Producer Mark Ciardi Interview: Safety

In the upcoming sports drama, Safety, Clemson University’s football safety Ray McElrathbey ( Jay Reeves), a young man facing a series of challenging circumstances, whose dedication and persistence help him to triumph over repeated adversities. Aided by his teammates and the Clemson community, he succeeds in the field while simultaneously raising and caring for his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixon).

Debuting on Disney+ on December 11, 2020, the film is produced by Mark Ciardi who has a long list of sports dramas inspired by true events. (The Rookie, Miracle, Secretariat, Million Dollar Arm, The Miracle Season just to name a few.) Screen Rant has an exclusive interview with the producer as we go over his history of getting Safety made, his big break on The Rookie, and what he hopes people will experience when they see the new film.

I’ve read that this film has an 11-year journey before it got into production. When did you get involved? 

Mark Ciardi: I’ve been involved since the story took place, back in 2006 so I got the rights and actually set it up at a different studio. Developed it. Developed the screenplay. Came close to making it but we ultimately just didn’t get it greenlit at the time. So, it’s something that I’ve always thought about, felt like it was eventually going to be a movie, depending on where and when Disney+ was announced it was the first thing I brought over there and they loved it and there was this real ease and momentum to get this movie made. Really happy that it ended up at Disney where I made so many of these movies and can add to that line-up.

Why do you think Disney+ was the appropriate place to pitch the film to? 

Mark Ciardi: Well, number one is the films I’ve done in the past there. Even though I developed this with a different studio at the time I tried to get it set up at Disney for whatever reason it didn’t happen there. So I brought it to another studio and knew I had a really good script. And when I brought it over I just felt like it would fit. You know, seeing all the films that I’ve done lined up on Disney+, I was like, oh man…this would fit in great. And that’s what happened. They really loved it, especially dealing with diversity and it has a great social commentary and really how prominent school is it just really lined up in a great way when we brought it over to Disney.

Because of the fact you do have a history of working on films based on real people and real stories, what have you learned in terms of talking to these people and the process of turning their life into a film? 

Mark Ciardi: It’s one of the greatest parts of it. First of all, trying to get the rights and convincing someone you’re the right person to tell the story. It doesn’t matter if they’re small stories like The Rookie or big stories like Miracle or Secretariat, people are putting their trust in your hands. I don’t take it lightly and you always try to honor the film and not screw it up. That’s the fun part really working with these people and getting the heart of the story and the emotionality of the story and really finding a screenwriter that can execute this. Mike Rich who wrote on my first four movies really set the path for these amazing stories and executed these and then allowed people to trust my instincts in producing. Ultimately it’s based on trust. They gotta trust in you in making the very best version of the story protect what their thoughts are on it and not have it be something they don’t embrace. It’s a lot of responsibility for that. Showing the principles the movie when it’s done the first time, I often said it’s my favorite part of the job. I’ve been lucky that they all turned out really well. When they are in there with an audience, and the audience are really responding and it becomes really emotional for them to be brought back in time and see how people are responding to the stories that are obviously about them.

Do you think your own personal history as a professional athlete yourself (Note: Mark Ciardi is a former Major League Baseball pitcher, playing for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987) at one point, do you think that kind of helps in terms of talking to them, in terms of kind of convincing them to trust you with the film? 

Mark Ciardi: Yeah, I think in some ways it does. You know, I never set out to make sports films when I got into the business. I was like 35 years old when I got into the business with no experience. The lucky break I got was when I found the story Jim Morris, The Rookie, and I actually played with Jim. I read this little article in Sports Illustrated and the name didn’t connect with me until it said he played a little minor league baseball and signed in 1983 with the Brewers. My eyes zeroed in on that and I was like…THAT’S when I signed! And the name again I was like…JIM MORRIS! Oh my god! We played three years together. We did spring training together. You’re like brothers with these guys. And then you kinda lose touch. It had been eleven years since I spoke to him. So when I got back in touch with him we just started laughing. I actually took his place in the rotation in rookie ball and that set me on my course to actually get to the big leagues where his career at the time didn’t go in that direction. So to see that go into full circle where he had his chance to be in the big leagues all these years later was a remarkable story. We got the rights to that project an it was really really competitive. I had not even done a movie yet. I think we got the rights because of my relationship with him and the trust he would put in to me with zero experience. I’ve never done a movie. Never been on a movie set. We got Mike Rich to write that story and set us on that path to find these great events, but then these stories started to come to us  and then we would find stories. Once we got that brand once with close succession with The Rookie and Miracle that I was on that path of continuing trying to find these great underdog sports stories.

