As many Americans can attest, in recent years the college admissions process has transformed into an expansive and expensive mesh of competition, aspiration, and anxiety. Perhaps no American understands this more than Brandon Jones. As a 17-year-old senior at Nacogdoches High School, Brandon isn’t just any high school senior. Unlike his peers who fret over whether or not they will attend college at all, Brandon has already been admitted to college. 41 colleges and universities to be exact. Brandon, you see, is one of the top-rated high school football players in the country, also known as a five-star recruit. And there’s one question that literally thousands of people across the country are asking: where will Brandon Jones enroll next year?
Brandon’s story is at once familiar and foreign. On the one hand, he has all the typical trappings of a suburban American teenager: he has friends, his own car and a doting mother. On the other hand, he is already a national figure and the subject of such intense intrigue and speculation — is it all an invasion of privacy? To further complicate matters, Brandon has assumed the role of father figure to his younger brothers following the loss of their father several years prior. In this week’s Staff Pick Premiere, Ryan Booth and Henry Proegler give us an intimate look into what it means to be Brandon Jones or as they put it, “what it’s like to be standing at the nexus of childhood and adulthood, and having to make a massive decision in a very public way.”
With six previous Staff Picks to his name already, Texas-based filmmaker and photographer Ryan Booth has been a mainstay on Vimeo over the years. The Vimeo die-hards among us may remember Booth from his winning submission to Vimeo’s The Story Beyond the Still contest in 2010. Nearly seven years later, Booth is back with his producing partner, Henry Proegler, under the production moniker Hank & Booth, to bring us what might be their finest work yet. Similar to the film’s protagonist, the film itself, which premieres today on Vimeo has already generated lots of buzz within the football community, however, you don’t have to be a football fan to appreciate this stunning and sympathetic portrait of an impressive young man. Enjoy “Five Star” and then check out our interview with the film’s creators below.
Vimeo: Why high school football? What your relationship to it prior to “Five Star”?
Hank & Booth: Anyone who grows up in Texas will have some kind of relationship with high school football. Whether you play it or hate it, it’s a dominant cultural force. Neither of us actually played in high school, but we both grew up going to games on Friday nights with all of our friends.
As filmmakers, we’re interested in the small stories that exist within broader cultural contexts. “Five Star” isn’t about football per se; it’s about how the world of Texas high school football impacts one young man grappling with an incredibly complex decision.
How did you first meet Brandon Jones?
We were introduced to the world of college recruiting through a guy, ironically, also named Brandon Jones. Brandon runs a Texas A&M fan site called TexAgs. They have a sizable staff and an even larger subscriber base. Through TexAgs, we were introduced to the insanity of the final months leading up to “signing day,” where each of the recruits officially announce where they are going to go to college. The specifics of this process—the scrutiny these kids face on social media, and the fact that ESPN sends crews to broadcast their decisions—immediately piqued our interest.
We began discussing what a documentary series exploring this world might look like. TexAgs was kind enough to introduce us to a handful of “five-star” recruits, and through that process, we met Brandon and his family.
Our initial plan was just to spend a day with Brandon and use the footage to create a teaser from which we could pitch a sponsor to help us make the series. But when we looked at the footage and saw how compelling Brandon’s story was, TexAgs stepped in to help us finish Brandon’s episode.
Tell us about the team behind “Five Star.” What sort of crew did you have on location?
We love working with a small, nimble crew. We believe a key to this kind of documentary work is both being intentional with the scenes you know you want to film, as well as being able to quickly react when reality presents you with a better idea. Both require small crews, ready and willing to react.
For this production, Ryan both directed and served as director of photography. Henry produced, and we brought in a sound guy. Sometimes we’d have a production assistant as well. For both the pep rally and game day, we knew we would have very little control over what was happening, so we definitely crewed up to make sure we were able to capture the moments in real time. We had two complete (small) units: a producer, DP, AC, and production sound op with different assignments. We then stashed another two to three operators during the game to make sure we could capture the flavor of the game, while the other units stuck with Brandon on the sidelines and his family in the bleachers.
