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By Christopher Stipp

Archives? Right Here…

This year we’re already listening to stories about how this could be the first time we get a woman to run for the White House. This year we’ve talked about how this is the first Super Bowl with two black head coaches. These events are just white noise around the fact that no one is talking about: these are all simply Americans who are now afforded an equal playing field that those who came before them had to hoe with their blood, sweat and sacrifice. To ascribe any more importance to the continual struggle we all face in our lives is to forget that there are far more important people who deserve the right to be singled out and BELIEVE IN ME deserves that honor. This is more than just a movie about women’s basketball, it’s a snapshot of how we went from irate and indignant when it came to equal rights for women in the 60’s to indifferent in the era of the WNBA.

Never mind segregation, women and their place in organized sports was also just another way that a specific and directed patriarchal societal bubble, because there are still pockets of them in existence today whether we care to admit it or not, defined what women should be doing with their free time.

No one bothered to ask the women what they wanted and in this film, directed by Robert Collector and starring Jeffrey Donovan as a coach who wants nothing more than to lead a band of boys, only to be saddled with a gaggle of girls who have the drive to want it more than their XY counterparts, you get the story of a man’s definition of what a woman is. By film’s end you see a unique evolution in the man the girls call “Coach” as he sees what everyone else should have known all along: Women deserve to be treated just as savagely on the court as their male counterparts and, if necessary, they can mix it up on the court just as well.

As such, these women are not fragile, even though some of their lives are depressingly fractured, and this film showcases the intrinsic toughness of these players as it’s seen through the eyes of one coach who has to struggle with getting over his own inability to see through a sex barrier that, again, is still appallingly present in more than just a handful of men.

The film’s use of place, Oklahoma in the 1960’s, and cinematography are effective enough to tell the story with accuracy and attention to detail. There is no snappy soundtrack, there is no schmaltzy ending that plagues so many other sports narratives and has single-handedly killed the form, there are no bombastic, self-serving, grandiose monologues where we’re led away from feeling like this is game and, instead, feels like a battle cry for war. Additionally, no, this movie will not change your world view but what it will do, however, is ask you to see where women were so many years ago and how, through fighting and struggling, the reason why you’ve come to enjoy Title IX benefits is because it all goes back to the ladies who had to blaze a path where there wasn’t one.

The story moves quick, we’re not left to meander through meaningless plot lines and what we get is a tightly controlled script that does what it needs to do and gets out when it should. What we get, then, is a movie that simply pays homage to a very real moment in our nation’s time line without it ever feeling pushy or false.

In an age when I wish we all could just see each other as Americans, instead of separate tribes in need of constant back-patting and fluffing by those who think they’re doing us all a favor by pointing out the apparent inequities that we’re all big enough to see for ourselves, this movie just warms you to the marrow when you see how many different ways one man could have walked away from a perceivably bad situation at a very bad time and in a very bad place for it to happen but, instead, just shuts everyone up and allows a team of women to play the same game their male brethren play while accomplishing what the boys could not: winning a championship.

I had the honor of talking to one of the young women who portrays Candy Brown, a pivotal player in the team’s cohesion, and her name is Brandi Engel. She’s a woman who has nary anything else ascribed to her resume and, as such, I took the chance to inquire about her career as an actress in Hollywood, what this film meant to her and where she plans to go from here.

BELIEVE IN ME opens in select cities on March 9th.

CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Now, you have, almost literally, come out of nowhere to star in this new movie BELIEVE IN ME. One of the first questions I had about the film when I did a little research on it was that wasn’t it supposed to come out last year?

BRANDI ENGEL:
Yes, I was surprised it took so long because I’m not really familiar with the post-production of movies, considering this is my first one, but I’m just thrilled that this movie is making it into theaters. People were saying [about whether it was going to play theatrically], “Well, we’re not sure…”

I know it made the rounds at festivals and it did fairly well and won a couple of awards but no one was sure about what was going to happen to it. But, FINALLY, it’s going to come out in theaters on March 9th.

STIPP: It’s in limited release but do you know which cities?

ENGEL: On the website, BelieveInMeMovie.com, they list all the cities but I know that, actually, they’re all big basketball cities.

STIPP: The movie was set in Oklahoma, right?

ENGEL: Yes, but we filmed in New Mexico.

STIPP: I heard that but why the odd difference in location?

ENGEL: I’m not sure exactly why but since it takes place in the 60’s and where we filmed, in small towns around Albuquerque, for example we filmed a lot in a town called Clovis, and it looked exactly like the period in which this story takes place.

STIPP: The movie captures that sense of place really well. It’s not ostentatiously thrown in there for effect but it melds the flavor of the time with the story in a nice way. I can see why they decided to film around those parts, as well. I’ve driven through a lot of New Mexico and some parts really are trapped in a time warp. How long did you shoot?

ENGEL: The shoot was about three months.

STIPP: When I watched the film I noticed you were on crutches for a long time. Did the person you portrayed really suffer that long with that injury?

ENGEL: It’s actually a crazy story, about me on crutches…Yes, I get hurt in the script but I actually got hurt, for real, while filming the movie. We were filming this basketball scene, I was going for a layup, and I landed on one of the opposing team’s, one of the girl’s, shoes and my ankle just gave out.

