ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
"I just was a guy with a dream--and it never dawned on me that I would have the chance to impact so many people." --Vince Papale, the real-life inspiration for INVINCIBLE
It's every sports fan's wildest, craziest fantasy--the chance to play on the field and go toe-to-toe with the larger-than-life heroes they idolize. Yet, in 1976, this seemingly fairy-tale scenario happened in real life. It was then that Vince Papale, a 30-year-old teacher and part-time bartender with little football experience other than being a season ticket-holder, entered the unprecedented public tryouts for his NFL favorites, the Philadelphia Eagles, and defied all expectations. Not only did Papale make the team--he remade the team, helping to inspire them to break through their 11-season losing streak and rediscover their winning spirit. In the bicentennial year of 1976, Papale lived out the dreams of a city and a nation by taking on the impossible with an unsinkable attitude and becoming the NFL's most unlikely rookie ever.
Now, 30 years later, Papale's story of triumph against outrageous odds and his gritty, never-say-die outlook serve once again as inspiration--this time for Walt Disney Pictures' stirring sports drama INVINCIBLE.
In the tradition of such Disney sports classics as "The Rookie" and "Remember the Titans," INVINCIBLE recounts a true-life story of human achievement in the face of adversity. The film stars Mark Wahlberg as the down-and-out Papale who is handed a once-in-a-lifetime shot at turning from anonymous football fan to football star by legendary coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear)--after he sees in Papale the kind of guts and heart he hopes to build in his team. Now, up against bone-crushing training sessions, the intense pressure of make-or-break games, and thrust into a pro sports world he had only ever imagined, Vince must find a way to transform from watching the games from the cheap seats to playing them for real stakes.
The first film in over a decade to receive full support from and access to the NFL, INVINCIBLE not only features a moving human drama and riveting lead performances, but also includes some of the most authentic re-creations of NFL action yet seen on screen. So rare is NFL support for a feature film that the league has lent it only three previous times in Hollywood history--the last time was for "Jerry Maguire" in 1996. The other films were "Brian's Song" and "Black Sunday."
"INVINCIBLE captures the essence of the American Dream and the values of the NFL: heart, perseverance and a passion for football," says Tracy Perlman, Director of Entertainment Marketing and Promotions for the NFL, of their rare decision to become a full partner in the production. "It's an inspirational story that's as much about football as it is about overcoming obstacles and not giving up."
INVINCIBLE is produced by Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray, the team behind "The Rookie" and "Miracle," along with Ken Mok and executive produced by Victor H. Constantino, Nicole Reed and Ezra Swerdlow. Marking his feature-film debut, the film is directed by Ericson Core, an accomplished director of photography who also serves as the film's cinematographer, from a script by newcomer Brad Gann. The film stars Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rispoli and Kevin Conway as well as featuring an ensemble of real football players who take real hits in their vivid re-creations of 1976 games.
A REAL-LIFE ROCKY: VINCE PAPALE INSPIRES "INVINCIBLE"
As INVINCIBLE completed production, the man who inspired the film's story, Vince Papale, was in awe of all that had happened to him. In addition to being the most unlikely rookie to ever play in the NFL, Papale has gone on to be a cancer survivor, motivational speaker and, now, the subject of a major motion picture. "If anybody would have told me that I was going to play for the NFL and then have a Disney movie based on my life…wow, there's so much surreality to it," he says. "It's scary, it's spooky and it's unreal. But I'm deeply humbled by it all and really touched and honored."
It may seem like yet another dream come true, but even back in 1976, when the 30-year-old Papale first got the unheard-of chance to trade in his Philadelphia Eagles season tickets for an actual spot on the team, many remarked that the story--"fan turns into player overnight"--sounded like a movie. Some compared him to cinema's Rocky, the classic Philly underdog who also came to the fore in '76. Papale's tale truly seemed stranger than fiction--and no one found it more unlikely than Papale himself. "I was just pursuing my dream," he says, "but I had no idea it would have such a positive impact on so many people. It's a really gratifying thing to be in that position."
