Now in his mid-thirties, actor Brian Presley faced a problem tackling the lead in “Touchback.” Playing an Ohio farmer with a bad leg and financial problems was challenge enough; but in the story, which sees the character mysteriously returned to his senior year of high school, when he was the quarterback of the football team, was even more demanding. (The crux of the plot lies in whether he’ll decide to alter his play in the championship game, in which he scored the winning touchdown but in the process suffered the injury that ended his career hopes. Doing so, however, would mean giving up the wife and children he dearly loves.)
“When I first read this project…and had the chance to meet Don Handfield, who wrote it and was going to direct it, it had a lot of parallel situations to my own personal life. I played high-school football and we won the state championship in Oklahoma. And I immediately knew that this was a project I was supposed to do. But I also knew I had a short window—because I’m not getting any younger,” Presley said in a recent Dallas interview.
It didn’t make things easier, Presley added, that “the project had a hard time getting made,” with one studio ultimately dropping it. “To cover a twenty-year time gap, do you have one character or two characters and two different actors—one playing young and one playing old? Don had a great vision for how to execute that, really taking people on this journey and showing the contrast. One second you’re seeing the old, and the next second you’re back to high school.” So Presley undertook to take on the role of producer as well, making the picture under his Freedom Films banner.
“Independent films now are really studio-level movies, being financed independently from the studios, because they’re making fewer and fewer movies,” Presley explained. “So as I started seeing how this whole animal worked, I wanted to figure out how you make movies. I just enjoy the process. So I set out to tackle this, and I definitely hit bumps in the road, but I felt a calling to make movies that bridge a faith world and the secular world behind an inspirational story, the majority of them being true but some being just inspirational, like ‘Touchback.’ When I say it appeals to a faith-based audience and a secular audience, it’s doing it in a way that’s not heavy-handed. You never hear the word of God, yet we layer through the film principles of God—like attitude is everything, helping out someone in need, life being more difficult than a sport, how we persevere, integrity, character, not giving up. All those values and principles that to me you see in the Bible. ‘Touchback’ is kind of like a parable. God works in mysterious ways, and can answer prayers in ways we can’t comprehend. At Freedom Films we want to make movies that bridge those worlds without being heavy-handed. I think we can incorporate those principles in a way that brings both those worlds together and allow a message that’s inspirational.”
After his high school football career, Presley turned his attention elsewhere. “I quickly realized that I wasn’t 6’4” and going to be pursuing it much past the high school level,” he said, so he went to California to try acting, without immediate success. “I had the opportunity to go out to Los Angeles, and that summer I was actually planning on coming back and ended up booking a McDonald’s commercial and decided to stay and keep pursuing this. I look back and say, ‘If I had known it was going to be this hard and bring so many challenges’—I’ve hit some rock-bottom places in my own personal life—that’s what drew me to this movie. It’s easy to look back and your life and ask, ‘What if I had gone this route?’ That’s life. You’re going to encounter storms, bumps in the road and ditches—all kinds of stuff. It’s how we persevere that builds character and integrity and who we are. To me the message of the movie is accepting where life is today, and the path we are on. It’s easy to get caught up in the rat race and forget what the really important things are in life. I’ve done that—I’m as guilty as anybody, Hollywood is such a self-consuming place, where you get so consumed with prestige and fame that you forget what’s really important.”
But preparing to shoot the gridiron action was no walk in the park. “I definitely had to hit the weights a little harder and get myself back in playing shape,” Presley said with a laugh. “And I quickly realized I wasn’t eighteen anymore—there were a few more aches and pains than I remembered. We had six hundred guys come and try out for the football team. Some were in college, some played pro, some played arena football, some played big-time college football. Pretty much all of them, their career ended with an injury. So this was a chance for them to come back and put the pads on again. I got to know a lot of these guys, and they thought, ‘Well, it’s just going to be Hollywood, a movie, glamour. Little did they know they were going to be having two-a-day practices. And then when we started shooting, it’s from 5:00pm to 5:00am, and you’re playing twelve hours straight, with a half-hour dinner break. Their tongues were hanging out. So was mine, to be honest with you. You feel the hits. People got banged up, and we were having to do ice tubs after. It was intense at times. But there’s a way of doing that where it’s not reckless. You’re giving the insurance company heart attacks, but that’s what it was about.”
For Presley, a special pleasure in making “Touchback” was working with Kurt Russell, who plays his character’s high school coach and long-time friend. “Any actor can tell you that Hollywood’s not all glitz and glamour,” he recalled. “There have been times when I’ve had U-Hauls parked outside, waving the flag and packing it up and going home. It’s tough. It’s a rat race with constant rejection. It’s the most unstable roller-coaster ride, and 99.9% of the people fade out. So to have the experience to be across from Kurt Russell—the minute I started the first scene with him, after fourteen years of this journey, it was a great payoff. I wanted to call him Wyatt Earp and all these great characters he’s played over the years. And he’s great about it. He and I really hit it off, and I think I kind of reminded him of his two boys, who are my age. He’s a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy—what you see is what you get, with a kind of cowboy mind-set. He’s actually a pro baseball player—played in the minors—and his career ended with an injury. That’s one of the things that drew him to this story—the message of the movie. Sometimes with some of these big stars, big personalities come with that. Kurt didn’t have any of the assistants, he was part of the team, he cut up with the crew. It was truly one of the highlights of my career to date, working opposite Kurt Russell.”
And, Presley added, the movie’s message goes far beyond sports. “You can talk about football and sports,” he said, “but it’s really a love story at the end of the day, a love story about a husband and wife…the decision is to choose her, and to choose family and community—the stuff that’s important in life, versus the materialistic aspects of life that we think can sometimes outweigh the true values in life.
“The movie was inspired by ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ Presley explained. “It’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ meets ‘The Blind Side.’ We wanted to do a shout-out to Capra, and the company that made ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was Liberty Films. So when you see my character older, my farming hat reads ‘Liberty Seed Company.’ It’s awesome even to have that comparison. We hope it has that same kind of impact.”