El Toro Football Had a Season in Spotlight

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His eyes dreary, his face strained with the frustration of a 2-8 season, El Toro High football Coach Mike Milner addresses his weary team one last time after it has lost its sixth consecutive game to close the season.

"Life doesn't always offer you what you want or what you aspire to do," Milner says, prompting blank stares all around. "Life is hard and you've got to rebound. Hopefully as a result of not getting what you wanted, you may have gotten stronger."

Milner's address is one of many gripping scenes in "It Happens Across America," a documentary on the 1998 El Toro football team directed, filmed and edited by Meng Johnson, a recent graduate of USC's Cinema Production Graduate Program.

The low-budget film provides a riveting look inside high school football. Every torn and bloodied toenail, every sideline rant and every over-the-top pregame speech is documented in this 95-minute production.

The buzz over the documentary is already intense. The film received a standing ovation at its April premiere in a private screening at Paramount Pictures, and Johnson has engaged in preliminary discussions with USC's first-year football coach, Pete Carroll, about making a full-budget documentary on the 2001 Trojans.

"I definitely think it's a legitimate film," said Jacy Lidell, executive assistant to Hutch Parker, president of 20th Century Fox Films. "There is a dimension to the characters that you sometimes don't get in a documentary or even a feature film. For a documentary, it really tells a story."

"It Happens Across America" makes its Orange County debut with three screenings Sunday at the 399-seat social sciences lecture hall at UC Irvine. Tickets for the 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. matinees are $5. Tickets for the 7 p.m. show are $7.

Players featured in the film will have the opportunity to see it for the first time. Milner and his assistant coaches were treated to private screenings in April.

"I thought it was done very well," Milner said. "It was a valid portrayal of what high school football is all about."

The production quality is closer to "The Blair Witch Trial" than "Hoop Dreams," but its unpolished finish encapsulates the chaotic Friday-night-under-the-lights scene. And its original score packs an emotional wallop, especially as the Chargers' defeats mount after a 2-2 start.

El Toro was coming off a losing campaign heading into the 1998 season but had a proud tradition. The school won its most recent Southern Section championship in 1995 and had produced NFL quarterbacks Rob Johnson and Steve Stenstrom.

In 1998, though, the Chargers had quarterback problems. Incumbent Mike Strand received the lion's share of playing time but struggled, while Evan Whitaker, his understudy, lamented his backup role.

The quarterback saga is the film's primary story line and provides its most poignant scene, after Whitaker replaces Strand in the season finale and rallies the Chargers with two touchdown passes in the second quarter.

Outside the locker room at halftime, Whitaker breaks down in tears over replacing Strand in his final high school game. "I just don't want to take his place," says Whitaker, then a junior. "Not today."

Strand, visibly unnerved by being replaced, gathers his composure to comfort his teammate. "Don't worry about it," Strand says. "Go out and lead this team."

Whitaker can't close the deal, though, throwing a pass that is intercepted in the third quarter as El Toro goes on to another defeat.

While there is plenty of game footage, Johnson captures the essence of the entire high school football experience. He interviews cheerleaders, attends coaches-only meetings and even follows linebackers coach Robin Marquez, a mortician, into a refrigerated room filled with dead bodies.

"We gave him free access to everything, which at times was a little bit intrusive," Milner said. "But I agreed before the filming started that he could have it."

The first feature-length documentary produced by an active USC film student, "It Happens Across America" was a painstakingly assembled project three years in the making. Johnson, 28, spent the first year shooting the footage and the second and third years editing the material.

The former Reno (Nev.) High wide receiver chose El Toro football mainly out of convenience. The school was around the corner from his parents' house, and filming the team allowed him to capture his younger brother Larry's senior season, in which he was expected to be the team's star running back.

Meng Johnson didn't have grandiose expectations for his project; his plan was to make a 15-minute highlight video for himself and his brother. He borrowed a video camera, bought one tape and showed up for the first day of orientation.

"I didn't know it was going to be this big thing," Johnson said. "I was like, 'Oh, I'll do some high school footage, I'll do some highlights and put some music to it' . . . it just kind of turned into a movie."

The El Toro players, too, were confused as to what exactly the filmmaker had in mind. "At the time of the shooting, we didn't know that there was going to be a plot or anything to it," Whitaker said. "But having Meng around was not a hassle at all. It was pretty fun, actually."

Johnson had to reconcile his role as filmmaker with his role as Larry Johnson's brother--especially during one scene in which coaches discuss taking the running back out of the lineup.

Johnson estimates the film cost about $3,500 to make. The money was used almost exclusively on videotape and hard drives for storing the 70 hours of footage. Johnson finagled the use of cameras for free, thanks to some crafty shopping tactics. He purchased more than a dozen cameras, only to take them back a day or two before the stores' 30-day return policies expired. Much of the filming was performed with stickers and price tags attached to the cameras.

Johnson also maneuvered around rules within the USC film program. All proceeds from the film are his since he started the project outside of class, though he used the school's editing equipment extensively and submitted the film as his graduate thesis.

"He demonstrated that he learned what we teach best here, which is the art of storytelling," said John Syrjamaki, director of physical productions within the USC School of Cinema and Television. "He found the drama, the emotion in that high school football season and was able to organize those scenes and put them together in such a way that it was very touching."

Johnson plans to circulate the documentary at film festivals in the United States and abroad. A March test screening in Stockholm, Sweden, drew rave reviews, he said.

While Johnson would love for the film to hit theaters nationwide, he said television may be a more realistic outlet.

"I think the challenge is the fact that it's a documentary and American audiences aren't used to going to the theater to see a documentary," he said.

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