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The Cult Sports Movie That Tackled the Underbelly of Fandom

‘Big Fan,’ Robert Siegel and Patton Oswalt’s ode to a sad New York Giants fan from Staten Island, is the best sports movie that’s not about sports ever made

Harrison Freeman

This week on The Ringer, we celebrate those movies that from humble or overlooked beginnings rose to prominence through the support of their obsessive fan bases. The movies that were too heady for mainstream audiences; the comedies that were before their time; the small indies that changed the direction of Hollywood. Welcome to Cult Movie Week.

As a Long Island kid in the late 1970s and ’80s, Robert Siegel would lay under his covers at night and listen to sports-talk radio. He still remembers the callers’ thick accents. “Always guys from Queens, always guys from Brooklyn,” the filmmaker says. “I was living my sheltered, suburban Jewish experience. Those people in other parts of New York were so … exotic.”

They were the kinds of memorably downtrodden minor figures that populated Siegel’s favorite movies: Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, Saturday Night Fever. But he’d never seen a film about the type of aging schlub who’d phone WFAN and patiently stay on hold for hours just for a chance to air his grievances with pro athletes who weren’t even listening. So in the early 2000s, while serving as the editor in chief of satirical publication The Onion, he decided to write one himself. “Those voices I heard were ingrained in my head, burned into my brain from my teenage years,” says Siegel, who as a child shunned the mediocre Jets and Giants for the Steelers. “It very easily translated into a ’70s-style, gritty character study.”

Initially titled Paul Aufiero, the script centered on a 35-year-old Staten Island man who lives for the New York Giants and with his mother. He sleeps on a bed covered in NFL team sheets; a poster of his favorite player, Quantrell Bishop, hangs on the wall of his bedroom; he spends too much of his time both listening and calling in to a radio show hosted by the Sports Dogg. He bleeds blue, but doesn’t have anything else in his life. His allegiance—and entire existence—is tested, however, when Bishop nearly beats him to death in a strip club.

There are plenty of movies about the underbelly of sports, but only a few about the underbelly of sports fandom. Siegel’s screenplay explored what can happen when obsession overtakes identity. Uncoincidentally, Paul’s very first line of dialogue, part of a rant to the Sports Dogg, is: “I can’t tell you how sick I am …”

“I’ve never read anything like what Rob writes,” says Capone, Fantastic Four, and Chronicle director Josh Trank, who collaborated with Siegel on the project. “It’s not super colorful. If anything, it’s ridiculously economical, to a point where it’s almost as if the author of the words that you’re reading doesn’t want to get in between you and the basic experience of just being there with these characters.”

By the time Siegel’s script landed in the hands of Patton Oswalt, it had been floating around Hollywood for the better part of a decade. The story reminded the comedian of intimate ’70s classics like Five Easy Pieces and Wanda. “Instead of going into some convoluted plot or big concept, we’re going to hang out with this character, warts and all,” he says. “You go deep into one person, and that opens up the world in a weird way.”

But like many other original ideas before it, what eventually became Big Fan took a circuitous route to the big screen. And when the dramatic comedy did get made, it was a flop. But since its release in 2009, Siegel’s self-financed directorial debut has gained a cult following for the way it predicted the dangers of toxic fanboyism, just as social media had begun to supercharge its ugliness.

First Independent Films

Prior to Big Fan, pragmatism fueled Siegel’s screenwriting career. He’d written what he knew: comedies. Then, during his faux news organization’s annual three-week publishing break in the summer of 2002, he stopped worrying about churning out a script that could sell and instead worked on one that actually interested him.

Like countless New Yorkers, Siegel loved sports and Martin Scorsese. The Long Islander knew that he wanted his homage to his idol to revolve around a laughably small-minded fan who lived in a laughably small world. He’s a far more gentle but just as obsessive version of Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin.