Like thousands of other hopefuls, Papale had decided on a whim to turn up at the Eagles' 1976 open tryouts, which were held by newly arrived coach Dick Vermeil because he was looking for a fresh way to infuse more heart and courage into a team badly in need of some inspiration. Most people thought the tryouts were little more than a stunt. But not Vermeil. He was serious about finding a talented outsider, and when he saw the speedy Papale dash across the field, he decided that Vince was it.
Yet even when Papale was signed as a player, no one imagined he could last. Surely, he would be pulverized, intimidated, forced to quit by the extraordinary physical and mental demands of pro football. Once again, Papale proved the naysayers wrong, playing for three seasons with the Eagles and helping to turn around the fate of a team that would go on to incredible triumph in Super Bowl XV. At a time when Philadelphia sports fans were crushed by defeats, and when the nation was recovering from Watergate, Vietnam, the Energy Crisis and a period of tumult as it approached its 200th birthday, Vince became a badly needed hero from the ranks of ordinary, everyday Americans.
"Even back in 1976, people talked about how Vince's story was a movie just waiting to be made," executive producer Victor Constantino explains. "I heard from Philly sportswriter Ray Didinger that the sportswriters themselves used to joke about who would play Vermeil and who would play Papale. Robert Redford was the consensus choice for Vermeil back in '76, by the way."
For all the talk and excitement, however, a movie about Papale never got off the ground in the '70s and, in the intervening years, the story was nearly lost. It wasn't until decades later, with the advent of cable television, that Papale's inspirational tale came to light once more. When a contemporary piece on Papale, Vermeil and the turnaround of the Eagles aired on ESPN, it quickly caught the eye of several filmmakers. One of those was INVINCIBLE producer Ken Mok, who was riveted by Papale's unlikely, rags-to-wide-receiver story. He in turn alerted Victor Constantino, with whom he was then collaborating on another project.
"(Producer) Ken (Mok) gave me a call and said, 'There's something I saw on ESPN. It's a four-minute tape…can I send it to you?' I said sure--but I figured it was probably one of those things where you watch it and call back right away to say, 'No, thank you; not for us," recalls Constantino. "Instead, within 90 seconds of watching that tape--90 seconds into it--I knew it was a movie. It was the quintessential sports story about a guy overcoming the most insurmountable odds."
Mok had already approached Papale about acquiring the rights to his story, but there were still several competitors and it wasn't a done deal until Constantino stepped in and made his pitch. Part of the persuasiveness of Constantino's vision was his plan to bring in Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray of Mayhem Pictures, renowned for bringing two rousing and tremendously successful real-life sports stories to the screen with "The Rookie"--about a high school baseball coach who gets a rare chance to play in the major leagues--and "Miracle"--about the coach who inspired the unexpectedly victorious 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team--both released by Walt Disney Pictures.
"Those were my two favorite movies of all time," says Papale. "I was so excited to have the chance to be involved with them and with Disney."
For Ciardi and Gray, who were among those whose interest had been piqued when they first saw the ESPN story, the project seemed a perfect match. "We felt really lucky to get this project," says Ciardi. "Like 'The Rookie' and 'Miracle' it's about second chances and about the idea that it's never too late to put everything on the line for a dream. It's truly a real-life 'Rocky,' where you have this 30-year-old season-ticket holder who plays touch football with his friends and suddenly he has a chance, if he's willing to go through an incredible test of his strength and will, to live out his one greatest hope. For a guy who's usually sitting up in the stands to come down and play with his beloved team is a fantasy that millions can relate to--and it really happened."
Adds Gordon Gray: "It's a unique and inspirational story about someone who thought his best years were behind him. He's 30 years old, he's lost his teaching job, his wife has left him and now he has this one opportunity to try out for the Eagles--and he ends up making the most out of it."
When it came to choosing a director for INVINCIBLE, it seemed only fitting that the producers ultimately went with an untested newcomer--a man who had already garnered acclaim as a cinematographer but had never had a chance to direct a feature film: Ericson Core. Constantino had been developing the script for about a year when he met with Core, whose work as a cinematographer includes "Daredevil" and "The Fast and the Furious."
The production never looked back. With Core performing double duty as both director and cinematographer, there was even more weight on the shoulders of the newcomer. But any fears proved unfounded once the producers saw the immense preparation that Core brought to the complex action of the football scenes and his easy rapport with cast and crew. "It was a difficult thing to pull off, to play both roles," says Gray, "but Ericson's got the personality to handle it. He was very prepared."
