By the time TJ Martin visits Western Washington University on March 1 to screen his new documentary, people might be referring him to as that "Oscar-winning director."
Martin, a graduate of Western, plus co-director Dan Lindsay and producer Rich Middlemas, have been nominated for their feature documentary "Undefeated," the story of a football team in inner-city Memphis and its charismatic coach as they strive to end the high school's legacy of losing.
Martin plans to attend the Academy Awards show in Los Angeles Feb. 26, and knows it's wise to practice his acceptance speech in case it's needed. Although he has kept busy through the years editing and directing films for himself and for other people, none of the films were big-time attention-getters, until now. So the world of the Oscars is very new to him.
"It's been pretty crazy," Martin said from Los Angeles, where he has lived the past five years. "It's so weird I can't get my head around it."
"Undefeated" might sound like yet another feel-good sports story along the lines of "The Blind Side," except that Martin and Lindsay shot it cinéma vérité style, meaning there's no voice-over narration or prepared script to move the story along.
Instead, they spent nine months with the team and the impoverished north Memphis community to gain their trust and to capture the story first-hand, unrehearsed, using small hand-held cameras. They shot 500 hours of footage, then spent nine more months trimming it to just under two hours.
The result, according to AP movie critic Christy Lemire, "knocks you over with a power all its own. ... It isn't trying too hard to inspire us - and that's precisely why it does."
Thomas McKay Martin Jr. - he's always gone by "TJ" - grew up in Seattle. Music, not filmmaking, flowed through the family. His father and mother performed in a 1980s punk rock band; Mom sang and Dad played guitar.
His father, who divorced when TJ was 7 and who still works in the music business, shared his love of movies with his son. When Martin was a young boy, perhaps 10 or 11, he saw "The Color Purple." The movie changed his life.
"That film rocked me," he recalled.
He wasn't sure what job in the film world he would seek, but he knew then that he wanted to do something that would deliver the same impact for other people that "The Color Purple" did for him. From middle school through high school, he and a buddy, Brian Quist, fed their shared passion for movies by making videos.
Martin spent his freshman year at Western, but it didn't go well, so he spent his sophomore year abroad in France. When he returned stateside, he hooked up with Quist to make "A Day in the Hype of America," despite having only minimal training in film production.
The documentary about a much-anticipated day - Dec. 31, 1999 - won a festival award in Rhode Island, but it wasn't released until 2002, well after interest in the millennial tick of the clock had wound down.
Martin's next several years were consumed with honing his craft by writing, directing and editing films, and by working on his multimedia and cultural studies coursework from Fairhaven College, when he had re-enrolled to complete his degree.
He wrapped up his senior project about five years ago but didn't have enough money then to pay for all of his college credits, so his degree was put on hold. Those loose ends have been tied up and he's now a 2012 graduate of Western, at the age of 32.
ON A ROLL
Martin will make history if "Undefeated" wins an Oscar; he would be the first black person to win for directing a full-length film, whether feature or documentary. Other black directors have been nominated, but only one, Roger Ross Williams, has ever won, in 2009 for best documentary short subject.
The child of a black mother and a white father, Martin is cognizant of the history at stake but said he's ultimately more interested in his work being recognized for its merit than for his family makeup.
"I'm honored to even be in consideration," he said.
Martin and Lindsay's documentary could be just the beginning of "Undefeated." The Weinstein Company, a powerhouse production company, bought the option to remake the story into a feature film, and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, the famous rapper, actor and producer, has signed on as an executive producer.
No movie deal has been reached, but Combs' involvement improves the odds, Martin said.
Martin said he and Lindsay aren't sure what their next project will be, but the buzz about "Undefeated" has prompted agents to flood them with plenty of scripts to consider. They might make a feature film next, or maybe another documentary, but the form is less important than the content.
"Right now we're searching for that great story," Martin said.
Martin said he's looking forward to visiting Western to talk to students and to show his film. Despite his many travels, he still feels strong ties to the Northwest. And despite a college career that has been far from linear, he still has a soft spot for Fairhaven.
"This whole journey has been hodgepodgy," he said. "Fairhaven was the beginning to allow me to create that path."
The 2012 Academy Awards show airs at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26, on ABC.
Pickford Film Center, 1318 Bay St., is hosting its Third Annual Red Carpet Awards Gala to watch the Oscars, starting at 4 p.m., when Red Carpet coverage airs. Tickets, $40 to $125, are available at pickfordevents.com or the door.
TJ Martin will present his Oscar-nominated documentary "Undefeated" at 5 p.m. March 1 in the Performing Arts Center Mainstage, WWU. Admission is free, but tickets are required by registering at
OTHER WINNING ALUMS
If TJ Martin wins an Oscar for directing the documentary "Undefeated," he will join two other Western Washington University graduates who have won major awards in communications:
Bill Dietrich, who graduated in 1973 with a bachelor of arts in journalism, shared a 1990 Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Seattle Times for its coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Later, Dietrich was a part-time instructor at Western for five years, leaving last spring.
Kevin Jackson, a 1992 graduate with a bachelor of arts in journalism, is a four-time Emmy winner with ESPN. He helped integrate ESPN.com with ESPN television, and was founding editor of the Page 2 section of ESPN.com.
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