Netflix’s First Match, written and directed by Olivia Newman, and starring Elvira Emanuelle is a new women-led film that’s changing the game.
In hindsight, First Match’s name holds a weight of irony, considering this is not the first time director-writer Olivia Newman tackled this story. The story started off as a short film in 2011 that Newman showed at New York Film Festival. It was transformed and revamped into this film distributed by Netflix.
The film’s home base is in Brownsville, Brooklyn: a neighborhood and culture that’s been known to breed tough people who’ve gotten through tough times. Our protagonist Monique (played wonderfully by Elvire Emanuelle) is no exception. She is hardened by years in foster care and decides that joining the all-boys wrestling team is the only way back to her estranged father.
@Okayplayer got the opportunity to get on the mat with Emanuelle and Newman, where we talked to them about the process from short to feature film, investing in the borough they filmed in, and how to make the world of wrestling come to life in an authentic way.
Okayplayer: Olivia, as the writer-director, how did the story for First Match come together? Was it inspired by true events that happened within your familiar circle? Or was it a case of the creative forces swirling around sparked by a good idea or concept?
Olivia Newman: I made a short film that premiered in 2011 that was about a girl who was on a boy’s wrestling team, who was preparing for her first match and trying to connect with her single dad. When I was making this short film I was really focused on the experience of being a girl on a boy’s wrestling team. I interviewed a lot of wrestlers, girl wrestlers who were from New York City who were on boy’s teams. Their stories informed the short film and when I made that short [film], I cast a wrestler from New York who played the lead role. [That wrestler] happened to be from Brownsville and in making this film together, and travelling the festival circuit, we became good friends and stayed in touch. She is still a big part of my life. Through Nyasa (the wrestler) and the community where she grew up, I became interested in Brownsville as a context of this feature film.
There was another girl on Nyasa’s team that the character of Mo in the feature is really based on (Ed. note: She has been referred to as “Nyasa” to protect her privacy). She was a young woman who was living in foster care that was on the boy’s wrestling team. [She] was beautiful and very flirtatious, but would get on the mat and wrestle with boys and be very aggressive. And I found that dichotomy really interesting. Then I happened to be at her wrestling practice the day she was hoping [her grandparents in another state] would adopt her and decided not to. It was then that I saw another side come out, where she was angry and would snap at people.
For me, that was the genesis of the feature film story. I really wanted to tell a story about a young woman who was desperately craving family and that kind of family love. Chasing after the family she thought were her real family and sort of inadvertently discovering a family on this boy’s wrestling team, it kind of organically grew out of this experience I had making the short film. Getting to know [“Nyasa”], her wrestling peers and learning about the neighborhood that she grew up in helped to make all of those things come together. For me, this was a story kind of swirling around in my head as I was becoming friends and getting to know her and her friends.
OKP: Elvire, this is your first feature-length project, and it is being heralded as one of Netflix’s strongest new original films. How does that feel so early on in your career? Also, can you talk about how the screenplay for First Match came your way and what were your first experiences like in front of the camera when production began?
Elvire Emanuelle: First of all, it feels absolutely insane. It sounds cheesy but it’s a dream come true. When you have this dream, an idea and everybody tells you “you’re crazy” and when it actually happens it feels unreal and like an outer body experience, almost. The way I found the script was on Actor’s Access (https://www.actorsaccess.com/). I saw it on there and I didn’t submit for it the first time, but then I saw it again. Then I sent in a tape and after I sent in the tape I didn’t hear anything for I don’t know how long, maybe a couple of days. Then I got a call back and didn’t hear anything for I think almost like three weeks. And I thought to myself, ‘Oh they probably moved on.’
This one day I was taking a nap—it was a crazy day for me—and I woke up to an email to come back in for an audition and a physical test. So I went in for that and then maybe the following week casting wanted to meet me for brunch. I remember at the end [of that meeting] they said, ‘You’d be good in this role,’ and in my head I’m like, ‘Does that mean I got it?’ The next day I got the official email and was so excited.
OKP: After screening First Match and noticing that it was filmed in Brownsville, Brooklyn, I wanted to ask how did the community accept you all being in the neighborhood where it is also beginning to become gentrified as the whole of Brooklyn is?
ON: Shooting in Brownsville was a really wonderful experience. We shot there in the summer of 2016. The gentrification was already happening but not to the extent that it is in some of the other surrounding neighborhoods where we also shot. We shot a little bit in Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy and out in Midwood as well but the bulk of it was in Brownsville. In order to make sure that we weren’t rolling up and just shooting a movie and taking from the community, we found office space in Brownsville for our production office and then we tried to engage as many organizations and people who are working within the community in the making of the film.
One of our really big helpers on the film was this guy who ran security for 50 buildings in Brownsville. He has a company where he runs and manages all the security guards in all these buildings. So he was really aware of where we could shoot things, who we needed to talk to make sure it was cool for us to be in these spaces and really did it out of this place of respect. By saying, ‘We want to shoot in this housing projects so who do we need to talk to,’ we made sure that everybody knows we’re coming and was fine with us being there.
And then, we put up signs around the neighborhood looking for background extras in the movie and hired our caterers from within the community. So as much as possible, [we made] sure that we were putting money from the film back into the community and that we were also including whoever wanted to film and finding opportunities to include them in the making of the film.
That was always a priority for us and the producers as well. That we make this a film that Brownsville was apart of, not just go in there and shoot in Brownsville. And I think that that is what makes the film so special, is that we were able to capture Brownsville in this very authentic light and to shine a light on the wonderful people and families and kids and everyday life of the community. I found it to be more stressful when we were filming in Crown Heights and when we were blocking off a sidewalk to shoot stuff outside the restaurant where Darrel works. For example, we got a lot more pushback from people who had fears of their neighborhood being taken over because that’s a neighborhood where gentrification is at a peak right now. So that’s where we felt a little bit more tension, actually, than we did in Brownsville.
OKP: Elvire, what methods did you have to train for wrestling and later on boxing during the filming process?