Before calling into the Sports Dogg, Paul has to write out his diatribes. His mother laments that the only woman he’s dating is his “hand” and scolds him for the “doo-doo stains” that she sees while washing his underpants. He snarfs the edible photo of 50 Cent on his nephew’s birthday cake and retchingly pours sugar into his regular Coca-Cola. (“My dad used to do that,” Siegel says.) While following Bishop from a gas station to Stapleton, Staten Island, at 10:45 p.m., he’s too naive to realize that the Giants linebacker is picking up drugs.

Before starting to write, Siegel had to visit an acquaintance at a hospital. Upon entering and later exiting the parking garage, he wondered what the cashier’s life was like. At that moment, Siegel knew that Paul should toil as a booth attendant. “You’re in the crosshairs of people who are just having the worst day of their lives,” Siegel says. “Sometimes you have an idea gestating and then there’s some image that crystalizes it for you.”

Siegel wrote Paul Aufiero in 10 days: “It’s never happened before or since where something just poured out of me.” Without seeking any notes from development executives, he gave the script to his agent. Soon, there was an intrigued party: Darren Aronofsky. Over several meetings at coffee shops, the director of Requiem for a Dream and Siegel talked about the potential film’s direction. But then they had a problem. “The NFL issue,” Siegel says.

Unsurprisingly, the league doesn’t take kindly to being associated with films and TV shows as raw as Big Fan. The ESPN series Playmakers and Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday used fictional franchises for a reason. “The NFL is notoriously litigious,” Siegel says. “I mean, they have a rich history of lawsuits. Even if there’s nothing really objectionable, they just protect the shield. They will sue you.”

To make matters worse, all the major movie studios other than Sony were affiliated with networks that aired professional football games. Fox, NBC, and CBS each pay around $1 billion annually to broadcast the Sunday NFL slate; when the current rights deal is renegotiated next year, that figure may double. It makes sense that megacorporations wouldn’t want to jeopardize their lucrative relationship with the league for a tiny indie flick with zero blockbuster potential.

Aronofsky, and Siegel for that matter, had little desire to make a movie about a disturbed fan of a fake team. Without the presence of Giants logos and paraphernalia, Paul’s obsession just wouldn’t feel real. And so the screenplay languished. Trank first came across it when he was in his late teens; a friend of Amy Heckerling’s daughter, Trank had become an unofficial assistant to the Clueless director. “I was getting deeper and deeper into reading scripts,” Trank says. “Amy said to me, ‘You want to read a great script? Here’s this.’”

At one point or another, Paul Rudd, Rainn Wilson, Jason Reitman, and Todd Field all expressed interest in Siegel’s script. But none ever fully committed. Aronofsky moved on, too, but was so impressed with Siegel’s work that he hired him to write another bleak sports movie. This one, The Wrestler, did get made—to great acclaim. Yet even after working on an Academy Award–nominated film, Siegel couldn’t find any backers for his dream project. Finally, he took matters into his own hands.

“I just wanted this movie to exist,” Siegel says. “I said, ‘The only way I’m going to do it is if I do it myself and if I self-finance it.’ So that’s what I did.”

Coming off of The Wrestler, Siegel was able to put up $250,000 of his own money. In hindsight, dropping a quarter of a million dollars on a passion project wasn’t pragmatic. After all, his wife was pregnant. “To my never-ending gratitude,” he says, “she was cool with it.”

In search of guidance as to whether the NFL would actually sue him, Siegel sent his screenplay to Michael Donaldson, an entertainment attorney who’s worked extensively with independent filmmakers on rights issues. To Siegel’s shock, the veteran lawyer told him, “You can do this.”

“I said, ‘Well, what can I do?’” Siegel remembers. “He says, ‘You can do anything. You can show the logos. You can have the jerseys. You can talk about the teams. You can make up fictional players.’” The only thing Donaldson advised against was using actual game footage. “Beyond that,” Siegel recalls him saying, “everything is fair use.”

