The Holy Game Director Brent Hodge on His Approach to Documentaries

(Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

The Holy Game is the latest documentary film from director Brent Hodge (I Am Chris FarleyFreaks and Geeks: The Documentary) and Hodgee Films. The documentary launches on CRAVE today in Canada, and is being launched by Gravitas in the U.S. and worldwide for Digital and Cable on Demand Release on June 29, 2021. The doc offers an exclusive look at an officially sanctioned Vatican soccer tournament for priests. Beyond the Vatican walls, there is a soccer championship like no other in which young priests in seminary from around the world gather to play in the Clericus Cup. The film explores religion, sport, and tradition, and examines why people around the world still sacrifice so much to become a priest.

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief spoke with Brent Hodge about The Holy Game, what drew him to the project, his editing philosophy, and his upcoming documentary on Martin Shkreli. Check out the full talk below.

Tyler Treese: The Holy Game is a look at an officially sanctioned Vatican soccer tournament for priests, and just hearing those words aloud, just kind of blew my mind. How did you hear about this and what really drove you to do a documentary on it?

Brent Hodge: I don’t know why, but when you say it, I really want to watch that movie now. The sentence, I’m like, “Oh wow. I got to see that.” So, Chris Kelly, he’s the co-director with me, his dad’s a deacon and he told us about it. He’s like, “You guys like to do pop culture stuff, and Brent, you’ve done some quirky movies. Like, this is a really weird story, but you should look into it.” So he told us about this tournament and within a couple of days we went over. So before the pandemic, we went over and checked it out, and then that’s how we started. We just got in and met these characters. Through that year we went home with them and they were all coming back for their final year of seminary school.

We’re like, this is amazing. This is like college kids graduating. Their last year of school. We can relate to this. Chris is Catholic and I’m absolutely not Catholic, and so there was this, this really good sort of back and forth between me and him and the opinions of what the thing was. I was like, this is a way we can get in and tell like a real story about Catholicism with a soccer backbone. So that’s how it started.

Was it challenging getting access to the tournament?

It wasn’t challenging getting access because of Chris and his dad and how they could open that up, but we had a meeting with the Vatican Press Association right away. They were fine with us filming, that wasn’t hard. Getting them to actually open up and want to be on camera [was hard]. I think when you say Catholicism and documentary, their arms, go up. They’re like, “Ah, we know what this is.” So I would say access wasn’t hard, but vulnerability and authenticity took time.

Brent Hodge The Holy Game

Your career has really spanned so many different types of documentaries. How do you tackle editing for each of these different types of documentary and the presentation? Because some are far more serious with the subject matter, while some have a more comedic side to it.

I love that you said that because I’ve always gotten into these and I always got into films and especially documentaries and going like, “Okay, there’s a lot of documentaries now. It’s really expanded. The industry is doing well and so that sort of separates you from just doing docs into, I do nature docs or music docs, or political, social docs, music docs.” I just found that there was nobody that was tackling comedy docs. Like real life, it’s so funny. Why are there not that many comedy docs out there? The influences that I really liked were Brett Morgen, The Kid Stays in the Picture, or Rachel [Grady] and Heidi [Ewing] did Jesus Camp. These are like my zone. I really liked these really weird films. Exit Through the Gift Shop [by Banksy].

I was like, no one’s doing this. So I started approaching all of my films that way. I was like, okay, if I did a music doc, what’s it going to look like? And then it would be Who Let the Dogs Out, the film we did. Or if I do a biopic, it’s going to be Chris Farley, and then I saw sports and I was like, what do we do for sports? And The Holy Game is a perfect example of this weird quirky world. How do we get in? What’s funny and weird about this real-life thing and let’s start there. The Holy Game‘s not that funny though. That’s the difference between The Holy Game and the other ones. The other ones have an easy way to laugh because the subject matter itself is funny and you just go in.

With The Holy Game, I think the subject matter is funny. Priests playing soccer is kind of funny and you expect it to be like old Friar Tuck, you know, bald guys, but it’s not. It’s like these young GQ priests, but I will say like, once you get in, there’s some subjects within Catholicism that you can’t joke about at all. That was like an interesting realization for me. The priest getting kicked out of the priesthood or going over some of the scandals, you can’t just like have a light touch on that. You have to really go in. So The Holy Game is a bit of a different beast, but I always go comedy first. I have this theory that if you can make them laugh, you can make them listen, and I feel like if you can get people in with a joke, you can actually talk about a really serious subject in documentaries and it works. So that’s sort of how we edit. That’s how we go into these, but The Holy Game is a bit of an exception.

