How Netflix's Sports Docuseries 'Untold' Unearthed Hours of Fascinating, Never-Before-Seen Footage
Brothers Maclain and Chapman Way, who also made 'Wild Wild Country,' on the inspiration and surprising moments from their new series of films.
Mental health in sports is a touchy subject. For Untold, the latest sports docuseries to hit Netflix, it's also an enthralling one. The five-part anthology, which hails from Maclain and Chapman Way (Wild Wild Country, The Battered Bastards of Baseball) delves mostly into the darker side of the professional sports world and the brutal emotional toll it can take on its players.
The first of the films, Untold: Malice at the Palace, revisits the 2004 on-court brawl between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons; Deal with the Devil explores professional boxer Christy Martin's rise to fame and life-threatening relationship with trainer Jim Martin; and Caitlyn Jenner's gender identity struggles and drive for Olympic greatness is told in Caitlyn Jenner. The three installments are currently streaming.
Dropping on August 31 and September 7, respectively, are the final two installments, Crime and Penalties and Breaking Point. The first tells the story of hockey team the Danbury Trashers, managed by AJ Galante, the 17-year-old son of Jimmy Galante, a trash kingpin with deep ties to the Genovese crime family, who were purportedly the real-life inspiration for The Sopranos. The final episode finds professional tennis player Mardy Fish recalling his journey in achieving athletic greatness and his secret struggles with extreme anxiety disorder. He abruptly left the sport at the height of his success, and eventually went public with his life-threatening struggles with anxiety. The Way Brothers direct both episodes.
Thrillist sat down with Maclain and Chapman to discuss the inspiration and process behind putting Untold together. Especially with the stigma around mental health and sports still quite apparent, the Way Brothers explain the responsibility in exploring these important topics and shine a light on the unexpected fun of bringing the Danbury Trashers story to life.
Thrillist: Untold is full of never-before-seen footage, whether it’s the different security camera perspectives in Malice at the Palace or the behind-the-scenes look at Caitlyn Jenner’s trip to the 1976 Olympics. How challenging was it getting this access?
Maclain Way: We filed a Freedom of Information Act for Malice at the Palace. Auburn Hills Police Department had boxes of material for Malice at the Palace that no one had ever requested. It was security cameras, police reports, photographs… it was an immense amount.
The Olympic Committee basically followed around Jenner back at the 1976 Olympics for two days. There was something like 30 16-millimeter film cans that had never been processed or transferred before. AJ [Galante] handed over all his home video archives. Mardy Fish had an endless amount of footage that we were able to find through the tennis networks, and Christy Martin, as well, for boxing. It was a big, big, big part of the show.
Crimes and Penalties, which tells the unbelievable story of the Danbury Trashers hockey team, is one of two installments you two direct. Why those two?
Chapman Way: The untold nature of this story of a notorious mobster who bought a hockey franchise for his 17-year-old son? Just that alone and we were like, "Alright we're in." And then you start diving into the story and it's this rich cast of characters and it ends in this massive federal indictment. It kind of felt like in our wheelhouse, the energy and the comedy of it all. There are a lot of heavy topics throughout the series and a lot of important topics. I think something underutilized in the documentary format is comedy. They're hard to do. You’ve got to have people that are naturally funny storytellers, which is rare. You don't find that a lot.
I’m assuming there’s no such thing as doing a chemistry read with your interview subjects when filming a documentary. Do you just hope they’re great on camera when you meet them?
Chapman: Right. So, when we flew out to Danbury and started meeting these characters, like Tommy "T-Bone" Pomposello, who was AJ’s middle school coach, who was his secret weapon, and the guy is just larger than life. He’s just inherently funny. Richard Brosal, the commissioner of the UHL, is still just full of rage all these years later, and love at the same time.
Maclain: It's a weird thing to say about these guys, but I think out of any documentary I've ever done, these guys cared the least that they were in a Netflix documentary. In the interview, they kind of just said whatever they wanted to say all the time. Full stop, period. They were going to be themselves, 100%.
Crimes and Penalties is a surprisingly heartfelt underdog story. But with the influence of the mafia and AJ’s love of the heels in professional wrestling, it feels like the guys we’re rooting for are really the villains. Was that a surprise to you?
Maclain: There are not too many sports documentaries where your protagonists are the ones who would normally be the villains of a story. We always felt like The Trashers were the team that the Mighty Ducks play in their first game and are the bad guys that they have to beat for the championship. We just made a movie from the bad guys' perspective. And look, they have a code of ethics. They're pirates. They have an ethos and a culture. They have an honor code that they abide by and that's what we felt was so interesting about WWE and the Trashers.
There’s still a big stigma surrounding mental health in the professional sports world. You shine a light on this throughout most of Untold, whether it’s Caitlyn Jenner’s struggle with gender dysphoria, Christy Martin's battle with her sexual identity, addiction, and relationship abuse, or Mardy Fish’s extreme anxiety disorder. What are you hoping the audience will take away from the stories you’re telling?
Chapman: Specifically, we’ve been following the Mardy Fish story since 2015 [when he] became one of the first, if not the first, professional athlete to go on the record about his mental health struggles while he was still a professional athlete. At the end of the day, we all want to feel a little bit less alone in this world. It's tough out there, shit can get hard, and life is rough. To watch people that seem invincible, who are marketed as invincible, and come off like superheroes, and see that they’re dealing with the rawness and the vulnerability of life just like we all are, hopefully, it will make us feel a little less alone. That's the ultimate goal as a filmmaker here.
Are there plans for more episodes? Will this become Netflix’s answer to ESPN’s 30 for 30 docs?
Chapman: Our hope is that we get to do Volume Two and Three and Four. I think we'd love for this to be a home within Netflix where you can kind of do these strange, left-of-center sports stories that speak not just to sports fans. The characters and the journeys and the arcs within these worlds are amazing. So, our hope is that we can do this for the next four or five years and be a unique home for cool sports stories.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.