So, I got a pretty good sprain. It was my first sprain and they always say that the first sprain is always the worst. So, yeah, it was like, “Oh, great. Perfect.” This just had to be a basketball movie. So I was, sort of, out of commission for the rest of the film but I really lucked out because I was supposed to be on crutches anyway. So, in the end, they just had to rework some of the schedule to give me some time to heal…just give me some time to heal before we filmed some of the running scenes. But I was always taped and when we were filming my foot was in a bucket of ice to try and get the swelling down.

STIPP: Well, considering your injury, did any of the pivotal moments in the telling of this team’s story have to be tweaked to accommodate what happened to you?

ENGEL: Well, there were scenes that I should have been in but they just didn’t show me because of what happened. They were on a time schedule and had to get it done. And, you know, I just loved being there. It was my first film and I’m sure anyone else who did their first film just enjoyed every minute of it.

STIPP: Tell me about that. From what little I can read about what you did before all this happened you went to LA for what should have been a seven day jaunt turned into three weeks.

ENGEL: Well, in Pittsburgh, I had a solid theater background. Musical theater, actually. I’ve been singing, dancing and acting for as long as I can remember. So anytime when someone would come and offer a workshop, like an acting workshop, I’d attend. This guy, John Homa, the acting coach for General Hospital, came back several times to offer his workshop and got to know me a bit. He told me that there was something different about me and asked whether I’d ever thought to go out to LA and pursing a career. I thought, my parents would kill me.. “Hey I’m going to Hollywood. Bye!”

No one in my family is in the arts. They’re all business people. It has always been, “Get your education”, “Get your education”, “Get your education.” So, what I told John was that, “As much as I’d love to and as much as I have it in me…I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” He ended up calling my parents and said, “Look, just come out for a week. I can show you around, see how it is, I can take you on set for General Hospital…” And this is all right before I went to college. At this time I already had my roommate, we had already picked out bedding…I was going to school.

But, while I was in LA, I got introduced to this manager somehow and, even after I explained that I was leaving in a few days, for the fun of it, she gave me this cold read for some project and I read it. She said, “Oh my gosh. Wait, don’t go anywhere. Don’t move. They’re casting for this movie, BELIEVE IN ME. I think you’d be good for this part. Here, read the part.” And here I was saying, “Uhhhh, OK.” It was a whirlwind. I connected with the part. The script was just wonderful and it was such an uplifting story.

So, I went in, auditioned, went to the callbacks and the last callback was a basketball tryout, got the film, filmed it and decided to go back to college. I had a scholarship at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and they could only hold my scholarship for so long. So, I had to go, put that into place and just get started with that. So, now I’m back and the movie is finally coming out.

STIPP: Are you still in school?

ENGEL: I’m taking this semester online.

I have an agent who said that if I could get my classes online I should come out for pilot season…Because I figure if I forget about the acting thing and go back to school I would forget about all of this and move on. I mean, everyone wants to be an actress and I can’t stop thinking about it and I just have it in me to do it. I love it.

STIPP: Are you working on anything right now? Anything coming up?

ENGEL: Right now, no. I’ve only actually been in Los Angeles for two weeks so I’m just kind of getting acclimated. I’ve been to some meetings and some auditions but nothing big yet.

STIPP: One of the items I read about your biography was that someone tried to steer you away from doing serial soaps, they called it “bad acting” and that you don’t want to get pigeon holed in that genre. I know a lot of A-list actors who came through the soap system and I’m curious to know if you felt…

ENGEL: I don’t think soaps are a form of bad acting, at all. I was told, and I’m still really new at everything, you have to be careful in the way you start your career because it’s easy to get typecasted. I mean I hear different things, of course, because, you’re right, there are all these other actors who have become successful, but some people have told me, “It’s not right you.”

STIPP: So, where’s your focus? School, acting?

ENGEL: I definitely, no matter what, want to finish my degree. But, if something big does come up, and I am thankful that Duquesne is willing to work with me, I am willing to take the work if it’s offered to me.

STIPP: BELIEVE IN ME kind of challenges the genre of the sports film, bucking the kind of trend that you see in movies like REMEMBER THE TITANS or GLORY ROAD, in that the material is treated with reverence and not exploited for that sort of big orchestra moment where the “final game” is where the entire of the focus of the film rests. Did the way they were going to shoot this movie, how they were planning on telling this story, opposed to the “Disney Treatment,” as it were, come across in the script? Did its unique angle immediately jump off the page?

ENGEL: Yes, absolutely. And what really surprised me was that the coach in the film, Jeffery Donovan, he did a fantastic job and he did a nice job in explaining that this was more than just a basketball movie. And what really made us realize, and appreciate, what we were doing was when we met the real team that this movie is based on. We met the real coach, Jim Keith and his wife and all the girls who he influenced and coached, and it really hit home for me. And, when I met the woman who I was playing in the movie, just talking with her about how this man changed her whole life made me see how it paved the way for women’s sports and where they are today.

We were also very much alike. We did this one interview with everybody and we ended up wearing the same thing to the interview. When I met her, when I first met her, we wore the same thing, black pants, a white shirt and a black cardigan. It was a little spooky. And, talking with her, this all was more than just a basketball movie. As well, in the movie when the coach and his wife talk about adoption it hit home for me because my family adopted my brother from Russia. That was an amazing experience and I think that this film helps to also support the idea of adoption.

STIPP: And what the real coach feel about the legacy he’s left for those who have come after him in the realm of women’s sports?

ENGEL: Every scene we did he seemed to have tears in his eyes. You could tell that he definitely wanted this story to be told and he was so supportive and the stories he told us were just…he was just full of thankfulness.

I feel like we did this movie for him.

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