Rise And Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story – One Of The Men Behind The Film Talks To AFTN

Getting independent movies financed and distributed has always been hard. More so in this current financial climate.

Factor in a theme of football and you’re fighting an even bigger battle to get it made and seen.

Football films are pretty much hit or miss. Few get me really excited, but one which certainly did from the minute I heard about it was the documentary “Rise and Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story”.

The Whitecaps revered Captain has had an amazing story to get to where he currently is in the game. Most of you will already know it well, but for those of you who don’t, here it is in potted form.

Jay was considered a prospect whilst playing for the University of Illinois. The powers that be in MLS ignored his talents though and many would have thought that Jay’s dreams of making it as a professional footballer would have been over.

Showing tremendous spirit and self belief, Jay wouldn’t let his dreams die and headed to Europe with just $1800 in his pocket.

Battling through rejections and a footballing education in the lower reaches of the English non-league game, Jay’s talents were eventually spotted by English Championship side Watford.

Long story short, he became a cult hero and Captain of the Hornets who scored the winning goal at Wembley to take them into the Premiership. Throw in being capped for your country and playing at the World Cup and you have a real life rags to riches tale that you just wouldn’t believe if you were watching a fictional Hollywood blockbuster.

But it’s all true and that’s what makes the whole story all the better and dynamite movie material.

“Rise and Shine” The Jay DeMerit Story” was written and directed by first time film-makers Ranko Tutulugdzija and Nick Lewis. The 90 minute documentary saw 50 days of filming, across three continents, over a six month period.

The film-makers have a fantastic end result and, in these days of sporting biopics being hot tickets, a potential hit on their hands.

Only two big problems. They don’t have the necessary funding or licensing rights to take it to theatre or dvd.

This has meant that the documentary has been doing some rounds on the festival circuit and only been seen at private screenings.

We caught up with one of the co-writers, directors and producers of the documentary, Ranko Tutulugdzija, to find out more about the film and what the current distribution status of it was.

Ranko and Jay go way back to their university days when they were not only best friends but also team-mates on the University of Illinois football team in Chicago.

Did he know right away that Jay had what it would take to get him to the top of the game?

“Jay wasn’t a star to everybody on the team but to me, as an offensive player, I knew what it meant to have him. With a player like Jay, you can play offensive attacking soccer with freedom. I realized as soon as I got to Chicago that with Jay I could be free to attack – I don’t think people outside of soccer or maybe even in soccer really understand what this means for an offensive minded player.

I always knew that Jay could play at the highest level because he was relentless and fearless, and tried so hard. For a team to have just one defender like Jay, this is everything, the foundation and a secret to success on the highest level. On top of that he had calm aggressiveness in college, this is what every great defender in the world has had and he had it, whether others recognized it or not I don’t know – but I did.”

And did Ranko harbour hopes of becoming a professional footballer himself?

“Did I ever dream of playing professional?!!! That was my heartbeat growing up and I planned it forever. Jay can testify to it, for a couple months I didn’t have an apartment so I slept on Jay’s floor next to his bed. He used to see me go to bed at 8:30pm every night. I was so disciplined. For me, soccer was my first love and my way out of what I experienced growing up, it was my escape.”

Ranko and Jay shared a lot of ups and downs at school, on the football pitch and also in their downtime. There can’t be many better people to tell Jay’s story and this bond not only comes across in the film, it also helps tell the story of what Jay is like as a person away from the football pitch.

Intrigued by something we read on the film’s official website, one story Ranko tells us captures that aspect of him more than any other.

“Most people know about Jay as a soccer player but not everybody knows about what kind of human being he is.

After years of collapsing health, I found out that the severe new symptoms I was having was because of the conditions of my kidneys and because they have suffered for years, and with this new development, it was probably irreversible. Those years I never talked to Jay or really anyone, I went to China for help because I didn’t have medical insurance after I graduated from college and then kind of disappeared into a my own world of getting through the pain.

Finally in 2007, Jay got in contact with me when he was playing in the Gold Cup at the Home Depot Center in LA, and gave me tickets to his game against Guatemala. After the game we met up in Manhattan Beach and I told him everything. He wanted to get tested immediately to see if he was a match to donate his kidney. It was really an expression of friendship I can never re-pay, Jay is not only a top-gun soccer player he is a friend and an awesome human being.”

Jay DeMerit’s story is certainly a unique and inspiring one, but when did the guys first get the idea that it would make a good film?

“Actually, when I had first thought about it ‘GOAL’ had come out as a feature in Hollywood and it was so similar to Jay’s story I didn’t think it could be done again…but in January 2010 my old friend from UC Santa Barbara, Nick Lewis, who I introduced to Jay, told me that we should do a documentary on Jay’s story. And that was when I said boom, Nick you are a genius, that is it – a documentary – the real thing. Let me call Jay and talk to him about it. So, it was Nick, my partner, who actually thought of the idea to do the film.”

