Football is just a small part of "The Blind Side," the story of Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher's rise from poverty to being taken in by a wealthy family. But any amount of great acting and heartwarming story would be diminished if the football scenes were unrealistic or unbelievable.
That's where Mike Fisher, 48, comes in. His job is to bring authenticity to the gridiron action, just as he has done in "Remember the Titans" and numerous commercials.
Fisher spoke with The Life about his occupation and what it was like to work on "The Blind Side," which opens Friday.
The Life: You're credited as the football coordinator for "The Blind Side." What exactly does that mean?
Fisher: Have you seen the new Adrian Peterson commercial? I do almost all the Nike [football] commercials. … Everyone that you saw on camera, for the most part, I hired. I worked with the director, David Fincher; I choreographed the action, come up with the action. You see Adrian jumping over people, cutting behind, breaking tackles -- those are my guys. I make up that stuff. I try to make it authentic, make it real, make it exciting. People who know sports watch that commercial and say, "That looked real." You translate that over to a movie; it's the same thing.
In this case, the [director/writer] John Hancock, fellow Texan, grew up and played a little high school football. The script in the football sequences was actually very well written. It made it easier for me. A lot of times the scripts will not make any sense whatsoever. … In those cases, I just make up everything. When it's well-written, I just execute what's been put on paper.
The Life: What's an example of a poorly written football scene?
Fisher: I worked on "Remember the Titans." It might say, "Titans in defensive struggle. Titans win 44-0." It doesn't make sense, but it's also just not there. "Football action," but it won't tell you what the action is. It's just like anything else: every play you do, every scene you do, actually trying to move the story forward.
In "The Blind Side," one of our sequences is with the Michael Oher character. He plays against a redneck white guy. There's a lot of trash-talking. In the end, this guy gets dumped over the fence. The story is Mike, at the beginning, has more heart and more talent than he has technique. He's just a big strong kid who doesn't know how to play football. Then we see him get better. And then we see how to motivate him and Sandra Bullock's character. You see that character not only as a person but as a football player. He goes from the biggest, strongest kid who doesn't know what he's doing to the one who does, and when he does, you better get out his way.
The Life: What are your credentials? What makes you qualified for this job?
Fisher: Growing up, I played football, basketball, and baseball. I went to college on a football scholarship, and I played for the Denver Gold in the USFL. I was in Canada for a year, and then I was with the Denver Broncos for about two seconds.
Once I moved out here [to Los Angeles] -- this was 20 years ago -- I was working on a bunch of commercials. It was always extremely disorganized. It could be with a director from Romania, Japan, someone who's never seen a football game; they're just completely lost as to how to get an accurate shot. I was just that guy on set -- I guess it was the quarterback in me -- I just kind of organized it. Production companies had my number, and they just started calling me. You build more and more relationships. So now, I'm literally on something almost every day of the year.
The Life: It sounds like you invented this job.
Fisher: I don't know that I invented it. … I do more commercials probably than anybody. There are a couple other gentlemen, and we compete against each other for the movies. It's definitely a niche. It's kind of like a stunt coordinator that specializes in car chases or aerial stuff. But it's a lot of fun. This year, I've been literally all over the United States -- Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, New Orleans. I've done shoots with LeBron [James], [Derek] Jeter, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Dwyane Wade.
It's like anything in this business, though. In your profession, you have a little bit more control over your destiny. In mine, I don't have a lot of control, in that I can't make the studios make a bunch of sports movies. I can't make Nike do three extra commercials this year. I've just been very fortunate.
The Life: You put even your extras through two-a-days. So, you actually put them through drills, sprints, weightlifting?
Fisher: I do the whole thing. I had 800 football players show up for the open tryout of "Remember the Titans." We broke them all out by position. We selected about 40 people. Then I had my real football players and my actors, and we went through two weeks of workouts. When you do a movie about a team, so much of it is chemistry. You bring in five to 10 actors who don't know each other. You put them into a training camp; they're huffing and puffing and sweating and about to throw up. All of a sudden they know each other. It gives those guys a chance to develop their personality and feel comfortable around each other.
The Life: Over the course of your career, what have you learned or changed to keep up as audiences become more and more sophisticated?
Fisher: The big challenge in sports movies is that those casts have a lot of actors in them, so what you're trying to do is make the action as realistic as possible. … You can't cast athletes, because they can't act. When you're casting a movie, why don't we go in reverse order? You get a pool of 200 actors, let them all go through the basketball tryouts before I send them to you, that way we can know if they can play at least a little bit of basketball.
A casting director will fall in love with an actor. "Oh, this is my guy." Then you take him to the basketball court and he's terrible. He can't shoot, can't dribble, can't do anything. They want the best actor, I want the best athlete. In the end, what you really want is what's best for the movie. …
When you're doing a movie and you've got X amount of football days, you're plowing through $200,000-$300,000 a day. You spend that money, you want to get it right. These days, with ESPN 1-2-3-4-5-6, people are pretty sports-savvy. If they see a sports movie or commercial and it's not authentic, "Aww, that's not real." You've got a lot of eyes, and with the money being spent, you want to make it as authentic as you can.
Matthew Iles is an editor for ESPN.com.