There are sports movies. And there are (very few) movie productions with sustainability embedded in their DNA. “Knights 58,” now in its pre-production phase, may well be the first sports movie to use state-of-the-art green production techniques. GreenSportsBlog spoke to Antonio Saillant, the movie’s prime mover, executive producer, and director, about the story behind the movie and why he’s going the sustainable production route.
GreenSportsBlog: Antonio, that you will produce and direct perhaps the first-ever sports-themed movie to use state-of-the-art green production practices shows the ever broadening scale of the Green-Sports world. Thank you for doing this work and for talking with us.
Antonio Saillant: My pleasure, Lew.
Antonio Saillant (Photo credit: Raul Brunet, Jr.)
GSB: Also, from our pre-interview conversation, I knew that “Knights 58” — which largely is your story and that of your brother, Angel — would grip our readers from the get-go. So talk about the back story of “Knights 58.”
AS: Glad to. On its face, “Knights 58” is the story of how the 1979 Northern Valley Regional High School Golden Knights football team in Old Tappan in Northern New Jersey dealt with an almost three year, 25 game losing streak, and the pressure from the townspeople and the school administration that went with it. My brother Angel Meneses, who wore number 58 for the Knights…
GSB: …Hence the “Knights 58” title…
AS: Exactly. Angel was a senior linebacker in 1979 and was the captain and emotional leader of the team. He also could play — and not only football. Wrestling, basketball, track — Angel could do it all.
Angel Meneses, #58 in white, playing for the Northern Valley (NJ) Regional H.S. Golden Knights (Photo credit: Antonio Saillant)
GSB: What about you?
AS: I was a sophomore at the time; played wide receiver. I was so-so but Angel? He was incredible, both on the field and as a leader in the locker room. This was especially important for the ’79 Knights because we had a 23 year-old rookie head coach who was just feeling his way with a downtrodden team, a coaching staff that didn’t trust him, and an administration and townspeople that were tired of the constant losing. He was also my idol. The movie will go into the story of Angel Meneses, the young, new head coach Bill Medea, and how the team tried to keep all the noise from the outside…outside. And do so as 16-17 year old kids.
GSB: What were some of the “noise” issues surrounding the Knights?
AS: Have we got all day? There was no gathering at the end of the field after our games. There was no cheering, no celebrating. The people who remained were cynics, backslapping each other with cruel remarks that hurt the team’s morale and drained us of our ability to win. One player described it recently as “Heartbreak, mixed with a trail of tears, followed the team.” Yet with Coach Medea, the boys never gave up. And with Angel, they were guided to the light of victory.
GSB: It sounds like “Knights 58” has the makings of a classic sports film. How and when did you decide to “green-ify” the production?
AS: Well, to get to that story, we have to go back and tell a few other stories first. It’ll take awhile but will make sense in the end.
GSB: I’m not going anywhere…
AS: OK, first of all, we are of Greek extraction but our dad was born in Cuba. Like I said, I was a so-so football player but my sport was baseball — I played third base and centerfield and, with my dad’s direction, became a switch hitter…
GSB: Like Mickey Mantle who learned to switch hit at the behest of his dad Mutt!
AS: I could play but, let’s be crystal clear, I was not near the same level as The Mick. Anyway, my father sent me to live with an uncle in the Dominican Republic for my junior year. He thought I’d be coached better, get to play year round and there were a ton of scouts there from many of the big league ball clubs.
GSB: How did you like it?
AS: Hated it. The poverty at the time was beyond extreme. And, truthfully, I wanted to be home with my friends and my brother. So I came back to the US, we moved to Washington Heights and I finished up at JFK high school in the Bronx. I wanted to go to college but my dad wanted me to pursue baseball. One day, I’m on the subway, and I see this guy wearing an Aviation high school jacket. I was interested in aerospace engineering so I went up and talked to him. He was studying that subject at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Farmingdale, Long Island, and by 1983, I was, too. In the summers, I would go down to the Dominican to play baseball. I hated it but my dad said he knew a scout down there for the Mets who would, when the time was right, take a look.
GSB: What happened with Angel?
AS: He was doing great; went to Long Island University in Brooklyn to get a Masters degree in physical therapy. Then, in the summer of 1987, I got a call from him. He said “come on up to New York. I’ve got great news to tell you.” I came up with some great news for him — dad had told me that some scouts from the Mets in the D.R. were interested in me.
GSB: What was Angel’s news?
AS: He was getting engaged to his girlfriend Miriam! So the three of us went to the beach at Robert Moses State Park to celebrate in his ’86 Camaro. We were on the Grand Central Parkway and, for a reason that remains a mystery to this day, despite there being little to no traffic and nothing out of the ordinary on the road, Angel slammed on the brakes while we were going 60 miles per hour! We did a 360 and then flipped upside down several times. The fire department had to come and get us out. I broke my arm and shattered my hand. Miriam made it. But Angel wasn’t so lucky — he died then and there.
GSB: Oh wow! I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. What did you do?
AS: I was a mess. Quit baseball — I just didn’t want to play anymore — I had lost my hero! My dad was pissed — he didn’t understand. Couldn’t focus on my studies, ended up transferring to New York Institute of Technology. Thought for a time of becoming a navy pilot but I didn’t want to leave my parents and sister so I failed the officer exams on purpose. Finally graduated NYIT in 1990 and landed a job with Con Edison (the main New York City utility), first as a project engineer and then as an energy consultant…
GSB: Is Con Ed where your interest in sustainability and energy efficiency took root?