Armed with the idea, how did they go about pitching the idea to Jay and getting him on board?

“I pretty much pitched the idea to Jay and myself at the same time, trying to convince both of us that we could do this! (laughs) I told him that we were just going to steward the process, organize everything and make sure it is what he wanted.

Being so close to Jay before he was a phenomenon, he trusted me to oversee the process and that is how it started. So, Nick and me partnered up to make the film happen, neither of us were ever supposed to actually be the creative part of the film or be involved in the actual shooting/directing or editing or anything else except producing the film.”

That wasn’t how it turned out though and Ranko and Nick ended up as co-writers, co-directors, co-executive producers and co-assistant editors. They also ended up financing the making of it all, at much cost to themselves. As first time film-makers did they find the whole industry frustrating?

“We maxed out every credit card we had and borrowed from everyone we could to make the film.

I still don’t know too much about the industry, I guess that will be my next step if we do enter into a partnership to get Jay’s story distributed and then after that process I will be more able to answer this question.

We just hope people in Hollywood and the public see that this is a movie made without a marketing strategy, without a plan to make money, it was a friendship movie made from the deepest part of us.”

As with most films, money was most certainly a bit of a problem. With filming in Green Bay, Connecticut, London, South Africa and Chicago, things had to be done in the most cost effective way possible. For Ranko and Nick, this meant them missing out in going to film at the World Cup in South Africa.

“It was just way too expensive for all of us to go. We had only enough money to send one of us, so we sent our camera man on a solo-mission! We talked to him throughout the time he was there and laid out for him how to complete the World Cup section of the film and what shots we envisioned and wanted. So, we didn’t completely send him there to fight for himself!”

To miss out on such a huge global event must have been frustrating, but perhaps not as much as then trying to fund distribution of the film for cinema and dvd release. Some of the actual footballing footage costs tens of thousands of dollars. One estimate I read, had just one minute of World Cup footage costing $50,000. The problem is, to completely tell Jay’s story and to have the full visual dramatic impact, you need to be able to show that footage. Telling people about Jay’s play-off goal for Watford is exciting. Watching it is a real goosebumps moment.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghBM-3y629E&w=500&h=311]So what’s the latest with the distribution aspect? Are we likely to be able to see the film in cinemas any time soon?

“Well, after releasing the trailer on You Tube, we started to get regular phone calls and emails about partnering up with certain finance groups, investors, to help bring the film to the world…but at this moment it is so dynamic and evolving every hour we really don’t know what the future holds.

We just hope that it does have a chance to get out there whether in theater or dvd because this movie isn’t just a movie about soccer – it is a movie about perseverance, about hope. It is a human message that goes right to the heart.”

The film tells the story of Jay’s life and the steps he took to get to where he is today, from small town Green Bay, Wisconsin to the World Cup last year in South Africa. Did any of the stories they filmed surprise Ranko along the way?

“To be honest, they didn’t surprise me, but each story I heard, like the story of Jay becoming captain at Watford under manager Aidy Boothroyd. Wow, I wasn’t surprised but I was so thankful to be able to hear a soccer mind like his explain how it all came to be.

I knew Jay had the heart do to anything and although I wasn’t surprised I did grasp how BIG the story and stories really were, and thought to myself this may never ever happen again, and only Jay has ever done this in the world – Jay and no one else.”

The one place that really got the football player in Ranko most excited whilst filming was the trip to England.

“Soccer in England is what I, myself, as a player always dreamed of growing up. In one word – PASSION. They had what I had growing up, what nobody had in my neighborhood, what nobody could understand in my city – they had love for soccer. I just couldn’t believe it. My dream of sharing that passion finally came to pass in England, and that feeling of being so alone growing up kicking the soccer ball with only my dad or by myself for hours against a wall – stopped. I was no longer alone. From non-league to league everybody was full of passion, and I could not believe how much everybody knew about the game.

There was a whole different kind of analysis and critical thought to soccer that I wish so bad I had been around growing up. I spent so much time trying to get to that level of thinking on my own and seeing people discuss the game with that kind of understanding – I was just in a quiet peace loving place every minute.

Jay had told me, and I had heard him tell others, and you will hear in the film that there is no place in the world that could’ve made this story a reality – only England. England and nowhere else, and I knew after being there that what Jay had said was the total truth. Only England and nowhere else allowed for this story to happen.

I just want to say one more thing about England and that is the hospitality we received while there. You have to remember we were three nobody’s, our camera/cinematographer Zach Salsman, Nick and myself. We also really had little strategy about what we were doing. Zach as skilled and talented as he was/is, he was fresh out of college. But with all that and as unconvincing as we were, one example of that kindness we received in England was when we went to film Ray Lewington [Ed -who was the Watford manager that signed Jay] a few days before he left for the UEFA cup last year with Fulham. He treated us with such kindness and respect. Same with Aidy Boothroyd, and all the non-league personalities we filmed/interviewed. Everyone.”

