The Hesburgh Documentary: A Final Look BackBy Patrick Creadon '89
Editor’s Note: This story will appear in Saturday’s edition of Gameday Magazine, the official game program of Notre Dame football. Programs are available for purchase throughout campus and feature all you need to know about Notre Dame student-athletes, coaches, history and opponents.
The whole thing started with football.
Four years before Hesburgh became one of the top-grossing documentaries of 2019, we were asked by ESPN to make a movie about Notre Dame football for their award-winning series “30 for 30”. The resulting film “Catholics vs. Convicts” took an in-depth look at the Notre Dame vs. Miami rivalry of the 1980s and examined what took place behind the scenes of that notorious T shirt and the 1988 game that inspired it.
During production of that film in the fall of 2015 my classmate and good friend Pat Eilers (who scored the go-ahead touchdown against Miami in the pivotal game that led to our last national championship) asked casually what story my wife Christine O’Malley and I were planning to explore next.
“I’m not sure, but I always thought a film about Fr. Ted could be cool,” I replied.
“Done!” he responded, enthusiastically. (It’s worth noting that enthusiasm is a resource of which Pat Eilers seems to have a limitless supply, especially when it comes to Notre Dame.)
Pat offered to raise the money for the film if we agreed to make it. I assured him we would be up for the challenge, but only under two conditions: we would not accept any money from the University to make the film (journalistic integrity wouldn’t allow for that), and Christine and I would have final cut (a requirement we have on all of our films). Done.
Over the course of the next several months, Pat raised $1 million for the production of the film and our team got to work. (It’s worth noting: all of the money raised for Hesburgh was done so under the umbrella of a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. This makes it possible for donors to receive a tax benefit and also removes the added pressure that normally comes with having to pay back investors).
As we dug into the material, we came to a startling realization, even for us Notre Dame alums and students working on the film who thought we were already familiar with Fr. Ted’s story. Hesburgh’s story was massive, almost terrifyingly so. For a small, independent filmmaking team such as ours, we began to wonder if we had we bitten off more than we could chew.
Consider this: here was a man who was named president of Notre Dame at 35 in 1952, fought on behalf of the Vatican for nuclear non-proliferation in the mid-1950s, was a national leader on civil rights for fifteen turbulent years beginning in 1957, was the nation’s most prominent and reasonable voice against violent student protests in the 1960s, yet was also an outspoken critic of violence in Vietnam during President Nixon’s first term as president, and even served on President Ford’s Clemency Board to help heal the divides the Vietnam War had wrought on the country. All this was years before Hesburgh monitored elections in Central America at President Carter’s behest, chaired the bipartisan Commission on Immigration Reform in 1987, co-chaired the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics beginning in 1989, and somehow managed to receive 150 honorary degrees in his lifetime (an accomplishment that will surely never be topped). In 1999, when TIAA-CREF began presenting an award annually to a university that has exceptional faculty development programs, they named it the Hesburgh Award.
Right from the beginning, Christine and I relied heavily on a deep bench of young filmmakers from within the Notre Dame community, many of whom studied in the Department of Film, Television, and Theater. Our producing partner and co-writer Jerry Barca (’99, who also produced “Catholics vs. Convicts”), our two editors Nick Andert (’10) and William Neal (’14), and our associate producer Caroline Clark (’16) were all graduates. Sound mixer and key collaborator Daniel Clark formerly worked at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.
While conducting interviews on campus, we joined forces with over a dozen current students who worked as production assistants (including Julia Szromba, Liz Hynes, Tanner Cipriano, Moira Hamilton, John Salazar, Martha Murphy, Molly Walsh and Quinn Butler, among many others). One particularly good discovery among the current students was junior Alex Mansour who — somewhat astonishingly — wrote and recorded the entire score all by himself (in four weeks).
After an arduous eighteen months of production, and almost $1.3 million dollars spent (Christine and I had no choice but to lend the production the difference in order to complete the film), Hesburgh was finally done in April 2018.
So we were finished, right? Wrong. In fact, as we’ve been telling young and first-time filmmakers for years, having a completed movie simply means that you’re standing on the proverbial 50-yard line. You still have to figure out how to get the film into the end zone by raising awareness and making it available to audiences around the country and throughout the world. This “distribution phase” is entirely different from the “production phase” of making the film and, frankly, I believe that it’s harder to do well.
Out of money and with no idea of whether or not Fr. Ted’s story would resonate with audiences outside of the Notre Dame community, it was now distribution time.
We caught our first big break in June 2018 when we were invited to have our world premiere of Hesburgh at the American Film Institute’s prestigious AFI DOCS Film Festival in Washington, D.C. That sold-out event, complete with a long line of people outside the theater who were not able to get in that evening, was the first indication that we had a film that might find a large audience. Anne Thompson, the longtime NBC News correspondent and 1979 Notre Dame grad, was visibly moved by the film. She led the discussion with me immediately afterward and had to stop many times to compose herself during the question-and-answer period.
One memorable conversation I had that evening at the reception afterward was with an Asian-American woman who loved the film. She spoke at length about the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and, though she seemed to know a lot about it, she was surprised about how much our film taught her about that particular subject.
“You seem to know an awful lot about the Commission on Civil Rights,” I mentioned. “What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights,” she replied. Her name is Karen Narasaki and, lo and behold, she’s one of eight current members serving on the commission.