From the minute he read the script, Core felt that INVINCIBLE was exactly the kind of movie he'd been looking for to make his directing debut. "I thought Vince's journey was so heroic--it's not that he set out to change the world, but what he did was so courageous and bold that it raised the hopes of people all around him and that was something huge," Core observes. "The story reminded me more of 'Rocky' than any other sports movie I can think of because it's about more than sports--it's about the human spirit and rooting for characters because you understand what drives them, because you really get to know and care about them."
On the set, Core put the emphasis, appropriately, on teamwork. "It freaked people out that I would pick things up and move them, and do things that are considered outside the realm of the director, but I wanted everybody working closely together like a real team," he explains. "We had a story that we all cared so deeply about, and that's what made it such a great experience."
TWO MEN WHO BELIEVED: THE TRUE STORIES OF VINCE PAPALE AND DICK VERMEIL
To forge INVINCIBLE into tightly structured cinematic entertainment, screenwriter Brad Gann mixed fiction in with the factual life experiences of Vince Papale. Despite some changes and additions, however, it was always the core human truth of Papale's story that inspired the heart of the movie. "But the deepest truth of it--which is this amazingly strong belief in himself that allowed Vince to attempt the completely impossible--is very much there."
Today, 30 years after the events depicted in INVINCIBLE, Papale still marvels at the transformation of his fate. "As a kid, I used to sit in the stands with my father, watching Eagles games," he recalls. "The players were all idols of mine, big-time heroes. I never could have imagined I would be in the same fraternity as them. For me, it was enough to be inspiring the kids that I was teaching."
Papale's story was always intimately interwoven with that of Dick Vermeil, the handsome, young "golden boy" coach who had just led UCLA to a Rose Bowl victory when he joined the Eagles in 1976. Despite his success in college ball, Vermeil was new to Philly and to the NFL and was initially seen as an outsider. If he wanted to turn things around for the Eagles, he knew he had to prove himself to the team and especially the fans. He did so by demanding everything he could get from his players and by placing an emphasis on spirit and grit over raw talent. The coach would soon come to be known for his passion during and his emotional tears after victories--and also for instigating the public tryouts that would bring out more from Vince Papale than he ever knew was possible. Together, these two mavericks would carry the team to new heights through sheer determination.
"When Vermeil came to Philadelphia," recounts executive producer Ezra Swerdlow, "he was inheriting a team that really had been beaten down, that was hurting. Vermeil was a college coach, and I think he wanted to make the statement when he got here that all bets were off. He decided to start from scratch--and he declared that he would hold an open tryout to recruit new blood for the team. It was unheard of."
Vermeil, however, was willing to bypass convention. As a man who always believed that character, above all, created winners, he saw his job with the Eagles as changing the team's entire outlook. Recalls Vermeil: "Philadelphia has intense fans and I think they were skeptics at first, but when they saw what we were doing, they started to come aboard. As a first-time NFL coach, there's always some insecurity, but I said, I'm gonna just jump in with both feet and fight and scramble as hard as I can. We had to send a message that we were going to try to build a tough, intense atmosphere."
"With the open tryouts, our expectations weren't that great," he continues. "We were hoping to find two or three guys who would at least be good camp players--and just maybe one plum who would make the team. All kinds of people turned out, in all different shapes and sizes. We had a doctor, and guys with big bellies, and kids with aspirations right out of high school. It was a wide variety."
When Papale showed up to work out with the Eagles on that fateful day, he felt he had nothing to lose. "I was thinking, 'There's no reason why I can't be out here,'" remembers Papale. "All I wanted was one chance to prove myself against the best and they gave me that."
Papale made the most of his shot at the tryout, running a 4.5-second forty-yard dash and demonstrating strong catching skills. "Vince looked like an athlete and he had the ability to run fast and gracefully and catch the football," remembers Vermeil. "He was by far the most impressive. For never having played football, he knew how the game was played, he liked the intensity of the game and he was passionate about it. He was an infectious sort of guy and very genuine." So it was then that Vermeil took another risk and invited Papale to come to camp and eventually join the Eagles as a wide receiver and special teams player.
