Olivia Newman on making her first feature film, First Match
“If you find something you are really passionate about telling, then trust that if you stay the course and keep pounding on doors, there will eventually be some way of it happening.”
First Match follows the story of fifteen-year-old Mo as she tries to reconnect with her estranged father by joining the boys' wrestling team.
Artist: Olivia Newman (Director, Writer and Producer)
Based in: Los Angeles
On the subject of wrestling:
“I am not a wrestler. When I was working at the non-profit Women Make Movies, one of the documentaries I was helping promote and market was a doc called Girl Wrestler; which followed the story of a girl who was a fantastic wrestler in middle school in Texas. But there is a law in Texas that prohibits co-ed full contact sport starting in high school and because there weren’t enough girls wrestling she was wrestling boys all throughout middle school. But she knew starting high school she would probably be on the bench unless the other team happened to have another girl on the team. I loved this documentary, it was my first glimpse into this world of co-ed wrestling that I didn’t even know existed.
This girl also had a really interesting relationship with her father through the sport which I could relate to because I think that is how I tried to connect to my dad as a kid. That’s how I got interested in this idea of girls that choose to participate in this full contact sport with boys and in high school. I just thought that would be the most difficult time in one’s life to be willing to get on a mat, get sweaty and wrestle with guys, for me I would never have had the courage to do that, in fact I stopped playing sports in high school because I was too self-conscious.”
Tell me about the process of creating the short film that would later become, First Match.
"Eventually, I wrote a script with a girl wrestler. This version was set in the suburbs, it was very much this white suburban wrestling world that is more common, that I read and came across more in my research. But because I was in New York, I thought let me learn about this sport, and I’ll go out into the city, into the public school wrestling communities and meet girls who are wrestlers and interview them. At the time, there were like three dozen girls on boys teams in the whole of New York. So I was able to track them down, interview them and go to their matches, try to find their parents in the stands, their siblings and their coaches.
It was a totally different world than the one I read about and researched because this was an urban scene. These were girls of all different backgrounds and all had very different relationships with how they came to the sport, what their parents thought, there were girls that did it secretly – it was fascinating! I thought; wow, this is an even more richer world to explore. But I wasn’t going to cast an actress to play a wrestler in a short movie and teach them how to wrestle. I was going to cast an interesting wrestler and build the short around her. So I cast this young wrestler around Nyasta, who happened to be from Brownsville, in Brooklyn and she played the lead in the short film. I wanted it to be just a story about a girl preparing for her first match against a boy, and was trying to get her father’s attention by doing the sport that he had loved.”
“I wanted it to be just a story about a girl preparing for her first match against a boy, and was trying to get her father’s attention by doing the sport that he had loved.”
How was the process of transitioning First Match from a short film to a feature film? How do you determine what parts of the story you could expand on and develop to get a fuller or larger narrative arc?
“The hardest part was the father-daughter relationship. It’s probably the element in the story I connect to the most. I connect with Mo’s desire to be seen and loved by her father. I think anyone can relate to that. We all want to make our parents proud; that’s very universal. But I really wanted to understand what it is like for someone to become a father while still being a kid. In many ways, Daryl sacrificed his dreams so he could take care of his kid but given the limited resources that he had, some of those decisions were bad and landed him prison. I wanted him to have that full complexity. He is not a horrible guy, he is not somebody who doesn't take his responsibility as a father seriously but after he tried his best, it still ended up harming his daughter because he has been gone for years. Also, he is still trying to figure out how he is going to get his next meal, so there is also just this need to survive… that’s a priority for him."
"That was really complicated. It was interesting going through the script process. It went through a lot of different screenwriting labs and depending on the reader, there were different takes on his character. It was interesting to see whether readers could see all the different sides to him and which readers thought he was just a horrible person and would write him off from the beginning. That’s why casting was really important. I wanted to cast someone who could let viewers understand why Mo loves him. So when I saw Yahya's tape, I thought this is exactly the kind of guy in mind.”
What were some of the challenges to financing the film?