When it was time to find his Paul Aufiero, Siegel immediately targeted Patton Oswalt. Back in the aughts, Oswalt was best known for his stand-up and for his role on the sitcom The King of Queens. And while the comedian had voiced Remy in Pixar’s Ratatouille, he’d never carried a live-action movie. He also wasn’t a sports fan—but Siegel thought he could still understand the concepts of arrested development and obsession. “He just fit exactly what I wanted,” Siegel says. “He’s not a sports fan, but nerdy obsession is nerdy obsession, whether it’s the New York Giants or the MCU.”

Oswalt was a cinephile, a comic book nerd, and a voracious reader. He’d also written extensively about his own geekdom. “I understand wanting something bigger than yourself,” Oswalt tells me. “Everyone, I think, will find a different version of it, one way or the other. … That same kind of nerdy passion for other things—films, comics, books—I was just able to transfer to sports. It’s the same spark, it’s just different fuel.”

Even with barely any money, Siegel managed to assemble a small but talented cast of decorated character actors around Oswalt. Marcia Jean Kurtz plays Paul’s exasperated single mother, Theresa; Kevin Corrigan is his best friend Sal; and Michael Rapaport appears mostly as the disembodied voice of the rival sports-radio caller Philadelphia Phil. (The main reason Siegel made the working-class Paul a Giants fan and not a Jets fan was because Gang Green didn’t have a historical rival like the Eagles.)

“It was a very human script, very deeply human,” Kurtz says. “[It] really cared for these lonely people.”

“I was a big fan of Patton for years,” Corrigan said in an email. “I’d seen him perform. I had all his records. In the movie, Sal looks up to Paul. He loves listening to his friend. He loves Paul’s act. I really felt that way about Patton.”

Gino Cafarelli, who plays Paul’s ambulance-chasing brother Jeff, remembers getting a phone call from Siegel about the part. “He goes, ‘I was scanning through YouTube and I punched in “character actor” and “New York character actor,”” Cafarelli says. “And he said every time he kept punching it in, my reel kept on coming up.”

For the Sports Dogg, whom the audience never sees, Siegel needed a distinct voice. He found one in the gravel-throated, then-Sirius sports-radio host Scott Ferrall. He understood men like Paul—and how to tee them up. “I’m like their shrink and I’m like their lover,” Ferrall says. “I’m like their dealer. I’m like their best pal. And they’ll tell me all their deepest thoughts.”

Not that Paul even has any deep thoughts. His screeds rarely amount to much more than boilerplate talking points about Eli Manning. He has, Siegel says, a “very low level of self-awareness.”

Without meeting Oswalt, Ferrall recorded his part in his studio over two long sessions. “I just started going crazy,” says Ferrall, who was given talking points but ad-libbed most of his lines. “And I remember just flipping out and screaming and yelling and arguing and doing like I would do a talk show.”

The more Ferrall learned about Oswalt’s character, the more he felt familiar. “What was strange about it,” the broadcaster says, “was that I think at least 20 percent of my callers are like him.”

His movie’s micro budget may have necessitated a guerilla-style shoot, but Siegel vowed not to sacrifice realism or detail. Without permission to film in the Giants Stadium parking lots, he did it anyway, collecting B-roll and shots of Oswalt and Corrigan wearing team gear among throngs of tailgaters.

For a scene in which the two ticketless buddies watch the game on a box TV powered by Paul’s mom’s beat-up car, the director got a permit to film at the adjacent Meadowlands Racetrack. “They’re like, ‘You want to shoot something in our parking lot during a race? Go ahead. Knock yourself out,’” Siegel says. “If you take your camera and you rotate it 180 degrees, Oh my God, look. What’s this? Giants Stadium!

Producer/location manager Nick Gallo, an Onion alum who worked at Auntie Anne’s Pretzels at the Staten Island Mall in the ’90s, offered his family’s homes as filming locations. “Nick’s grandma’s parakeet was traumatized,” Trank says. “It was very sad afterward.”

