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Interview American Hindi

Exclusive: When Aimee McDaniel, Gold's sports coordinator, learnt about 'Bollywood moments'

From barely knowing the game of field hockey, the American worked her way through to help the actors prepare for the period film.

Aimee McDaniel, sports film choreographer. Picture: Courtesy Aimee McDaniel

Mayur Lookhar

Horses for courses. No matter where the talent comes from, as a filmmaker you are always looking to find the right people for the right roles. So, director Reema Kagti roped in noted American sports film choreographer Aimee McDaniel for her period film, Gold.

This was a tale about India’s first Olympic gold medal in field hockey as an independent country at the London Games in 1948, but that did not stop Kagti from roping in McDaniel, who specializes in American sports.

McDaniel has to her credit marquee films like Miracle (2004), Superman Returns (2006), and the widely acclaimed Invictus (2009). She and Jessi Sheldon, née Moore, founded Game Changing Films, which has been involved with sports choreography, artiste training, and casting of athletes for movies, TV, print ads and commercials for over a dozen years now.

Though McDaniel has been to India before, having worked on the American film Million Dollar Arm (2014), Gold is her first project in India. The film hit the screens mid-week, on Independence Day.

In an e-mail interview with Cinestaan.com, McDaniel shared her Gold journey, praised Kagti as a director, and told us how honoured she feels to have worked with a legend like Clint Eastwood. Oh, and yes, she hopes to learn cricket some day. Excerpts:

For a cinema that thrives on romance and song-and-dance sequences, Indians are very much in synch with dance choreography. But sports choreography, that’s new for most of us. Can you tell us what it is? What is a sports coordinator's role?

A sports choreographer's role is similar to what a dance choreographer would do for a dance scene, but we do it for sports action scenes. We take the sports action that is written in the script and bring it to life.

For example, the script may just say India scores a goal. We have to break that down and figure out what the director would like to see: where does the action start, how many passes, is there a story point to the goal, should a certain character score the goal or make the [crucial] pass, is it a shot that the goalie almost saves or does it whiz by untouched?

So, basically, it’s my job to then pitch to the director my vision of that goal. Again, keeping in mind the rest of the script and what characters are on the field and who should be involved and why.

Once we go through the script and I get my choreography approved on paper, I get all my players together and go through about three to four weeks of rehearsals and actually choreograph the action on the field. During those rehearsals, I can come back with better notes for the director, what works, what doesn’t, and then we can come up with a plan on how to actually shoot the action.

You struck gold with Gavin O’Connor’s Miracle (2004). What does Reema Kagti’s Gold bring to your life and career? 

Well, I am always looking for new challenges and this was definitely one of them. When I first met Reema over a Skype interview, I loved her passion for filmmaking right away. By the time we were done with the 45-minute interview. I knew this was a project I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure if Reema would hire me, because I really had no idea what field hockey was, let alone choreographing or shooting it. But she had enough confidence that I would figure it out. So, we just sort of jumped off the deep end together and went head first into this project.

I had never done a full 'Bollywood' movie. I had shot for Million Dollar Arm [in India], but that was a Disney movie, so although I was familiar with India, I hadn’t received the full 'Bollywood' experience.

So, at the end of the day, I learned a sport I hadn’t previously known, choreographed the movie in India and the UK, and got to work with a wonderful director whose passion would get you going every day.

Reema poured her heart and soul into the project and it would be disrespectful to not give that back to her in our work.

Gold was your first association with field hockey. Given that you are a sportsperson, was it easy to familiarize yourself with the game? If not, what did you do to get a better understanding of the game?

I had a slight idea what field hockey was, but it’s mainly played by women in the US. It’s big in our colleges/universities. So, when they first presented me with the idea of the movie, I really thought it was about women’s hockey. Boy, oh boy, was I mistaken!

So, before I had my Skype interview with Reema, I dove (sic) right into research, thank god for the internet. And I just watched as many games as I could on the internet and read up as much as possible on India’s rich history of the sport. But I have to admit I didn’t fully wrap my head around the sport until I had my hockey coordinator, [former Australia player and India coach] Michael Nobbs, join me in India and we sat down and watched a tournament on TV and I just bombarded him with a lot of questions.

As Gold is a period film, set in 1948, when the standard and style of field hockey was very different to what we see now, and I’m not sure if any footage from the 1948 London Olympics is available, so, as a sports coordinator, how did you go about your task?

