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Q&A with Hillsborough 30 for 30 director Daniel Gordon

Liverpool fans Liverpool fans display their support in the quest for justice while commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster at Anfield this past Sunday. (Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images)

On Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET, ESPN will show Hillsborough, its latest documentary in the 30 for 30 series. Director Daniel Gordon’s two-hour movie is the most comprehensive film account to date of the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool FC fans were crushed to death due to horrific overcrowding at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield at an FA Cup semifinal on April 15, 1989 (exactly 25 years ago).

It’s a remarkably powerful and well-done film, one that will fill you with emotions: Sorrow over the tragic and unnecessary loss of so many lives; outrage over the police cover-up of the investigation and erroneous attempts to blame the fans themselves; and, in the end, a measure of satisfaction that justice finally appears to be coming after 25 years of pain for the families who lost their loved ones that day.

Hillsborough is important work, the best 30 for 30 I’ve seen (along with The Two Escobars), and you should watch it even if you aren’t a soccer fan. On Monday, I sat down in New York with Gordon -- whose standout films over the years include The Game of Their Lives (on North Korea’s 1966 World Cup team), 9.79 (a 30 for 30 on Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis) and Match 64 (on the 2010 World Cup final) -- to discuss the film:

SI.com: What do you want the American viewer to take away from Hillsborough?

Gordon: The American is kind of split into soccer and non-soccer. So for an American non-soccer audience it’s an introduction into something they will probably have heard of in passing at some point in their lives, and now they’ll really get to understand the ins and outs of what happened in terms of the cover-up and the suffering of the families.

For a soccer fan, I was in New York at the Football Factory yesterday with all the Liverpool Kopites and went to two other bars filled with soccer fans. Soccer in the U.S. — and the Premier League especially — have become huge. It’s almost like a participatory thing. That wouldn’t have been possible without Hillsborough. Because without Hillsborough we wouldn’t have the [all-seater] stadiums we have now. We wouldn’t have had the money pour in, both from a stadium point of view and a media point of view. We wouldn’t have been built year-on-year-on-year to basically make the spectacle that we watched yesterday.

It’s not in the film, but one of the families said during interviews, “When you’re sitting in your Premier League ground enjoying the facilities and your nice seat and you’re safe, think back and be grateful. Because it wouldn’t have happened without [Hillsborough].”

For people my age who are roughly the same age as most of those who died, you know what it was like to go to those sort of grounds [with standing-room terraces and fenced-in pens behind the goals]. You know the great atmosphere but horrendous conditions, and you could reel off a lot of dangerous moments when you look back and wonder that it wouldn’t have taken much for that to become dangerous and maybe fatal. The atmosphere is safer now. You’re not treated as a second-class citizen like you were then. If you complained about how you were treated, it was like, “You deserve it. You’re a football fan.” That attitude doesn’t exist now.

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SI.com: This is a story that is not particularly new, though there are new elements. What are the challenges in making this film?

Gordon: The biggest challenge really for me is to get over the fact of whether it’s new or not. For most people in the U.S. nearly everything is going to be new. What I wanted was to make the definitive account of Hillsborough, the story of the day, the immediate aftermath and the 25 years since. If you really know Hillsborough inside and out, the big thing that’s new here is it’s all in one film. For most people coming to it, it’s nearly all new.

What really got me was when you go back. In September 2012, when the Hillsborough Independent Panel reported [the cover-up of statements by police], the big issue for all the news agencies was the changing of the police statements. It’s been widely acknowledged that there was a massive police and institutional cover-up over the years. Now if you know Hillsborough, that’s not new. Phil Scraton published that in 1999 in his first book. So something didn’t happen from 1999 for 13 years. So the time seems to be right to tell this story definitively. People seem to be accepting of it and open to a film like this, which I don’t think they would have been 10 years after the disaster. People were still so influenced by the immediate aftermath, which we now know was an orchestrated institutional cover-up.

As a collective, we all fell for it. Now I, for one, didn’t for a minute believe what was written in newspapers, didn’t for a minute believe the local fans had caused it, because I was a football fan myself, and you know how these things work. But a lot of other people collectively assumed that was the Hillsborough narrative. So for me the biggest challenge was to sort of lock onto that and people’s perceptions and sort of change them definitively.

SI.com: Was it difficult to get people to participate?

Gordon: It was a mixture, actually. I did a blog when someone asked how many people refused to be interviewed. And it was more people politely declined. I approached an awful lot of people because I was interested in people who hadn’t spoken before or were going to tell a particular angle. For everyone involved, Hillsborough is probably the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. Whether they’re family, fans, survivors, policemen, rescue workers … There’s one rescue worker who’s a Sheffield Wednesday fan, as I am, probably about 20 years older than me. And he said, “I’ve been trying to get away from Hillsborough for 24 years. With respect I don’t want to be involved.” We could talk off the record, but we just wouldn’t go on camera and relive that. I’m amazed at those who have taken that plunge and sat with me for two to three hours each and given me their story of what must be the worst time of their lives, which has continued to affect them.

The research period was a good year in the making before I turned over a frame of digital. You can see that in the film. An awful lot of research into the characters went into it. I think that’s what makes it work in the end.

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SI.com: How many hours of footage do you have on a film like this before you edit?

Gordon: The North Korean stuff [for The Game of Their Lives] used to be 150-to-1, so I’d shoot about 150 hours for every hour we finished with. This is a two-hour film. I don’t think I’ve shot 300 hours, but I’ve probably shot 150 or so hours with interviews and some of the archive. It was fairly targeted: I kind of knew what I wanted from people. The big challenge as well for me in telling the Hillsborough story: Hillsborough is not just the story of the day, it’s the entire 25 years. And along the way the families have had to battle every step of the way.

The challenge for me was to show that, to show how hard they worked and they’ve been constantly put down until the big change in 2009, 20 years after the event. They had to live with that for 20 years every day without getting anywhere. I wanted to show that in a filmic way without being boring or just being chronological. I wanted you to feel that as the audience. There are some archive revelations in the film that have never been seen before, even in the UK, where you see and understand what the establishment was doing to these families. In the cold light of day 25 years later, it’s unforgivable.

SI.com: Are there some things here that legally can’t be shown in the UK right now?

Gordon: Because the new inquest has started just two weeks ago, it can’t be shown in the UK until the jury delivers its verdict. Which is a year from now. I really want it to be shown now. You want it to have the impact now, but you can’t. It’s as simple as that.

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