Unsurprisingly, the actors had few creature comforts. Not that it bothered them. “I don’t mind changing out of a car if it’s a great script,” Cafarelli says. He means that literally: Cafarelli got into costume in a Nissan Sentra, while Oswalt’s dressing room was the back of a van. “Catering was, they would go to Subway every day,” Oswalt says. “It was just the most basic, bare bones. Really cool, you know?”

The DIY production fostered camaraderie. Between takes, Corrigan recalls, Oswalt would bring up his favorite Onion stories and headlines and Siegel would tell their backstories. (“Our Dumb Century, everything about that book was just genius,” Oswalt says.)

As both a director and a sports fan, Siegel paid close attention to detail. While talking about the Giants’ “defense” in one scene, Oswalt emphasized the second syllable of the word rather than the first. The mispronunciation seemed innocuous, but it was the kind of thing that the director would’ve flagged as inauthentic if he heard it in another movie. “I’m like, ‘I don’t think people care,’” Trank says. “And he’s like, ‘They’ll care.’”

If there’s one thing that Oswalt’s lack of sports knowledge prevented him from doing in Big Fan, it was improvising. For someone who once delivered an eight-minute Star Wars filibuster in an episode of Parks and Recreation, it was like being comedically handcuffed. Ultimately, though, that hindrance likely strengthened his performance. After all, Paul Aufiero is neither smart nor worldly. “There were moments when I would riff stuff, and then I would stop and go, ‘Hell, he doesn’t have the inner resources to riff like that,’” Oswalt says. “Me and Robert were very, very open about this guy not having clever things to say. He’s kind of a void. And I’m glad we stuck to that.”

By the end of a lesser film, Paul would’ve learned some lessons. He’d maybe figure out that blind devotion is dangerous. And possibly, he’d realize that there should be more to a grown man’s life than worrying about whether his team wins on Sunday afternoons. But Big Fan isn’t a normal sports movie.

After his accidental provocation at a strip club causes Bishop to attack him, a traumatized Paul seems tortured. His lawyer brother wants him to sue. A detective wants him to testify against the linebacker. Adding insult to injury, Philadelphia Phil goes on the Sports Dogg and doxxes him as Bishop’s assault victim. But despite nearly dying at the hands of his favorite player, despite the fact that he’s become a local pariah, he still doesn’t want to mess up the Giants’ season.

“He definitely feels the vise,” Siegel says. “He feels the screws are being put to him by his brother, by Philadelphia Phil. He feels like the team’s fate rests in his hands. He’s definitely spending that middle stretch of the movie with just a sick feeling in his gut.”

Yet instead of doing the logical thing, Paul calls a trick play. After Philadelphia Phil mockingly invites him to switch allegiances and watch the Eagles-Giants season finale with him and his buddies at a sports bar, Oswalt’s character heads south, stopping only to throw on a Donovan McNabb jersey and paint his face green and white. During Paul’s drive, Siegel makes sure to include a shot of a pistol sticking out of Paul’s pants.

For a few minutes, it truly feels like Paul from Staten Island might kill Philadelphia Phil. But his version of revenge is somehow even more warped than that. After cornering the Eagles fan in the bathroom, Paul empties a clip. At first it looks like Rapaport’s hands and Reggie White jersey are covered in blood. But after a moment, it becomes clear that the red splatter is mixed with blue. Paul has shot Phil with a paintball gun. To Paul, covering an Eagles fan with Giants colors is worse than killing him. But crucially, he’s not quite a Taxi Driver–style vigilante.

“The way that Travis Bickle is portrayed is he is someone who is spurred to some kind of action because he has seen real violence and real pain,” Oswalt says. “He’s got that scar. He was in Vietnam. I just don’t think that Paul has ever really experienced the world at all. So, when his so-called life force swells up, even the expression of the life force is just this weird, symbolic thing of just spraying his enemy with his team’s colors. He’s so cut off from humanity, he doesn’t even know how to do violence correctly.”

