Former Seahawk is an Academy Award Winner
February 29, 2012
Five seasons in the NFL didn’t net Ed Cunningham a Lombardi Trophy, but the former Seattle Seahawks center has made up for that as part of the team that won an Academy Award for best documentary at the February 27, 2012 Oscars ceremony.
Cunningham was among the producers of “Undefeated,” which follows the Manassas High football team in Memphis, Tennessee, through the 2009 season, chronicling an inner-city school that has never won a playoff game since its founding in 1899.
The 113-minute documentary was directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, and produced by Cunningham, Seth Gordon, Rich Middlemas and Glen Zipper.
Cunningham, 42, is a 1987 graduate of Mt. Vernon High School (north of Seattle), and was an All-America center at the University of Washington. In the NFL he was a guard/center with the Arizona Cardinals (1992-95) and Seahawks (1996), and is now a college football analyst for ESPN.
His previous documentaries are “New York Doll,” the story of former New York Dolls bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane; “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,” which chronicles the behind-the-scenes drama of the Donkey Kong world championships; and “Make Believe,” the search for the world’s best teenage magician.
Cunningham offers his thoughts on the film, the surreal experience of winning an Oscar, and the brief panic when one of the Oscar statues went missing.
Q: How have audiences reacted to the film?
A: Because of the way it was shot where the cameras were there rolling virtually every day — whether they were in practice or in school or out in the community doing stuff — it really did become a true fly-on-the-wall documentary. It’s very difficult to make. It’s hard to be there and shoot for that long. These guys did such an amazing job with it that it does seem like more of a scripted film because scenes happen right in front of you. It’s not people talking about what happened, you’re actually witnessing what happened. Some amazingly powerful moments.
Q: When did you have the feeling this was Oscar worthy?
A: I try not to think that way. With “King of Kong,” there were people thinking it was going to get nominated and it didn’t, so I’ve just done a pretty good job of not thinking of it in those terms. But I certainly felt that this film was worthy of being considered to win the award. It says a million things without saying it directly. It brings up some issues and deals with them in graceful and dignified ways.
Q: Is Sunday night still sinking in?
A: One of the coaches that I played for in college when we won a national championship, a couple of days after we’d beaten Michigan in the Rose Bowl, I said to him, “It doesn’t feel real yet.” And he said, “You’re not going to really understand this for 10 years.” And I think this is one of those things in life that’s just going to take some perspective and time to really appreciate a) how lucky you were that the right group of people came together to make the right film at the right time; and then b) what it means to you professionally. This is the highest honor in our profession. I don’t think you can really grasp that after a champagne-fueled evening of celebration.
Q: When the winner was announced by Robert Downey Jr., was there a lag time when your brain didn’t instantly process it?
A: Yeah. The only reason I got up and started going to the stage was that the five guys to my left who I worked with were doing it. I almost didn’t even hear it, I was just kind of taking visual clues from them. Because I didn’t hear him say, “Undefeated.” Until probably about 10 steps down, and then I was like, “OK, they did call our name.”
Q: Did it feel like a long walk up there?
A: It was enough stairs that I had to pay attention. There were enough stairs and twists and turns that you could have fallen down.
Q: Which was the most memorable congratulations you got all night?
A: At the Governor’s Ball, I got a chance to meet Sean Bailey, the president of Disney Films. To have a guy that’s at that level of Hollywood, who had seen the film and wanted to talk about the film, and just heartfelt congratulations. It’s just nice to be at a place where guys at that level, at the peak of his profession, have taken the time to see the film and be genuinely excited that we were honored for our work. That was pretty cool.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Well, I’m starting to look at reality television. I’ve been kind of fighting that for a while because I just love the feature-length format of nonfiction. But reality TV as a producer is starting to become more of my focus. For any other reason, it’s tough to make a really good living making documentary films.
Q: Was this the Super Bowl that you didn’t win?
A: It is very apropos. What this film accomplished, and what any film accomplishes when it wins an Academy Award, it’s very much like a football team. Each film is so unique, each season is so unique, each project is so unique. There’s that magical level of ability, work ethic, determination, talent, luck — all of the magic has to apply. For this film, it will be three years ago next week that Seth Gordon and I first met with the filmmakers, who had found one article about one kid at this high school in Memphis, Tenn.
Q: What did you do with the statuette? Are you holding it constantly?
A: The only thing I did was grab two of them so I could do bicep curls. Because the things weigh a ton. It’s almost comical how much they weigh. It’s the No. 1 reaction you get, because everyone comes up to you all night. We finally started realizing we were letting the statues get farther and farther from our circle, and at one point we thought one might have actually walked out the front door. It was like the Stanley Cup -“OK, where’d it go?” We had three of them, so we had plenty of hardware with us. But we didn’t want to lose one, that’s for sure.