Peter Berg. Barry Levinson. Thaddeus D. Matula?
The Austin resident and virtually unknown 32-year-old director of "Pony Excess," a documentary about the 1987 downfall of the Southern Methodist University football program premiering tonight on ESPN's acclaimed series "30 for 30," is in good company.
"I'm the only completely unknown, and I'm the series' finale," Matula says, proud and a bit astonished.
The NCAA gave the school the so-called "death penalty" in 1987 for recruiting violations, eliminating SMU's football program for two years.
Matula, a product of the SMU film school, grew up in Dallas, where his father was a department head at SMU. "When I go home for Thanksgiving, I actually really get to go home. It's the same house," Matula says.
He moved to Austin in 2005 to join the city's vibrant film community, but spent his first two years here working for a tech company. A layoff gave him the impetus to kick start his film career. He took short films around the festival circuit but had not found his big break. He was making ends meet by editing hunting documentaries. "I'm not a hunter. I don't like hunting. This is how bad it was for me," he recalls.
At the beginning of 2008, Matula went through a period of finding himself. "I was sputtering. My life wasn't going in the direction that I'd planned," he remembers.
A feature film he'd been trying to finish for seven or eight years just wasn't happening, he says, and he decided it was time for a new project. A random call from a high school buddy who had a science-fiction novel he wanted to turn into a film led Matula to contact another high school buddy, Michael Hughes, a mutual friend of the pair. Hughes, Matula later learned, was an Emmy-award winning producer who had worked with ESPN, Fox and Fox Sports Network.
With the science fiction novel also on hold and in search of yet another project, Matula met with a local producer to bounce ideas around. When he learned that the producer had two football documentaries in the works, Matula realized that the SMU story he had long wanted to tell in narrative form could be made more cheaply and just as compellingly in documentary form.
He brought the idea back to Hughes, who thought it was great. And with Hughes' name on the prospectus, Matula set about raising money.
Then, early in the 2009 football season, Hughes called Matula with good news: He had made chance contact in Los Angeles with an SMU grad who, a week after the pair's meeting, had dinner with a producer from ESPN who told the alumnus that one of the "30 for 30" series' films had fallen off the roster.
"It's all good timing and great luck. If you're inclined to agree in 'something more,' this project is probably proof of it," Matula says.
I sat down with the filmmaker in Austin to chat about his film and his career. Here are excerpts of our conversation (edited for length and clarity).
American-Statesman: How did you find the documentary form? Was it surprising to you? Did you enjoy it?
Thaddeus D. Matula: I loved it. I mean, I look forward to doing another one. But it's just really finding the right source material. With this one, I knew I had a winner because it's a story I've wanted to tell my whole life and it's just so fascinating on so many levels. There's never been a football program given the death penalty before or since, and there's never been a football program that had the same kind of circumstances. You have your last great newspaper war in this country going on; you have Dallas at its height when money is just growing from trees, pouring out of pockets; the TV show ("Dallas") is on; the Cowboys are America's team. Back then, Dallas was a city every other city wanted to be, but Dallas was never real. It was always this idea. Everything was shiny and new and if you wanted it bad enough, you could make it happen in Dallas. So all of this is going on, and in this you have this small college football program and it starts beating the University of Texas, and you can't beat Texas and get away with it.
Did you discover anything during the making of the film that surprised you?
I didn't really know what the story was all about, even though I'd wanted to tell it for so long and now I can explain it clearly. I could always explain the story that I wanted to tell, but I didn't know that it was specifically that perfect storm — that it was all these different factors. And there was also a point where I was surprised when we were actually cutting it together, and I had to sit back and I'm like, 'Man, we really did it, didn't we?' It was kind of a sobering, depressing moment. I always wanted to go to SMU, and I ended up going there. And that's when the final punch of the death penalty happened because I didn't get the traditional American college experience ... people didn't care. If you have a team that loses for that long, you can kind of understand it but ... going to a university in America — especially if you're going to a Division I university — football is part of that experience, especially in Texas. And I don't care if they lose, but be upset that they lost, don't just not care. That really bugged me.
You interviewed a ton of people.
It was awesome to get people like (Brent) Musburger and Verne Lundquist and (former SMU player and NFL star) Eric Dickerson.
Were you comfortable conducting those interviews?
Only the mornings that I didn't tie one on at the bar the night before (he laughs).
I think that might make it easier.
It really did come naturally. I had a lot of fun doing that. Because this is a story I've been thinking about my whole life and I've been telling people about, so a lot of times, much to the chagrin of my producers, I didn't have to prepare. They would want me to come in with copious notes and I'm like, "No, I know this story. C'mon." But it was pure joy to do it. I think the only one that I didn't feel nervous about but I guess I was extremely nervous about was interviewing Eric Dickerson. ... Sweat was just pouring off of me. I guess it was, you know, here I am interviewing one of my childhood heroes and asking him to tell me that he cheated. And that's a hard thing to do.