As Hesburgh worked its way across the country from one film festival to the next, there began to be genuine excitement surrounding it. It won awards at multiple festivals, including in Cleveland where the judges said as they awarded the prize that “Hesburgh is a movie where you are totally expecting one kind of film and it ends up being something completely different.”
One of the most important screenings happened later that fall on campus. We had been asked to show the film to members of Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees at a private screening in the Browning Cinema. I was nervous. This was a small group of people who have devoted enormous energies and resources to the university they love, and many of them were very close personal friends of Fr. Ted’s. I had no idea how they would react.
Before the film began Monk Malloy, one of the people we interviewed for the film, made a few opening remarks and then introduced me to the audience. I was brief and to the point: “Thank you very much for coming, and if you like the film and want to be involved in helping us distribute it next year, please speak to me afterward.” The lights dimmed.
104 minutes later, the lights came back on. Monk Malloy was in tears. “That … was incredible, Patrick,” he said to me. As he walked away, he turned back to say, “I’m honored to appear in your film.”
Many of the trustees pledged their support that weekend, and several began making calls to friends and fellow alums to find even more allies for our distribution efforts. Jimmy Dunne, a trustee who attended the screening on campus, hosted a private screening in New York City several weeks later. An overflowing crowd packed into the theater that night — including former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and our own football head coach Brian Kelly — and once again the film was extremely well received. We began to realize that we had something very special on our hands.
With this second round of funding providing a huge shot in the arm, Christine and I were able to pay ourselves back and also begin putting together our distribution team and plan. Since four of our previous films had enjoyed successful theatrical releases, we had a strong stable of specialists and consultants from which to build our team. The trailer company was top-notch (and home to fellow Domer Scott Mitsui, ’99). Our publicity team had just come off the huge Mister Rogers hit Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and our chief distribution consultant Anna Barnes of Cinetic Media was the woman behind the release of last year’s Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo.
We also hired Moira Hamilton (’17) to work full time on our team to help manage the release. Moira was a monogram winner while a rower at Notre Dame and her competitive spirit proved to be a perfect fit in our distribution efforts. Our goal was to release the film in the spring of 2019 and to bring Hesburgh to 20 cities across the country — a sizeable release for any documentary.
But as opening weekend approached, and the reviews began coming in, we once again realized that we needed to recalibrate our efforts. Hesburgh was selected as a New York Times “Critics Pick” and was selected as one of Entertainment Weekly’s “must-see docs”. One reviewer, Nell Minow of Medium, said simply: “Hesburgh is one of my favorite films of the year.”
We bought underwriting spots on NPR stations across the country, did interviews on television and radio, and week after week expanded the run. Moira and Jerry did a spectacular job working closely with Notre Dame clubs in every market we played in, making sure local groups were aware of what weekends we were opening in their towns and helping to coordinate special guests for the screenings and get-togethers afterward. At one point during the release I was in seven different cities in eight consecutive days.
The hard work paid off. By the end of June, Hesburgh had played in 75 different theaters in over 60 markets. During opening weekend in South Bend our ticket sales were so strong that the theater took a screen away from that week’s blockbuster film and gave it to us. Take that, Avengers! Of the 50 documentaries released theatrically in America in the first half of 2019, Hesburgh ranked 10th.
As the theatrical release began to wind down, we decided to partner with Music Box Films out of Chicago. Over the past 10 years Music Box has quietly become one of the leading independent film distributors in the world, and they were thrilled to bring Hesburgh into their fold. (It also didn’t hurt that one of the principles at Music Box is a die-hard Notre Dame football fan). Music Box will be handling ancillary worldwide sales (DVD, video on demand, international, and educational sales) and will be helping us coordinate special one-night-only screenings throughout the country this fall and spring.
Though revenues for the film in the years ahead are expected to be relatively modest (alas, documentaries are rarely big money makers), we decided from the outset that any profits would be given away to charity. The two groups that we will be supporting are Andean Health (a health care provider based in Ecuador and founded by David Gaus, ’84) and Holy Cross House (the retirement and health care facility where Fr. Ted spent his final years).
Hesburgh is the seventh film Christine and I have made together. And though our topics are very diverse (crossword puzzles with the Sundance hit Wordplay in 2006, the national debt with I.O.U.S.A. in 2008, and public education with the award-winning film If You Build It, among others), there does seem to be a theme running through our work. We are drawn to ordinary people who do extraordinary things.
I believe that no subject we’ve covered so far captures this more so than Fr. Ted. Born of humble beginnings in Syracuse, New York, Hesburgh decided at an early age that he wanted to be a priest. Perhaps he would work somewhere in a small parish helping others and live his life in relative anonymity, or so he thought. Instead, he became one of the world’s most influential leaders and the “conscience of the country” (as Leon Panetta calls him in the film). But throughout his life, he stayed true to his calling. He was a man of God who enjoyed helping others. It just so happens that the “parish” he served was a little bit larger than the one he had anticipated.
Patrick Creadon, along with his partner and wife Christine O’Malley, are an award-winning filmmaking team based in Los Angeles. Their film If You Build It won an Independent Spirit Award in 2014 and they have twice been nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Additonally, their films have been nominated for the Critic’s Choice Award, the National Board of Review, and the Emmy Awards. Creadon served on the jury at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 and currently serves on the Documentary Committee at the Directors Guild of America. O’Malley was recently invited into the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. They live in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles where they are raising their three daughters. Their youngest, Charlotte, thinks that Hesburgh is their best film yet. Creadon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.