Alex (Morgan) & Me & My Daughter
by guest contributor, Eric Champnella
My high school sports days were long behind me, but it sure felt like a post-championship game moment: I was standing on the press line at the premiere of ALEX & ME – the movie I wrote and directed starring soccer superstar Alex Morgan. Beaming with pride.
But not for myself.
The swelling pride I felt was for the young girl being interviewed beside me – my 10-year-old daughter who plays “Bug” in the movie. It’s something I’ll never forget. Definitely the highlight of my career. How did this “Hollywood ending” to this Hollywood story happen?
I have been working as a screenwriter for over 20 years. The first script I ever sold was the baseball-themed MR. 3,000. That led to working on a basketball movie called EDDIE. Which led to several jobs writing screenplays with a sports backdrop.
One of those projects was THUNDERSTRUCK, a movie starring the NBA’s Kevin Durant. Since its release, I talked every so often with the film’s producers, Mike Karz and Bill Bindley, about doing another youth-centered, sports-themed movie starring a real athlete. But I wasn’t passionate about any of the ideas we discussed. Until one day I stopped by Mike and Bill’s office to simply say hello and, as we talked ideas again, Bill offhandedly asked, “What about doing something for girls, with a female athlete like…Alex Morgan?”
I think I said yes before he finished the second syllable of Alex’s last name.
That’s because my daughter has been playing soccer since she was five years old, the last several of those years on a club team here in California. And like many girls who play the beautiful game, her idol is Alex Morgan. She had read all of Morgan’s books, posters of Morgan lined her bedroom walls, and the USWNT jersey she had sported Morgan’s #13 (natch).
Most importantly, Alex Morgan inspired my daughter to dream. And dream big.
In Morgan’s memoir, BREAKAWAY: BEYOND THE GOAL, she tells the story about being 8-years-old and writing a note to her mother proclaiming that she was going to be a professional soccer player when she grew up. After reading the book – when she was also eight-years-old – my daughter left a note on my desk: “Dear Dad, When I grow up I will be a professional soccer player. I will practice every day! Love, Bug.”
So, a movie with Alex Morgan was an idea I was 100% passionate about! And not just because Morgan is my daughter’s idol. I wanted to inspire other young girls with a movie about going for one’s dreams, whether they play soccer or not. Plus, there seem to be many more of these sorts of inspirational sports movies for my son and young boys, but not nearly as many geared toward my daughter and young girls.
So, my producers reached out to Morgan’s representatives…and we were quickly told it wasn’t going to happen as she was too busy preparing for the 2016 Olympics.
But I didn’t give up. Heck, if I wanted to make a movie about believing in one’s dreams, I couldn’t quit at the first obstacle.
So, I wrote a letter to Morgan explaining why this project was so important to me, so personal. I told her about her impact on my daughter and how I wanted to make a movie to inspire other young girls like she had inspired mine. I also included a picture of the note my daughter had left on my desk after reading her book. Via a connection at her agency, I sent the letter.
And I waited.
Then I waited some more.
Finally, long after the Olympics had ended, I heard back: Alex had read the letter and was intrigued. A phone call was set. I prepped for it like an athlete getting ready for the big game. When we talked, in addition to my vision for the movie, I wanted Morgan to get a sense of my passion for this project. To know this wasn’t just a job for me, not merely a paycheck. It was personal. Thankfully, that must’ve come through because Alex was in!
Now we had to set the movie up. And unfortunately, in today’s Hollywood, these types of “sports” movies – ones like I grew up on as a kid, several of which used to be released each year – don’t get made a lot anymore. It’s all superheroes and sequels now. Blockbusters and “based on….” Smaller films like this are very hard to get green lit today.
But I believed. Turns out the theme of the movie was bleeding into my drive to get it made. And luckily Warner Brothers – the studio that made THUNDERSTRUCK – believed, too. So I started writing the screenplay.
At this point, the closest my daughter was to being “in” the film was in name only – literally: In the script, I named the main character “Reagan” after her, and called one of the girls on “Reagan’s” team by my daughter’s nickname – “Bug.”
However, as casting neared, finding someone to play “Bug” – a 9-year-old on a team of 13-year-olds – looked like it might be tricky. Bug didn’t have a ton of lines, but she was in all the soccer scenes. And she had to be able to play soccer. Then, one day, Mike (my producer) said, “What about your daughter?”
At first, I was hesitant because she hadn’t acted before. Plus she’d have to miss school as well as the last three weeks of her club soccer season. But I knew she had the personality for the character – and she’s a pretty darn good little soccer player. On the school front, they had tutors on the set. As for missing soccer? Well, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in a movie with Alex Morgan seemed like a pretty good excuse.
When my daughter and the rest of the “Breakaways” (the underdog team in the movie) arrived in New Orleans to start shooting their scenes, Alex had already been working with us for a couple days. My daughter came right from the airport to the set and got there during lunch where she met Alex for the first time. It was the only time I’ve seen my daughter tongue-tied in her entire life. Yet since Alex probably has to deal with reactions like that all the time, she immediately put her at ease.
Speaking of which, I simply can’t say enough good things about working with Alex. First off, she took this as seriously as her soccer and worked incredibly hard while we were shooting. Getting to know her, I’ve learned that when she commits to something, whether it’s soccer or making a movie for the first time, she gives 100%. More importantly, I can honestly say that, as good as she is as a soccer player, she’s an even better human being. She was so humble, gracious and kind to everyone involved with this film, as well as those that just came to watch. Word got out in the neighborhood that she was in town shooting a movie and several times, our set would be surrounded by young girls – soccer balls or #13 jerseys in hand. And as soon as I yelled, “Cut!” on her last shot of the day, she went straight to them and signed every autograph and posed for every selfie.
Alex was also a true collaborator. I told Alex early on that I didn’t want her to say something if it didn’t feel true to what she would say or how she would say it (since she’s playing herself). And I told her that that was doubly true when it came to anything to do with soccer. A couple times she would point out something in the script, and I could tell by her suggestion that I had explained a drill or a move like a soccer dad and not how one of the best soccer players in the world would. But she’d just smile at my “soccer dad-ness” and make it better.
Yet even while shooting the movie, she didn’t stop training for her “day job.” She would go out and practice with a trainer after a full day of shooting. It was pretty impressive. During one of her sessions, I attempted to keep up with her when she was doing sprints and then tried playing a little goalie when she was practicing her shots. I failed spectacularly at both.
The hardest part about making this movie was seeing it come to an end. It really was a dream come true for me, both personally and professionally. I never thought that one day I’d get to basically say to one of my children, “Not only am I going to write and direct a movie starring your idol, but I want you to be in it with her. Then we’ll do the press interviews together before the movie’s world premiere.”
I really hope moms and dads will watch this movie with their daughters (and sons). While our lead is a 13-year-old (the amazingly talented Siena Agudong), I tried to make a movie for the whole family, not merely a “kids” movie. Plus, I think a lot of soccer parents will have a laugh or two at some of the inside soccer humor. There are characters in the movie that soccer parents will definitely recognize from weekends on the pitch.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, since shooting the movie, my daughter is back on her soccer team, her acting days behind her. While several agents have inquired about representing her, my wife and I have so far declined. We’re in no hurry for her to go down that path. When she’s older, if that’s her choice, fine. But not now. Besides, there’s this note about another dream of hers that she left on my desk…
Eric and his wife, Cindy, live in Southern California.
They have two children who both play competitive club soccer
and he is the University of Michigan’s #1 fan!
ALEX & ME is available on digital June 12th and on Blu-Ray and DVD June 19th