How did director Reginald Hudlin get involved? 

Mark Ciardi: When you do a director search you try to put names down. We wanted to find an African American director and writer to come on and really feel like it’s an authentic story and I think that’s what really changed over the years. That word authenticity. And doing different stories about different people and culture and really try to get the right writer and director in. Reggie did such a great job. I was a fan of his movies and when he came in it’s like…BOOM. here’s the guy. It just felt like we got the right guy to do it. It’s all kind of a feeling I think with hiring anybody. It’s always a leap of faith. Looking at the films that they’ve done, directed or written. And you just kind of have a sense and what you hear…does it resonate with you? Their the one…it’s kind of a relay race. It starts with a producer finding the stories and then it’s finding the right writer and then finding the director, the cast and everything else. Finding the right guy is so incredibly important when you get to this point.

Now obviously, the film is about Ray and Fahmarr’s relationship. So before finding Jay Reeves and Thaddeus Mixson, I’m sure that was a real struggle for you guys. What were the elements about Jay and Thaddeus that you guys felt like…oh! Those are the brothers. Those are our boys. 

Mark Ciardi: You know what’s funny, a lot of kids were put on tape. You know. A LOT. Thousands probably. The ones that we saw were in the hundreds. It’s funny, when we were in our office, my guys working for me. Early on, of those early tapes, we said Jay Reeves and Thaddeus. We said these are the two guys we love the most. And it was crazy at that point to get both those kids. That ultimately they were both the pairing that we ended up going with. You might widdle it down to your top five choices for both kids. So the chances of both these kids now when you’re doing readings and they’re reading together and they’re reading with different people you’re just hoping that the magic happens. And that’s what happened. It was like really really lucky to say, just based on tape…we love this guy and we love this guy. And they have to go through so much. It’s like the minor leagues. You’re working your way up the list. And you do these kinds of tests, with the different kids to see who works best together. I remember it was really funny for me when they came into the room together just me, Reggie and the casting director. I’m thinking “please do well, please do well, please do well.” These are my first choices. And then by the way, it could have been a case where they didn’t have the chemistry. When it happened I’m like whew…I can’t believe we are going to choose these two kids. Really really excited about that pairing and you can see it in the film.

I know we’re just talking about the trailer that’s coming out today, and I know you’re excited about the audience seeing the relationship between the brothers but is there anything else you’re excited about the film for people to check out when it arrives on Disney+? 

Mark Ciardi: There’s just something about this film. The only unfortunate thing at this point normally I would have had multiple screenings with test audiences and the only people that know are just the few people that have seen it. We’re kind of flying blind for a bit. But I think the instinct that we have with the different movies I have done I think it’s gonna have a huge response. It just works so well. The emotional aspects of the story and then even the big parts, the football parts are just ridiculous. We got to shoot at a live stadium. 85,000 people. It was such a buzz after we shot it. It’s probably one of the best moments in a long history of films, were it was like…nothing can compare with this. We all met afterwards, everyone was in a daze. Now you know when athletes kinda go through it with that buzz of playing in front of an audience, the Clemson fans were such a big part of that. You know you got the big moments right, and it’s about getting the little emotional places right. And their is such big emotional beats in it. I think you’ll see in the trailer that it’s not like this big comedy…there are comedic aspects to it, but it’s a real drama in a lot of ways. And it really feels authentic. That’s what I love about it. It’s even pushing that Disney brand a bit, and going places emotionally and that authenticity that you can do now that maybe you couldn’t do several years ago. It’s really really authentic. That’s what I love about it. I think we executed really what the story is.

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Safety premieres on Disney+ on December 11, 2020.