Football movies aren't easy to make — and they are judged on a different kind of curve by critics: How realistic is it?
Director Reginald Hudlin knew he had to answer that question when he read the script for "Safety" — a Walt Disney Pictures film released in December. Hudlin, who earned an Academy Award nomination as the producer for "Django Unchained" in 2012 — accepted the challenge.
"I wasn't trying to remake any movie," Hudlin told Sporting News. "My thing is when you work in a genre you have to say, 'What are you adding to it?' If I want to see 'Any Given Sunday' or 'Friday Night Lights,' they're right there. The advantage we had was Ray."
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Ray McElrathbey, a former Clemson safety, is the subject of the film. McElrathbey was a redshirt freshman in 2006, and that summer he juggled school, football and raising his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr while his mother Tonya battled a drug addiction in Atlanta.
"Safety" puts that story on the screen, and it brought back emotional memories for McElrathbey and his family.
"When you're in it, you never look at it as if it would be something that somebody would celebrate," McElrathbey told SN. "You look back on it, and yeah, we had some tough times. We went through some things. To know that those things are helping others at this point, it feels wonderful. It's better than great."
This isn't just a modernized version of "Rudy," however. The film does an excellent job of splicing those emotional moments through strong performances by Jay Reeves, who plays Ray, and newcomer Thaddeus J. Mixson, who portrays Fahmarr.
"The emphasis has to be on the perspective and the psychology of the player when you're in there," Hudlin said. "It's the moment you can't necessarily see during the game that we can blow up and get the audience emotionally engaged in those moments."
"Safety" accomplishes both objectives. The film shows the emotional experiences McElrathbey felt through that juggling act and its consequences. McElrathbey would later have to apply for a NCAA waiver to stay eligible at Clemson.
Of course, there are the football scenes — including a sequence that was shot at halftime during Clemson's game against Charlotte on Sept. 21, 2019. Hudlin said the crew had 10 minutes to shoot four scenes, and they accomplished the goal.
The end result is something different from a football perspective. That came through several rehearsals, and McElrathbey was active as a consultant on those scenes.
"We went through a lot of different versions to make sure we got to the best version of the football part of it," McElrathbey said. "We tried to do it a bunch of times. There were a bunch of scenes done over and over again to correct that. They actually allowed me to step in a lot. That made me feel great about it."
McElrathbey played for Tommy Bowden, who was Clemson's coach until 2008. Dabo Swinney took over and has turned the program into a two-time national champion in the College Football Playoff era.
McElrathbey said he's still on the move through Atlanta, Los Angeles and Clemson, and still holds those tight-knit connections to the program. Fahmarr still lives in Clemson. They formed a bond with Reeves and Mixson throughout the production.
"My story is the essence of the Clemson experience," McElrathbey said. "It's not the quintessential story but right there close to it. It's one of those situations where you join a family not knowing you part of one yet. The moment you decide you are a Tiger, then you are part of that family."
Hudlin felt that while directing the film, and that made the challenge to make a different kind of football movie that much easier. It's as real as it gets on and off the field.
"It was just a great script and a great story," Hudlin said. "So often I'll get a script, and sometimes they're bad. Sometimes they're not for me, or sometimes there's an idea but you have to work to polish it. This was just great. I read it and was like, 'Look. Let's just shoot this movie. Let's cast this thing and make it.'"