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Interview: Director Arlene Nelson On Why ‘Angel City’ Is Much More Than a Sports Story

Back in 2019, three women took on the monumental task of bringing Los Angeles its first ever professional women’s soccer team. They did so not only for a love of the sport, but also with the goal of working toward fair treatment of female athletes, changing outdated mindsets, and much more.

Angel City, the ambitious new three-part HBO docuseries (read my review here) tracks the efforts of the team’s co-founders, Natalie Portman, Julie Uhrman, and Kara Nortman as they take on these challenges head on. Director, Arlene Nelson, sat down with Awards Radar to discuss the making of the documentary that shows the wide reaching affects of three dreamers who would not take no for answer, inspiring millions along the way. Nelson takes us onto the pitch to the sidelines, from the locker room to the boardroom and beyond. Read our conversation, watch the docuseries (now on Max), then go support your local team.

Steven Prusakowski: I really enjoyed Angel City as a sports fan, a coach, a father of two daughters, who are athletes and one who’s trying soccer for the first time this fall. There’s just a lot to take away from it and it’s just a great inspiring story.

Arlene Nelson: Yeah, it we felt that when we were filming it, we felt that responsibility.

Steven Prusakowski: What was it that made you want to be part of the Angel City.

Arlene Nelson: I’ve done documentaries in the art world and in the music world and true crime. And when I got the call for this, what appealed to me was that I saw not only it as sports story that of course has so much inherent drama in sports, but that the origin story was such a compelling story and pretty undeniable. It was an important story that had to be told.

Steven Prusakowski: Are you a soccer fan by nature.

Arlene Nelson: I have become a soccer firm. I absolutely love it. But prior to this, of course, I was aware of the pay equity fight, you know that the women’s national team was on the front line fighting. I of course knew about the World Cup and the four wins and have watched them. In terms of following it, I am now fully in!

Steven Prusakowski: I wasn’t a soccer fan until the till the women won the World Cup in 1999.  I was captivated by that game – one of the most incredible sporting events ever, in my opinion. Since then I’ve become a fan and that’s growing each year. These series only added to my interest in the sport.

Arlene Nelson: I love that. We’ve been hearing a lot of that – even people who worked on it and in post and after seeing the whole series come together, we have a few additional fans.

Steven Prusakowski: There’s so much so much to get wrapped up in and and once you once you start watching I cannot see how you’re not a bigger fan of coming out of this than going in – even for established fans. This this series covers so much ground, it’s in the offices, a locker room, the sidelines and everywhere beyond, it’s just this massive project, how did you tackle it? And did you have some goals for how the story would unfold on screen?

Arlene Nelson: At its core, we knew that the main story is the origin story. We wanted to make sure that everything sort of connected back up to that origin story. We looked for things like identity and identity within the club, and who is this club and who do they want to be. It’s a very idealistic group of owners, coaches, players. The storylines that we were following, needed to link back up to our main story. And then, of course, wanting to cover the sports aspect in a way that was exciting and engaging and dynamic. We wanted to cover it in a way the cinematography was enticing and visceral, so you really understood the athleticism of these players. We tackled in those two veins, making sure that the sports drama was exciting, and that the origin story was clear. All the intricate complexity was also wanting to give context as to where this team is coming in on the timeline of the overall women’s soccer. It’s a pretty heavy lift – episode one was probably the biggest challenge.

Steven Prusakowski: I love how you tell this over arcing story but then you get deeper into the players, these emotional moments and the passion. Not only the passion of the field, but the passion of the players in prep and the injuries, with the same thing happening behind the scenes in the, in the boardroom essentially, where there’s this, “how are we gonna make this happen?” energy. They know they have something good to bring to the world, but how do you reach an audience that hasn’t been tapped into in this in this area. It’s really exciting to watch, and then you’re watching their rankings and their score and player’s challenges. There are many things going on – it feels like a 101 of this whole sports program.

Arlene Nelson: I love that. That’s a great way to describe it. That’s what we were after. Also the stories of the players, it’s just so compelling to, to hear their stories and to know, especially the OGs, like Ali Riley, and Jasmyne Spencer, and DiDi Haračić, who have been in the game from the beginning, and are so dedicated. It’s not about the money and yet, they persist and go on, because they’re following their passion. It’s exciting to see that they’re getting more of what they have always deserved.

Steven Prusakowski: For sure. That dedication is crucial. I mean, to pass up a six figure job to take a shot at being a soccer player when the sport is still building that audience in the United States is risky to say the least. But following your passion is as always the right way to go. And it shows on their faces and in their blood, sweat, and tears…. literally.

Arlene Nelson: Yeah. I love Simone Charley, who said she can’t wait until she doesn’t have to talk about inspiring the next generation and she’s just playing for herself, but that she knows her part in the story right now – it is to sort of provide that, but she can’t wait for that day.

Steven Prusakowski: It’s must be some added pressure too. You have the weight of the future on your backs and that’s no small task, but it is an important to get this message and story out. I watched the doc with my daughters.  They really enjoyed it and asked to watch more – which is always good. Now we’re planning to see Angel City play the NY/NJ Gotham team. To tell the truth, I didn’t even know the team existed before this – and they’re right in my backyard. 

Arlene Nelson: You’re not alone. There’s so many people that I hear that from, and it’ll be really interesting to see, like, how much impact this series has on awareness.

Steven Prusakowski: As you’re filming this, are you completely an observer or do you build relationships with the owners and the coaches and the players?

