'Remember the Titans' at 20: Boaz Yakin on the challenges of making a PG movie about racism and why he wouldn't be hired to direct it today

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·9 mins read
Denzel Washington motivates football players in a scene form the film 'Remember The Titans', 2000. (Photo by Buena Vista/Getty Images)
Denzel Washington motivates football players in a scene form the 2000 film Remember the Titans. (Photo: Buena Vista/Getty Images)

Even 20 years later — and even though it’s by far the most commercially successful film he has ever helmed — Boaz Yakin will still tell you he wasn’t necessarily the right person to direct the beloved football drama Remember the Titans.

“I went into it quite reluctantly and with a great degree of anxiety,” admits Yakin in a new interview with Yahoo Entertainment commemorating the Disney-released, Denzel Washington-starring film’s 20th anniversary, which was released Sept. 29, 2000. The New York-born writer-director, 54, was pursued by powerhouse producer Jerry Bruckheimer after making two independent films that couldn’t have been more different from the gridiron tale: his acclaimed debut, Fresh (1994), about a 12-year-old inner-city drug courier, and his sophomore directorial effort, A Price Above Rubies (1998), starring Renée Zellweger as a frustrated Hasidic housewife.

“I’m not a football person, and I’m not a sports movie person, so I kind of let it go,” says Yakin. “Those guys are the ones that used to beat me up in high school.” The inspirational sports movie genre wasn’t established at the time, either. Sure, there had been Rocky (1976) and Rudy (1993), but it wasn’t until after Titans — which tells the true story of the racial integration of Alexandria, Va.’s T.C. Williams High School football team led by African-American coach Herman Boone (Washington) — that they’d start hitting theaters on at least an annual basis.

None of the boldfaced names Bruckheimer typically worked with wanted to make a $20 million sports drama — it’s “a very challenging budget to make a movie of this scope,” Yakin says — thus the producer’s intent on hiring an independent filmmaker. It also helped that Yakin had made a film with a predominantly Black cast in Fresh — though it was a sad state of affairs how few Black directors were being considered in Hollywood at the time, Yakin notes. You could practically name them on one hand: Spike Lee, John Singleton, the Hughes brothers. “Today an African-American would get that job in a heartbeat,” Yakin says. “I don’t even think a white director would be up for that.”

HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 23: Writer/director/executive producer Boaz Yakin attends the Los Angeles premiere of 'MAX' at the Egyptian Theatre on June 23, 2015 in Hollywood, California.(Photo by Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage)
Writer/director/executive producer Boaz Yakin. (Photo: Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage)

But Bruckheimer continued to push for Yakin, and ultimately Yakin “found the emotion” in the story. And the feeling Yakin helped translate to the screen from an emotional Gregory Allan Howard script is exactly why the $20 million movie became a $136 million hit for Disney. It’s a tearjerker in the truest sense, a life-affirming underdog sports tale of a Black (Washington’s Boone) and white (Will Patton’s Bill Yoast) coach uniting Black and white football players in a deeply segregated, deeply racist pocket of the American South.

Beyond Yakin’s budget restraints, perhaps his biggest challenge was telling a difficult story within the confines of a Disney-friendly PG rating.

“I had to make a movie about racism in the ’70s, and you couldn’t use the N-word and you couldn’t go certain directions with how violent or how challenging it was at the time,” he says. “So I had to find a way to make a movie for kids basically, because Titans is ultimately a kids’ movie. My goal was to make a kids’ movie that parents wouldn’t feel talked down to when they were watching it. A family movie, in other words. But essentially a movie that a 13-year-old kid could look at it and go, ‘This was for me. And I feel respected watching it.’ But to make a movie that dealt with racism in a way that didn’t minimize or soft-sell the difficulty at the time, while at the same time keeping it in a family-acceptable environment, that was a very challenging tightrope to walk in making the film. I think overall we succeeded because of the tone that we managed to create, and the sense of urgency and tension, but it was challenging.”

