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GOOD SPORT - Mike Tollin Extends His Winning Streak With "Chuck"

Posted By Spike Friedman, Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Mike Tollin’s office at the Mandalay Sports Media headquarters in the hills of the San Fernando Valley is less a workspace and more a shrine to sports history.

Tollin works below a display case of signed baseballs from an array of Hall of Famers and American presidents. On another wall, he has the game on, even at noon on a Wednesday. 

Buried in bookshelves next to his desk are bits of memorabilia connected to his beloved Philadelphia Phillies and the team’s lightning-rod, 1960s star, Richie Allen, whose story he says he wants to tell more than any other. This is a project he’s been dreaming on for decades and working on for years, one about which he says, only half jokingly, “Once I’ve told this one, I’ll be done.” He has Sixers memorabilia from the only sports championship he got to celebrate as a child. He has pictures of his family with the families of his childhood heroes.

He has custom memorabilia from the sets of Summer Catch and Radio, which he directed, posters of most of his feature films including both Chuck and The Zookeepers Wife, his most recent releases, which mark a return to scripted film for Tollin. The contents in the room are personal and meaningful. The memorabilia he surrounds himself with wasn’t acquired on eBay and it isn’t for show. Tollin lives his connection to his work, and his work has a profound connection to sports.

Tollin’s earlier work was more varied, his focus split between what he referred to as the twin pillars of stories about sports and youth culture. Working with his former producing partner, Brian Robbins, Tollin brought shows such as All That, Smallville and Arli$$, and movies like Wild Hogs, Varsity Blues and Hardball to the screen. But after the two parted ways amicably a decade ago, Tollin’s work came to focus on narratives based on sports. 

In an effort to stay ahead of the market forces that were changing the models that Tollin had been operating under, he partnered with kindred spirit and powerful ally, Peter Guber, to form Mandalay Sports Media, five years ago. That meant scripted films, television series, documentaries and branded content all with an eye toward sports. “Brian and I had always been crossover artists,” Tollin observes, “But now with the diversification of media, there were only more worlds to cross between.”

Tollin’s work has made him a powerful enemy as well. His office has only one piece of memorabilia turned backwards, away from where he works. “It’s out of protest,” Tollin explains, then shows me the piece. It’s a letter that he sent first to Donald Trump, in the wake of his ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL? The answer to the titular question was Trump, and he was none too pleased. In Trump’s words it was, “a third rate documentary—and extremely dishonest (as you know).”

But Tollin wasn’t just taking uninformed potshots at the now-president. He had worked with the USFL when he was just coming up as a producer, and that meant working with Trump. “Back then, Trump was desperate for any publicity,” he recalls, “and we were making a weekly show about the league, and he was great fodder. We’d go up to the box and there was Ivana, and he’d play to the camera and be colorful. We spent a lot of time together. And it was a little creepy but it was both business and a little seductive.” Despite this connection, when he set out to make the documentary, Trump initially stonewalled Tollin. After Tollin told 30 for 30 producers Bill Simmons and Connor Schell that they may not have Trump, they were undeterred and told him to keep pursuing it.

Though Tollin’s instinct was to pull a Roger and Me and track down Trump at one of his golf courses, he got lucky. A story by John Genzale in the Sports Business Journal about the upcoming 30 for 30 slate caught Trump’s eye. The next day the phone rang; Trump was ready to go on camera. Tollin rolled every moment they had of Trump—including his inevitable storm-out, in which Trump refers to the whole endeavor as “small potatoes,” giving the film its title. The producer got what he needed to tell his story and pissed off the future president of the United States all in one fell swoop.

The anecdote is a testament to the twin hallmarks of Tollin’s work, his authenticity and his tenacity. Both are on display in his most recent feature, Chuck.

Chuck tells the true story of Chuck Wepner, a former mid-Atlantic heavyweight contender who went 12 rounds with Muhammad Ali. If that story sounds familiar, it’s because it served as the loose basis for Rocky, and Wepner’s having to live with being the basis for a more popular, fictionalized version of himself is the crux of the film. “Chuck’s interesting because at its core it’s the myth of narcissus,” Tollin muses. “He is the rare man who gets to see his own reflection as a fictional character.” Heightening this is the film itself, in which Chuck is played by Liev Schreiber, a reflection of a reflection. “I mean, the character Rocky Balboa has been inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame. And now Chuck’s seeing Liev play him too.”