It was a decision that paid off on numerous levels. "The fans got very involved with him," Vermeil adds. "The city really wanted to see Vince play and succeed. When he did something really well, he got a better ovation than anyone."
But the transition wasn't easy for Papale, especially with regard to the men who would ultimately become his teammates. "They hated him in the beginning," says Constantino. "He was threatening the roster spot of the wide receiver ahead of him, and it was tough for him because he was taking away the spot of a guy that the team revered and loved."
Yet nothing would deter the unstoppable Papale. Ultimately, Papale's rock-solid determination won over his teammates just as it had his coach. In the team's home opener at Veterans Stadium, Papale stepped up his game another exciting notch. "I kicked some serious butt out there in that game," he laughs. "Up till then, everybody thought I was a publicity stunt. But after that game and one of the big hits I made at the end of the game, I got invited to my first team party. That's when I knew I really belonged."
Papale continued to play well for the Eagles throughout the season. Even after he retired from football in 1979, Papale continued to be an inspiration with his incredible passion for life and unassailably positive attitude. He has worked as a counselor for families with the student loan program Sallie Mae, and most recently, his courage was tested in a battle with colorectal cancer. He has since become a sought-after national spokesperson who raises vital awareness about cancer prevention.
After going through so much, Papale sees INVINCIBLE as being about much more than just one man's exciting ride in the NFL--he sees it as being about an attitude. Says Papale: "I think this movie is not so much about me or my experiences, it's about anybody out there who faces adversity, who is up against the toughest of odds, and decides to make their dreams come true anyway."
A ROOKIE WITH AN INCREDIBLE DREAM: MARK WAHLBERG IS VINCE PAPALE
When Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray read the screenplay for INVINCIBLE, they knew that casting would be absolutely key to bringing the character of Vince Papale to life. They also knew they would need a leading man with a definitive mix of qualities--an actor with a down-to-earth Ordinary Joe type of persona but also with authentic athletic prowess and the drive of a man who refuses to quit. "We thought of Mark Wahlberg immediately while reading the script," recalls Gray. "It was one of the film's easiest decisions because he's not only a great athlete who can throw his body around and take hits, but he encompassed Vince at every level--not just physically but emotionally. Mark worked so hard and really kind of channeled everything that Vince went through to accomplish what he did."
Wahlberg, who harbored his own football dreams as a kid, had never heard of Vince Papale before he read the script--but afterwards, Papale stuck with him as one of the more intriguing film heroes he'd encountered. "Here's a man who defied all the odds and uplifted his friends, his family and his city," he says. "He's a guy who never really had a lot of luck, but for him it was all about heart. He had that rare willingness to sacrifice everything for something he loves. Reading about him, I really felt this was the kind of movie I'd like to see."
Taking on a character inspired by a still-living hero was somewhat daunting, Wahlberg admits, but also exciting. "I felt a real responsibility to do him justice," he says. "I haven't felt this much responsibility since 'The Perfect Storm,' which was also based on a true story. Vince turned out to be an amazing inspiration to me--and I wanted to do right by him because I believe that his story can inspire others to pursue their dreams."
To get to the essence of Papale's personality, Wahlberg struck up a friendship with him that continues to this day. "Vince is a great guy, he's a real stand-up, solid person, and to have the luxury of being around someone like that throughout the shoot was a real blessing," says Wahlberg. "I hope, more than anything, we made a movie that he'll be proud of."
When Papale heard that Wahlberg was being considered to play him in INVINCIBLE, he wasn't sure at first what to make of it. He was unfamiliar with most of Wahlberg's work. "We decided to rent every movie that he had made, from 'Three Kings' to 'Perfect Storm,'" recalls Papale, "and I discovered that he is the real deal. He's a truly talented actor." After meeting with Wahlberg in New York, Papale was completely won over. "He blew us away with his sincerity and he assured us that he would play the part with passion, compassion and enthusiasm," Papale continues. "You can't ask for more than that."
As their friendship grew, Papale shared some of his idiosyncrasies as a player with Wahlberg. "We spent a lot of time together, with him studying me and asking me questions, and Mark really transformed himself," says Papale. "It turned out that we have a lot in common. We both came from a certain tough kind of background and know what it means to try to make the right choices in your life."
