By IAN WILSON
You can observe a lot by watching.
As a filmmaker, Sean Mullin knows this. But when the chance to work on a documentary about Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra presented itself, that pearl of wisdom took on even more meaning.
And when Mullin came to a fork in the road, he took it.
How could you not do a deep dive into the man who invented “Yogi-isms,” the seemingly contradictory expressions that are among the most referenced quotations in American history?
As Mullin explains in this Q&A with Alberta Dugout Stories, he almost passed up the opportunity to direct It Ain’t Over, a 98-minute exploration of the famous New York Yankee.
The film will be screened at the 2022 Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF), which runs from Sept. 22nd through Oct. 2nd.
Here’s what Mullin had to say about the project:
Q: How did you initially become involved with this film?
A: I was approached by the initial producers, a father and son duo, Peter and Mike Sobiloff. They had been involved with me on a previous project, my first scripted, narrative feature film was a film called Amira & Sam, that I wrote and directed. In 2015 they had been involved with that and they wanted to work on something else. I was finishing up a documentary, this would’ve been the summer of 2018, so four years ago I got a call from them saying, hey, we have access to the Berra family. They knew the family through some charity events and the Yogi Berra Museum in New Jersey, and they just called me up and said, “There’s never been a documentary made about Yogi, would you be interested in directing it?”
I’ll be honest, my initial take was that he sounds like too good of a guy. Like, where’s the narrative, where’s the story, where’s the drama? I don’t know if there’s a movie in there. What’s the hook? After some time, I did a bit of research and found a great story about his life. He’s just kind of been criminally overlooked his entire life at every turn. He never took it personally, he just kind of did his thing and he rose above. So I said yes, and came on board in the summer of 2018. We didn’t start shooting until probably the spring of 2019 and we really gathered steam going into early 2020 and then we were shut down for a year because of COVID, and then popped back up in 2021 and just finished up. The film’s ready to get out into the world here soon.
Q: With a Hall of Fame player like Yogi Berra, who played on the most popular baseball team on the planet, there is plenty written about him, video footage, archival material, etc. Was that daunting at all, almost having information overload?
A: Absolutely … any time you take on a documentary about someone’s life, especially someone like Yogi Berra, there’s just so much information to sift through and the very first thing I kind of did was take a step back and my creative co-producer on the film, Michael Connors, was my creative partner for years and years with my production company, so he came on board and we took just a big, big 30,000-foot view of Yogi’s life and these key events and then like any kind of filmmaker would do, we broke it down into three acts.
And that’s where the writing, people get confused a bit … you write a documentary, well, I’m not writing the interviews or writing what people are saying, but what I do write is the structure and I broke his life down into three acts and then even further into eight sequences that feed the overall structure, so once we had that, that kind of dictated what we could keep in it and leave out. It made the process easier and also made it a little bit easier to communicate with my editor, Julian Robinson. I have an incredible editor, this film was very well edited. It wouldn’t be as strong if Julian was not involved.
It made it a lot easier when it came time to sift through archival and stuff like that, as well as with all of our interviews, which we did a tonne, over fifty or sixty interviews.
Q: Did you ever come to a point where you had to stop yourself, in terms of the information gathering portion?
A: There always comes a point where you know you could tell the story forever, but when we went into COVID we shot sixty or seventy percent of what we needed, so we still needed a good solid third of the film, as far as interviews and stuff. So as soon as we came out, our first interview out of the pandemic was Billy Crystal in March of 2021. And the interview went so well in his backyard here in L.A. and we talked Yogi specifically for over ninety minutes and maybe that could’ve been the documentary, just that was such a great interview, he was so incredible. We probably used maybe three or four minutes of him in the movie but after that interview I called my producers and said, “We’re on the downhill slide, this is a huge piece of the puzzle that is now in place.” And then the final person we ended up interviewing was actually Hal Steinbrenner, the son of George Steinbrenner, who owns the Yankees.
Q: George Steinbrenner was one guy who issued a public apology to Yogi Berra, which seemed very un-Steinbrenner-esque.
A: It was rare, but there was a lot of pressure, you know? DiMaggio was putting pressure on him. We get into it in the film, but people like Steinbrenner weren’t known to admit they were wrong. There’s some undercurrents of the current political climate, as well, where there’s a good feeling in that moment.
Q: Yogi was such a well-known cultural figure. Did that persona, and almost that caricature of himself, overshadow who he was as a baseball player and also as a human being?