“The budget was a challenge. We shot in over 40 neighborhoods. We had a lot of scenes with a lot of extras, wrestling choreography and special effects makeup. There were elements on the script that made it so we could not shoot on a shoe-string budget. We needed a certain amount of money to do the story justice.
"We also had an unknown teenage girl, an African American teenage girl as the lead character. Although we got a lot of meetings because the script went through all these prestigious labs and independent film organizations, what I realized after months of people saying “come back to us if you get one of these three actors to play the father,” it basically meant you have an all-black cast, so it’s not ‘financeable’ and there are no foreign sales value. It was so heartbreaking that this is the state of the industry. It was very upsetting realizing the deeply ingrained racism that you come across during the process.
But I didn’t want to cast the movie based on who was going to finance the film, the minute it felt inauthentic, it wasn’t worth making. You couldn’t make this film, if it wasn’t actually set in Brownsville"
It basically meant you have an all-black cast, so it’s not ‘financeable’ [...]. It was so heartbreaking that this is the state of the industry. It was very upsetting realizing the deeply ingrained racism that you come across during the process. In the end, Netflix came through”
"In the end, Netflix came through. We met with their independent film side when they were just starting to finance independent films. They loved the script and said you know, we are not beholden to foreign sales and we can do these films that reach a niche audience. They were very hands-off creatively. They came through for us, because we were at the point where we would have had to push the film a year back in order to shoot over the summer in order to have access to wrestlers and have access to schools. The wheels were in motion, but we would start to loose crew if we didn’t have the financing. From the time I met with them from the time they said yes, it was a week. Looking back it feels a miracle. “
I feel like a lot of this business is about attrition and how long you can keep stay above water. Every film is a miracle. Every first feature especially is a miracle.”
Given that you are a white woman, directing a story about and within a black community, did you fear that people would view the film as ethnographic if they were aware of your racial identity?
“I was very conscious of this issue. Before we even had the financing, we were reaching out to non-profit organizations in Brownsville to let people know what we were doing so we weren’t just rolling up with our trucks one day. That was another big priority for me and my producers, that we don’t just tell this story set in Brownsville, but that we include the community in the process of making it. Shooting at the housing projects and surrounding neighborhoods was great because we were bringing money to people who were living there. We tried to give back to the community as much as we could and make them feel a part of it. Aside from the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to get access to shoot in the projects, I never felt that we were unwelcome. I felt that people seemed to be excited that we were bringing attention to these experiences and these people.”
“That was another big priority for me and my producers, that we don’t just tell this story set in Brownsville, but that we include the community in the process of making it. I never felt that we were unwelcome.”
I particularly love the gender politics in the film; the fluidity in Mo's gender presentation and the level of performativity she enacts throughout the film. Can you speak more on this?
"As I was doing research for the short, there was another girl in the wrestling team who was sort of the inspiration for the character of Mo. She was in the foster system and she had been moved around a bunch. I knew that she didn’t get along with her current foster mother who also had other kids she was fostering, but I didn’t know the story behind her real family. This was a young girl that was always smiling, so polite with me, very flirtatious with all the boys on the team and then be super aggressive with the boys on the mat. I was really fascinated by that duality.
Hair was also an extremely important element. I mean, that’s something that girl wrestlers have to deal with. For someone like Mo, who cares a lot her appearance and puts a lot of thought with her hair, wrestling meant that she would have to figure out what to do with it. For me, it was also a part of her transformation from someone who uses her body and her looks to get a certain kind of male attention and then has to find a different experience with her femininity and her body as she gets more invested in the sport and her identity as an athlete and less interested in her identity as a sexualized young woman.”
On the themes of First Match:
“I was interested in exploring the experience of being a young woman, who wants so badly to have a family, a real family, and in chasing the wrong one, inadvertently creates her own family. Also thinking about “what is family?” and what does it mean when you can’t replace the feeling of the unconditional love given by a parent but can you still find strength and support through other kinds of relationships?” •
First Match is currently available to stream on Netflix.