A Former Dallas Cowboy Revisits Friday Night Lights
Greg Ellis spent 12 seasons in the NFL as a starting defensive end, and all but one of them with America’s team, the Dallas Cowboys. When he retired five years ago, he set out to break into another notoriously difficult business—Hollywood. After starting his own production company, Play Now Enterprise, Ellis had the opportunity to work on a project that combined both of his passions: A football movie. Carter High, which will be released nationally Nov. 13, stars Charles S. Dutton and Vivica A. Fox and tells the story of the other team in Friday Night Lights—Dallas Carter High School, the powerhouse team of the late 1980s that beat Odessa Permian in the state playoffs en route to a championship, only to have the title later stripped and several of the team’s stars sent to prison on armed robbery charges. Ellis talked to The MMQB about breaking into the filmmaking business, this time as an undrafted free agent of sorts, and why Carter High isn’t just another football story.
VRENTAS: How did you get started in movie production?
ELLIS: When I was still playing football with the Cowboys, I started a small production company. Of course, that was on a lower scale, but I was just dabbling in it some. We did more photography kind of work. When I retired, I had more time, and I went ahead and invested money and actually got a studio building. People would rent our space, and we’d film commercials and small local shows that people wanted to get done. One of the shows we did was a Dallas Cowboys football show called Inside the Huddle. It just grew from there. I told one of my video guys—the guy who directed this film, actually—I wanted to take that next step and get involved with film myself. It birthed from there.
VRENTAS: What appeals to you about making movies?
ELLIS: I like to help people, and I think one of the biggest ways to help people is to entertain them. When people can be entertained, you have a chance to get whatever message you are trying to get across to an audience. It can be well received if you are being entertained when you are learning something. It’s a good way to help people.
VRENTAS: How did you first hear about the Carter High project and what drew you to it?
ELLIS: I’d heard about it for years, because it is a very popular story. Carter was the team that played the Odessa team in the Friday Night Lights movie. Arthur Muhammad, the guy who directed Carter High and wrote it, actually played on that Carter football team. He has had this script for probably over 13 years. He had been doing work for me for a couple years, and he told me about it. To be honest with you, I wasn’t even interested in it at first because I thought it was just another football story. But when I went and did my own research, I couldn’t believe the extremes that this movie—and the true story—had in it. The talent level that particular team had—they had kids on that team who didn’t even start, backups, who ended up getting college scholarships. Arthur was one of those kids. He was a second-string receiver, and he ended up getting a scholarship to SMU. That’s how talented that team was. The football coach even helped kids at other schools get scholarships. A phenomenal coach and great program at that time. But you take that group of teenage kids playing football, and they go out and start to commit crimes, and they get arrested. Instead of the judge wanting to teach them a lesson, he sentenced some of those kids to 20 years in jail. It was some real extreme stuff. One of the kids signed his letter of intent to go Tennessee in the hot tub. He’s in the hot tub with gold jewelry on! We recreated that in the movie, but that actually happened for real. You can find it on YouTube. When I first saw it, I was like, ‘Man, this can’t be a high school kid; this has to be some kid that’s in college and getting ready to go to the NFL.’ But no, that’s him. That’s how those kids lived in that day. You would be hard-pressed to find any kid in high school signing his letter of intent to go to college in a hot tub with gold jewelry on. It was so extreme, if you ask me, and an excellent opportunity to teach young kids, especially athletes, that no matter how talented you are and how good your team is, if you don’t comply with the rules and do what you are supposed to do, you may never make it to the professional ranks.
VRENTAS: What did you want to achieve by telling their story?
ELLIS: Kind of just what I said—that no matter how talented you are, you can make a bad decision, and that bad decision may lead you to a situation that will forever negatively affect your life. When I speak to kids, I tell them that they are going to be adults a lot longer than they are going to be kids. Until you are 18, you are considered a kid, but once you cross over to adulthood, you have the rest of your life to be an adult. But the decisions you make as a kid will affect the way you live the rest of your adult life. Hopefully you will make good decisions that will lead you to live a productive adult life, but if you make bad decisions, it can lead you to live a tougher or harder adult life, just like the teenage boys in the movie.
VRENTAS: You had a successful career in the NFL and now you have to prove yourself all over again in Hollywood. How hard is that?