AS: That was it…I ended up staying at ConEd for 7-8 years, then moved to a lighting and energy efficiency company in New Jersey where I moved up to Director of Energy Services. Had gotten married in 1993, had a son — Michael, now 23, a corrections officer in New York — got divorced in 1996.
GSB: OK, that’s a whirlwind. But the arc of this story is becoming a bit clearer…I get the sports story with Angel and the ’79 Knights…I get the green angle. But how do you become a movie producer/director? That’s the part that doesn’t fit.
AS: I got the acting bug in about 2001, 2002.
GSB: Had you ever acted before?
AS: Nope. Here’s what happened. I was sitting at an Italian bar in New York City…
GSB: …This sounds like a movie right here…
AS: I start talking to the guy sitting next to me. Turns out he was a big musical director on Broadway, Michael Rafter. He’s done “The Sound of Music,” “Gypsy,” “King & I” and more. We became good friends. He invited me to dress rehearsals of a musical he was working on at the time, “Caroline Or Change.” I was hooked. Told Michael I’d like to get into acting. He had me fax a letter to Bob Lambert, the casting director of “All My Children.” Three days later I was reading for him. Was I green! So Lambert sent me to an acting coach, I was back reading for him three months later and soon I was working on “All My Children” doing “Under 5s” and “Backgrounds”…
GSB: What are they?
AS: “Under 5s” are parts where you have five lines or less and in “Backgrounds,” you have no lines. As I was doing these jobs, I’d always talk to the director, the sound technician, the union guys, to learn how things work on the production side. A couple years later, I became friendly with a stunt coordinator…
GSB: Don’t tell me…
AS: …and I started doing stunt work. This was in about 2005. And I was acting. And, I was still working at the lighting and energy efficiency company in New Jersey, Mira Lighting. We did Hoffman LaRoche’s headquarters, Bristol-Myers Squibb’s, Yankee Stadium. Then I moved to another company, Energy Technology, owned by Ron Kamen at the time in New York, where I became VP. Then, also in about 2005, I met Sydney Pollack at a restaurant.
GSB: DANG, hanging out at restaurants is profitable for you! Sydney Pollack? You mean the director of “Tootsie”?
AS: Among his many great films. He was intrigued by my story and invited me on the set of “The Interpreter,” which was being shot at the United Nations. It was then that I started to shift my interest from acting to producing and directing. Sydney introduced me to a ton of people in those arenas. Also, at around that time, I became friendly with Dr. Dan Schaefer, a business consultant and life coach through his company, Peak Performance Strategies. He gave me the idea of merging film production and energy efficiency. And I also met Ted Kotcheff, who directed the great football movie, “North Dallas Forty” with Nick Nolte. Also “Weekend at Bernie’s,” a number of “Law & Orders.” The list goes on. Ted invited me onto the set of “Law & Order SVU” and it changed my life yet again.
Ted Kotcheff (l) and Antonio Saillant (Photo credit: Antonio Saillant)
GSB: How so?
AS: Well, one day, I noticed that they recycled on set. I suggested some other green initiatives Ted could take — and he listened and turned many of those suggestions into reality. Ted really became my film mentor — I worked with him on TV shows and films as a producer. Meanwhile, I hooked up with my ex-boss, Ron Kamen, now owner of Earth Kind Energy — he became my mentor on energy matters.
GSB: Now it all fits — the inspirational high school football story, the energy efficiency story and now the film production story. Amazing, truly amazing. So where, when and how did the idea for “Knights 58” come about?
AS: Ted Kotcheff’s “North Dallas Forty” really inspired “Knights 58.” I had started thinking back to the ’79 Knights, about Angel, about our 23 year-old coach and about why we couldn’t win a game, even though we had talent. About how the assistant coaches and the town were against us — “let’s go to the games to watch the band, not football,” was a popular saying at the time. And then I remembered how Angel, the coach and the other captains were able to block out the outside noise, create a family, us-against-the-world atmosphere, and get us to finally beat our rival, Westwood High, 33-8 in the last game of the season. It turned the school and the attitude of the town around. By 1985, the Knights would win the state title with Cory Booker, now the US Senator from New Jersey, as the star. Really, the story is about how we learned more about life from one high school football game than anything that happened before or since.
GSB: Sounds like a powerful sports movie…
AS: I pitched it to Ted. He thought it was a winner and is convinced A-list actors will want in. So my team is raising money now from private investors. We expect to be shooting next year with hoped for release sometime in 2019.
GSB: I’m glad it’s coming together for you. Talk about the green aspects of the production…
AS: We’re committed to shooting “Knights 58” as a 100 percent green production. What does that mean?
- All of the support vehicles involved with the shoot will either be hybrids or EVs. Trucks will greatly reduce their idling times
- We will use biodiesel-fueled generators
- The short will be Zero-Waste, diverting at least 90 percent of all waste from landfill
- Construction chiefs and art directors will favor low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints
- Set materials will be donated to organizations that will make future use of them
- Aluminum water bottles will be given out to members of the cast and crew, and there will be refilling stations on all locations
Our goal is to show the film industry that this is doable and not a budget breaker. Right now, the big studios aren’t doing it. They say things like “we can’t do special effects in a sustainable fashion.” That’s not true in many cases, especially with computer generation imaging (CGI.) They choose to be wasteful. But the thing is, big time actors want to go this route and so do some directors. I speak about green film production on college campuses and the students are now expecting that movies be produced in this fashion.
GSB: What a story, Antonio! And, once you complete Knights 58, maybe your next film can be a documentary on the Greening of the Film Industry.