The crushingly funny reveal ends with Paul telling Philadelphia Phil that the “Eagles suck,” running out of the bar, and getting tackled by the cops. Trank calls the climax of Big Fan one of his “top-five favorite endings ever.”

Paul’s love for his team is tested, but in the end it never caves. “You can struggle without ever actually being truly undecided,” says Siegel. “I mean the question the movie asks is, ‘What do you do when this thing you love doesn’t love you back?’ That could be a team. That could be a president. These are all forms of abusive relationships. He’s in an abusive relationship with the New York Giants. You reach a point when that thing you believe in punches you in the face. You have this moment where you have to decide, ‘Do I take this as a turning point and turn my back on this thing? Or do I double down?’”

One way to answer those questions cinematically is via a romantic comedy like the Jimmy Fallon–Drew Barrymore movie Fever Pitch. But that’s pure fantasy. Siegel was interested in real life.

“It is one of those great movies where it’s realistic to a fault,” Oswalt says. “The character does not grow or change. He fights against change, and his victory at the end is that he doesn’t change.”

In January of 2009, Big Fan premiered to positive reviews at the Sundance Film Festival. But mid-financial crisis, a sports movie that featured no sports and no big stars didn’t entice many buyers. “It’s like, ‘Well, I can’t fit it into this category,’” Trank says. “‘So I’m not going to risk it.’”

Late that winter, the film sold to a small distributor called First Independent Pictures. It opened on August 28, first in just two theaters in America, then eventually in 15. “This was not going to be in 1,000 theaters,” Siegel says. “I can name the theaters it played at.” At the box office, the movie ended up grossing just $234,540—less than Siegel had sunken into it.

And even after Big Fan hit home video, it didn’t find a wide audience. “On the DVD [cover], they cut me and Kevin to make it look like we’re actually in the stadium,” Oswalt says. “But there’s no actual football in the movie.”

Still, Big Fan has its share of big fans. It’s currently at 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. “This isn’t only, or even, a sports movie,” Roger Ebert correctly pointed out in his review. “It’s about leading a life vicariously.” Shortly after the movie’s release, Slate’s Dana Stevens wrote that it “seems destined for a future in the cult canon.” The cult never grew very large. But it exists. And it’s as passionate about Siegel’s film as Paul is about the Giants.

These days, watching Big Fan is an even more affecting experience than it was 12 years ago. People like Paul Aufiero have always existed. But they’ve never been as emboldened as they are now. Imagining Paul, who in the movie can barely use the internet, on social media is both sad and scary. “Maybe he would’ve been one of those guys that want to matter on Twitter, but he just doesn’t, and all he does is troll celebrities,” Oswalt says. “The kind of guy that will send horrible things to celebrities, and then when they block them, he takes a screenshot of the block like, Got him.”

To his relief, the litigious NFL never got Siegel. Nor did they try. After making a movie about pro football fandom, he went on to tackle other uniquely American phenomena. The Founder, the McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc biopic that he wrote, came out in 2017. Now the former Onion EIC is writing a Hulu limited series based on the Pamela Anderson–Tommy Lee sex tape scandal.

Siegel, who remains a Steelers die hard, looks back on Big Fan often. But not always fondly. “I just remember the mistakes,” he says. To this day, two severely irk him. First, the Eagles-Giants season finale in the climactic sequence is played on Monday Night Football. In reality, the last MNF game of the year is held in Week 16, not Week 17. And in the very last scene, when Sal visits Paul in prison, they go over the next year’s schedule. The Giants’ AFC opponents play in the North, South, East, and West, an impossibility due to the fact that a club’s annual out-of-conference schedule contains only teams from a single division.

“It just gutted me,” Siegel says.

That’s the thing about sports: You always remember the painful losses more than the big wins.

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