ELLIS: You know, more people need to realize that. Sometimes, we think that after playing sports or whatever we were successful in, we cross over to another industry and we expect to be instantly received and shot to the top. That’s not how it works. You’re absolutely right; this has been like training camp for me all over again. All those years it took for me to get to the NFL, it’s like I have to do all that again, but I have to speed it up. It’s been very challenging. I’ve learned a whole lot. I’ve done more research than I probably did my entire school career. It’s been needed, and it’s been very fulfilling, but very challenging. When you try to break into a new industry and you are a newcomer, everybody doesn’t welcome you with open arms. Some people have, and I appreciate those people, but a lot of it has been a lot of research and knocking on a lot of doors. It’s not easy to get Charles Dutton, Vivica A. Fox, David Banner and Pooch Hall, but thank God we got them.
VRENTAS: How did you go about securing big names like those to be part of your film?
ELLIS: I thought Charles was the perfect character for this role. I thought he was very fitting. When we reached out to his agent, he was reluctant to do it at first. But when he actually took the time to go through the script, he called us back and said, ‘Is this a true story?’ Arthur explained it to him, and Charles said, ‘You know what, I go around speaking to prisons, and I believe in helping out the youth, and this is something that should definitely help the youth out.’ Then Charles said he was in. That’s how we got Charles Dutton.
Vivica Fox was the same deal. She said that she believes in helping out the independent filmmakers. She said this was a good story. Now, it was a challenge for us to be able to work around their schedules. We had to fly them in, fly them back out, fly them in, fly them back out. It was challenging, but I really appreciate them. Words or money cannot do enough to express the appreciation I have for all of those stars who allowed us to get this project done.
VRENTAS: Which is a more cutthroat business, the NFL or Hollywood?
ELLIS: (Chuckles) I haven’t been in Hollywood long enough to see all the things that I’ve seen in the NFL. I’ve seen in the NFL when a guy would be sitting on the plane, and we’d be getting ready to go play somebody, and here comes one of the coaches coming up and saying, ‘You have to get off the plane because we just released you.’ I’ve witnessed those things happen. In Hollywood, from what I’ve seen, you don’t have that camaraderie that you do in sports. In sports, we wanted to help each other out a lot more than people in Hollywood do. Both have their bad side, and both have their good side. So which one is more cutthroat? I still can’t answer that question. I haven’t been in it long enough to see all of the bad things Hollywood has to offer.
VRENTAS: What are the hours like as an executive producer?
ELLIS: Whoo. That right there outranks the NFL. We would have times where we would film all night because of the light that was needed for some scenes. And I still had my company to run, so I was still meeting with clients that didn’t have anything to do with the movie. I remember one particular night, I was leaving the football field after shooting some football scenes, and we were racing to try to get it finished before the sun starts to come up. As I’m leaving the field, the sun is coming up, and I go home and shower up, and I had to get back to my office for a 9 o’clock meeting. It was tough. But what I decided to do was say, ‘I am committed to get this done, no matter what.’ That is where my commitment was at from start until finish, and that’s what I did. The football training did help me out because as a football player, you commit to something and then you don’t stop until it gets accomplished. That was the same attitude I had to take in order for us to get this done. One time we ran out of ice on the set. I have a pick-up truck, and I had to go to Sam’s and buy a whole bunch of ice. People at Sam’s were like, ‘Aren’t you Greg Ellis? What are you doing buying all of this ice?’ I’m like, ‘You heard of the Carter movie? I’m the executive producer, and we just ran out of ice.’ From the big jobs like getting contracts done to picking up ice, I said, ‘Man, whatever has to happen for this thing to get complete, that’s what I’m committed to do.’ I remember in Charles Dutton’s trailer, his air conditioning kept going in and out, so he was getting hot in his trailer. I went and bought a portable air conditioner so he could put that up and cool that trailer off if his A/C stopped working. Everything and in between that you can name, I’ve probably done it.
VRENTAS: What was the timeline for filming?
ELLIS: We did it the latter part of last summer. We wrapped on August 25, I believe it was. It took us under 30 days. We were actually going to shoot it in New Orleans, but then we met with some people here in Dallas who really wanted us to shoot it here and use some of the original locations, so we went ahead and did it here.
VRENTAS: Did your football background help in setting up some of the football scenes?
ELLIS: We had the stunt coordinator doing all of that stuff, but the stunt coordinator and Arthur relied on me to say what is realistic on a football field. So that did come into play. Football, all the years I played, did have a major part in helping this film happen. But this story was so popular that actually we used a lot of archived footage as well. When you see the film, you are going to see some original footage that we bought from networks and integrated into the movie.
VRENTAS: What impact do you hope the film will make?
ELLIS: It’s an old saying that the best athletes have never been seen. They haven’t made it to the pros because they got in trouble or had some type of event that got them off course. That’s where I want this film to reach out and grab people. I want this film to hopefully show people that the success and failures in life are a lot of times in our control. It’s your choice. You have to make the right choice in order to get the outcome that you want. If you make the wrong choice, especially if you normally make the wrong choice, then don’t expect for a positive outcome to happen. But if you make the right choices in life, then eventually that positive outcome will happen.
