These filmmakers knew how to draw the 'Line'

Published: 8/16/2008 12:05 AM

Filmmakers Matthew Arnold and Brady Hallongren were about to finish a short documentary when they started to consider a longer project.

The 1995 York High School graduates didn't have to think long and hard about what they wanted.

"Once we got the idea we went, 'That's it,'" Arnold said.

It is "The Long Green Line," a documentary of nearly 90 minutes on a season with the York boys cross country team led by the inimitable Joe Newton. At 4:30 p.m. today and Sunday, the movie will be screened at the York Theatre in Elmhurst.

For Hallongren, realizing a dream of running four years for Newton led to another of having his work on display in his hometown theater.

"I had 'The Long Green Line' and Mr. Newton and the program's story in my head for some time," Hallongren said. "I always wanted to come back and do a documentary about Mr. Newton."

Arnold, the producer-director, and Hallongren, the producer-director of photography, went to the same schools in Elmhurst since the third grade. But they were primarily acquaintances until a mutual friend got them working together in Los Angeles.

Their original idea was to do a series of interviews with York cross country alumni with interesting and funny stories. But Arnold and Hallongren realized they needed to follow the team through an entire season.

They chose 2005 since York was trying to win its 25th state title in Newton's 50th season in charge.

"We thought it was the best time to do it," Hallongren said.

Milestones were just part of what ultimately made their timing equivalent to a state-record Craig Virgin run.

Arnold was teaching in Los Angeles so he could come back to Elmhurst only for a few weeks before the season started and on weekends. Hallongren was working as a freelancer at the time, moved back home with his parents and spent six days a week with the team during the season.

"It was like when I was in high school for Mr. Newton back on the team," Hallongren said. "We mapped out some of the characters and guys to follow - and I was kind of a fly on the wall."

Understanding the machinations and daily routines of the programs was a big benefit to Hallongren. So were Arnold's instincts that it was worth keeping an eye on Brian Marchese and Justin Jones, two of York's projected top seven runners.

Early in the season, Marchese and Jones are expelled from school after their involvement in an arson costing more than a million dollars. The incident isn't glossed over - and Arnold and Hallongren said the only pressure they felt with the situation was internal.

"You have to have an outside perspective as a filmmaker," Hallongren said. "It's part of the story and you can't exclude those things."

What helped Arnold at the end was adding that Marchese and Jones were getting back on track and running with former teammate John Fisher at the College of DuPage.

"Fisher is such a strong character, when I finally found out Marchese and Jones were running on the same team in college, it really redeemed their lives for me at least," Arnold said.

How the team responded to adversity - which has been a trademark of Newton's success - is part of the film's magic. Star runners and twin brothers Matt and Eric Dettman have to battle through a late-season illness to help York achieve another title.

But the stories of the "little guys," the backbone of Newton's program, are also inspiring.

Fisher, who has autism, becomes a team leader even though he isn't one of the top seven runners. Freshman Connor Chadwick, who has cerebral palsy, is not only running without leg braces for the first time but is finishing races.

"We wanted to get people to experience what goes on behind closed doors in a way," Hallongren said.

And "The Long Green Line" is a film worth experiencing.