LFG directors Sean and Andrea Nix Fine discuss their new documentary and what they were up against in telling this story.
In March 2019, the U.S. women’s soccer team made history. Twenty-eight members of a squad considered the best in the world sued for gender discrimination. They claimed they were making less than the considerably less successful U.S. men’s soccer team, trained in inferior facilities, and were flying commercial when the men were often put on chartered flights.
When the filmmaking couple Sean and Andrea Nix Fine caught wind of the lawsuit and saw the momentum the team had built after winning a fourth World Cup title in front of thousands of fans, who had replaced their usual chant of “U-S-A” with “equal pay,” they sensed something big was happening.
“This is something that’s going to create a ripple effect,” Andrea told us.
One hour before the team’s ticker-tape parade through New York City, the filmmakers found themselves in Megan Rapinoe’s hotel room, pitching the winger a documentary about the team’s historic fight, Andrea said.
With the team onboard, the couple set off on capturing this “David and Goliath story” in an HBO Max documentary LFG, Sean said. We spoke to the Academy Award-winning duo about what it was like to capture the private lives of these players, what it was like working with (or against) U.S. Soccer, and — with the team now on the hunt for their fifth Olympic gold medal — what comes next in the legal battle.
KCM: What first captured your interest in this story, and what made you want to document it?
Sean: The more we looked into the lawsuit, one, we were amazed how much the players were doing on their own. Two, we were amazed at how far back in history this went. It goes back almost 20 years that the U.S. women’s national team has been fighting for equal pay or to be valued the same as the men’s team. Three, it’s a story of incredible resilience. It’s a David and Goliath story. What they’re doing to try and get equal pay is a story that we felt we had to tell. It’s important that people know what’s going on behind the headlines.
Andrea: No female athlete had sued their employer before. Historically it’s been male athletes. I think the sports world cocked their heads and listened to this and said “What’s going on here?” This is something that’s going to create a ripple effect. And I also think it represents a lot of what women in this country and actually globally experience through the equal pay gap. You can be the best in the world at what you do — and in terms of equal pay, the lack thereof is even worse when you have people performing at the highest level. Whether you’re looking at Silicon Valley or the heads of investment funds, the sort of the top tier jobs actually tend to have the greatest pay gap and the women’s soccer team is no different.
Their track record is impeccable. They are world dominators at what they do and the fact that they were being celebrated and not valued — it felt like it was a story whose time has come.
Megan Rapinoe has sort of been the face of this movement. But you also chose to follow some lesser known players in the film like Jessica McDonald. How did you decide who to feature?
Andrea: They have a code that they follow about being a team. They say leave the team better than you found it. We knew that the film couldn’t just come from one person.
Megan is sort of the rising star in the popular culture, but we wanted to find an every player, someone like Jessica McDonald, who is a single mother and had been working in the professional league to make this team her entire career and had just gotten on the team when the lawsuit dropped. The sacrifices she made are the sacrifices you see a lot of professional female athletes make to stay in their field even though they’re paid so poorly. And we wanted to bring in the chemistry of people who worked on the lawsuit, like Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O’Hara, who had been involved in negotiating [collective bargaining agreements] for a long time. And lastly, Sam Mewis, who is a newer team member. They tried to kind of induct a newer player who they see being on the team for a long time to learn the ins and outs of this legal fight, because they see it as a long haul. They’re never going to give this up until they get what they want.
You’ve directed all types of documentaries. Was there anything about this project you found especially challenging?
Sean: You’re making a film with a team of 28 players and they’re scattered across the United States and you’re constantly filming an ever evolving lawsuit. We were always trying to be in the right place at the right time and you’re making these educated guesses.
You’re doing all that and then a pandemic happens.
Andrea: The elephant in the room on this is that U.S. Soccer was really not interested in telling a story about equal pay. We found that out from the very beginning. So how do you tell a story about the world’s best women’s soccer team when you’re not even allowed in the stadium? When you can’t film them training, when you can’t film games, when you can’t film them in their uniforms because you’re not given access to that? So I think that was definitely a challenge.
As you mentioned, U.S. Soccer declined to participate. What were your interactions with them like through this project?
Andrea: I think that we very much wanted them to be able to add their view. Especially with Cindy Parlow Cone — she is a former player and the new head of U.S. Soccer — who we had asked to participate in an on-camera interview. It was really sad that they declined. Because they’re about to go into the Olympics, they have this lawsuit on their backs, and for both sides I know it’s been painful.
We really welcomed them to be part of it, gave them ample time to respond and they declined.
With the Olympics around the corner, this issue is back in the spotlight. Can you break down where this case stands now? And do you have any plans to continue following this story?
Sean: Right now it’s an appeal. There is talk about following it more, but I think now we want to see where it goes.
It’s interesting. It’s been two years since they won the World Cup, so we’re back in the same cycle. They have to go in front of the whole world and prove themselves again, and they’ve got this lawsuit hanging over them. And U.S. Soccer’s had two years to settle with them, and despite what they say, they haven’t. I think we hope they can come to an agreement, because as Megan says, everybody wins if they can come to an agreement. It lights the way for other people, for equality, for women to be paid fairly. It’s a good thing.
What are you hoping viewers take away from LFG?
Sean: I want this to change the discussion of pay equality for these women and other women. I hope it inspires people. I also hope it causes people to stop and question who they’re valuing and how they’re valuing others, when that person is sitting down at the table.
I think this film has taught me that in spades. How women are truly treated in our society, in the workplace, in filmmaking. Andrea and I are married, so we see in meetings how I’m treated versus how she’s treated. And I think this has opened my eyes to a whole different situation.
And I really hope these women get equal pay, because it will change the situation for many many people.
Andrea: The responses that we’ve been getting since the film premiered have been kind of like jet fuel for us. People have said, I’m inspired and I’m infuriated. Those are two tandem thoughts we really wanted to see. We wanted to keep the conversation going for this team. We wanted people to really understand and get rid of the misinformation and we wanted the ripple effect to continue.
I’d like this film to be embraced and to change perspectives, not just for women, but for men and boys to really start looking at the world differently.
This interview has been edited and condensed.