Will Patton and Denzel Washington run out onto the field in a scene form the film 'Remember The Titans', 2000. (Photo by Buena Vista/Getty Images)
Will Patton and Denzel Washington run out onto the field in a scene form the film Remember the Titans. (Photo: Buena Vista/Getty Images)

There were more minor details Yakin had to scrap because of its rating. In real life, Boone was a chain-smoker, which in the original script was used as a device to portray his anxiety. “But Disney was like, ‘Nobody smokes in our movies,’” Yakin recalls. “At times I found myself very frustrated: I’m making a movie and I have no teeth. … I’m like a baby with gums trying to eat this thing. You know what I mean? I felt handcuffed. It was very difficult.”

Yakin was also a young filmmaker charged with directing one of the titans of the industry in Denzel Washington — and knowing that the Glory Oscar winner may not have been in his corner from the beginning. Asked to recall the first time he met the actor, Yakin held a long pause, followed by an uncomfortable laugh, only to defer the question. Later he’d say, “The only reason Denzel accepted that I would even direct that movie was because Jerry Bruckheimer was stacking me up. … He was just starting to peak. [He was] like, ‘Why am I trusting this 30-year-old freaking kid to direct this movie?’”

Still, Yakin marveled at Washington’s presence and acting prowess on set. The very first scene Washington filmed — two weeks into the movie’s production — is perhaps his most famous: It’s when he delivers a rousing speech to his team while they’re training near the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pa.

“I remember setting up the scene and the set and everything. And then Denzel came in, in costume as Boone, with his pad under his arm and everything, getting ready to do the scene. And it was literally like electricity was like shooting through the air. And when he walked up to where he was going to do the scene, it felt like the air was bending around him. I was like, ‘Oh s***, that’s a movie star. … It was just the focus, the intensity, the way he carried himself — you suddenly were like, ‘OK, here we go. Now we’re rolling. Now we’re rolling.’”

Speaking of major movie stars: The young Titans ensemble was filled with budding actors who would continue on to big careers. Wood Harris would do The Wire. Donald Faison would do Scrubs. Ryan Hurst would do Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead. But there was one actor who would really pop: Ryan Gosling, the former Mickey Mouse Club teen who played the country-music loving Alan Bosley.

“I mean, I knew when I saw Ryan for the first time,” Yakin says. “He just made me laugh. It’s funny now given what he’s become now, as a heartthrob and all that; he actually does have quite a sense of humor, which he doesn’t show that much anymore. And when he was starting out, that was one of his main weapons. Like he was genuinely funny in a really deep way. I just felt there was something special about him. He wasn’t one of the leads, but I knew he would be the straw that stirs the drink. I just got that feeling about him. And some of the other execs like Bruckheimer, they were like, ‘This guy doesn’t look like a football player.’ I was like, ‘Well, it’s high school and there should be one guy like this.’ And Jerry relented. Sometimes I regretted it. Because every time I would want something he didn’t want me to have, he’d say, ‘Hey, I gave you Gosling.’”

Bruckheimer may not have felt that the future star was initially right for the role, but Yakin still credits the Pirates of the Caribbean, Bad Boys and Beverly Hills Cop producer with much of the film’s success.

“He was a very hands-on producer,” says Yakin, who went on to direct films like Uptown Girls (2003), Safe (2012), Max (2015) and this year’s Aviva, while writing movies like The Prince of Persia (2010), Now You See Me (2013) and the upcoming The Harder They Fall. “He would let you do your thing, but it always had to conform to his vision of what a movie was. I mean, there’s a reason why he was that successful. And there’s a reason why Titans is that successful; it’s not just because of me. I’ve never made another movie like this and I don’t really care to, you know what I mean? For me it was sort of an aberration in terms of the kind of stuff that I do. And it is a weird thing to be most known in a way for a movie that, like, literally has nothing to do with anything you’re interested in, creatively. But I did my best with it.”

Yakin made one of the most beloved sports films of all time. It’s also reportedly the all-time favorite movie of one of the greatest professional athletes of all time, LeBron James.

It took Yakin a long time to appreciate the accomplishment, and he may not ever make a film like it again. But ultimately he’s grateful for his role in crafting such a favorite.

“It was very hard to suddenly be most known for something that was least like anything I want to do. And I pushed back against that very hard in my life,” Yakin says. “It was only in later years. … Finally, like 20 years later, I go, ‘You know what, f*** it. I made Remember the Titans and people love it. And I guess I had something to do with that.’”

Remember the Titans is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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