For his follow-up to the acclaimed Religion of Sportsseries, documentary filmmaker Gotham Chopra turns his attention to superstar quarterback Tom Brady in Tom vs. Time, a six-part series exclusively on Facebook Watch. In collaborating with Brady, Chopra gained intimate access to the five-time Super Bowl champion, capturing content with him across the United States and beyond, to China and Costa Rica. In this Q&A, Chopra tells us about the making of the series, from the earliest discussions about the project with the famously guarded quarterback, to him eventually signing on, and a look behind the curtain of Brady’s complex world.
Q: You grew up in Boston as a massive Patriots fan. How hard was it to put your fandom aside in working with Tom Brady?
Chopra:It was impossible. I met him for the first time in 2012 at his home in the Los Angeles hills and I had to keep it together. For any Boston sports fans who grew up with the embarrassment of the Patriots in the 1980s and ’90s, he’s basically synonymous with them becoming winners. But we became closer as he helped me make Religion of Sports, of which he is an executive producer.
How did you finally convince him to become the subject of a whole series?
Several years ago, I worked with Kobe Bryant on a documentary project called Kobe Bryant’s Muse. While working on that, I shared anecdotes with Tom and pestered him: “We should be doing this with you.” This lasted years! I kept trying to convince him as I got to know him better. He just kept politely declining: “I’m not ready – I want to do it, but the timing isn’t right.” So the truth is, I didn’t really convince him. He decided when he was ready. Last spring, out of nowhere, he called me and said, “So I’m going to be turning 40 this year. I think we should do that thing you wanted to do.” I was like, “OK, are you free this weekend?” [Laughs.]
Brady is a bit of a guarded guy. How were you able to convince him to give you this level of access?
These things are always a process. You start with one idea and then time, experience and perspective shape the relationship. When we started, Tom insisted he was committed to playing five more seasons, so he was very clear this was not a legacy thing – this is right now. It started out as us agreeing to focus exclusively on his physical conditioning: his training, nutrition, holistic approach, etc. But I also wanted to understand mentally how he did it. Over time, I got to see the other side of Tom when he wasn’t playing football. He’s got three kids, he’s got aging parents. He’s got a very high-profile life and a wife as successful, ambitious and busy as he is – there’s a lot to juggle. So we worked toward it. I said, “Yes, let’s document your pliability exercises and your protein shakes, but let’s also talk about your mental approach to the game, your relationship with your teammates, etc.” I think once Tom embraced it more, he came up with ideas, and invited me to join him in places like Montana, Costa Rica and China.
But why now? Do you think he really wants to prove to the world that he can beat time and do things few athletes can do?
In my experience, elite athletes are always like looking for an edge, and it’s often more mental than anything. For Tom, “You don’t think I can do it at 40?” has become a thing for him. In his mind, he’ll always be the sixth-round draft pick every team passed on, including the Patriots. Objectively, I don’t think anyone sees him that way anymore, but this is what guys like Kobe, LeBron James and others put themselves through. Tom knows the end is coming sometime. He’s closer to the end than he is to the beginning, even if he plays another five seasons or whatever. So I think for him, yes, there’s a motivation. I think it’s also that he feels like there’s an entrenched system that says, “Train this way, do it this way,” and he sees himself as a bit of a radical who’s saying, “No, that’s not the way to do it – look at what I’m doing.” I find that interesting and yeah, I think that really motivates and excites him, too.
You personally shot more than 80 hours of footage with Tom, most of which is away from football. Did you ever feel like an interloper in his personal life?
Oh yeah. I went on a romantic trip to Costa Rica with him and his wife! [Laughs.] You build a relationship and trust. This isn’t journalism. I’m not a reporter from Sports Illustratedor ESPN. I’m his partner, so I’m going to watch his back. At the same time, in order for it to be good, there has to be a level of honesty to it. There are some private things here. His mom was diagnosed with cancer last year, that’s obviously a vulnerable thing for him. There’s his children – he has three kids, all of whom are growing up fast. So there are a few things that you know are sensitive, and we’re going to talk about it over time. It’s not the first thing you bring up when you start shooting, of course, but you communicate that, “Hey, we’re going to have to talk about these things at the right time,” but also assure him we’ll do it in a dignified and honest way. Again, it’s just trust.
There are a lot of different hats Brady wears: athlete, leader, marketing machine, family guy. Is it the same guy from moment to moment?
There are a lot of hats. But really I’d say there are mainly two Toms. There’s the on-field guy: the man, the guy who motivates his teammates, trusts his coaches – the football savant. And then there’s an off-field version: the father, the son, the husband. It’s like Superman and Clark Kent. He’s a good guy and a softy with his family, but he’s definitely super demanding on the field – he doesn’t take any crap and he has very high expectations of his teammates. So, I’ve definitely seen that while working with him and his teammates tell me they see it, too.
What surprised you the most in getting to know him during this project?
Probably the way that on-field and off-field guy don’t necessarily intersect. Tom has this ability to compartmentalize and put things in little boxes. I saw him lose a couple of games this season, badly, and then his kids are there and they don’t care that he lost. They’re just like, “Dad’s home from work.” His ability to go from moment to moment – being this god-like guy on the field to being Dad, being a husband, dealing with an ailing mom and minimizing the affect on his play – it’s uncanny. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Tom vs. Time is airing on Facebook Watchinstead of a cable or satellite provider. Why was that the right fit?
I’m working with arguably one of highest-profile athletes on the planet and I have unbelievable access. But I have a company like Facebook who understands from the beginning that there’s no need to overreach – I’m going to get from Tom what I’m going to get. This is not like a reality show with 10 different cameras, this is basically me and Tom and me trying to figure out what is achievable. Another nice thing is the distribution. Tom has 4.4 million followers on his Facebook page, and they’re the sweet spot for this series: They’ve essentially signed up to receive Tom content and they built that community together with him. It’s entirely unique. But we can also go bigger. Tom is in that sphere where he’s achieved cultural capital. I was in China with him for one episode and we were walking on the Great Wall and passed these three American girls. We overheard one of them say, “Is that Tom Brady?” Another said, “Who?” And the third one said, “You don’t follow football? That’s Gisele’s husband!” And the first one comes rushing over saying, “Oh my God, can I get a picture?” [Laughs.]I think Facebook will help us get those other layers of people. It’s been fun and fascinating to work with them and I’m excited to be a part of something very fresh and cool.