You talked about the challenge of getting the subjects of the documentary to really open up and feel comfortable around the cameras. How did you wind up doing that?

That was all time with this one. So, and it’s funny because the people you think are going to open up quick, “Oh, we’ll follow the North American soccer team. They speak English. We know they’re emotional. We know they’ll open up.” Well, the reality is that North Americans aren’t that great at soccer. So they’re not going to be the ones that make it to the finals. They didn’t, they only made it to the quarter-finals. Picking the characters was hard and I sort of go through and we do have to find a team that will probably make it. So you go from 36 teams down to, in the last 10 years of the Clericus Cup, there are six teams that have gone to the final. Then within those teams, there’s 30 people who are the players. Who is that one player you want to follow? Because you can’t follow everybody. You can’t follow every team.

We picked really well. I wanted sort of a diversity of opinions on Catholicism, when you meet Duarte [Rosado] who’s the Jesuit, there’s a lot of doubt in about whether this is a life that he wants. That was my main mission to try to figure out why somebody wants to be a priest in this day and age. Like there’s nothing that really leads you to wanting to do this right now. I think he was very open. So that was my big question to start: why would you want to be a priest? We just sort of gravitate towards different people that want to be on camera.

I would say once I went to all their houses. Once I went to Detroit, to Boston, to Portugal, and kind of came back with them for that final year, that’s when I felt they were really open to the camera, but it took a lot of time. Small crews. We didn’t really do this as a big [thing]. A lot of these shoots are really casual. I’m pretty structured. It’s how we do documentaries. You know, you treat them like, like any film, you have a call sheet, you have to do this, but we didn’t do that on this film. It was like, we’re going to hang out with Duarte all day. We’re going to roll cameras when he’s comfortable. Some of the best scenes we got were just me at dinner with a camera and we started talking and when he opens up on camera really about love and celibacy and all this, we started filming that. I don’t even know if it was in focus. You’re like, we have to capture these when it’s the right time versus trying to structure it.

What was your biggest takeaway from spending time with all these people that have sacrificed so much out of devotion to religion in order to become a priest?

Well, I think you just said it in the right way of like that understanding. I didn’t grow up with Catholicism. I sort of find it airy-fairy in some ways where I’m like, oh, this is hilarious. That’s what you believe in? This thing? Like, what is this? How can you? What’s the structure of it? I’ll say that they gave me their reason to believe in why they have faith, why they have a value system in this, and that it does great for some people. Because I’ve only just seen the documentaries and there’s only like two types. There’s hard-hitting Catholic, for very good reason these films exist, hard-hitting journalist–type films about the inner workings of the seminary system, how wrong it is. And then the other side of it is the Catholic church putting on their own films, which they produce and they’re usually pretty cheesy.

So it’s always very black and white. I would say, what I learned most is there is some gray in there. There’s some responsibility that this new age of priests needs to take on. Huge responsibility. There’s a lot of stuff that’s coming out and you’re like, you’re the next generation? Show me what you’re going to do. But on the other side, like they gave me the reason why it works for them and what kind of person they become and I got to see that firsthand. I met some really great individuals. So I would say that that was my learning curve. Co-directing with Chris was huge because I don’t just come in as naive before. He’s like, here’s why they do mass here, why this is the way it is. Oh, okay, well now I know, but I still don’t really know why they want to become priests right now. It doesn’t seem like a great time to me.

You’ve done documentaries on such a wide range of subject matter. What’s your creative process? Is it just something catches your eye and you want to take a deep dive or how do you figure out what’s next for you?

I mean, this is a great example of the process. This film because I heard about it and then couldn’t sleep that night because I kept thinking about it and looking it up. Then within a week we’re already over there and we just book flights and land. That to me is a great idea. No one’s done this. I’ve never seen a film on this. I really am curious about this. It’s sort of like a little bit of a conduit of the human experience where you’re like, if I am so curious about this, then I’ll just get on a flight and go check it out. Then within there, there’s a structure, there’s characters, and twists and turns. There’s no way I could have ever dreamt up that a priest would get kicked out of the priesthood in the film, but that’s insane. That’s stuff you can’t write. That’s stranger than fiction.

