World Cup, getting ready to walk out and face England, and we certainly never thought we would be making a film that would be shown in cinemas across England and the USA, with major organisations like FIFA donating footage to us.”
With the footage acquired, the film-makers were able to secure screenings in around 150 cinemas across the United States. A further 55 theatres showed the film upon its January launch in the UK.
“A lot of the screenings were aimed at soccer-specific communities, and in the towns and cities where Jay grew up or played football, but it’s also been amazing to get so many letters and emails from people who aren’t into soccer, or even any other sports, and still enjoyed the film,” says Tutulugdzija.
“Jay kept believing in himself, and certainly with the US cinema-goers it’s that positive mentality and hard work ethic that’s been appreciated. If the film has done well in the US, it’s because of the fact that it’s not just about an individual footballer’s career, but more about the wider message of what he did and how he did it."
DeMerit's view from the inside
Shortly after the first screenings of Rise & Shine in England and ahead of his second season with MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps, FIFA World caught up with Jay DeMerit to hear his thoughts on the project that turned him into a somewhat reluctant film star.
FIFA World: Your football career has obviously involved quite a few strange twists and turns – but how strange was it to see that career described in a documentary film?
Jay DeMerit: For me, it’s always a bit weird to be asked to do these kind of things, and I was very sceptical at the start, firstly because my playing career is not yet over and secondly because I knew I’d have to do a lot of ‘look at me’ style things. But the film-makers did a very good job planting the seed in my head about why we should get the story out there and how it was ultimately about that story rather than just being about me.
I went to the premiere in Seattle and it definitely feels funny to be in a theatre and see yourself on the big screen, but it was also very humbling to see the film come to fruition, knowing how much the soccer communities in England and the USA had helped make it possible.
The early parts of the film show all the knock-backs and rejection that you had to face when you first started playing in England. Do you think that’s what makes it work as a story?
I’d say that’s the general message, yes. I was talking to [the film’s directors] Nick and Ranko just the other day and we were saying how it’s not just a soccer story, it’s more about having a dream and going out to achieve it.
And it sounds like the making of the film was quite an achievement in its own right…
Yeah, it’s kind of funny how it mirrored the story of the movie itself, with so many setbacks and so much perseverance required to get the film out there, using social media and getting all the money together after being about USD 130,000 short with 30 days to go. It really looked for a while as if it wouldn’t happen but then it somehow came together in the last couple of weeks, with the likes of FIFA also helping out. So, in the end, it was really down to all the contributions that we got from all levels of the game.
Just to update your story a bit since the film was made, you’re now getting ready for your second season captaining Vancouver, after a pretty tough opening season in the MLS.
That’s true, but we all knew there’d be a lot of challenges in coming into the league as a new expansion team. Last season we had a lot of injuries, changes of managers, players coming and going and no training ground of our own – things that we’ve now generally sorted out. We’ve just signed a great player, Sebastien Le Toux, from Philadelphia, and we’ve got a hungry new manager with a new school approach, so I can’t wait now for the season to begin.
And what about your international career? You haven’t had a call-up since Jurgen Klinsmann took over as coach of the US team.
I haven’t heard from Jurgen Klinsmann personally yet, but I know he’s starting a new cycle now looking ahead to the next World Cup, so of course he’ll want to look at some of the other guys and give them a chance to show what they can do. The thing about me is that I try to stick to what I’ve done best in the past, and hopefully people know now what I can offer. Of course I want to keep playing for the national team and hopefully I can prove that by playing well for Vancouver. But, if not, then that’s the nature of football – and I probably know as much as anyone about all the game’s ups and downs!