Hyped up on Slurpees from 7-Eleven, teenage Rainn Wilson used to play in chess competitions. Decades later looks back on the experience fondly, noting with astonishment that he has never seen such an eclectic group of people all participating in the same sport — or at least he hadn’t until “We Are the Champions.”
The first season of that Netflix anthological docuseries from Dirty Robber, which Wilson executive produces and also narrates, consists of six episodes, each of which centers on an utterly unique competition and the equally unparalleled people who participate in the events. From cheese rolling to frog jumping to dog dancing, the team behind the show endeavored to find some truly niche sports and share them with a global audience.
The idea first started with executive producer and director Brian Golden Davis, who made a film in this space years prior. But the assembled team of Davis, his fellow executive producers and directors Nick Frew and Martin Desmond Roe, and executive producers Chris Uetwiller and Wilson took that idea and ran with it, coming up with more than 130 competitions that they believed would make interesting episodes.
“The real job was to find the people. We didn’t want to laugh at it — we didn’t want you to mock these things — we wanted to find people that cared profoundly about these experiences, and we wanted to find out why. If we fell in love with the people, we fell in love with the sport and suddenly we had the arc,” Roe tells Variety.
The people became so important to the nature of the storytelling for “We Are the Champions” that when a specific couple decided not to compete in a wife-carrying contest, the producers decided that episode wouldn’t make it in the season. Similarly, although they were looking for obscure competitions and events, they ended up including the Cooper’s Hill cheese-rolling competition, a “pretty famous” event in the Bristol area of England, notes Roe, because they found Florence Early, the woman who held the record in wins and had broken her collarbone during the previous year’s event but was still planning to compete again in order to be the most successful female cheese chaser of all time. “We were like, ‘That story just writes itself,'” Roe says.
But sometimes the subjects of the episodes weren’t just people. A very special episode in the first season for both Roe and Wilson was the dog dancing episode, which Roe directed. Neither had ever heard of the sport prior to working on this show, but both fell in love with the intensity of it and the personalities involved.
“This is like a real life ‘Best in Show’ where the stakes are as high as you could possibly imagine,” Wilson says. “When you watch them compete you’re like, ‘This is ridiculous,’ but then you go, ‘This is beautiful.’ You literally go back and forth, and back and forth. That was the one that really got me.”
That dichotomy of emotional response when watching the show was something Wilson wanted to be sure to capture in his narration, as well. “There’s a line between too mocking and too genuine and earnest,” he admits, noting that the process for this show saw him recording narration over multiple cuts of episodes and helping to build the stories, rather than simply entering a recording booth for an hour at the end. “What we’re trying to do is very nuanced and difficult. We want to celebrate these incredible sports people and their incredible achievements with great heart and warmth and at the same time really honor the absurdity of the story.”
All of the episodes required following the subjects around for lengthy periods of time, but Roe shares that the dog dancing episode was weeks of following the Russian National Team. “I was in Moscow for a week and a half and we did a lot of practice and were filming to see who we were going to focus on. And then we followed the bus. They were going to drive from Moscow to Verona, Italy with 11 women and 12 dogs and two drivers and ‘Do you want to film that?’ ‘Oh my God I want to film that!'” Roe says.
Then they got to the competition itself, which was another week of filming, and they wrapped up with a few days of extra beauty shots of the partners performing.
“There were a lot of rules about how we could film the competition or couldn’t. We covered with eight cameras. They had to be relatively far away in the space,” Roe says. However, a concern was not that they would distract the dogs, even if they had to get close up in their faces. “The trainers would get frustrated that we were too close [but] those dogs are insanely well-trained. They let me do a routine on the last day, after the competition was done, and it’s absolutely extraordinary: his head was against my side in a way he was putting real pressure against it as we were walking, and it made me nervous, the level to which he did whatever I asked. If I turned, he turned; if I stopped, he stopped on a dime. I’d never experienced that level of connection to an animal. That was quite humbling.”
As the production team was filming, they never knew if the subjects they were following would be the winners of the competitions or not. But in a way that almost didn’t matter. “They all take these sports as seriously as professional athletes take their sports — as LeBron James [takes basketball]; it’s like the last days of Michael Jordan, only with frogs,” says Wilson. “These are beautiful stories of amazing people overcoming tremendous odds, and it’s a little bit absurd and it’s a little bit beautiful, and it’s kind of like life.”
What they were looking for each time were “underdogs.” Roe notes that each competition “We Are the Champions” followed in the first season has its own “class system or pecking order, the level of skill to be successful at each of these things is different,” so sometimes there was no one underdog IN the competition, but rather everyone in the competition could be seen as one because the competition itself was so little-known.
“We wanted to take the skills we learned making films and apply it to these people who never normally get treated this way. Let’s celebrate their individuality,” Roe says.
Even though Dirty Robber has produced high-end sports projects from “Kobe Bryant’s Muse” to “Shut Up & Dribble,” “We Are the Champions” still delivered new challenges for the team: “None of these sports have coverage,” Roe points out. “No one’s ever filmed frog jumping or cheese rolling in a way you could call it a competitive sport, so that was part of it: we had to come up with the way to shoot it.”
A dynamic visual style was important to the show, but in the end, that was just to enhance the stories. “It really is all about finding out about the human condition by asking why someone has invested themselves in these things,” Roe says. “The nature of what drives each competition is quite different and there are fundamentally different motivating elements to the competition, but what unites everything is this sense of extraordinary passion in the community around whatever these niche interests are.”
“We Are the Champions” is streaming now on Netflix.