Pride: Making an Inspirational Movie

“Pride” tells the story of Jim Ellis, a charismatic schoolteacher in the 1970s who changed lives forever by founding and coaching an African-American swim team in one of Philadelphias roughest neighborhoods. Directed by Sunu Gonera, this uplifting drama stars Oscar nominee Terrence Howard (“Hustle &Flow), Bernie Mac, and Kimberly Elise.

A smart, motivated twenty-something African-American man, Jim Ellis had been to college and traveled around the world; but when he came to Philadelphia in the 1970s in search of a teaching job, he found only closed doors. In the eyes of the citys employers, Ellis passion for education and his unique experience as a college-level competitive swimmer didnt qualify him for a position. Faced with no other options, Ellis grudgingly accepted work closing down the operations at Marcus Foster, a city recreational center in the poverty-stricken Nicetown neighborhood, not expecting that the dead-end job would actually lead him to his true calling: teaching students how to swim.

Providing Role Models

I initially started the program for young Afro-American men, Ellis says, trying to provide good role models for them, good positive situations where they could grow, and exposing them to other things in the community showing them another side of the planet, so to speak. I was just trying to put back into the community, and swimming was the vehicle that I was comfortable with.

Thirty-five years later, Ellis is still teaching Nicetown kids how to swim. During that time, Marcus Foster has become an extracurricular outlet for kids throughout the neighborhood, with Ellis instilling pride in his young athletes and inspiring most of them to seek college educations and professional careers. Its a remarkable feat in a community that, like many inner-city neighborhoods in the 70s, was suffering from a crumbling economy and municipal negligence. Ellis says, I never looked at it as saving troubled kids. I felt that I was just offering something a little different, a bit more untraditional, as we like to say.

Why Me

As one of many teachers and coaches in the Philadelphia school system, Ellis initially wasnt sure why writer Kevin Michael Smith singled him out. I got a call about three years ago from Kevin Michael Smith who asked me if he could write a story on my life as a coach, Ellis says. There wasn't any point where I felt this was a story to be told, because my personal goal was to try to put an athlete on the U.S. Olympic Team. I felt that no one wanted to hear about our journey until we did something that was the ultimate.

Smith and the films team of writers, producers and studio executives respectfully disagreed. In Ellis decades of coaching and teaching, they saw a different kind of story. Director Sunu Gonera says, Here we find a guy with a dream who sets about starting this swim team. He sees this as an opportunity to build something, to give these kids hope, direction, something to believe in, and in turn finds hope himself.

Father Figure and Friend

When I first met Jim just before we started shooting, I could see right away why hes achieved what he has, says producer Paul Hall. He's the coach everybody wishes they had: part father figure, part best friend. And hes worked for years behind the scenes without any desire for recognition. Thats the beauty of his story. It reminds us that there are heroes everywhere we look.

Ellis is typically modest about his accomplishments. The biggest thing is I had a dream and I worked towards it, Ellis says. I didn't know how big it was when I started. I didn't know I would be doing it this long, but I stuck to it. I did the reading and tried to educate myself as much as possible. I saw what it took to get to where I wanted to go and set out a plan. You have to be willing to commit, because there are no shortcuts.

Focus on the Early Years

Smith and the filmmaking team surveyed the three-and-a-half decades of Ellis coaching career and decided to focus on his early years, when the swimming programs fate was uncertain and the P.D.R. swim team first began competing. Hall says, This period was the most exciting because everything was just beginning. If it werent for Jims determination, the program would never have survived. His efforts could have just as easily faded. But he was driven by his passion for the sport, and he turned the center into a community haven.

Casting Terrence Howard

In their search to find the right actor to portray Ellis, the filmmaking team quickly formed a consensus in favor of Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, whose impressive, detailed performances in HUSTLE AND FLOW and CRASH have established him as one of Hollywoods most talented and versatile actors.

By his own admission, Howard was at least partially unqualified for the role of the charismatic swim coach. My experience with swimming up until when I began this film was being able to get across a pool, Howard confesses. I just didnt swim all that much and didnt know much about the sport. But when the actor finally met the coach, the two clicked. After we were introduced, I said, Oh yeah, he's terrific, says Ellis. He's a bright young man and he takes his work seriously. I thought, This is the right person. Trust him.

Ellis also saw qualities in Howard that he still tries to instill in his students. Terrence went out and got a good education, he says. So if one thing failed, he could do something else. He has the education, the background, the ammunition to go make a contribution to society.

While preparing for his performance, Howard visited Ellis in Philadelphia to study his coaching style and get a first-hand sense of the program. Ellis handled the actors arrival with a coachs typical directness. I just told the kids what was up, says the coach. He is here. He is doing his job, and they should just go about their jobs to train business as usual.

