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Originally published February 26, 2012 at 5:05 AM | Page modified February 27, 2012 at 12:33 AM

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Seattle native TJ Martin heads to Oscars with his documentary 'Undefeated'

An interview with TJ Martin, Seattle native and Academy Award nominee, for the documentary film "Undefeated."

Seattle Times movie critic

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The Academy Awards air Sunday on ABC; live red-carpet coverage begins at 4 p.m., ceremony at 5:30 p.m. For more information: www.oscar.com. Seattle Times critic Moira Macdonald and Co. will chat with readers live during the program. Red carpet begins at 4, ceremony at 5:30.

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The story of this documentary is inspiring both for what's in it, and what went into it... MORE

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Seattle native TJ Martin, an Oscar nominee for best documentary ("Undefeated"), knew that he'd be mingling with some of cinema's finest at the Academy Awards nominee luncheon earlier this month. But he wasn't quite prepared for who was standing near him.

A tradition of the annual luncheon is a group photo, and Martin took his place as instructed in the fifth row. "I get up there," he remembered on the phone last week, "and there were two people talking behind me. I thought 'I recognize those voices.' I turn around and it's [Steven] Spielberg on my left and [Martin] Scorsese on my right. It was insane!"

It's been a journey full of pinch-me moments for Martin, who grew up on Capitol Hill and the Central District and graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1997. Now 32, he's been a filmmaker since his days at Western Washington University, where he began his first film (the documentary "A Day of Hype in America"). From there, he moved to Los Angeles — his current base — and got work as a film editor.

Martin had met Dan Lindsay (co-director of "Undefeated") when both were hired to work on a documentary about beer pong. (No kidding.) Wanting to direct a film together, they came to producer Rick Middlemas, who had a story idea: He'd read online about East Memphis high-school star football player O.C. Brown, who lived part-time with his grandmother and part-time with his coach as he struggled with preparations for college-eligibility tests. The trio met with Brown and thought of making a film about him — "kind of an intimate coming-of-age film, watching him navigate these seemingly disparate worlds."

As they spent more time in Memphis, the potential story got bigger. They met Bill Courtney, the team's volunteer coach; a bear of a man still haunted by his absent father, and determined to help his often fatherless athletes succeed. Other student athletes emerged: the ever-likable Money, a strong student determined to earn a college scholarship; Chavis, a troubled young man whose personal demons follow him onto the field. This could be, the filmmakers determined, more than a sports film: It was a story about fathers and sons, about opportunity and the lack of it, and about resilience and perseverance in a world that doesn't always unfold like a movie.

Working as a crew of two, in order to be as nonintrusive as possible, Martin and Lindsay shot more than 500 hours of footage of the 2009-2010 football season, on and off the field. The resulting film made its debut at South by Southwest in Austin in the spring of last year, and was quickly snapped up by The Weinstein Company for distribution. It screened at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival in the fall, and began a theatrical run — timed for Super Bowl season — earlier this month. (The Seattle release date is currently undetermined, but likely sometime in March.)

"This film has really carved its own path," said Martin. "We couldn't have predicted it, every stage of the way."

The Academy shortlist of 15 documentary semifinalists was released in November — Martin said their inclusion was "completely unexpected" — and the five final nominees announced Jan. 24. Martin says he didn't get up early on nomination day (the announcement comes at 5:30 a.m. on the West Coast) but struggled to fall asleep the night before, feeling "really nervous." A Weinstein publicist called with the good news, and a groggy Martin thought it was "a sick, twisted joke she was playing" and hung up on her. A flood of phone calls, emails and texts just seconds later convinced him that this was no joke.

For Oscar night, Martin will suit up in his first tuxedo, supplied by Brooks Brothers, and will bring "Undefeated" executive producer Seth Gordon (also a Seattle native) as his "date." Though Martin, Lindsay and Middlemas are the actual nominees, there were a core of six — also including Ed Cunningham and Glen Zipper — who, Martin said, made the film happen. "Our dates are going to be the other producers that really championed this project early on."

Post-Oscars, Martin's looking forward to the national rollout of "Undefeated," and is watching with interest as a possible remake of the film is discussed. (Weinstein purchased both distribution and remake rights, and Sean Combs has expressed interest in a feature-film version of the story.) But for now, he's enjoying the whirlwind of press and activity that comes with being an Oscar nominee.

"There's no doubt that we are extremely honored to be recognized among [filmmakers] that we have been following for years," Martin said, mentioning fellow documentary nominees Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (of the "Paradise Lost" films). "It's not only an honor, but it's totally surreal."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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