VRENTAS: Odessa was the school that received all of the attention in Friday Night Lights. Do you feel like you’re bringing a story to a national audience that maybe people have forgotten about?
ELLIS: Yes, yes I do. Carter had a major role in the Friday Night Lights movie, but the way that they portrayed the Carter kids and the Carter coach was not real. I love Friday Night Lights, and I think it is a great movie. But I did talk to Coach James, who was the head coach of the Carter football team, and he swore me to this. He said, ‘Greg, make sure that you don’t portray me the way that Friday Night Lights portrayed me.’ That coach in Friday Night Lights was totally opposite of the real Coach James, so we made sure we got that across. We want to get that national audience that saw Friday Night Lights and interest them to see the movie so they can see the other side of what happened, and the trials that the other side had to go through in order to make it to the championship game. And for the record, the state championship game that they portrayed in Friday Night Lights, that never even happened. The Odessa team, that’s the Friday Night Lights team, that particular year didn’t make it to the state championship game. They played Carter in a regular playoff game, not a state championship game.
VRENTAS: You are from North Carolina, but when you were playing for the Dallas Cowboys, did you get a sense of how big high school football is in Texas?
ELLIS: Yes, yes, yes and more yes. When I was in college, I played at UNC, and we came out here to play a Texas school. We would fly in on Friday to get ready for a Saturday game, and I remember being in the hotel watching the Friday night high school stuff. I could not believe the size and the ability of the high school kids here in Texas playing football. I thought it was college. When I ended up getting drafted to come here and play, I was looking at the size of some of these stadiums, and I’m like, that has to be a college stadium. When I have my family come here to visit me, sometimes I take them to look at these stadiums, because I can’t believe how major they are. They look like college stadiums. They have a high school stadium here I think they spent 59 million dollars on. Dude. And Friday nights, it is the place to be. They have police escorts to escort the fans in and out of games. It’s like a pro or a college game.
VRENTAS: Do your kids play football in Dallas?
ELLIS: My son is 11. He played flag a couple years. He wants to play tackle, and I was trying to hold him out until he gets a little older, but I think I will go ahead and let him play this upcoming season.
VRENTAS: The Cowboys have taken a chance on a couple of players this offseason, including Greg Hardy, a move that was controversial given his past involvement in a domestic violence incident. What do you think of the team bringing in the defensive end?
ELLIS: Think about the owner who made that decision. He is known for giving people a second chance. I think that everybody deserves a second chance. Sometimes people learn that lesson later in life. Hopefully he can jump in there and bring something to the team and stay out of trouble.
VRENTAS: When you were drafted in 1998, the big headline was that the Cowboys picked you over Randy Moss. Through your career, were you always hearing that, and did that put pressure on you?
ELLIS: We played Randy and Minnesota our rookie years, and Randy had a terrific game. I remember on the field, I’m on defense and Randy’s on offense, and I walked by Randy and I said, ‘Randy, brother, you’ve got to slow down out here.’ But, you have to look at it this way: the Dallas Cowboys at the time needed a defensive end because they still had Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith and those guys. Jerry Jones and the organization’s thought process was, We need a defensive end to help fill a hole to allow us to make another Super Bowl run. That was why Jerry drafted me over Randy Moss. Now, if he didn’t have Michael Irvin and if he didn’t have those offensive weapons, then you probably would have went with a receiver, like he later did with Dez Bryant. But at the time, he drafted what they needed to help them make a Super Bowl run. I always tell people two things. First, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. Hakeem Olajuwon got drafted before Michael Jordan, and Michael Jordan obviously had a more prolific career, but both of them were still good basketball players. I have to say Randy had a more exciting career than I did, but I think both of us had good careers. I also joke with people and tell them that Randy Moss has no quarterback sacks. I have quarterback sacks, and obviously I should. Randy Moss has a bunch of touchdowns, but I also have a couple touchdowns under my belt. He has none of my stuff, but I’ve got one or two of his things.
VRENTAS: Did filming Carter High stir up any memories of your own career?
ELLIS: To me, the high school stuff is where it got stirred for me more than anything else. You have fun playing college football, and you have fun playing pro football, but I think there is something special about Friday Night Lights football teams. That atmosphere got created when we were shooting the movie. All the silly things teenagers do, the cheers, the chants, the high school bands—that brought back a lot of memories for me. And it also allowed me to just reflect and thank God for keeping me from making some of those bad decisions in my own personal life that could have led me down the path that some of those guys were on.
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