How 'Gracie' Works

Image courtesy © 2007 Picturehouse

"Gracie" is an inspirational film about a teenage girl who honors her brother by trying to take his place on all-male high school soccer team during a time when there weren't any girls' soccer leagues. In the glut of big budget summer movies, "Gracie" represents an anomaly, an independently-produced feature film with a strong message about pursuing your dreams in spite of overwhelming obstacles. But what exactly makes "Gracie" different from other recent soccer movies?

Although soccer is the biggest sport in the world in just about every nation except the United States of America, "Gracie" can be truly called the first American soccer movie. "Gracie" is also inspired by true events in the lives of its celebrity producers, Andrew and Elisabeth Shue.

We'll learn more about the genesis of the film in the next section, but first, here's an overview of the story:

Living in South Orange, New Jersey, 15-year-old Gracie Bowen (Carly Schroeder) is the only girl in a family of three brothers. Her father (Dermot Mulroney) and brothers are obsessed with soccer, practicing in the backyard's makeshift field every day. Tragedy unexpectedly strikes when Gracie's older brother Johnny (Jesse Lee Soffer), star of the high school varsity soccer team and Gracie's protector, is killed in a car accident.

Filled with grief, Gracie decides to fill the void left on her brother's team by petitioning the school board to allow her to play on the boy's high school varsity soccer team. Her father, a former soccer star, tries to prove to Gracie that she is not tough or talented enough to play with boys. Her mother, Lindsey Bowen (Elisabeth Shue), is already an outsider in the sports-obsessed family and can't offer any help. Undeterred, Gracie persists in changing everyone's beliefs, including her own. She forces her father to wake up from his grief and see her as the beautiful and strong person that she has always been. She also brings her family together in the face of their tragedy.

In this article, we'll examine how "Gracie" was conceived, cast, and produced. And don't forget to watch exclusive behind-the-scenes video from the production of "Gracie," shot by the producers just for HowStuffWorks.

The Origins of Gracie

Andrew and Elisabeth Shue on the set of "Gracie"
Andrew and Elisabeth Shue on the set of "Gracie"
Image by K.C. Bailey/courtesy© 2007 Picturehouse

The idea for "Gracie" began with Andrew Shue, an actor (TV's "Melrose Place," "The Rainmaker"), entrepreneur and soccer aficionado who had an idea to create a feature-film based loosely on the Shue family history.

"Gracie," while not strictly a biographical film, is heavily inspired by events in the real life of Andrew's sister, Elisabeth, famous for her roles in films such as "Leaving Las Vegas," "Adventures in Babysitting," "The Saint," "Hollow Man" and "The Karate Kid." But before she was an Oscar-nominated actress, Elisabeth was a teenager living in suburban New Jersey in the mid-1970s. At that time there were no girl's high school soccer teams. From the age of nine through 13, Elisabeth was the only girl playing soccer in the year-round town soccer leagues.

"In our family, like in Gracie's, the way you got attention was to score goals and to stand out as an athlete. I loved the game of soccer and although there were times when being the only girl on boys' teams was extremely lonely, I also loved the competition and challenge of always having to fight to be seen as an equal," says Elisabeth.

Soccer ran in the family blood. Their father captained the Harvard College team in 1958, and each member of the Shue clan wore his lucky number 7 on their jersey. Will, the oldest, captained the Columbia High School team and scored the winning goal in the 1978 State Championship. Younger brother John went on to become a Regional All-American while at Harvard College. Andrew played at Dartmouth, professionally in Africa and later in the United States with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

In discussing the sport's impact on his family, Andrew says:

Soccer really was our lifeblood. It was the thing that defined us. It was the thing that helped give each of us our confidence. It also gave us a connection to our father who had played and gave us that real sense of a shared history and that connection between the generations. I think soccer is the sport most like life. It is free flowing. You have to work and work and work and if you are lucky you put the ball in the goal once. Sometimes that is enough to win.

