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Why NFL Said No To Brokeback Mountain

It Wasn't the Gay Theme, League Memo Says

The NFL refused the makers of "Brokeback Mountain" use of game footage for a scene in the movie, but not because of the film's gay theme, contrary to the impression left by one of the producers in comments to a group of colleagues and to Outsports. Instead, the NFL had a problem with the specific scene because of coarse language and that it painted football as a necessary step to manhood.

The scene where the producers wanted the footage to appear in the Oscar-nominated film occurs in the mid-1970s at the home of Jack Twist, one of the lead characters, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Twist, who has fallen in love with fellow ranch hand Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), is serving Thanksgiving dinner to his wife, Lureen, young son Bobby and his in-laws when an argument occurs over a television set being turned on to a football game. The football footage in the film is actually from a Canadian Football League Grey Cup championship game (as the credits acknowledge), not the traditional NFL game that would have been televised in Texas on Thanksgiving.

At a Jan. 21 Producer's Guild breakfast in West Hollywood honoring the group's 2006 nominees, Diana Ossana, who produced and co-wrote "Brokeback Mountain," was asked what production issues the film faced and she highlighted the NFL's rejection, which came in June 2004.

"They wouldn't grant us the rights or give us a reason why," she told Outsports in a brief phone conversation a few days after the breakfast. When asked whether she thought the NFL's action was because of the gay theme of the film, she responded: "What do you think?" adding that, "None of us are retarded."

"She left the impression that the NFL was anti-gay and didn't want the footage in the movie," a producer who attended the breakfast told Outsports, on the condition of anonymity. The NFL, though, categorically denied that the gay issue had anything to do with its refusal.

"It's an unfortunate assumption that's simply not true," league spokesman Brian McCarthy told Outsports. The letter (reprinted in its entirety below) that the NFL sent to co-producer Scott Ferguson -- on location in Calgary, Canada, and dated June 21, 2004 -- is specific on this point and details the league's objections.

"Our decision to decline licensing NFL footage for this project has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it is 'a positive and moving gay-themed love story,' the letter reads. "It is based primarily on the manner in which you seek to use NFL footage -- a manner that is detrimental to the very image with which the NFL chooses to associate."

The Thanksgiving Day scene is filled with great tension between Jack Twist and his father-in-law L.B. Newsome (L.D. Phillips in the script the NFL quoted from). Twist tells his son Bobby to stop watching the football game on TV, and shuts the set off. L.B. gets up and turns it back on, saying to his daughter, Lureen: "You want your son to grow up to be a man, don't you, daughter? [Then looking at Jack]: Boys should watch football."

Jack then turns the set off again, and when L.B. goes to turn it back on, explodes at his father-in-law for the first time: "This is my house!This is my child! And you're my guest! So sit the hell down, or I'll knock your ignorant ass into next week."

"We do not want to be associated with this scene for a variety of reasons which should be readily apparent," the NFL said in its letter of rejection. "First, we do not want the viewing of our games to be portrayed negatively as it is in this scene. In essence, it is the focal point of a curse-ladened confrontation between a character and his father-in-law in which the character threatens to 'knock [his] arrogant ass into next week.'

"Second, we do not appreciate the implication of the statement, 'You want your son to grow up to be a man, don't you daughter? ... Boys should watch football.' We believe that the view that a boy who does not watch football will somehow grow up to be less than a man is narrow-minded and derogatory; we presume it is in the script for that very reason. We choose not to license our footage to be used as a vehicle to illustrate such a point."

The NFL reviews several scripts a month for use of game footage in films, TV shows and commercials, McCarthy said, and "we turn down numerous opportunities. ... We want to protect the NFL's image." He cited big-budget films "The Longest Yard" and "Any Given Sunday" as two examples where licensing of NFL footage was not allowed. He said in the case of "Brokeback Mountain," as is protocol, the rejection came over "the particular scene for which the studio requested" footage.

In light of the NFL's letter, it can't be determined why Ossana said the NFL gave no reasons why the footage was denied ("She should check with Scott Ferguson," McCarthy said). Outsports did contact her several times for clarification. After having the brief phone conversation with Ossana, Outsports sent her an e-mail Jan. 27 to get more details on the process, but it was never answered. After receiving a copy of the NFL's response Feb. 22, Outsports e-mailed Ossana again (attaching a copy of the letter) and this query was answered by her manager's office, Adam Shulman of The Firm in Beverly Hills. An interview was set up for March 1, but was canceled by her manager's office citing a deadline for a script. (See Ossana's later response in the column below)

Text of the letter sent by the NFL to "Brokeback Mountain" co-producer Scott Ferguson on the licensing of NFL footage for the film. In the final version of the film, the father-in-law was named L.B. Newsome and not L.D. Phillips)

June 21, 2004

RE: Brokeback Mountain

Dear Mr. Ferguson:

We have reviewed your May 17, 2004 letter and closely reviewed the script for Brokeback Mountain. Our decision to decline licensing NFL footage for this project has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it is "a positive and moving gay-themed love story." It is based primarily on the manner in which you seek to use NFL footage - a manner that is detrimental to the very image with which the NFL chooses to associate.

