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Netflix documentary series ‘Last Chance U’ a unique opportunity for lifelong sports fan

East Mississippi Community College coach Buddy Stephens talks to his team and is filmed for the Netflix documentary series "Last Chance U."
East Mississippi Community College coach Buddy Stephens talks to his team and is filmed for the Netflix documentary series "Last Chance U." Courtesy of Netflix

Filmmaker Greg Whiteley doesn’t miss a beat.

The “Last Chance U” executive producer and director anticipates the comparisons to HBO’s “Hard Knocks” and other NFL Films’ projects to his latest documentary, but Whiteley (“Mitt,” “Resolved”) has spent enough time watching sports documentaries to know what sets his apart.

“We had much better access,” Whiteley said in a phone interview with the Ledger-Enquirer this week. “You aren’t going to get the full story (with Hard Knocks), there’s too much at stake. Our goal was to make you feel like a walk-on.”

The filmmaker’s newest project, a six-episode television series, centered on the football program at East Mississippi Community College debuts exclusively July 29 on Netflix in its entirety.

It doesn’t take much prodding to get Whiteley, a lifelong sports fan, to display his passion for the subject matter. A simple question about his approach to capturing on-field action gets Whiteley going.

“We agonized over the type of cameras and lenses,” Whiteley said laughing. “We didn’t want to repeat anything NFL Films has done. We wanted our aesthetic to be our own. We hope the cinematic quality we set out to capture is different than the tons of sports content that’s out there.”

Whiteley had the general idea for the documentary before he had a program willing to commit to it. The director pitched the idea to his alma mater BYU, and even convinced former coach Bronco Mendenhall to meet with him.

“We had several conversations, but he couldn’t get comfortable with the level of access we needed,” Whiteley said.

Endgame Entertainment producer Lucas Smith pitched Whiteley on shifting the focus of the project to the junior college ranks. The idea intrigued Whiteley, but it still was a challenge finding the right school.

“There were a few in California, but none of them grabbed our interest then we found this article from GQ magazine on the (EMCC) program and we knew that was it,” Whiteley said. “We had to do the series on them.”

East Mississippi Community College checked every box for the filmmaker.

The university located in the small town of Scooba, Mississippi with a population of less than 725 people had a fervent fan base, colorful characters and an unprecedented level of recent success.

When cameras started rolling last August, EMCC was riding a 24-game winning with three NJCCA titles in four years. The Buddy Stephens-led program also earned a reputation for producing Division 1 talent along the way.

Stephens himself was a draw for the filmmakers with his larger than life personality and penchant for profanity to match.

All the ingredients were in place for Whiteley’s team, but the production team couldn’t have predicted how the season ultimately unfolded.

The first episode begins with an ominous cold open of EMCC brawling with an opponent on the field. The Lions didn’t instigate the fight that — spoiler alert — cost them a postseason berth, but provided the series a powerful third act.

“When you have done this enough you know something is always going to happen, but you can’t know what it’s going to be,” Whiteley said. “We were shocked.”

When the events take center stage in later episodes, Whiteley hopes the audience feels the same why the crew did filming it.

“We didn’t think whether it was good or bad for the series at the time,” Whiteley said. “We were just heartbroken. This was a soul crushing for the team. Their whole season evaporated.”