An article in the family's local paper once touted, "The Shues Get Their Kicks," explaining how there was a Shue in every single division of their soccer league, from Andrew and Elisabeth's father down to their younger brother John. But perhaps the real catalyst for the film was the unexpected loss of brother Will in 1988.

"It's been nearly 20 years since he died, so it's almost just enough time where you can actually start to talk about it without getting overwhelmed," says Andrew. "He was just this incredible person who taught all of us about what's most important in life; your relationships, how you treat each other and how you never give up no matter what the odds are."

Elisabeth Shue and Davis Guggenheim on the set of "Gracie" Elisabeth Shue and Davis Guggenheim on the set of "Gracie"
Elisabeth Shue and Davis Guggenheim on the set of "Gracie"
Image by K.C. Bailey/courtesy© 2007 Picturehouse

Says Elisabeth, "Will was the one who was always most proud of us when we accomplished anything. He was such a kind spirit. The bird in the film was based on a baby hawk named Amber that he found in Maine and kept in his room, even sleeping with it at night to nurse it back to life." Adds John Shue: "In a conversation with our father a year before he died, Will said, 'You feel as if everyone should write a book before they die, but their book is already written...the pages live within those they've touched'."

When Andrew announced he wanted to make a film honoring his brother, the family sport and his sister's trailblazing efforts, his family rallied around him to help get the production off the ground. Elisabeth joined him as co-producer and co-star of the film. Her husband, Davis Guggenheim, a seasoned film and television director (and an Academy Award winner for "An Inconvenient Truth"), agreed to direct the movie. Brother John helped create the business model behind the movie.

In the next section, we'll find out how the filmmakers cast the movie.

Casting Gracie

Carly Schroeder in action as "Gracie"
Carly Schroeder in action as "Gracie"
Image by K.C. Bailey/courtesy© 2007 Picturehouse

While it was a given that the Shue siblings would have parts in the film -- Andrew plays Coach Clark and Elisabeth plays Gracie's mother -- finding the right actress to play the title character proved a real challenge.

"We looked at thousands of girls to play Gracie," says Andrew. The filmmakers wanted someone who was both a seasoned soccer player and who could act, but that proved a nearly impossible requirement to fill. Ultimately, they decided to go with a professional actress and train her to play soccer rather than try to take a soccer player and train her to act.

Fortunately, the producers found Carly Schroeder, an experienced actress ready for her first starring role and more than willing to commit to the weeks of grueling training required to carry off the soccer scenes. Schroeder was already a respected actress with several major credits under her belt, including 2004's "Mean Creek" and 2006's "Firewall," in which she co-starred alongside Harrison Ford and Virginia Madsen.

In order to make her game play convincing, Schroeder had to endure 12 weeks of intense training under the supervision of Dan Calichman, a former player and captain of the Los Angeles Galaxy. "We knew Carly could pull off the emotional scenes," Shue said, "but the on-the-field scenes were just as crucial. Because we weren't going to cheat it. It's really Carly out there running around, kicking the ball and getting pummeled by the boys."

In fact, Schroeder did all her own legwork with the ball, except for one crucial scene. The opening moment of the film features Gracie trying to knock a soccer ball off the hood of a car to win a bet on behalf of her brother. "We tried for over an hour to do it for real," Schroeder says, "but we couldn't get it. So that one we had to fake."

Adds Elisabeth Shue, "We did see some amazing actresses, but there was something about Carly that was so unique. She has such a strong, willful spirit and her fierceness is so visceral and raw with a real need to prove herself, which I think is so much Gracie. But it was her ability to expose the pain that Gracie faces when she loses her brother which was most extraordinary."

Carly Schroeder and Dermot Mulroney in "Gracie" Carly Schroeder and Dermot Mulroney in "Gracie"
Carly Schroeder and Dermot Mulroney in "Gracie"
Image by K.C. Bailey/courtesy© 2007 Picturehouse

Director Guggenheim adds, "I kept needing to remind myself that she's only 15. She's got the experience and the technique of an actor who's 20 years older but she's also got this fierceness that many seasoned actors don't have. As a director, you dream of having actors as talented and charismatic as her."

