I interviewed the film’s director, David Anspaugh, about his role in this movie that has touched the hearts of people all over the world. It’s based on the story of tiny Milan High, which won the 1954 Indiana championship against long odds. Even though 30 years have passed, the film is still relevant in our society. As a 14-year old basketball player in Indiana, I feel honored to carry on the tradition of being a Hoosier. It is still the dream of every basketball team in Indiana to make it to the state championship, and this story of Hickory is an inspiration to the many kids who spend countless hours playing basketball.
What inspired you to want to make the movie Hoosiers?
I grew up in a small town in Indiana, and the story of Milan was such a great story to grow up with. I played on the varsity basketball team. Every coach in every small town would drag out the Milan story to try to inspire you. Most small towns had good teams, but we did not. We were horrible at basketball. Our coaches tried to make us think we could do the same thing as Milan.
I met a guy by the name of Angelo Pizzo at Indiana University right before we graduated. Our friendship was based on our mutual love of movies. We fantasized about what we would do with our lives and thought it would be great to go to L.A. and somehow be in a position to make movies. It was insane to dream that. And if we did, we would make a movie about the Milan story. That was about 1970, and 16 years later we actually did it.
Where did you find the gyms you filmed in?
We stayed in Indianapolis for 10 days and drove around from sun up until sun down looking for places to shoot. We found a gym in Waveland, Indiana, that had everything we wanted, except they wanted to build a new school, and the movie would have delayed it by a year. It would have ended up being a tourist spot if we filmed there. People from all over the world still come to see where the movie Hoosiers was shot. We filmed in a gym in Knightstown, at a school in Nineveh, and the main street scenes were shot in New Richmond, Indiana. Other scenes were shot around the state.
Growing up in Indiana and playing varsity basketball, did you feel a special bond to the fictional town of Hickory?
My town was small but not as small as Hickory. Hoosiers was my one movie that was more about where I came from, the people that I know, and the place that has such great memories. We had a strong sense of community in Indiana. That is why so many people can identify with the film.
What did the local people think?
People were very excited. They would travel from different areas to come and sit in the bleachers in the gym scenes. They followed us everywhere. The guys from the barbershop and café scenes would come to the gym shoots so they would be in both scenes with their familiar faces. A big busload came to the Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University for the final game. The people were loyal to us and even came to the premier in Indianapolis dressed in tuxedos and formal gowns.
We had a couple huge tryouts in downtown Indianapolis before we gave a script to anyone. We knew we wouldn’t find any actors who could believably play basketball as well as most good players in Indiana. We put guys out on the floor for five to 10 minutes and picked the best players. Then we watched about 50 of them for a certain look.
In our Los Angeles tryout, David Neidorf was the only kid we found, and he ended up playing Dennis Hopper’s son. I looked for kids who matched the personalities of the characters in the script. I knew I couldn’t teach these non-actors to act in two weeks. We had twice-a-day workouts and practices. The boys formed a wonderful bond and hung out in hotel rooms together. Gene Hackman and I gave them little acting workshops. The kid who was cast as Ollie was really like him in real life. We told him to play himself. The guy who was cast as Strap knelt down and prayed before games in the movie. He actually ended up going to Bible college in real life.
When I am asked what I am most proud of in the film, it is the work that was done by those kids. They were amazing. If we didn’t have them, then the movie wouldn’t have worked.
Did you have any idea how far this film would go?
Hoosiers was about a second away from being sent to video. It almost didn’t make it to theaters. We never expected this [success]. People all over the world have seen it. I saw the movie in Moscow when Russia was communist. Three-thousand people were there, and the first three rows were Russian Army officers. The film got a standing ovation. It made me think about the days and nights shooting in Indiana, and how we wondered if anyone would see it. A student going to school in Paris wrote his thesis statement on Hoosiers. There are many stories like these about how it has touched people.
Do you have advice for kids who may want to follow in your footsteps?
You must have an extraordinary passion for what you want to do. Listen to your heart and gut and decide what is best for you. My time at Indiana University was most helpful to me. Once I went to grad school at USC, it was nothing but film and very intensive. Things young people have at their disposal today are different than we had. Today you can make a movie for next to nothing.
Photographs by (from top): Hoosiers; Ethan Miller/Getty Images