"I'm not the kind of viewer who usually goes to see this kind of movie," director Boaz Yakin admits of his latest film, "Remember the Titans," a Walt Disney film based on the true story of a high school football team that helped desegregate a Southern city in 1971. "I'm from the independent film world. I'm not a big sentimentalist."
Blunt, edgy Yakin previously earned kudos for his Sundance-winner "Fresh," about a black Brooklyn boy who thwarts rival drug-lords. He raised ire with "A Price Above Rubies," about a Chassidic woman burning with suppressed sexuality, which so angered observant Jews that dozens turned out to shut down production in Borough Park.
Yakin wrote both those movies and didn't fancy himself a director for hire. But he couldn't get a job for a year after "Rubies," until producer Jerry Bruckheimer approached him to direct "Titans," starring Denzel Washington. "It's not a Boaz Yakin film," the filmmaker acknowledges, "but it's a nice story with a good message. ... And I realized that unless I made a mainstream movie, I'd be fighting an uphill battle for the rest of my life."
Yakin is used to conflict. His Israeli-born parents, who met while studying pantomime with Marcel Marceau in Paris, were secular Jews, but, settled on the Upper West Side in New York, they sent young Boaz to an Orthodox yeshiva in the Bronx. Apparently, they wanted their son to learn Hebrew. "But it was a very schizophrenic existence," says the director, who was called into the principal's office at age 8 for contradicting the principle of creationism.
While his parents immersed themselves in the theater (both taught at Juilliard), Boaz experienced a segregation as intense as his characters' in "Remember the Titans." His high school, he recalls, consisted of "120 pimply Jewish boys stuck up in Riverdale," but Yakin was scared to transfer. "When you grow up isolated, you become afraid of the outside world," he says. "I was afraid of going to school with Blacks and Asians." Even when he finally escaped to the Bronx High School of Science, he confides, "I could hardly stammer a word out around girls due to 10 years in yeshiva."
"A Price Above Rubies," he insists, wasn't so much his revenge as his exploration of the way all patriarchal societies stifle individuals. ("Sympathy for the Devil," his upcoming movie, will give Southern Pentecostal Christians the same treatment.)
In the meantime, "Titans," for Yakin, has been a kind of "Big-Budget Filmmaking 101" - one that began with an intensive research period in Alexandria. The director visited the home of coach Herman Boone, the strong-willed African American who "literally streamrolled" his Black and white players into accepting each other. He tooled around Alexandria with Bill Yoast, the gentle white assistant coach whose daughter, Sheryl, was obsessed with football.
At one point Yoast stopped at a cemetery with a startling revelation: Sheryl, who is depicted in the film as a precocious 9-year-old, was buried there, Yoast said. "I hadn't known that she was dead," says the filmmaker, who is slated to direct and co-write "Batman Beyond" for Warner Bros. "I thought about that constantly on the shoot. I knew how happy it would make Bill that his daughter could live up there on the screen, at least for a while."