If he were a football player, Larry Weinstein would have been scrambling.
The film director was packing to leave his Toronto home headed to Regina, where he was to begin shooting the TSN documentary The 13th Man.
“I was trying to study the various plays, the positions and I was doing this stuff and I wasn’t ready to go yet, and my wife saw me fretting,” Weinstein recalled. “She said, ‘Larry, you’re going to direct a film, you’re not coaching the football team!’ It made me relax for at least a few hours.”
Heavy is the crown, or the camera, when you’re tasked with documenting the most infamous moment in Canadian Football League history and arguably the most intriguing of the eight documentaries that TSN commissioned for its Engraved On A Nation series celebrating the Grey Cup’s place in Canadian culture.
With the focus of his previous work largely on music – he’s a nine-time Gemini Award-winner and has won three international Emmys, among others – Weinstein admits he wasn’t a football fan when he was packing his bags for that initial trip to Regina in early May.
“I’d never seen a CFL game in my life,” he said. “It was totally overwhelming. I was scared to death.”
It was worry for nothing. When The 13th Man airs on Monday (5:30 p.m., TSN) viewers will get an inside look at the CFL’s most passionate fan base and how it had its heart ripped out on Nov. 29, 2009, by a too-many-men penalty that cost the Saskatchewan Roughriders a Grey Cup victory over the Montreal Alouettes. Montreal kicker Damon Duval’s final-play, 43-yard field goal attempt went wide right, but the penalty against the Riders meant the down was replayed. On his second chance, Duval split the uprights from 33 yards with time expired, giving the Als a 28-27 come-from-behind win.
For Weinstein, directing the documentary was as unique an introduction to the CFL as anyone might ever have.
“The 13th Man is such a sore point and it was almost three years ago when we were (talking about) this, but it felt like it was yesterday,” he said. “I realized that those defeats never, ever are forgotten.
“I realized how serious all of that was and how much that seriousness goes with the extreme devotion toward the game, the extreme knowledge that people have,” he said. “There was a lot of stuff I didn’t use, where people talked about the fishbowl of being a player there and how people know so much.
“(Regina Rams quarterback) Marc Mueller says very well how his grandmother would go up and talk to (Riders quarterback) Darian Durant and she felt like she’d affected the playbook, or however he worded it. People there feel that they make a difference.”
The film works to put the emphasis back on the fans, the original “13th Man,” and the passion that the province has for its sole professional team. It was easy, Weinstein said, to find fans to talk with. They’re everywhere.
They’re at Clubhouse 23 in Regina, where a fan removes his hat and puts it over his heart as he speaks about the clubhouse’s namesake, Ron Lancaster (who is Mueller’s grandfather). They’re women in a beauty salon, stylist and customer, who speak about their team with the knowledge of a halftime panel on TV.
They’re couples on park benches, supermarket managers, funeral home operators and, most impressive and most entertaining, they’re a pair of retired nuns in Saskatoon (Sisters Adelaide and Rosetta). The duo prayed for their team and prayed against Duval as he lined up for a second attempt at the winning field goal after the too-many-men penalty.
Weinstein and his crew work beautifully with fans, players and coaches to recreate the anguish and disbelief that Rider nation felt as the penalty undid the team’s victory and gave Duval a second opportunity to win the game. The candidness of the players and coaches involved — all of the key figures are in the film — pull you out of the present and send you back to the moment.
“Somebody told me that … sports is the expression of emotion without words. (Making the film) I kept feeling that,” Weinstein said.
“I understand the terrible devastation at the end of that game. I’ve watched briefly how these guys train and I see the dedication and I see the will and … watching that footage of them breaking down in tears after the 2009 game, you totally get it.
“The fact that the players are so at one with the fans or vice versa, that it’s this one unit that has so much dedication to something, it’s really, really beautiful. That’s sort of what I took away from it.”
Making the film, Weinstein didn’t anticipate becoming a fan. He’s watched every Riders game this year and will be at Rogers Centre on Monday when the Toronto Argonauts host Saskatchewan. It will be the first CFL game he has attended.
He said his heart went out to former Riders offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers fired him this summer and as then-special teams coach Kavis Reed has had his struggles this year as head coach in Edmonton.
He wasn’t aware of the 13th man heartbreak when it happened in 2009, but the director has an attachment to the moment now. He has in a sense, gone through the pain. Doing a radio interview last week to promote the film, like a true Riders fan, he cringed over the audio of the play that was used to introduce him. He’s hoping now that Monday can offer Riders fans something they may not have had until now.
“Maybe this is naive of me, but this week I was looking at the film and I was thinking, ‘I wonder if this will have a little bit of a healing quality?’” Weinstein said.
“So many people said, ‘I will never look at a frame of that game ever again. I will never do it.’
“Like that wonderful group of people I filmed outside of Clubhouse 23. This guy who runs it, Don Beck, a wonderful man, said, ‘There’s no way. We are never going to see that game in this clubhouse ever.’ I spoke to him last week and told him the film is finished, it’s going to be on TV Monday. He was taking a deep breath, like ‘OK. We’ll watch it in the clubhouse,’” he said.
“But it’s not just about that game. It’s about something much, much more, I think.”