Well, luckily, my wonderful hockey coordinator Michael Nobbs held my hand during this process. He did a great job of doing the research and reaching out to the hockey community to make sure we were as accurate as possible when it came to the rules and the style of play.

There wasn’t a lot of footage of games during that period, so we made a conscious effort, with Reema’s blessing, to combine today’s athletes and their speed and choreograph a similar style of game play to the 1930s and 1940s. We had to ramp up the physicality and some of the action to keep audiences engaged in the sports action sequences. But we did make a conscious effort to stay true to the style of the game played back then.

As a former player, I assume Nobbs was there to help with the technical side of the game. How did you, as sports coordinator, coordinate with a former player on this particular project? Was there ever any difference of opinion? 

Michael was great! This project couldn’t have happened without him working with me. There was never really a difference of opinion, but I would probably put him in challenging positions. He knew the technical aspects of the game and I would say, but I need this person over here, or that doesn’t make the shot look great, can I cheat this here and him over there? Can I make this pass through here? So, I know I drove him crazy, but one of the first things I learned is that everything is not what it looks like on camera.

The reason I hire “real” coaches and hockey players is because we need the authenticity on screen and I need players and coaches that know what they are doing and that it looks technically correct. However, this isn’t an actual game and the camera placement is different than in a regular game. So in my head, as we are choreographing the action, I have already edited the sequence, so you usually know when the director/editor will get out of shot on this camera and jump to another angle. I think Michael understood that by the time we were done. However, he may have wanted to push me off a bridge once or twice.

Actors are not expected to be good at a particular sport to play sportspersons. What impression did the Indian actors who were portraying hockey players leave on you? 

Akshay Kumar and the team in a still from Gold (2018)

All of the Indian actors were wonderful! They put so much of their own time into getting themselves to be the best hockey players they could be.

We started them off in India with at least 2-3 months of working with a hockey coach and then continued to work with them when they got to the UK.

I was very impressed at the level they were able to get themselves to in a relatively short time. But that gave me a lot to work with in terms of their choreography. I could see them progress and I started to understand what their strengths and weaknesses were, so you try and choreograph their specific actions to their strengths. Because when you are watching the movie, you want to see your actors in that big game taking the big shot and that’s what all these actors did. I was very, very impressed! Such a pleasure to work with all of them.

Akshay Kumar was playing the manager, but the man is known in Hindi cinema as the ‘Khiladi [Player]'. Can you share an anecdote with him?

I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with Akshay as he was on the sidelines and he and Reema had certain actions they wanted him to do, but I could see the respect he commanded on set. And I thought it was great that after we had cut and he had some time while we changed camera positions, he would always play games with the players. The players just loved hanging out with him and I thought it was great that he would hang around the set and just play.

A first Indian film, a first with an Indian director. How different is the work environment here vis-a-vis Hollywood? 

Well, the first thing I learned is that 'Bollywood' takes its time with “emotions”. I remember we were on the field in the UK and shooting a scene where rain comes down in the middle of the Olympic Games. And all the players look up to the sky.

Well, the shot went on for 20 seconds. I finally said, “What the heck are they doing, it’s just rain! The other team would have stolen the ball from them and scored on the other end by now. I mean, it’s the Olympics!”

And a producer just looked at me and said this is Bollywood, we take great pleasure in moments like these. So, I just went, ”Oh, ok then.” I learned that there are 'Bollywood moments'.

Indians have a different way of functioning. We need to be made comfortable to bring the best out of us. I believe you are particular about your work, about discipline. Was there ever a moment in the making of Gold where you found yourself having to make a certain leeway?

I believe it is my job to make all the players look as good as possible on screen. So, I am going to push and challenge them every step of the way. So, what the actors give back to me is what I am able to work with.

Again, it’s my job to put them in a place to succeed. And I was lucky enough on this job that all the actors gave me something to work with. They bonded as a team and I think they looked towards me as a coach and it was my job to push them, but it was done in a professional manner with no disrespect.

You have worked on some big Hollywood films. The one that was globally appreciated is Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. If I am correct, you got down to work with the cast even before Eastwood had met them. It must have been a great boost to your confidence that a great filmmaker like him reposed such faith in you.

Aimee McDaniel with Clint Eastwood (centre) and some of the Invictus team. Picture: Courtesy Aimee McDaniel

Making Invictus was the best and scariest time I had on a film set. It was an absolute honour to work with Mr Eastwood, but I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself.

Rugby wasn’t a household sport in the US, so that was another sport I had to really dive into. I was lucky enough to have [former South Africa winger] Chester Williams as my technical adviser on that set. And since he was a member of that 1995 [World Cup-winning] team, he gave me an insight that really let me put myself into that movie.

So, once I got over the initial nerves working with Eastwood, I realized I was telling a bigger story about South Africa and what this sports story meant to the people of South Africa at the time. We even shot a scene over at Robben Island and spent some time in [Nelson] Mandela’s cell. If that doesn’t change your perspective about life, then there is something wrong with you.

Each movie I do, whether it’s a big project or a small project, with a big-time director or an up-and-coming director, I give them the same amount of my time and energy. I don’t know how to do something half-assed.

I take a lot of pride in my work. I don’t think it’s fair to ask my players/actors to put in all the sweat and work and for me to call it in. At the end of the day we are definitely a team. If done right, we make each other look good on screen.

You have been, and worked, in India before, with Million Dollar Arm (2014). What memories did you take back of India then? 

Madhur Mittal, Aimee McDaniel and Suraj Sharma during the making of Million Dollar Arm. Picture: Courtesy Aimee McDaniel

I did a lot more travelling for Million Dollar Arm. I spent about six weeks in New Delhi, two weeks in Mumbai, a few days in some smaller towns, and then our final scene was shot at the Taj Mahal. I remember that it was HOT! But the people were great and I knew it was a place I wanted to get back to again and spend some more time there. And I loved working with Suraj Sharma, what a great actor!

Before Gold, did you have any exposure to Indian films?

I didn’t have a lot of exposure. I have seen a few — Slumdog Millionaire (2008) [a British film set in in India], Chak De! India (2007). Wow, now that I have had to list them, I guess I haven’t seen many at all.

For most of us, sports choreography is a new concept, and I’m not sure how many women in India are in this profession. Probably none. Does Hollywood have more female sports coordinators?

As far as I know, I and my business partner Jessi Sheldon are the only females doing sports choreography. There may be some female technical advisers that do certain jobs. But it’s definitely a tough business to get into, and being a woman wasn’t necessarily a plus. So, I’m not going to lie. It was a difficult path to navigate, but I definitely feel we are in the upswing.

When you started your career, were there people who questioned the presence of a woman in men’s sport?

Are you kidding me? I still get questioned. I have a few wonderful men on my staff and without a doubt most of the male producers and directors I deal with will go straight to them with questions. Which, my coaches will then say, you need to ask Aimee. So, it’s still a bit of an uphill battle, but if my staff and I are able to get into a movie/TV show/commercial early enough and I am able to sit down with the director and producers and have a few creative meetings, then that usually clears up any preconceived notions that women don’t know sports or how to choreograph them for camera.

Can you tell us something about your background, your formative years?

I come from a divorced family. My parents divorced when I was four, so it was just my mom and I for many years. She is definitely my role model and has been a huge influence in my life.

She has been very supportive and dedicated to giving me the best life she could. She put me into sports early on and let me play everything — soccer, basketball, volleyball, track. And I think that allowed me to fail and succeed in different areas, it taught me how to be a role player, and I loved the concept of team sports. Everyone had one common goal, to win, and you had to work together in order for that to happen.

I ended up getting a basketball scholarship to Pepperdine University [in California] and my first job in the entertainment world was as a receptionist for the TV show Boy Meets World. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Finally, this might be the biased Indian in me speaking, but we believe baseball is all too easy, the men are too soft, wearing all sorts of protective gear. After you came to India, what did you make of the Indian perception of baseball? Did India manage to convert you into a cricket fan?

Ha ha ha! Well, baseball is definitely not easy, but to be fair I did not get to play any cricket, so I can’t compare the two.

However, I do love cricket! In fact, I started to watch it when I was in South Africa. I watched a lot of 20/20 games, which was a little bit similar to American baseball in terms of the quickness of the games.

But when I was over in the UK filming Gold, I actually made it over to the Lord’s Cricket Ground and caught some of the England versus South Africa Test match. And I have been hearing there is going to be a movie based on the 1983 India national team that sounds like it’s going to be great!

I have to admit I haven’t watched a lot of the Indian team play cricket and now that seems like it needs to be on my list of things to do.