“I always felt like when we got the script right that idea would sell itself, and that’s more or less what happened.”
Tony Wilson, producer The Final Season
“For once, here’s a sports movie that doesn’t feature players who are expected to lose.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune (Review of the 2007 movie The Final Season)
Yesterday, I mentioned hearing Kent Stock talk about his life and how it led to being portrayed in the movie The Final Season. Today I have an interview with Tony Wilson who was the central figure in bringing that story to the big screen. When Wilson started pursing the rights to the story he didn’t know that it would take 16 years to fulfill his dream. But his desire to make films began long before that journey started.
Wilson began making films at Hoover High School in Des Moines, Iowa where he won the high school film festival. He told me he decided to study film in college because he didn’t think he’d have to read many books. After college he started a video production company in Colorado, but eventually felt to the pull to return to Iowa.
But it was way back in 1976 after seeing the movie Rocky that he began to crystallize his dreams. Wilson told me, “That’s the movie I always wanted to make, I just didn’t know it. I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to make a feature film and I was always on the lookout for some kind of a sports story.”
It was 15 years after seeing Rocky when he came across a July 14, 1991 article in the Des Moines Register* which inspired him to pursue the rights to the story. So he borrowed a Mercedes ( a touch of Hollywood) and met with Kent Stock and for $1,000. secured a two-year agreement to tell the story of how Stock led Norway High School into the state playoffs in the school’s final year before it would merge with another school. (Stock now jokes that the Mercedes did impress him.)
DEVELOPING THE SCRIPT
Wilson originally began developing the script, but in 1993 he also started a new video production company, Applied Art & Technology in Des Moines, which took much of his time and focus away from writing the script himself.
“The first couple drafts were pretty much a documentary. I was use to working in 30 seconds for commercials and 10 minutes for corporate videos so this 100 page screenplay thing was totally new to me. So I had to learn how to write scripts and the three act play and the fact that we did’t have an inciting incident—there’s a big problem. I had no clue what that was all about.”
But getting the film made never faded. He said, “In the year 2000 I decided if I was ever going to get this script made I’ll need to find a script writer so I interviewed a couple of guys and found Art D’Alessandro down in Florida. He had knowledge of baseball and I knew he could write.”
They wrote eight drafts in four years and when the script finally went out in 2005 director David Mickey Evans (Sandlot) was the first to sign on to the project followed by actor Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings). Writer James Grayford shares final screenwriting credit on the movie.
SS: How did you go about raising the money to produce the film?
TW: We raised money as a development fund and when we sent the script out we had a pay or play with some of these people to get their names attached. We had some L.A. producers who were going to provide some funding as we came down to the wire and that didn’t happen and we wound up raising most of the money ourselves which was quite miraculous.
SS: When did you know that The Final Season was actually going to get made?
TW: December 31, 2005 was when we completed our funding, or knew we were going to complete it, so then it was a matter of starting the preproduction process. The first day of shooting was the first day after Memorial Day 2006.
SS: What was that like that first day finally see what basically had started 30 years prior when you first were inspired by Rocky?
TW: It was a very big reality moment. We actually shot a scene that was in the very first draft of the script —there weren’t a lot of those (laugh) that actually made it from the first draft. That was actually a pretty emotional day for Kent Stock and I to see that scene get filmed.
SS: People talk about finding distribution being just as hard as getting the film made. Was that your case?
TW: Oh yeah, that was a real learning time. Every step of the way has been a learning process. We were fortunate in that we had good representation, Carl Borlack was executive producer and produced the Shiloh series and his partner Jim Cardwell who was the former head of Warner Home Video so they understood the industry very well and had the Rolodex to get the deals done.
SS: When was the first time you saw the film with an audience?
TW: We had a distributor’s screening out in LA at the end of ’07, and a couple of nights later we had a cast and crew screening out in LA, and the next time after that would have been at the world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The Final Season didn’t become the next Rocky or Hoosiers, but I will say that you won’t find a better film that depicts high school players playing baseball. (In fact, that team could compete with any movie semi-pro/pro team.) But when you step back and look at the bigger picture The Final Season is a prime example of finding a regional story, developing it into a screenplay, and having the perseverance to take that sometimes long journey of fulfilling a dream to see your movie produced and playing in theaters.
Thirty years may seem like a long time to see a dream fulfilled, but there are many lessons we can learn from the game of baseball. After all, how many years did it take the San Francisco Giants to win the World Series Tuesday night? A mere 52 years.
Tony Wilson is now developing his second feature film that he hopes won’t take 16 years to produced.
* Reporter Ken Fuson of the Des Moines Register was the writer who followed Norway’s final season (along with Pulitzer Prize winning photographer David Peterson) documenting the season in the style of Pulitzer Prize winning reporter H.G. Bissinger who moved to Odessa, Texas to write about Periman High School football (Friday Night Lights). Fuson also co-wrote Kent Stock’s biography Heading for Home, My Journey from Little League to Hollywood!