Producer Hall was thrilled with the time Howard spent with Ellis and his swimmers. He says, Terrence is a consummate actor. He prepares. You don't want actors that just show up and read the lines. Terrence is not that guy by any stretch of the imagination. He prepares and when he comes to do his craft you adjust and you let him do his thing.

Actress Kimberly Elise, who plays Sue Davis, a city councilwoman, says, Terrence is just such an extraordinary actor. He never makes the clich choice. I love working with him because we dance and volley back and forth. It's really fun to work with an actor who's so intelligent and creative.

While the film establishes a romantic connection between Sue and Ellis, Sue is also wary of Ellis and his plans for the recreational center and his swimmers. Sue is very single-minded about her work and the community, Elise says. Shes also the older sister and guardian of one of the young swimmers, and therefore very protective of him and his friends. She doesn't really trust Jim or understand what hes doing, and doesnt want the kids to be distracted or disappointed by his pipe dreams.

Bernie Mac

Howard and Elise are joined by Bernie Mac, who plays Elston, the recreation centers janitor. Elston is a man whos lost his spirit, Mac says. When he came to Philly and he tried to make something of Marcus Foster, he did everything in his powers to keep it afloat, but he lost faith. When Jim comes along, Elston recognizes him as a guy with the same type of background and the same type of hurt. He joins Ellis on the mission to save the center, and both of their lives turn around.

For Mac, the role of Elston offers him a chance to branch out from the highly comedic roles for which hes known and take part in a story that resonates personally with him. I know the story so well because I lived it, Mac says. When I was younger, I was the physical director of the South Central Community Center in Chicago. I was in charge of the athletic department and it was the exact same scenario: though the community board didnt have the funds to keep the place open, we fought to keep it going.

The next challenge facing the producers was transforming the young cast into a believable competitive swim team. Having played a sport up to a professional level myself, I know that you can't ever cut corners, says director Sunu Gonera. Before setting foot in New Orleans, our young actors were swimming thousands and thousands of yards a day, twice a day, every day for two weeks just to get their bodies conditioned. They watched videos of themselves and their stroke–everything to make sure they looked authentic.

When production began in New Orleans, swimming consultant Lena Darnell arrived on set and taught the young team members specific techniques that were popular in the 1970s. I did some research on the styles true to that time, Darnell says. For example, with the breast-stroke, the head wouldn't be fully submerged and on back-stroke one didn't roll over and do a flip turn like swimmers do today. We did our homework to make sure we were faithful to the era in and out of the pool.

As with any group of athletes, the team in “Pride” is a diverse mix of personalities and skill levels. But at the beginning of the film, they are all united in their skepticism towards Ellis and his plans for them. At first the pool is just a toy, says Brandon Fobbs, who plays the brainy Puddin Head. The guys just jump in there doing cannonballs and all sorts of doggie paddling. But when the coach shows us effective ways of being fast in the pool, were, like, Wow! That works better than my technique.

The process of becoming part of a team is a powerful one for the young characters, filling them with a newfound sense of purpose that in turn transforms their lives. Evan Ross, who plays Fobbs teammate Reggie, says, Reggie is very shy. He really wants to be a part of the team but always feels like the odd one out because of his stutter. So its a big moment for him when Jim Ellis tells them, We're a team now. He's wanted to be part of something for as long as he can remember. He develops this love for Jim almost like for a father because Jim took him under his wing and frankly saved his life.

Team's One Girl

The team is all male, with one determined exception: Willie, a headstrong girl played by Regine Nehy who Elston takes under his wing. Wiloma who Elston calls Miss Willie is a young black female who just barges in and announces she wants to swim, Mac says. He appreciates her determination and he becomes her guardian angel.

Explains Regine Nehy, Willie wants to do something with herself and her life. She doesn't want to be on the streets hanging around the guys. She wants to show that women won't be held back just because someone says something isnt a good idea.

Interracial Dimension

As if learning how to swim competitively isnt a challenge enough, Ellis coed team is also in constant conflict with a group of white suburban students–from Philadelphias preppy Main Line communities–who insist that black swimmers dont belong in their sport, let alone their pools. The lead tormentor, Jake, is played by actor Scott Reeves. My character Jake is a racist, plain and simple, Reeves says. Jake is a snake. Hes the star swimmer driven even further by his hard-ass coach.

Jakes coach, Bink, played by Tom Arnold, does nothing but encourage his students negative opinions of the hopeful P.D.R. team. The role of Bink originally was that of your stereotypical racist coach, says Arnold. But I felt that for Bink, it isnt so much about race as it is about conduct. Ellis kids are out of control, and he has no respect for their behavior.