What does the man himself think of the finished product?

“Jay has seen the finished film and he is humble about it. He is a meek person and really won’t give any glory to himself, to his story or even to his film! So, I can’t really answer that question. But, I know he was proud when I told him that this documentary won the ‘RISING STAR’ award at the Canada International Film Festival”.

That festival takes place in Vancouver this coming weekend and it just a part of the critical acclaim that the documentary has been receiving. We are in no doubt that more acclaim is heading the film-makers way in the near future. With neither Ranko or Nick having a film background, they must be blown away by the reaction the film has been getting.

“You got me there…I really don’t know how to respond, yes it has and if it continues to receive acclaim then the only answer is that the film has a kind of Divine anointing on it, however people want to understand that – sometimes science and logic cannot explain everything”.

Ranko’s day job is as an acupuncturist in Florida. Does he think he’ll stay with that or has this experience given him a taste for making movies?

“NO MORE MOVIES! (laughs) After this experience I now have a whole new insight into how hard it is to be creative, to be in the arts, in film, in creating things from nothing. My respect to all film makers and everyone involved in the film industry. I am so thankful I am not doing this full time! I love medicine and hope to be helping the sick for a long time to come”.

Now that it’s all in the can, what’s been his over-riding and lasting memory of the whole production?

A moment outside of Vicarage Road Stadium after Jay’s last ever home game as a Watford FC player. We were leaving the stadium and a young boy with his father noticed Jay and was nervous to come ask Jay for his autograph – Jay was aware of the young boy and went over to him and talked to the boy’s father and the boy. They took pictures and the child seemed to feel so valuable.

That moment made me think of soccer and its power on humanity. Not many tools, languages can cross the barriers of religion, politics, difference and nationality, but soccer can – it has power on humanity”.

And that’s why we all love the game so much. In this day and age, it’s nice to see and hear about players like Jay DeMerit and to remember that not all football players act and behave like the Premiership ones we are always reading about.

Perhaps they all need to have got to the where they are the hard way like Jay did.

A story I’ll share about Jay, was two weeks ago at the Southsiders pre MLS party night at the Lamplighter. Jay was on his way to a family dinner with his parents but wanted to take time to stop by and give an impassioned speech to the fans.

But it can’t be all saintly action from the US international. Surely there must be some wild tales that Ranko can leave us with about Jay?

“Hmmmm there were some pretty wild ones, and a lot of girl drama – so many girls loved Jay, he was a heartbreaker – but we won’t disclose any girl stories or wild tales here (laughs)…but I can tell you a story about soccer, Jay and me used to get in some bad fights.

I was the only one who could get under his skin. I talked so much trash when I played and always challenged Jay. Somehow I was also the only one who could ‘meg’ Jay and for his flawless defending standards I would meg him pretty frequently and then talk about it nonstop. One day, in the rain, it happened and I scored after the meg. As I was basking in my glory talking and talking, Jay came rushing up, ready to fight and scared me so bad. I really thought this time he was going to knock me out! Jay can get pretty fierce but most of the time nothing bothers him. And we also made up after our big fights!”.

That’s why he’s our Captain, that’s why he’s such a popular player with the fans and his fellow pros and that’s why this documentary is going to be a huge success. Let’s hope some film bigwigs realise that and help get it out there.

A private screening of the film is going to be shown in Vancouver to Jay, his family, friends, team-mates and an invited audience on Monday April 4th. We’re lucky enough to have an invite and will do a review of the movie on AFTN next week.

In the meantime, we really appreciate Ranko taking time out of his hectic schedule to speak with us. Keep up to date with info about the film at the official website and on Facebook.

“Rise and Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story”, hopefully coming to a cinema near you soon.

Authored by: Michael McColl

There are 3 comments for this article
  1. Anonymous at 07:22

    Great Article, worth my time reading because most football players forget where they came from. Players such as Jay DeMerit don't play to be liked, but play because they ove football and express the simple teaching of love what you do.
    Football has the power and passion to unite the whole world, if such real stories as jay DeMerit were told in films or documentaries things would change. After all we all like real heroes.

  2. Anonymous at 17:39

    This sort of thing would be perfect for the ESPN 30 for 30 series, in which perhaps one of the top films was a Soccer story: “The 2 Escobars”

    You'd think ESPN would like to show a rags to riches story about their own USMNT player…

    But I suppose ESPN would likely take these guys film and they'd see very little of the cash…

  3. Anonymous at 12:04

    J DeMerit a watford fc legend and a truly nice bloke

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