If you’re a sports fan, there’s nothing quite like the rush of watching a half-court buzzer-beater or a Super Bowl-winning touchdown in the final seconds of the game. There’s just something remarkable about a group of individuals uniting to accomplish something greater than themselves. It’s a trait that’s inherently cinematic, however, simply recreating the excitement of game day for a feature film isn’t enough. All the best sports movies understand that the power and impact of their story represent more than a game. For almost 20 years, producer Mark Ciardi (“The Rookie,” “Invincible” and “Miracle“) has lived by that philosophy delivering some of Disney’s most poignant character dramas through the lens of popular athletic contests as a means for sparking a larger conversation. The former baseball player turned producer now takes his talents to Disney+ to deliver the story of 18-year-old Ray-Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves) who fights to not only keep his Clemson football scholarship but, most importantly stepping up to care for his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) after their mother enters rehab in “Safety.”
Ray’s story is one many young athletes can relate to, yet, it’s a story rarely represented on the big screen. Learning how to divide one’s time and balance both athletics and academics is enough of a challenge. However, when you factor in a troubled home life, it becomes an almost impossible task to rise to. Ray and his little brother, Fahmarr, understand that all too well, but, hope that their story can give some encouragement to young athletes looking for guidance.
“It’s not a forever thing,” said Ray. “You can change the environment in which you live in. It might take a little time, but, if you are the best version of yourself, than you can change your situation. If you continue to move forward, education is key. Learn as much as you can learn, as fast as you can. That’s a way out of your situation. Be smart, continue reading, find someone smarter than you to hang with and just keep going. Never give up.”
While “Safety” has been in development since 2010, Mark Ciardi understood the importance of getting it made delivering encouraging messages of family, maturity, and parenthood as he continued to advocate for it. Even when given the green light, Ciardi wanted to make sure he captured the proper emotions of Ray’s moment as the crew headed to Clemson to film in Memorial Stadium for a live football game.
“This movie isn’t about winning a national championship or being an all-American, or intercepting the game-winning touchdown, not at all,” said Ciardi. “It’s about everything that happens off the field. Ray’s a D1 scholarship athlete, that’s a big deal, all while being a father figure to his younger brother. It’s an incredible story and we had to get the football right, that setting right and got such an amazing opportunity to shoot at Clemson for a live football game. Everything you got to get on the field, you have to get off the field. That’s where the emotion is. That’s really where the story can move you. It’s what got me interested when it happened in 2006. We’ve been together on this for a long time and it’s definitely surreal. I never wanted to give up this movie. I knew that it could make a really great movie that people would love and you just got to be persistent as a producer. So I’m really happy for Ray that he gets to experience this and his story is going to touch so many people.”
You can listen to the rest of our conversation with Mark Ciardi and Ray-Ray McElrathbey below and check out “Safety” when it hits Disney+ on Dec. 11.
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Additional Reporting by Ronald E. Smith