The Young Actors

While their on-screen characters might be unruly, the young actors who comprise the P.D.R. team impressed the entire filmmaking team with their focus and commitment to the project. Mac says, This is a very talented group of young actors. The kids pushed me. I dont think I was acting in this film I was reacting.

These young actors are exceptional, adds Ellis. Theyre just like a group of young men that I had swimming for me in the '80s and early '90s who set the first national age-group record that our club ever achieved.

The young cast members are equally impressed with Ellis. Kevin Phillips, who plays Andre, says, Its been an honor getting to know Mr. Ellis, this man who stands for so much. What he did, he did from the grace of his heart. He just went out there and tried to make a difference in peoples lives. And, you know, years later he's still doing it still healthy and alive and coaching. So I think, God bless you, Jim. Thank you.

First-time Director Sunu Gonera

Just as “Pride” represents a rite of passage for Ellis and his team, its completion is another step in the long journey of its first-time director, Sunu Gonera. Zimbabwean-born Gonera began his career as a professional athlete in South Africa. He then made a leap into business, which was followed by a quick rise as a leading commercial director. Its hard doing a film about someone's life when that person's still alive, Gonera admits. Its a huge responsibility. As a first-time feature-film director, the cast, the crew, the studio, and the subject of the movie the man himself have all been fantastic partners for me on this venture. I couldnt have asked for more.

Creating Authentic Setting

During pre-production, Gonera focused on creating as authentic a setting as possible for the film. He visited the Marcus Foster Recreational Center in Philadelphia with Ellis and producer Paul Hall, and conferred with director of photography Matthew F. Leonetti on establishing the right cinematic mood and overcoming the technical hurdles of shooting in water. We decided to keep it real and moody, dramatic, reports Leonetti. The colors in the rec center are deep maroons and greens. And when we come to the pools in the more affluent neighborhoods, they are open, bright, and full of light.

Since Philadelphia itself has changed so much in the past thirty years, the production looked to post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans to serve as a double. Explains Hall, We benefited by coming to New Orleans because there are a lot of things that really resembled Philly. We also wanted to help the community, and the city really embraced us. Adds Gonera, Its important that an underdog story was shot there because it's really a reflection of what New Orleans is going through right now.

1970s Philadelphia

From the costumes to set design, every effort was made to accurately reflect the cultural vibrancy of 1970s Philadelphia. Since none of the younger actors was born before the 1980s, Gonera and Hall put them all on a 70s culture crash course, compiling music and articles for them to study in addition to enrolling them in history classes at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane. Ross says, We learned a lot, but there were some things we wouldnt want to say because they sound just crazy. Things like Hey, jive turkey! and Cool it, Puddin. They sound just ridiculous. But thats how people spoke back then. Adds Fobbs, The hair styles and the clothes with all those plaids! People dressed so differently than they do now. Looking around on set was like being in a time warp.

Film's Soundtrack

The soundtrack is particularly appropriate to the era, as it features music by Philadelphias own legendary songwriting/producing duo, Gamble and Huff, the fathers of Philly Soul. The leading hit-makers of the 70s, Gamble and Huff released scores of iconic songs in the pre-disco era, including Back Stabbers and Love Train, by The O'Jays, I'll Take You There, by The Staples Singers, and Oh, Happy Day, by The Edwin Hawkins Singers, all of which appear in the film.

Capping off the retro soundtrack is a rousing gospel-inflected original song by Grammy-winning R&B star, John Legend. The idea of the song is to capture the inspiration that comes from triumphing through struggle, says the singer/songwriter. I used some lyrical themes suggested by Sunu Gonera, and some musical themes from the composer, Aaron Zigman, and tried to unify it with the rest of the movie.

For Zigman, the process of recording “Pride”s score was an exciting milestone experience: the production hired the 94-piece London Philharmonic, widely regarded as one of the premier symphonic ensembles in the world, to record his original compositions at Abbey Road Studio. It was fabulous, says Zigman. We recorded an African choir and many different elements to create this fusion of ethnic elements, gospel melodies and classical idioms.

Aarons music has always touched me, says Gonera. Its got a delicate touch. Its very sensitive, very emotional passionate. The music reflects what the story is about: pride, determination and resilience.

Now that PRIDE is completed, Gonera and his team are looking forward to the films reception among audiences. While many of those moviegoers wont have previously heard of Ellis and his accomplishments, Gonera hopes that his story will resonate with them precisely for that reason. What I love about this story is that it's about an ordinary man, the director says. It's not like telling the story of Ray Charles or someone that's famous. This is an ordinary man, a schoolteacher. Every ordinary person out there who sees this movie will think, I can make a difference. And hopefully this movie will inspire them to try.