Filling out the rest of the ensemble required no less effort. The most pivotal role in the film opposite Gracie is that of her father, Bryan Bowen, a part that required an actor of considerable range and subtlety. The filmmakers were fortunate to get actor Dermot Mulroney, known to many from a 20-year body of work including "Young Guns," "The Trigger Effect (also starring Elisabeth)," "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "About Schmidt." Bowen is a man who can't see Gracie for who she really is before his son's death, but who, like his daughter, finds a reason to dream again in the wake of an enormous tragedy. The dynamic between these two characters -- the tug of war, and ultimately, their journey together -- is the heart of the film.

Says Guggenheim:

The authenticity of the story was going to rest with this casting choice. We really lucked out when Dermot agreed to take the part. He not only happened to have played soccer in high school, but he was an actor that effortlessly embodies authenticity. Dermot understood the broken nature of this man and how he had to so subtly change and begin to heal as he finally is able to see and accept his daughter in his life for the first time.

Next, we'll see how the production really became a family affair.

Making Gracie: A Family Affair

Filming on the set of "Gracie"
Filming on the set of "Gracie"
Image by K.C. Bailey/courtesy© 2007 Picturehouse

"The heart of the story was one I've wanted to tell for about 10 years," says Andrew in discussing the genesis of the film. "In the beginning I wanted to tell a story that paid tribute to our older brother Will, honored our cherished childhood together and used our family sport (soccer) as a backdrop. The story came into focus, however, when I enlisted Davis and my sister Elisabeth to help. Davis saw that it could also be a way to celebrate my sister and the experience she had playing soccer with boys and growing up in our male-dominated family."

"The great thing about this project is that our whole family's involved," says Andrew. "It really is a dream to get to be able to work with my sister and work with Davis and work with my brother, John who graduated from Harvard Business School and was instrumental in helping us solve all the financial issues we faced. We didn't set out for it to be a family movie, but then as it started to happen, it was clear that we all needed to be involved."

With the Shue's extended family working together, the shooting of "Gracie" did not come without its own challenges. "The most difficult thing is the feeling that there's this real family whose story you're telling. You want to feel like you're not cheapening their lives and make sure that you're telling that story in a fair and truthful way," says Guggenheim. "We had long talks about that issue, Elisabeth and I would discuss how we could use the family history as a starting point, but ultimately the actors had to find their own characters."

One element of the production that was important to the filmmakers was their decision to shoot the film in New Jersey, where the Shue family spent their childhood. "We talked about shooting it in Canada and trying to save money and we just felt it was crucial to film it in New Jersey," says Andrew. "It's been great coming home and spending time in the area. We've shot a bunch of scenes in South Orange and Maplewood and the State of New Jersey has played a huge role in the funding of the film, so it's really been a home-grown project and it's nice to have that kind of support."

Not only did the film shoot in the Shue's home state, but Andrew and Elisabeth's high school, local pizzerias, and teenage hangouts all make appearances. Says Andrew: "It was really special to be in our high school, it just means a lot to walk in there and know that you're coming back, to walk down the same path that you traveled before and to actually have your movie set be the place that you grew up-it's pretty magical. The scenes come alive because it's real."

The magic continued for the Shues when they were able to get the Boss involved. Bruce Springsteen, the Garden State's master poet, made a rare exception and provided his song "Growin' Up" for the film's pivotal montage.

"I hope that everybody who sees this film laughs at least once, cries at least once, and cheers at least once. If we've done that, we will have succeeded," says Elisabeth. "Most importantly, I hope that people who see the film realize that no matter how tough life gets, if you stick together with the people you care about, you can get through anything. Like Johnny says to Gracie in the beginning of the movie -- 'You can do anything' -- my brother Will taught us that with his love we could... the journey of making this film is proof of that."

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