A: That was kind of the real engine that we got a hold of very early to help drive our narrative, the idea that his personality overshadowed what he did on the diamond. He was an incredible, an incredible baseball player. Not just the 10 World Series rings, but seven years in a row you finish in the top four for MVP voting. That’s only happened one other time in the history of baseball – Mike Trout did it recently. But just to be able to be in the top four and he won three MVP awards, as well, and he caught both ends of a double-header 117 times, he called the perfect game for Don Larsen … the list goes on and on. He was an incredible player but his off-the-field persona quickly overshadowed that.
We get into it in the film but people are really quick to misinterpret people who are funny as being not good. It’s hard to be both funny and good. The Oscars aren’t given to comedies, right? It’s gotta be a drama, it’s gotta be serious. There’s something really fascinating in there for me, as well. It tapped into my background. I was a stand-up comedian, but also I had gone to West Point (Military Academy). I was a captain in the army and also a first responder at Ground Zero. I’ve been hard to put into a box. I think Yogi’s very difficult to put into a box and categorize, and I think that’s something that I’m proud of pulling that out in the film.
Q: Berra earned a Purple Heart for his service in the U.S. Navy. Did Yogi’s military background resonate with you?
A: The fact that Yogi had a signed contract to play professional baseball with the Yankees and said I’m actually going to take a break here and serve my country and go off and fight in the war, and not just any war but World War II, and not only anywhere but on the front lines, and not only on the front lines but on D-Day in Normandy … it’s just his life was so full of these moments that almost feel unbelievable. I did know a little bit about his service prior, it was something that drew me to it, but I didn’t know the depths of what he did and what he was involved with until we got deeper into the project.
Q: He seems like such a happy-go-lucky, positive person, but he did face adversity. What are your thoughts on how he handled adversity?
A: It’s pretty straight-forward. He had a really strong moral centre, a very strong moral code he lived by. Yes, he was happy-go-lucky a lot. Yes, he was easy to get along with – get along, go along – but if you crossed him or if you did something wrong or if you didn’t do the right thing, he didn’t have any patience for it, he didn’t have any time for it. He was just a guy who constantly made the right decisions. He was almost always on the right side of history, so to speak. Whether that was desegregating baseball or whether it was standing up for his values with Steinbrenner or whether it was really being there for his kids, especially Dale, who went through some very difficult times. He had a strong moral centre and I think that really comes across in the film, as well.
Q: The Berra family was very involved in this documentary. That creates a level of accountability in terms of the storytelling. What was that dynamic like?
A: It was really pretty fascinating. When we started the project I was first introduced to the three sons – Larry, Tim and Dale – and I spoke with them and they gave us their blessing to tell the story and then I met Lindsay. Lindsay is the oldest grandchild of Yogi, her father is Larry, the oldest son. I started talking to Lindsay and she was really great. We interviewed her, she gave us a tour of the museum and she was just going to be another talking head in the film, that was the initial plan. She was never intended to narrate or anything like that, but the more we spoke with her and got to know her … I just went to my producers and we had been looking for a narrator, like Billy Crystal or some big Hollywood names, but I went to my producers and said, “I think Lindsay is our way in.”
The decision to bring her on board in a more formal position, as a narrator and executive producer, that didn’t come until maybe a third of the way through the project. And the reason she came on as an executive producer was she had really incredible access to a lot of our subjects for interviews, so she could call Vin Scully and say, “Hey, we want to make a movie about grandpa, do you want to be part of it?” Not a lot of people can make that phone call, so she’s really wonderful, she’s just a wonderful, incredible person. And I think her love and her care and everything that she stands for kind of comes out in the film, but not in a way hopefully that’s too … we didn’t want to make something that’s a total puff piece, something that’s too one-sided. We realized that having someone like that on the film was going to be inherently subjective, so we did our best to remain objective.
Q: There’s a competitiveness that seems to come through with Lindsay regarding Yogi’s legacy. It seems very important to her that he not be left out of these discussions about the greatest catchers of all time and things like that.
A: She’s a very competitive person and I think for good reason. If you just look at the numbers, it’s hard to say that Yogi’s not one of the all-time greats … very recently there was an article that came out that didn’t mention him and talked of these great catchers and, yeah, I think she’s definitely competitive about it and passionate about it. The passion is a good thing. Hopefully, after people see the film, they’ll understand where that passion comes from.
Q: Was there anything that surprised you about Yogi from the interviews or research that you did?