In preparation for the role, Wahlberg had to go through intensive, muscle-jarring training, putting his body through the same infamously brutal workouts performed by hopeful rookies in NFL training camps. The process was agonizing, yet thrilling, because not unlike Papale, Wahlberg saw it as a rare chance to fulfill a long-held football fantasy. The sheer physicality of the role gave him a deep satisfaction. "I loved getting out there, working hard and sleeping really, really well," he says.
As the training intensified, the film's football coordinator, Mark Ellis, became more and more impressed with Wahlberg's physical gifts. "He runs incredibly well, right with the pro and arena football players we cast. He's got great peripheral vision. He sees the play unfolding. He loves the contact, so much that it scares me sometimes, but he flat gets after it. His hard work and determination were truly admirable," Ellis says.
Adds Papale: "The things Mark did on the field amazed me. You can't teach that kind of stuff. You could have the most amazing coach in the world and it wouldn't do any good without that natural talent. With the catches he made and the moves he had, I swear he could have made it as a player."
Wahlberg was so determined to prove himself that he volunteered to take numerous real hits on screen--despite the considerable risks to health and safety. "I knew it would be better for the film, even if it wasn't better for me," he laughs. Indeed, Wahlberg was so serious about it that he required no help from the makeup department to provide him with welts and bruises--he acquired dozens on his own.
He explains: "If you don't do it the right way, you definitely feel a lot more pain, but I learned pretty quickly. I had to, because I only ever played tackle football before, where you grab 'em by the shirt and throw 'em to the ground. But this is more like two cars colliding."
To get even better at it, Wahlberg did his homework, but that didn't make it any less dangerous. "I found the best guys out there at hitting, because that's what Vince's specialty was, and really studied what they do," he explains. "I didn't hesitate to ask questions, because I wanted people to feel like what they are seeing on screen is really happening. I'm just lucky that I didn't get seriously hurt, that nobody got hurt. I would often say a couple extra prayers, thanking God for keeping everybody safe, because when you're out there and the adrenaline's flowing, anything can happen."
Says Mark Ciardi of the star's fearless approach to the role: "By proving that he could take a hit, Mark showed that he was really one of the guys. Everyone on the film really appreciated what he did." Adds Gordon Gray: "Mark gained a lot of respect from the real players in the cast by being out there for every play, every practice and treating them as equals. They became buddies."
Ericson Core was amazed by how far Wahlberg was willing to go. "There might be 2 or 3 shots where we used a stunt double for Mark, but that's it. He's incredibly tough, and I don't think many other actors could have survived all that Mark went through in making this film. He also brought a lot of intelligence to his work. He plays this role with such intensity that you get to see a whole new side of his talent."
Wahlberg also found himself enjoying the collaboration with the director. "Ericson never seemed like a first-time director," Wahlberg muses. "He's got some real substance and he really cares about the story and the characters. We would spend all day talking about Vince and who he is. He's not just about the shots and the style--I think Ericson really wanted to make a movie with heart."
On set, Wahlberg also began to forge a tight bond with Greg Kinnear as Vince's motivating coach, Dick Vermeil. In Wahlberg's view, no one could have been more appropriate for the role. "Much more than Vince, Dick Vermeil is a very recognizable guy, and when I first read the script, Greg Kinnear was the face I immediately thought of to play him," he recalls. "He has a lot of the qualities of Vermeil."
While Wahlberg says he loved getting the chance to live out his football dreams, he also was motivated by a desire to make the kind of movie he most enjoys watching. "When I go to the movies, I want to see greatness, I want to see people succeed and excel, and I think it's always more interesting when they do it through great adversity," he summarizes. "I want to see characters who weren't born into success and who didn't get all the lucky breaks, but who made it because they have more heart and determination. That's who Vince Papale is."
A LEGENDARY COACH WHO TOOK A CHANCE ON AN ORDINARY JOE: GREG KINNEAR IS DICK VERMEIL
AN IRRESISTIBLE GIANTS FAN: ELIZABETH BANKS IS JANET CANTWELL
IMPACT! BRINGING REAL BONE-CRUNCHING NFL ACTION TO THE SCREEN
SPIRIT OF '76: SHOOTING IN PHILADELPHIA
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS