Champions, the English language adaptation of the 2018 Spanish movie Campeones, marks the solo directorial debut of Bobby Farrelly, half of the legendary Farrelly Brothers.
It’s been almost 30 years since the pair struck box office gold co-directing Dumb and Dumber. While Peter Farrelly went it alone at the box office with 2018’s Oscar-winning Green Book, Bobby has kept his directorial powder dry until now.
“His first movie without me, he won an Oscar. What does that tell you?” the director joked. So what changed? “I thought that if I do one by myself, I’d better pick a good story, and Woody Harrelson brought this to me. He saw the original movie and fell in love with it.”
The actor, who is also a producer on the movie, plays a fiery minor-league baseball coach destined for the big time, but he finds himself in trouble with the law and is court-ordered to do community service. That involves him taking the helm of a team with intellectual disabilities and working trying to secure them a spot in the Special Olympics. Champions reunites Harrelson and Farrelly, who previously worked together on the bowling comedy, Kingpin.
“I love a sports movie or TV show, and I even love sports, but I can get invested when I know more about the players or their families or where they come from,” explained Kaitlin Olson, who plays Alex, the film’s female lead. “As far as Champions being a sports movie, sure, it’s a movie about basketball, but it’s a movie about believing in yourself and finding small wins in your life, not only banking on the big win.”
Did it inspire her to follow in her Wrexham AFC co-owner husband Rob McElhenney’s footsteps and invest in a sports team?
“No,” the actress laughed. “I’m not going to buy a basketball team in a foreign country. I’m very well surrounded by sports in my life right now, so I’m good.”
Surprisingly, Champions is the first time that Olson, whose character is Harrelson’s love interest and the sister of one of his players, has had a lead role in a comedy film. It’s something she relished and was also grateful for.
“I’ve thanked Bobby so many times for giving me this opportunity,” she recalled. “I was a theater major, I did a lot of dramatic stuff growing up, but on camera, I’ve only done very comedy first rolls. It was exciting to read this dynamic character who is funny and strong but fiercely protective of her brother and loves him and her family more than anything.”
“That combination of comedy and vulnerability can sometimes feel forced, and it didn’t read like that to me in the script. Bobby did a great job of pulling that off.”
Champions is not the first time Hollywood has remade a foreign language comedy, which Farrelly knew had potential pitfalls and could be a tough sell to moviegoers.
“It’s particularly true in the comedy world where so much of it has to do with wording and stuff like that. Comedy doesn’t always translate, but this movie is more than that,” the director mused. One thing he and screenwriter Mark Rizzo resisted was changing the ending to please the audience.
“We kept the original ending. Sometimes you can’t listen to the audience,” the director explained. “You have to surprise them a little by not giving them exactly what they expect; otherwise, they’re a step ahead of you. You can bring them to that point of satisfaction in different ways, and hopefully, that’s what we did here.”
In casting the athletes Harrelson’s character is put in charge of, Farrelly was inspired by the example set with the 2004 Kurt Russell movie Miracle, a film about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey.
“They did such a good job using real hockey players, and they taught them how to act,” the filmmaker explained. “They could have gone to Hollywood and got a bunch of actors and said, ‘Oh, let’s pretend you’re hockey players,’ but everyone in the audience would have known those guys weren’t the real deal.”
He continued, “We went to all the coaches, all the basketball rec leagues, Special Olympics and Best Buddies, and we started there, looking for players with intellectual disabilities. “We asked them, ‘Do you have any great players or people that just love the game who are interested in auditioning for a movie?’ and we were inundated with people who wanted to be part of it. From that, we found our ten who became our team, The Friends.”
Champions was primarily shot on location in Winnipeg, Canada, a place not used to playing host to the cast and crew of a Hollywood movie, but Olson said they couldn’t have been more welcoming.
“First of all, that stereotype about Canadians being wonderful people is very true,” Olson confirmed. “Everyone was so sweet and welcoming. To do a movie like this, it’s a blessing that you’re away from home because you can fully jump into it. There was nothing in the back of my head that worried about getting home and making dinner for my kids, and that’s helpful.”
While filming was underway, one of the women who played The Friends turned 19, so the cast and crew had “this giant dance party.”
“We all joked that it was better than any Hollywood party we’d ever been to, but we meant it. It was so lovely. We were our own little community for a few weeks, and it was very special,” the actress confessed.
One of Olson’s favorite moments on set was away from the basketball court, and they were filming a scene where her character and screen brother, Johnny, played by Kevin Iannucci, are doing karaoke in their car to Chumbawamba’s iconic anthem, “Tubthumping.”
“I know that whatever song they had written on in the script we couldn’t get the rights to, so we were brainstorming alternatives that we could sing, and that one came up,” she said. “We were like, ‘Oh, it’s a perfect song for this.’ We had so much fun shooting that scene, but Kevin had memorized whatever the initial song was.”
“He was a little bit nervous because we were going to switch up the song on him. I was really proud of him for diving in and listening to the new one, learning it, and banging it out. It was such a fun scene. It ended up being the perfect lyrics in the perfect song.”
As with many sports-related movies, music played an essential role in Champions. Acclaimed singer-songwriter Michael Franti composed the soundtrack.
“Franti is a gifted musician,” Farrelly enthused. “He’s a super talented kind of reggae ska guy, and all his music is about love, acceptance, and peace. It always comes from a really good place. While we were making the movie, Woody and I talked about who we might get later to do the score, and we started talking about Franti because we were both big fans of his.”
“We reached out to him, he loved it and was completely on board, and we couldn’t have been happier. It was a real win.”
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