Filmmakers tend to be partial to their own work, but given the reaction to We Could Be King, Judd Ehrlich has every right to be proud of what his talent has produced.
“The response was unbelievable,” the two-time Emmy-nominated director said on Ferrall on the Bench. “I can’t say we didn’t expect it because the characters and the story that we really lucked upon was really the stuff of a Hollywood movie. So it was exciting to get that out (for) the world (to see).”
More Disney than documentary, We Could Be King follows the football team of two rival Philadelphia high schools forced to merge due to budget cuts.
“That’s part of the exciting thing about making these things: You never know what’s going to happen,” Ehrlich said. “Everything was stacked against this team: two rival schools coming together, they hadn’t won a game in two years, nobody thought they could do anything. It was really a miraculous season for everyone.”
In 2013, 24 Philadelphia high schools were closed due to lack of funding, including a school called Germantown, whose students enrolled at nearby Martin Luther King – which had previously been a bitter rival. Ehrlich was approached by the Tribeca Film Festival and Dick’s Sporting Goods to tell the story.
“Sports are getting cut in high schools across the country, and we just thought this was the perfect story,” Ehrlich said. “We’re so thankful to Dick’s Sporting Goods and Tribeca for giving us the creative freedom and the ability to tell the story we wanted to tell.”
Several stories are told throughout the documentary, including that of a star safety who gets into trouble with the law and another player who dreams of playing football at the University of Florida despite his less than stellar academic marks. The star of the documentary, however, is coach Ed Dunn, who was laid off due to budget cuts but kept working anyway. He was just that invested in the players and the community.
“That’s the kind of commitment the entire coaching staff (has) at Martin Luther King,” Ehrlich said. “One of the things that I thought was so compelling about these guys, they’re all from the community. They understand exactly where these kids are coming from. That’s part of the reason, I think, that the players really respect and listen to what they have to say – because they know that they understand where they’re coming from. They know that they’ve lived it. That’s what makes them so passionate about giving back.”
Martin Luther King got off to a slow start but eventually turned its season around.
“No one could believe it,” Ehrlich said. “We really didn’t know what was going to happen. It was a really rocky start at the beginning of the season. We were right there with the coaches and the players. Everyone was nervous. Everyone was concerned. They started to pull it together bit by bit, step by step, and we were there to watch it unfold.”
Ehrlich, a native New Yorker, lived in Philadelphia for four months while shooting the documentary.
“I really grew to love that town,” he said.
And now he’s going back. Ehrlich is shooting a special at Martin Luther King for ESPN that’s going to air on SportsCenter beginning Aug. 25.
“Yeah, we couldn’t get enough, Dick’s and Tribeca couldn’t get enough and the public wants more of Martin Luther King and Coach Dunn,” Ehrlich said. “When you see this coaching staff, you see this team, you see what they’re up against and you see how these coaches operate. You know this is the real deal. People want more and we’re going to give it to them.”