The journey for Chuck’s story to reach the big screen was an arduous one. Tollin acquired the rights over a decade ago, after reading an article about Wepner. “The great thing about Chuck, here’s a guy who was nicknamed the Bayonne Bleeder, a punching bag on the way up for big-name fighters. But today he’s 77. He works out every day. He’s still telling the same stories with the same sharpness. There’s real joy to share this with him and not do it in his memory.” 

The film also lines up with Tollin’s notions about how and when to fictionalize a true story. There are of course the obvious practical questions about whether the needed footage exists. But there’s also the question of how iconic his main character is. Do people have an image in their head of the subject of the film? If that character is Coach Carter, you can cast Samuel L. Jackson. But if that character is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? There’s no actor who can play that role without being distracting.

In some cases this has led to a hybridized approach within his projects. The ESPN miniseries The Bronx Is Burning mixed archival footage with performances from Oliver Platt as George Steinbrenner and John Turturro as Billy Martin to tell the story of the Yankees 1977 World Series run and the turmoil that surrounded it. Chuck was envisioned the same way, a blend of real footage and new material.

However, when the opportunity to assemble a straight documentary on Wepner presented itself under the 30 for 30 banner, Tollin took it. This meant reenvisioning Chuck (then being developed under the working title The Bleeder) as a fully scripted film. They next got Schreiber attached to what wound up being a 12-year journey, while in partnering with Avi Lerner and Millennium, they found an unlikely but receptive match. Ironically, the documentary hews closer to the structure of a more conventional feature. But in the final cut of Chuck, the last real boxing scene sits at the end of the first act. With less reliance on archival footage, there’s more room for authentic human storytelling.

Chuck, like its subject, is scrappy but with considerable and unexpected staying power. In many ways it’s a small film that reveals its true intentions gradually, behind a set of great performances. While it works on the big screen, it also fits in the living room and seems a good bet to recoup its budget on the strength of cable and streaming deals. Within a shifting media landscape, this can be a model for bringing a hungry audience the type of stories that Tollin is most interested in telling.

To this end, Mandalay Sports Media, in partnership with IMG, has announced a 10-feature slate of scripted and documentary films about sports. “The middle ground where we used to make movies like Varsity Blues or Coach Carter has been shrinking,” Tollin recognizes. In spite of those structural changes on the business side, his belief is that there is still a clear audience appetite for these narratives, even if the audience is more localized. The first film under the IMG deal is an adaptation of Chad Harbach’s best-selling novel The Art of Fielding, to be directed by Craig Johnson.

“It’s fun though,” Tollin is quick to share. “I have a partner, Pete Guber, and even though he’s a decade older than me, he’s so tech savvy. He plays this role with his teams. Peter goes to the games and looks at the experience, the entertainment value, how the team is positioned in the community. So he’s a great strategic partner for me when we talk about how to do a project.” Guber’s passion for these stories helped shape the slate of films Mandalay is going to produce.

The inherent tension that lives at the heart of any sports movie is that unlike sports, which are never-ending unscripted dramas, a film (whether scripted or not) has to have a prescribed ending. When I ask Tollin about this, he admits to being increasingly detached from games themselves. “For me, sports? It’s a commonality. It’s a universal language. I love using sports as a backdrop, not so much because of the inherent drama, but because of the universality. The intergenerational qualities. It’s the fabric of our society.” 

He pauses, then adds, “Clichés happen for a reason. I used to sit with my grandfather in his retirement home. And at 7 o’clock he’d ask me to wheel him in his wheelchair over to the radio. And he’d turn it on. And he’d sit there and fall asleep listening to the Phillies game. This is before Harry Callas, even. It didn’t matter that they were usually 20 games out of first place. But there is that quality to sports that washes over you. You know the stakes. You know the good guys. You know who you’re rooting for. There are real connections.”

For Tollin, sports are a conduit to the type of stories he wants to tell. When I ask him if he thinks of himself as a historian, given his tendency to shed a light on under-remembered stories like Chuck, Radio or his potential Richie Allen film, he demurs. “Storyteller is an overused term now,” Tollin reflects, “but I do like to expose a certain kind of story. And many of them have a historical component to them. I like to think these stories are illuminating, inspiring … thought-provoking, if we’re lucky. But sometimes they’re just clean fun.” 

-Photographed by Michael Neveux
- This article originally appeared in the June/July issue of Produced By magazine.

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