A: Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to interview Yogi because he passed away in 2015, so I actually never met Yogi Berra. To make a documentary about someone you’ve never met is obviously a little tricky, but as far as things that popped up and surprised me, I think the one thing that we uncovered was these love letters that he used to write to Carm, his wife. He had a wonderful, wonderful marriage to a wonderful, wonderful woman for the majority of his life. Her name was Carmen, she went by Carm, and he wrote these love letters to her when they first started dating in the 1940s and he was playing and they were really super sweet … that was something that I don’t think a lot of people knew about. I think it really helps give a solid emotional core to this love story between he and his wife. It was really a beautiful thing.
Q: Are you a sports fan or a baseball fan? Was that a draw to you for this film?
A: I’m originally from Indiana and then when I was nine years old I moved to Boca Raton, Florida. I bounced between Florida and Indiana as a child, playing sports the whole time. I’m 6-foot-4, over 200 pounds, so I’m a big guy. I played a lot of football, basketball growing up. I played rugby at West Point – I played all four years there. I played in Europe a little bit when I was in the army, so sports have always kind of been a big passion of mine, but this is my first kind of film that deals with sports. I think I did a pretty decent job of talking about baseball in a way that insiders would know but also that wouldn’t alienate outsiders.
It was very important for us to not be selling this film as a baseball movie. I don’t think it’s a baseball movie, I don’t think it’s a sports movie. I think it’s really just a story about a life well lived … it’s more about Yogi and his legacy and the trials and tribulations he was put through for being such a character.
Q: I cannot go a whole interview without asking you about the Yogi-isms. Do you have any favourite Yogi-isms?
A: I definitely have a few favourites. He was talking about one of his favourite restaurants and he said, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” To me, that’s so perfect. It encapsulates so many things in such a simple Yogi-ism. I like that one. Gosh, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I guess I like more the philosophical ones. He was driving his family one time and Carm, his wife, said they were lost and he said, “Yeah, we’re lost, but we’re making great time.” That to me is just really, really great. It makes you think.
We have a whole section of the film where we go through them all and kind of break them down, which ones are real. Another famous one is, “I didn’t say all the things I said.”
I’ve told numerous people that he’s the second-most quoted American outside of Mark Twain but I couldn’t get documentation for that anywhere, so that’s not in the film. I didn’t want to put anything into the film that I couldn’t verify.
Q: You’re bringing the movie to the Calgary International Film Festival. Have you been to Calgary before?
A: I haven’t. I’ve been to Canada a few times and the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in June and then went to Nantucket (Film Festival). We won the two top awards at Nantucket … we’re slated to play a bunch of festivals this fall.
It’s not official yet, we’ve got some interest from some key distributors, which is exciting, so hopefully, it will be distributed in early 2023.
As a kid I grew up watching a lot of hockey and I was a bit of a Gretzky fan, as everybody was, and I had no idea where Edmonton was. It felt like the other end of the Earth and I actually shot a documentary a few years ago where I made a few trips to Edmonton, so I started rooting for the Oilers actually. So, the only thing I know about Calgary – other than it’s such a beautiful, incredible place – is that rivalry has been heated between the Oilers and Flames. I’m excited to get up there and see it in person.
I live in L.A. and the Kings are here but there’s something about that team and Connor McDavid. They’ve been really fun to root for.
Q: What do you hope people take away from watching It Ain’t Over? What do you want them to be feeling and thinking?
A: The film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in New York, we had 1,000 people there and we got a standing ovation. It was a really incredible experience. And then at the after party people come up and talk about the film and this one man came up to me and he was a really nice guy and he said, “I’ve been married for 26 years and I love my wife, but your movie made me want to be better to her.” If you can put something out into the world where it inspires people to maybe just be a little better in their lives, maybe come up with their own moral code that is positive and geared towards those eternal things of treating people well and just being a good person, if people can walk out of a film with that we’ll have succeeded. The fact that people already are makes me feel like we have succeeded.
Q: That’s quite the compliment. Is there anything on a personal level where you’ve felt that compulsion as well?
A: I like to think I’ve had that compulsion for decades, to live my life a little better. Kidding aside, I think Yogi did inspire me to take stock of where I’m at and to always do the right thing. A lot of what I was taught at West Point, you know you always choose the harder right over the easier wrong and all these mantras from going to school at West Point Academy – overlaid with Yogi’s world views – I think it re-ignited and crystalized some of those world views that I was taught decades ago and I’m excited to bring them to a whole new generation of fans. And again you don’t need to be a baseball fan, you don’t need to be a Yankees fan, you just need to be a fan of life really.
Q: Any closing thoughts on the film?
A: I’m excited to see how the film plays in Canada and how it’s received. I’m excited to get it out into the world.
I just hope that people will walk away from this going through a total emotional experience. It’s about 95 minutes, there are highs and there are lows and you get sucked in emotionally and that’s all that I hope happens.