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Capturing Tom Brady

Gotham Chopra, director of Man in the Arena: Tom Brady, looks back on TB12’s career with Boardroom discusses what fans can expect from the 10-part ESPN+ saga.

Man in The Arena, the 10 episode series documenting Tom Brady‘s 10 Super Bowl appearances, premieres Tuesday on ESPN+ — smack in the middle of Brady’s mind-boggling 22nd season in the NFL.

Like the 2018 Facebook Watch series Tom vs. Time that chronicled Brady’s 2017 season, Gotham Chopra of production company Religion of Sports is in the director’s chair. As Brady considered his future with the New England Patriots and increasingly contemplated leaving the only franchise he’d ever known, he and Chopra started talking about what became this next project.

With TB12 taking stock of everything he’d accomplished and learned in Foxborough, the two collaborators both decided to start capturing these moments and reflections on camera. And in a far-reaching interview with Boardroom, Chopra extensively discussed the series and his evolving relationship with the iconic quarterback.

“I think that’s what I took away from The Last Dance. Not so much anything filmmaking from it but I was like ‘they couldn’t have done The Last Dance unless someone had been documenting that 30 years ago,'” Chopra said. “So for Tom, by that time it didn’t take a genius to figure out this story’s incredible, we should just keep the cameras rolling. Not in a reality show way, but oftentimes it was just me with a camera just to have it. So it just sort of evolved organically that way.”

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A Common Bond

Chopra grew up in the Boston suburb of Lincoln, Massachusetts, rooting for the Pats and gravitating toward Drew Bledsoe, the QB Brady famously replaced 20 years ago. Back in 2015, Brady spent his offseasons in the posh Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood. At the same time, Chopra had just directed a documentary series with Kobe Bryant and was told by a friend that he should meet Brady.

“He was like Edward Scissorhands,” Chopra would joke. “He had this house way up on a hill and he never really came down, from what I understand. He went to UCLA for workouts, but other than that, he really didn’t.”

Containing his inner Pats fan, Chopra and Brady formed a bond through shared experiences — they’re both the same age and have children born the same year. They also shared a love of sports, Chopra said, that goes beyond the box scores and painted lines. He showed Brady a one-minute sizzle reel for his Religion of Sports concept and said that Brady immediately understood its appeal.

They’ve been working together ever since.

After completing Tom vs. Time, Chopra initially hesitated when asked what Brady had to gain by participating in Man in the Arena.

“The truth is Tom has no outward motivation. He doesn’t need additional fame. He doesn’t need additional money,” Chopra said. “I think he does like the process of reflection. I think he is, at this point in his life, a very reflective person. And so he likes to do that. And I also think this is a trend among athletes, and he wants to tell his own story. And the Patriots in particular, because of all their success, the dynasty is out there. I think someone like Tom’s just, ‘meh, let me tell my story’ as opposed to being part of an ensemble of someone else’s.”

Telling the GOAT’s Tale

Man in the Arena is unquestionably Brady’s story. Chopra said Brady sat for roughly 20 hours of interviews for the series. It allowed Brady to reflect and unpack all the success he had in New England and see what he could bring over to Tampa, where he won Super Bowl LV in his first season with the Buccaneers.

“You can almost see him go ‘oh, in 2003 we did this.’ Or, Tom is so sharp, he’s looking at his receiver corps and goes ‘oh, that reminds me of this.’” Chopra said. “And I can see him, and he’s told me this, he’s now partly in this process because he’s remembering plays, he’s remembering looking at playbooks and he’s bringing plays over. So there’s a very practical ‘he’s still motivated to win Super Bowls’ [idea], and he can sort of tap into that. I think there’s a lot of value in that.”

Additionally, Chopra said, it should come as no surprise that Brady doesn’t half-ass anything. And through the filming process, it caused Brady to jog his memory and actually reach out to figures like standout Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, whom he hadn’t spoken to in a long time. That also goes for NFL stars who will appear in the series like Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Mike Vrabel, Richard Sherman and Michael Strahan.

Throughout the 10 episodes, Brady is on camera to give his thoughts and recollections in front of a plain white background. Chopra wanted the show firstly to look different than Tom vs. Time, but also to give Man in the Arena a timeless look when Brady is speaking about his past.

“I wanted to put it into a void,” Chopra said, “that we could really use that backdrop as almost like his consciousness to tap into.”

Chopra described the series’ tone as reflective and sort of meditative, with NFL Films providing the highlights to the story of a man across an incredible 20-year journey.

“A kid becoming a man,” Chopra said, evoking Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, in a sense. “There’s this sort of hero’s journey buried in there. We joke internally [that] it’s like Star Wars.”

Tom’s Trilogy

Chopra tonally describes the series as a three-part trilogy of sorts. The first three episodes have a wistful tone to them, a nostalgic look at young, driven players; best friends growing up together in the pre-social-media era, collecting titles and growing in fame. The next trio of episodes is when this coming-of-age realizes itself as Brady becomes insanely famous, accepts his celebrity, and marries Gisele Bundchen.

“With the fame comes added attention and scandals,” Chopra said.

Gotham Chopra and TB12

The third trio of episodes is post-Deflategate, but captures a time in which life grows complicated with a growing family, changing relationships, and the feeling of being an older guy with younger teammates, as well as Brady’s mother Galynn being diagnosed with cancer.

The last episode, the 2020 Tampa Tom year, is kind of a fun epilogue of sorts.

“20 years of time, you see a distinctive character growth,” Chopra said.

That character growth is going to be covered from several different angles. There will be Inside the Arena, a postgame show of sorts after each episode airs on Tuesdays with ESPN’s Teddy Bruschi — another former Brady teammate — and Field Yates. Then, there’s After the Arena, a Wednesday ESPN social media show starring Shae Cornette, Jason Fitz, and Skubie Mageza.

Lastly, Chopra has a Man in the Arena-inspired podcast series presented from his own point of view that will feature interesting stories Brady would identify with, guests like Tottenham Hotspur soccer star and longtime Patriots fan Harry Kane, and unique sliding doors theories about the arc of TB12’s career.

“If Mo Lewis doesn’t hit Drew Bledsoe at that angle, what does that world look like?” Chopra said of the fateful injury that gave Brady his first big shot in New England. “So we had fun with it, talking about multi-dimensional space and all sorts of stuff.”

The goal for Man in the Arena, aside from telling a great story, is to try and appeal to sports and football fans while also transcending the genre. But unlike The Last Dance, Brady’s story is not yet complete.

“I was joking with Tom, is there an episode 11, 12, 13? What are we doing? How much longer is this going to go on for?” Chopra said. “It’s still sort of telling itself.”

For Brady, it’s the ultimate flex that even Michael Jordan couldn’t accomplish — a fully-formed and realized look at 10 Super Bowl appearances, all while still marching forward at 44 years old and looking to secure rings for all 10 fingers.

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