The National Football League produces some of the most-watched telecasts in the US every year, and yet the precise origins of the sport remain a mystery to most. Filmmaker Allen Farst wanted to change all that. In his new movie, Triangle Park, Farst documents the first-ever NFL game: a 1920 matchup between the Dayton Triangles and the Columbus Panhandles. The film — one part documentary, one part live-action drama — centers on the sport’s inaugural game played out in Triangle Park in Dayton, Ohi
(Bloomberg) — The National Football League produces some of the most-watched telecasts in the US every year, and yet the precise origins of the sport remain a mystery to most. Filmmaker Allen Farst wanted to change all that. In his new movie, Triangle Park, Farst documents the first-ever NFL game: a 1920 matchup between the Dayton Triangles and the Columbus Panhandles. The film — one part documentary, one part live-action drama — centers on the sport’s inaugural game played out in Triangle Park in Dayton, Ohio.
Football as a sport was young, with no certainty it would survive. This game was the first where two teams aligned with the fledgling NFL played. The league, and the sport itself, proved resilient.
Now, at a time when pro football is drawing more new fans than ever (thank you, Taylor Swift), Farst sheds new light on the sport by artfully blending period-piece reenactments, interviews with some of the players’ descendants and commentary from NFL luminaries. Bloomberg News caught up with Farst to talk about the making of Triangle Park and his predilection for all things football.
Bloomberg News: So what prompted you to make this film?
Allen Farst: I wanted to direct something that really shined a light on my hometown of Dayton, and there was a story we had that few people knew about. A guy named Steve Presar had been working on it for about 35 years and was really responsible for having us track down the plaque that anoints Triangle Park as the site of the first-ever NFL game. It led me to start talking to sports writers and some of the descendants of the families involved, a lot of whom got tears in their eyes because they were like, ‘Gee, somebody finally wants to tell the story.’ And that made me feel passionate about it.
BN: Were you familiar with the backstory?
AF: Yes, to some degree. But I’m the exception. When you ask someone who were the two teams to play in the very first NFL game, I’d say 99.9% couldn’t answer that question. I asked every player in the film and and nobody got it right. So I think that makes it simple when you’re selling a movie. Aren’t you intrigued to know a little bit more about the very first game? I mean, it’s like Neil Armstrong going to the moon. It’s just one of those kind of moments.
BN: The film doesn’t feel like a straight documentary — it’s kind of a movie-mentary. How do you describe it?
AF: It’s basically a documentary on steroids. I wanted to use reenactments so that you feel like you’re watching a real movie and to help get a sense of what it would’ve been like in 1920. And so to cut between the reenactments, the family descendants and all the stars that we have, the story becomes appealing.
BN: How did you pick your cast of commentators?
AF: Michele Tafoya, who narrated the film, has a pretty good black book. When she came on, she asked me who I wanted. And I said, ‘I want Eric Dickerson.’ And she said, ‘Why in the world do you want Eric Dickerson? He doesn’t have a connection to Dayton.’ And I said, ‘No, he doesn’t.’ But there is a nice parallel between one of the greatest rushing backs ever and the very first touchdown scored by Lou Partlow, a seven-yard run off the right side. I wanted to weave in generational stories to keep people’s interest.
BN: How was it working with the players’ families?
AF: I had to build a relationship of trust with them. Obviously, when you’re coming off a project with Chuck Leavell and the Rolling Stones, it’s a pretty easy sell. But most of these guys who played in 1920 were pretty humble. Their descendants all say, ‘Hey, that guy really didn’t talk much about it. He just played the game and loved it.’ They didn’t know this was going to be the league that it is today, they played it for the love of the game.
BN: In the film, Chris Collinsworth says the arc of pro football mirrors that of American society. Can you talk about that?
AF: Well, I think he’s a 100% right. Locker rooms are melting pots. They players are from all walks of life — different religious backgrounds, maybe even from different countries. But they all have a common goal that they’re working for, which is to win a game, to win a Super Bowl. It’s very much like pursuing the American Dream.
BN: Do you have a few favorite moments in the film?
AF: There’s a place in Canton called Bender’s Tavern that’s been around for four generations and is now run by a guy named Jon Jacob. It’s another magical place in football history because that’s where everybody went after the games. So to film in there with everyone in period pieces and smoking it up and making it look real Hollywood was a real moving moment. Most of the guys you see cheering in that scene are actually family descendants. I also liked filming in the locker room. When you step into it, you feel it — the spirit, the energy — and just takes you back in time and lets you feel what it must have been like. That’s probably the biggest artifact that’s still here from the very first game.
BN: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
AF: Well, I think with every filmmaker, they’re always going to tell you they’d love more money. Money’s the driver; that’s the reality. You’d love to have a couple extra days to shoot reenactments and not feel the pressure of it.
BN: What do you hope people take away from this movie?
AF: I want them to be fans and I want them to correctly answer the Jeopardy questions: Where was the first NFL game? Or who played in it? Or who scored the first touchdown? If they can answer one of those three things then we’ve done our job.
BN: Going back to the Chuck Leavell biopic that you released in 2020, how difficult was that putting out a movie in the middle of a lockdown?
AF: We were in a real weird time. We did get it in about 50 theaters but you had to go online at that point. It was a terrible time for any film in the world. But we kept pushing it. We were the No. 1 documentary on Delta, so 200 million travelers got a chance to see it. That was nice.
BN: Who’s your favorite team?
AF: I’m kind of a Rams fan.
BN: What’s next?
AF: I have a couple ideas, but I’m not sure yet. I’m going to go skiing.
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