Ethan Steinman of Daltonic Films was the man responsible for the production of the recently-published behind the scenes film with PRO, and we’ve caught up with him to discuss the making of the short documentary.
In July, Ethan and his crew were at a training camp in Park City, Utah, before following Allen Chapman and his colleagues at Rio Tinto Stadium for Sporting Kansas City’s match at Real Salt Lake in MLS. Referee Alan Kelly was also the focus of a gameday, when he took charge of Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers derby at CenturyLink Field.
The short film features insight from PRO backroom staff, including General Manager Peter Walton, Sports Scientist Matt Hawkey, Referee Manager Michael Kennedy and Training & Development Manager Paul Rejer, with a number of leading coaches and players also sharing their views on officiating.
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a referee and how PRO officials approach gameday? Here’s a look…
How pleased are you with the film?
I am extremely pleased with the outcome of the film and blown away by the viewership and public feedback. I’ve wanted to shoot a film about MLS referees for a couple years now but never imagined I’d receive the cooperation I did from MLS, PRO and the individual referees.
What were your aims for the film, and do you believe they were met?
Going into production, I had my wish list of sequences and access that I planned on requesting – for instance, microphones on the head referee during a match, locker room access, access to training, game analysis, home life, and more.
I’d never imagined I would be allowed the access I was given but was determined to present my case for why I felt this access would help me tell the story I wanted to tell – to humanize the referees, understand the challenges they face, and witness the game from their perspective.
My goals for this film were definitely met, and as is the case with any subject I film, I’m always left with more avenues I’d like to explore to further understand, for myself and other fans, the complexities of life as a referee.
How did this film compare to others you’ve produced?
Every film has its own unique set of challenges. While this one was a safer filming environment than some of my previous projects, there were many sets of challenges in obtaining access to the various elements I felt I needed to tell a well-rounded and accurate story – access to the referees, to the teams and to film the matches in a way I felt would be fair to everyone involved; the referees, players, coaches and fans.
Being permitted to record referee training and on-field audio was a great amount of trust given to my production team, so naturally I felt a responsibility to present the material in as fair, and honest, a manner as possible.
What has the reaction been like to the film?
I feel the film struck a nerve with soccer fans and non-fans alike. Quickly reading through some comments on social media, I saw many non-soccer fans expressing how interested they found themselves in the referees’ stories – an angle many never considered. Naturally, fans seem to have been intrigued by the behind the scenes access.
Perhaps what resonated most for me is the praise and comments from referees and family members of referees. By this, I mean referees of every caliber who understand the challenges faced by PRO’s officials and experience a similar storyline in their own lives – whether in little-league, high school, college or other professional leagues. Reading that they feel this film accurately represents the challenges they face made me feel this project was a success.
How did you find working with PRO and the staff?
I was pleasantly surprised. I expected much more red tape than I encountered, but getting to camp and spending some time discussing my goals for the project, I feel, showed the PRO staff my vision and led to their cooperation.
I spent my first evening at the training camp watching a Gold Cup match with a group of PRO referees and staff, and was surprised and amused to hear a bartender explaining the rules of the game to these professionals.
The following day, I was granted full access. Any of the more intrusive requests I made to Peter Walton and his staff – putting a lav microphone on a referee during a match or filming their home lives – were deferred to the individual referees. They were able to determine what they were comfortable with and what would or wouldn’t affect their performance on gameday.
What were the main learning points from being around the referees?
There were so many things I learned when filming this project. The main ones that stuck with me were about accountability, their level of fitness and nutrition analysis, and that they are real people.
When filming interviews for the feature, I asked a number of players and coaches what aspects of the referees they found most interesting, or misunderstood. Time and again they brought up the accountability factor – they wanted to understand how, or if, referees are accountable for their performance. Having been given access to witness the game analysis that takes place at every PRO camp, I knew for certain that I was well on my way to addressing this angle in the film.
The level of measurements and data on nutrition, physical exertion, stress, and more, was amazing to witness. It had never occurred to me that they were so scrutinized, and the amount of energy expenditure during matches was astounding to see – though it should have been obvious since they’re running almost non-stop for 90 minutes.
The other key thing I learned was who the referees are as individuals. Before beginning production, I only knew the short bios or articles written about the referees, but never understood them as well-rounded characters. Meeting them and filming them in their down time, their interactions with each other, made me see them as people beyond the stern faces they have when they walk out of the tunnel and onto the field.
Then, of course, there is what I saw shine through in every interaction I had with the referees and PRO staff. To each and every one of them, the main motivation behind their work at improving the quality of referees and the Professional Referee Organization is a shared love for the game.