Arlene Nelson: In all documentaries, you need to build relationships. It’s always a fine line of being an observer, and also engaging, feeling empathy with the team when things aren’t going their way. Also knowing that you have to get the story and cover it in a way that gives the full scope of what’s happening. So, I would say, mainly an observer. That was one decision that we made very early on. This is a vérité documentary – we’re going to cover it in a way that the audience also feels participatory, like it’s unfolding as they’re going.  We want the arc to really feel like you’ve been on this journey. I think that a lot of sports stories, you have the interviews and they’re in in the past, they’ll be speaking about it with reflection from, having a good amount of time that has passed. We wanted it to be very in the moment feeling. And so even even our interviews, we had very little setup, so it, it didn’t have like, when people would walk in, it wouldn’t feel like a big and glossy or we would just kind of go in and try to choose as much natural light as possible. And also just to give it that immediate feeling.

Steven Prusakowski: You capture that well. I also love that moment on the sidelines, that first goal. It gave me the chills… the tears. You knew the tears are going to come and I was happy to see them happen because that’s how you’re feeling as a viewer – just so excited for this team we watch from an idea to a concept on paper to to live and kicking team… literally kicking. Giving us that moment and putting us right there right next to the people who were there from day one or early on is really exciting and great energy. It must be difficult because of the energy and excitement to not like waver between filmmaker to fan. It seems appropriate that you actually have to be both for this one.

Arlene Nelson: I think I became more of a fan after we were finished filming. Then I went to a game in a very relaxed way – I wasn’t making sure that we had to be in the locker room when Coach Freya (Coombe) was giving her talk or, you know, out on the pitch because they’re about to kick off.  So I get to go to games since then, – just relaxed and watching it all.

Steven Prusakowski: That’s great. You have this incredible group of investors as well. Jennifer Garner, Abby Wambach, Serena Williams, just to name a few others and

Arlene Nelson: …probably 14 Women’s National Team players.

Steven Prusakowski: Yeah, I was on the website and was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ For a team meeting it is like you have to bring your autograph book – if those still exist. What does having that wide reaching support bring to the story and the team?

Arlene Nelson: I think that one of the things that was really important to Natalie Portman and to Julian Kara, was that it should feel fun. When you go to a game, it should feel exciting. And, Natalie would talk about how Jack Nicholson would go to basketball games or Spike Lee and people wanted to see who’s coming to the game next. I think that kind of star power brings a sort of excitement for the audience, you know, to sort of see who’s coming and in a way that is just very natural because of our location, we’re in Hollywood. It brings just  an extra level of excitement and attention.

Steven Prusakowski: Essentially, you walk in wondering who’s gonna be here. Not just me and the fans, it’s you and the fans who also were stars of my favorite films or movies, or stars of the sport itself. And of course, you’ve got Natalie Portman and her vision and her drive to make this happen. Does it happen without her? Does the Angel City grand experiment work? 

Arlene Nelson: It is a grand experiment. Right? I think that it there is this triangle – a triangle is the strongest shape in nature. Having the three of them, Kara (Nortman), Natalie (Portman), and Julie (Uhrman), it’s such a strong pyramid. And none of them are particularly at the top. They’re all so great at what they do individually, and then coming together they create this really strong powerhouse of a team. I don’t know if it can happen without the three of them, together as a team.

Steven Prusakowski: Yeah, takes a team. On top of their other careers and all the other responsibilities, to say, “I’m going to start a team,” You need that support. There must be so many roadblocks and challenges, yet then to persist. It’s exciting to see. Imagine that when the whole world gets to see their story.

Arlene Nelson: I love that. 

Steven Prusakowski: What does it mean to you, as a filmmaker, to have the ability to inspire the next generation of visionaries, the world changers athletes, through your work?

Arlene Nelson: Ah, it’s so satisfying, because the sweat equity that went into making this series from the very first phone call… I knew the weight of this project that we had to get it right. We had to get it right for so many reasons. And to know that it’s already resonating with so many people before it’s really even gotten out into the world. It makes my heart sing. It’s like manna from heaven. It’s so good. It makes you able to wake up every morning at 5:30, 6 o’clock in the morning and try. I mean, we worked weekends because their game schedule, we flew to the UK to the women’s national team game. It’s such a labor of love that went into this, from the very get go, from Natalie speaking with other about it, to the conversations to get HBO on board, conversations with Christine O’Malley, the executive producer. We all felt the weight of the importance of this. To have it resonate in such a positive way, it’s everything.

Steven Prusakowski: What what do you hope viewers take away from Angel City?

Arlene Nelson: I hope the misconception of the idea that people aren’t that interested in women’s sports, pro sports is is squashed because the interest is there. I think that Angel City has proven if you build it, they will come. When you go into these things, thinking, ‘Oh, this is the way it’s done’ or ‘This is the result we always get.’ It’s inspiring to see the status quo being challenged and what can happen as a result of that.

Steven Prusakowski: I love it. Let me wrap with a really easy one. Three words to describe Angel City.

Arlene Nelson: Okay three words: Perseverant, unbreakable and heart.

Steven Prusakowski: Wow! Love it. Perfect. Thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed the serie, but must admit I’m disappointed… that I don’t get another episode. I guess the next step is real life jumping in and starting to follow the team. 

Arlene Nelson: Thank you, Steven. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

All three episodes of Angel City are available to stream on MAX (formerly HBO Max.)


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[…] Interview: Director Arlene Nelson On Why ‘Angel City’ Is Much More Than a Sports Story […]



Written by Steven Prusakowski

Steven Prusakowski has been a cinephile as far back as he can remember, literally. At the age of ten, while other kids his age were sleeping, he was up into the late hours of the night watching the Oscars. Since then, his passion for film, television, and awards has only grown. For over a decade he has reviewed and written about entertainment through publications including Awards Circuit and Screen Radar. He has conducted interviews with some of the best in the business - learning more about them, their projects and their crafts. He is a graduate of the RIT film program. You can find him on Twitter and Letterboxd as @FilmSnork – we don’t know why the name, but he seems to be sticking to it.

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