“This season is as much about football as about Americans figuring out how to return to work,” NFL Films’ Tim Rumpff says
Season 15 of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” didn’t require directors Tim Rumpff and Shannon Furman to completely rewrite the book on how to film the acclaimed NFL training camp docuseries, but COVID-19 did require them to rewrite several chapters.
“We knew things would be different since we were covering two teams instead of one,” Furman, who oversaw filming at the Los Angeles Chargers training camp in Costa Mesa while Rumpff led filming of the L.A. Rams training camp in Thousand Oaks, told TheWrap. “Then COVID-19 came and we had to change even further. We were under the same NFL safety protocols as the players and coaches and we had to make changes to where we positioned our cameras to keep our distance. We ended up relying a lot on Zoom meetings and cameras we had set up in the offices.”
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But beyond just the logistics of filming during the pandemic, “Hard Knocks: Los Angeles” had to work outside of the format that has made the series an HBO mainstay. Preseason games, which make up 15 minutes of each episode and allow the NFL Films team to flex their cinematic muscles, have been canceled this year. Plans for the fourth episode had to be scrapped after the Kenosha shooting made headlines. The season has focused on national issues as much as about the usual preseason business of contract holdouts, film room sessions, two-minute drills and 53-man roster cuts.
But Rumpff thinks that in the long run, this has created the most relatable “Hard Knocks” ever.
“This season, especially the first episode, is as much about football as about Americans figuring out how to return to work,” he says. “The teams are going through a process that, in some important ways, is much like what a lot of people in the country are going through as they try to process everything that’s happening right now.”
The season finale of “Hard Knocks” airs tonight on HBO and HBO Max. Check out a sneak peek in the clip above and read more from our interview with Rumpff and Furman below. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Beyond the preseason cancellations this year for COVID purposes, there have been talks between the NFL and the players’ union about extending the regular season an extra week and shortening the preseason. Since those preseason games have been a core part of “Hard Knocks,” do you think that this season has helped you adapt for the future if the league makes that move?
Furman: I think it could. When they canceled the preseason games, we found that having two teams was a blessing in disguise because we had double the material. I think what we just did was make other milestones bigger events, like the first practice with pads on and the team scrimmage that the Rams had at SoFi Stadium. We’ve never ever had a shortage of content, so while people are going to miss the live football if they drop some preseason games, there’s so much left on the cutting room floor that I don’t think we’re ever going to be starved for good storylines.
You found some great rookies to follow this season like Darius Bradwell, Clay Johnston and Dont’e Deayon. Tell us about how you settled on those guys.
Furman: Every season, we do months of research on all the players and coaches on the team, but especially the draftees and the free agents joining the team. With the Chargers, it was particularly special because that team had Austin Ekeler, who went from undrafted and on the practice squad to starting spot because of his preseason games So that was a major factor in us focusing on Darius Bradwell because he’s in the same spot but doesn’t have those games to prove himself to the coaches. Even the head coach, Anthony Lynn, got in the league the same way because he went undrafted out of college.
Rumpff: Before training camp, we also talk with all the players about who they think would be a good teammate for the show, if they know someone who’s funny or intense or whatever. We knew about Clay going in because his father coached Brett Favre, but a lot of guys on the Rams told us, “Throw a mic on Dont’e.” He’s a really fun guy and it was this amazing bit of luck when the team finished moving the camp lockers into this larger, more socially distant space and Dont’e got his right between the bathrooms. It was just this great, spontaneous, hilarious moment that you can never expect but is always amazing to get on camera.
This season also had two great coaches in Anthony Lynn and Sean McVay, who are at very different points of their coaching careers. What was your biggest impression of them as you filmed them during camp and at their homes?
Rumpff: My biggest impression of Sean, and his wife discusses it on the show, is just how much he loves football. With other coaches in past seasons, we’ve usually seen them talk about other stuff while on the field, so we’ve come to expect something offbeat or unexpected during camp. The Rams don’t have any of that. With Sean, it is just 100% all about the game. He’s always in game mode and running around to all the players and they’re all focused on the game, and it’s a notable change from the teams we’ve featured in the past.
Furman: I’m really glad we finally got the opportunity to put the spotlight on Anthony. I’ve had a relationship with him since we did “Hard Knocks” with the [New York] Jets in 2010. I was an assistant producer back then and he was a running backs coach and we’ve been friends ever since. I’m proud of how he’s come across in this show. He’s very hands-on, very intense; and being a former RB himself, he loves coaching Austin and Darius and the other backs himself. It’s been great to show him talking with his players about football on the field and about social issues and COVID in Zoom meetings in his office and just introduce who he is to the world.
In the sports world, we’ve seen the NBA and UFC succeed with the bubble structure and MLB has seemed to find a groove though there was a slew of players who tested positive in the early days of the shortened baseball season. Based on what you’ve seen with the Rams and Chargers, how optimistic are you that the NFL can get through this season without a huge outbreak among players?
Rumpff: I’m pretty optimistic. Granted, I don’t think we can make a judgment on the preparedness of the entire league because we were with just two teams, but the protocols we’ve seen so far have been very thorough, and there’s a lot more of those in place for when the season starts and teams start traveling. I think on our end, we felt very safe, and the players were able to adjust to the new rules once they got used to it. Like everyone else, we’re just feeling things out and adapting as we learn more from the experts.
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