How did you settle on the stylistic tone of the film? We were struck by its dark grade and the slightly melancholic undercurrent threaded throughout.
The tone of the film is an extension of our reaction to what it felt like to be with Brandon. From a visual standpoint, Ryan’s a massive fan of an “enhanced” natural look. By that we mean shooting with natural and practical light in a way that is truthful to what we find, but heightened. You often hear “raise the stakes” as a writer. For Ryan, this kind of cinematography, especially in a documentary setting, is the equivalent of “raising the stakes.
As for the melancholy, that’s the truth of this experience. We were absolutely shocked at the volume of calls, texts, and questions that were bombarding Brandon at any given moment. After we filmed one of his interviews, which was about 45 minutes long, he turned his phone back on and had a couple dozen new voicemails, twice as many text messages, and a handful of direct messages and Facebook messages. It was insane. So yes, while this is a fantastic opportunity, it’s asking a ton out of a 17-year-old kid who basically has to give up his last year of high school in exchange. Plus, it was a bittersweet moment for Brandon. Amazing opportunity, but one that Brandon wished his father could see.
The pep really looked like may have required choreography. Did you shoot that multiple times?
We were incredibly fortunate to have been given total access by Nacogdoches High School. To honor that access, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to control much in either the pep rally or the game itself. This is another instance in which having grown up in Texas was an incredible asset. We more or less knew how the pep rally would go and divided the team across the gym to build our sequences. We needed context and Brandon’s POV to create something out of the pep rally, and we deployed cameras accordingly.
Brandon is a pretty stoic guy. How did you get him to open up to you?
We truly believe that the key to good documentary work is access, plain and simple, and the best work comes from being truly allowed into someone’s life. After you’re allowed in, it’s your job to constantly convince your subject that you’re going to honor that access. If you do this well, your subject begins to trust you, and out of that growing trust, you begin to see your subject open up to you in unexpected ways.
For us, that meant convincing Brandon of the honest truth: we were not interested in where he was going to go to college. We had no horse in the race. He could have decided to go to community college or quit football, and it would not have made a difference to us. We were there to explore what it’s like to be standing at the nexus of childhood and adulthood, and having to make a massive decision in a very public way. His decision was not our primary concern. In a lot of ways, we ended up being people who Brandon could process this experience with, and he knew we would never ask, “So where are you going to school?”
How do you feel about the recruiting process in general? At the end of the day, isn’t this just a game?
College football is a multi-billion dollar business, and the process of bringing athletes into these programs can often reduce human beings—kids trying to navigate a very adult world—into statistics and chess pieces. Forty yard dash times. Rushing yards. If this QB goes here we need a DB there. “Five star.”
We aren’t making a comment about recruiting as much as we are reminding the audience that behind the statistics are real human beings grappling with big decisions.
The film will inevitably draw comparisons to Friday Night Lights. Do you embrace these comparisons or did you consciously try to distance yourself from that show?
The beauty of Friday Night Lights is that it wasn’t created out of thin air. It is an incredible composite of the very real cultural phenomenon of Texas high school football. We’re happy to embrace any of those comparisons, because if someone says it reminds them of Friday Night Lights, that means that we’ve managed to capture something authentic.
Friday Night Lights is, in many ways, about how football is at the core of a small Texas town’s identity. Our story is much more narrow than that. We’ve tried to focus on just one kid making one decision. If Friday Night Lights is about a town, Five Star is about a house.
We’ve heard there has been talk about expanding “Five Star” into a large project involving other players. Anything in the works?
We’re in the early stages of developing a documentary series with SpringHill Entertainment that will expand on the themes found in “Five Star.”
Watch the stunning portrait a young footballer in “Five Star,” exclusively on Vimeo.
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