The portion of the script in which you have sought to include NFL footage brings nothing but disrepute on the NFL. In that portion of the script, the characters Jack, Lureen, Bobby, L.D. Phillips and Lureen's mother are having Thanksgiving dinner. Bobby is watching an NFL football game. At this point, the script reads as follows:

BOBBY is riveted to the television set.

LUREEN notices.

LUREEN: Bobby, if you don't eat your dinner, I'm gonna have to turn off that television.

BOBBY: Why, Mama? I'm gonna be eatin' this food for the next two weeks.

LUREEN flashes a look at JACK, who then gets up from the table, turns off the television, sits back down.

BOBBY slumps back in his chair, pouts.

JACK: You heard your mama. You can eat your dinner. Then you can watch the game.

L.D. PHILLIPS sets down the carving tools. Goes to the TV, turns it back on.

LUREEN: Daddy!

L.D. PHILLIPS: (picks up the carving tools) Hell, we don't eat with our eyes. (looks at Lureen) You want your son to grow up to be a man, don't you daughter? (direct look at Jack). Boys should watch football.

JACK: (stands up - barely maintains his composure) Not until he finishes the meal his mama spent three hours fixin'.

LUREEN, BOBBY and LUREEN'S MOTHER are all startled: JACK has never stood up to L.D. like this before. They watch, silent.

Now L.D. PHILLIPS stand again, goes to the TV again, but before he can turn it back on, WE HEAR:

JACK: Sit down, you old son of a bitch!

L.D. PHILLIPS stops dead in his tracks, his hand poised above the TV dial. Doesn't move.

JACK: This is my house! This is my child! And you're my guest! So sit the hell down, or I'll knock your ignorant ass into next week...

We do not want to be associated with this scene for a variety of reasons which should be readily apparent. First, we do not want the viewing of our games to be portrayed negatively as it is in this scene. In essence, it is the focal point of a curse-ladened confrontation between a character and his father-in-law in which the character threatens to "knock [his] arrogant ass into next week."

Second, we do not appreciate the implication of the statement "You want your son to grow up to be a man, don't you daughter?...Boys should watch football." We believe that the view that a boy who does not watch football will somehow grow up to be less than a man is narrow-minded and derogatory; we presume it is in the script for that very reason. We choose not to license our footage to be used as a vehicle to illustrate such a point.

We trust that this addresses your concerns as to the motivation of our decision not to license footage for this project.

We wish you the best of luck with Brokeback Mountain.

Diana Ossana Response

Editor's note: Diana Ossana, producer and co-screenwriter for "Brokeback Mountain," responded to this article following her return back home to Arizona following the Academy Awards

Dear Jim,

Please excuse my tardiness in responding to your questions regarding rights to NFL footage for our film. We have been caught up in the Oscar vortex since the beginning of February, and I have only recently begun to respond to the backlog of e-mails which has accumulated these past weeks.

The specific question asked at the producer's panel was: "What obstacles did any of you encounter regarding various rights issues in making your films?" and I remembered the NFL footage rights as one of those, because we wanted everything in the movie to be authentically American.

I had forgotten exactly what was said in their response letter until you e-mailed me its contents, since it was nearly two years ago and a blip on the radar screen of obtaining various rights to all the products and television footage, coupled with working 16-hour days on the set. What I clearly recalled was, simply, that the rights were not granted to us by the NFL, and said as much at the producers panel - no more.

"She left the impression that the NFL was anti-gay and didn't want the footage in the movie," a producer who attended the breakfast told Outsports, on the condition of anonymity."

The above quote says far more about the anonymous producer's viewpoint regarding the NFL's refusal to grant us rights to their footage than it does about mine - particularly since the producer chose to remain anonymous...

I read your thoughts regarding Brokeback Mountain on your website and want to thank you for seeing our film. I am immensely gratified that you were touched by its humanity, as well as by its very specific and intimate story about a doomed love between two unremarkable men and the tragic consequences of love denied.

We have received countless letters from people all over the country and the world - gay, straight, single, married, cowboys, athletes, military people, parents, young and old, and from rural places, small towns and big cities -- some of whom said we told their stories, and all of whom expressed how deeply they were moved by its truths and realism. Those people and their feelings about our film are the precise reason I have been so passionate about bringing Brokeback to the big screen for the past nine years.

Brokeback Mountain will continue to find its way, for months and years to come, I truly believe that--I have always believed that, ever since I first read Annie Proulx's short story back in October 1997...and when I read comments and observations like yours, you can't imagine how much they mean to me: they are an affirmation of the commitment, persistence and hard work it took on the part of everyone involved to make Brokeback Mountain an emotionally honest and compelling film experience.

Thank you again for seeing our film.

My very best to you and to your readers,

Diana Ossana
Producer and Co-Screenwriter
Brokeback Mountain

March 14, 2006