But where I start is usually I just know in my gut when I’m like, oh, this is so much bigger than just an idea. Cause I’m already ready to go. That’s the sort of beauty of documentary, you don’t have to write a script. You don’t really have to get that much funding to start. The barrier to entry is much easier than scripted project. So for me, I sort of let that lead. Where I’m like, well, if the barrier to entry is low, then let’s set up a development fund where you can go and try things. I will tell you that not all of them work out, but that’s where I start. I have to trust when I know it’s a great one and that it’s worthy of the audience to pursue it. For like the audience to see something. The other thing that’s really changed is the length of documentary is used to be a huge factor for me. So I’d go, “Ah, that’s a good idea, but it’s only something like a 10-minute long film.” That doesn’t matter really anymore like Netflix will pick up like a 12-minute movie or they’ll pick up like a seven-hour movie. That’s what’s totally changed. So no idea is bad at this point. It’s just a matter of length. That’s really exciting and it’s really changed things for me.

In the future, I saw that you were working on a documentary about Martin Shkreli. What do you find fascinating about him? What can we expect to see from that? That’s an interesting topic.

Martin Shkreli. So you know how I was saying, like, what does a sports doc look like for me? What does a biopic doc look like for me. If I was going to do a history doc, it’s not going to be the Vietnam war, it’s going to be Freaks and Geeks, which we put out. A music doc isn’t going to be Bruce Springsteen. It’ll probably be Who Let the Dogs Out. There’s always sort of a different sliver of culture of what we like to do. So now we’ve gone further and like, oh yeah, what does the food doc look like? What is a pharmaceutical doc look like? Oh, it’s this guy to me. This guy is, he’s sort of the interesting pop culture zeitgeist of how our generation looks at pharma. Young dude buys a Wu-Tang album gets put in jail. That he has in his hands the ability to have a patent for a cure for somebody, that he’s someone that distributes pharmaceuticals is insane.

That’s exactly that feeling where you’re like this is crazy. Whether you like this guy or not, you’ve got to look into this. I think it’s sort of a look at real-life supervillains too where you’re like is everybody good and bad? Is there a gray? Who is this guy? Let’s dive into that a little more. These are stranger than fiction stories. Like that alone, that sentence alone, pharmaceutical CEO buys Wu-Tang Clan album for $2 million and gets put in jail for wire fraud. Like I’d watch that. That’s amazing.

And then he became like a shitposter on Twitter for the longest time. Like what a wild range that is.

We really sort of explore all this too. In troll culture, online culture that you’re presenting yourself online, recording everything. Recording everything got him in a lot of trouble, right? He, he ends up saying while he’s supposed to bail and he is waiting for his sentencing, says that he wants a clipping of Hillary Clinton’s hair and that’s what puts him in jail. And you’re like, that’s just a sentence. That’s a kid joking around online, but the reality is that’s also a man threatening an ex-Senator, and has followers who can follow through on things. So, you know, your words are valuable, they’re important. They mean something and they can affect people.

I think there’s a huge sort of bigger story. It’s that it’s that if you can make them laugh, you can make them listen sort of effect. The sentence on a Shkreli or the sentence on The Holy Game that gets you in might not be the movie you think you’re going to watch because we’re actually going to do a hard-hitting film on Catholicism. This is presented a different way. We’re going to show you a soccer tournament that kind of gives you an arc throughout, but we’re going to hit all those topics, the topics that you sorta need to hit. If you’re going to do a film about Catholicism, you can’t shy away from those topics. I really do not admire when films do that. If it’s produced by like a Catholic production company and like, you’re really not going to go there. You’re not going to go where everybody is wondering. So anyway, that’s all these films, that’s Shkreli. That’s everything that we’re up to right now.

What do you really hope that people take away from The Holy Game? Especially people like yourself that maybe aren’t Catholics and they just have questions about the church and want to learn.

I think that I want people to take away first and foremost like it’s entertainment. I want them to have a good time watching it. I feel like a lot of documentaries, and this isn’t a hack at documentaries cause I’m in this industry and I really admire and love everyone who puts effort into making one, but a lot of them leave you feeling pretty horrible about the world. Like really horrible. They don’t need to. Like the world sucks in a lot of ways, but this is entertaining and this is real life. I don’t want to try and say I want you to feel different about the Catholic church. That is absolutely not the goal. What I want you to know that there is entertaining stories within any world.

I think the big takeaway though, is there’s an education. There’s like a world you’ve never seen. I want people to be able to sort of look into that world without judgment at the start. Without their guard up, see that there are humans in there. See that there are things wrong, and we address it, see that you can relate to the fact that these are just some college kids that are graduating from school and don’t know what to do with their lives. We’ve all been there. That’s how I could relate because I can’t relate to the Catholic part. I had a really hard time with that part. What I can relate to is the fact that you were young once, and you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The difference between these guys and the stakes between these guys in my life is that their life goes to God. My life goes to whatever I want. And that, to me, it was like an interesting exploration. And I just want everyone to go to Rome because I think it’s a great city too. So travel to Rome when the COVID ban lifts.