Greg Whiteley has a unique challenge going into the finale of Netflix’s runaway hit, Cheer. As the Navarro Cheer Team practiced to dominate Daytona, Whiteley and his team discovered that he and his crew wouldn’t be able to film at the National Cheerleading Championship. How do you finish a triumphant story with no way of documenting it? Luckily, everyone has a camera in their pocket and he and his crew (alongside supervising editor and co-producer Arielle Kilker and Chelsea Yarnell) pieced cell phone footage to create one of the most exciting finales of the year.
No one has really produced a reality show like Cheer. With a team as large as Navarro, Whiteley has a huge swath of stories to focus on. Not only were the students compelling, but coach Monica Aldama was a fascinating subject to lead this team. She expects precision, devotion, and for her team to watch each other’s backs.
In an astonishing twist of fate, the lack of ability to have a professional fi lm crew in Daytona was a blessing in disguise. With hundreds of people cheering on the Navarro squad, we get a ringside seat for the action, and Whiteley keeps it moving at breakneck speed. You find yourself cheering on the cheerleaders and you are automatically part of the action.
Awards Daily: I know you did another series called Last Chance U that follows football players from East Mississippi Community College. Did you want to get the other side of that experience with Cheer?
Greg Whiteley: I think so. If I had to spend some time and unpack it, I sense the experience of shooting that series played a role. Chelsea Yarnell was a field producer on Last Chance U during our second season in Scooba, Mississipp. In an attempt to figure out a unique way to shoot the second season, we started poking around at different aspects of the school. The cheerleading squad was one of those. They were extremely welcoming and gracious. We went to a couple of practices, and we were impressed with the intensity.
GW: That was one of the introductions to the world of college cheer.
AD: As you were developing the first season, were you purposely trying to break down stereotypes of cheerleaders? I really enjoyed hearing people talk about the history of cheerleading and how it’s evolved in the minds of people who may not be as familiar.
GW: It was simply how we experienced cheer. Diving into that world, we continued to be surprised by the ways it subverted our preconceived notions of cheer. If they affirmed some of those stereotypes, we would’ve gone in that direction. That’s just not what we were finding and as documentary filmmakers, we wanted to honor that.
AD: Audiences immediately get connected with these kids, and everyone loves Jerry [Harris]. Do you instinctively know who you want to follow to capture their stories?
GW: We began filming our first day there, and we filmed a practice. Having shot four seasons of Last Chance U before jumping into this world, we faced a similar situation. With Last Chance U there were 50 to 100 football players and you have to very quickly figure out who are the handful of players, or in this case cheerleaders, to focus on. The best way to describe it is that there’s a handful of kids that immediately stand out to me, and I naturally want to spend more time with them. We’ll spend an intense first day filming whatever we can from a practice following different cheerleaders home from practice, team meetings. At night, a story team will get together, and we’ll discuss who are the ones that jump out at me. I have my own list, but the people I’m working with are people I trust. When their list lines up with mine, I can proceed with confidence that those are the right cheerleaders. If we disagree, I have to persuade them where they’re wrong (laughs)
GW: Over time I’ve learned to not just follow the ones you think will have interesting backstories and the ones that are obvious. Right away there is some kind of a connection with a handful of them early on—and it has to be early on. If you wait too long to pick someone to spend time with…we’re only filming for 3 months and we really want to go deep into someone’s story. We want to spend as much time as we can as they prepare for Daytona, and then we want to go home with them. We want to film their lives before they came to Navarro and what are their aspirations? That’s one of the biggest factors. Where are they trying to get to? If you don’t allow yourself the time to go deep and answer all of those questions, you get half-baked characters that aren’t very interesting to anybody. Consequently, we have to decide early on who we’re gonna follow
AD: I really liked that it doesn’t end with the victory in Dayton. We get a small epilogue in the final episode. A person I loved throughout the series was Lexi. I had some apprehension when the epilogue started, because I knew how much the program helped Lexi to be on the right path. Was there a moment where you thought to end with Daytona?
GW: Quite simply, there’s always an epilogue. The climax is the big moment of the story. By the way, we treat the series like one, big, long film. Consequently, we’re going to have 3 acts, and by the time the third act comes along, you’re going to see if they get what they’ve been working towards. After Daytona, as we were filming these cheerleaders, we knew a poignant element to this story would be that some of these cheerleaders were going to leave Monica and Novarro. It was the end of their college career. That experience of being a cheerleader, especially for Monica, it is so demanding, it’s so intense, and it requires such a singular focus. I was curious if the girls and guys we were following would know what they wanted to do post Daytona. I wondered if that was going to be be a difficult question to answer, because I’m not sure you’re given much time to think about that during the course of a cheer season. Mulling these questions, we filmed one of the main characters getting kicked off the team and there was some discussion whether to include it in season one or maybe we include it in a subsequent season–if we are lucky enough to get a season two? There was some back and forth about it. Fortunately, it worked out, and we have some really talented editors that I should mention: Daniel McDonald, Arielle Kilker, David Nordstrom, Mark Morgan, Sharon Weaver, and Kate Hackett. All of them, along with Mark Cummins, had a significant hand in making decisions like this. Weaving that little button had a lot to say about this bigger theme we were exploring. We couldn’t have told Lexi’s story without including it. If it happened before Daytona, she wouldn’t have gone.
AD: I want to talk about the final episode.
AD: First, how far in advance did you know that Varsity Spirit was going to deny access to film? Or did you learn that as it got closer?
GW: As soon as we began to film at Navarro, I reached out to the head of Varsity Spirit and I had, what I thought, was a series of very fruitful conversations. I left those conversations thinking we could get a deal done. It wasn’t until the eleventh hour—maybe 10 days before Daytona—we found out we weren’t going to be allowed to film.
AD: What? That’s crazy!
GW: It was heartbreaking. We spent the whole season building up to this moment just like the cheerleaders had. So now, how do we tell this story? In my research on Daytona, I spent a lot of time online looking at videos that people had shot of the competitions. I remember thinking that you could almost recreate Daytona from uploaded iPhone footage. Everybody has a parent and every cheerleader has friends or teammates off to the side filming with their phones at multiple angles. When we were told we couldn’t film, I thought of seeing if we could piece it together using that footage. We are going to respect Daytona’s wishes. It’s their competition. They have every right to decide who can film and who can’t.
AD: Of course.
GW: There was considerable skepticism by some on our team that this idea would work. We were all so proud of the cinematography from Melissa Langer and Erynn Patrick–it’s exquisite and set a standard for how, visually, the show should look. Now, at the penultimate episode, we’ll use iPhone footage. I was very curious as to how it was all going to cut together. It’s easy for me to say, ‘let’s just use found footage’ but it’s another thing to execute it. Daniel McDonald took the first pass and after seeing a rough cut of the competition, I had chills. Ultimately, not being able to film was a gift. If you’ve never been to Daytona, it’s hard to capture the heat that’s coming off that stage by virtue of the energy in and around the outdoor amphitheater. When someone is not a trained cameraperson, they aren’t trained to keep their phone still.
AD: Yeah, they are moving around.
GW: Yes, they are cheering for their kids or best friend that’s up on stage. Obviously, they’re get excited, and the phone starts to jiggle. You’re violating all the rules of “good camerawork,” but in this instance, the shaky iPhone footage helped achieve an aesthetic that worked. It simultaneously captures what’s happening on stage while communicating an energy that’s hard to replicate.
AD: I went on YouTube and watched the Navarro routine, and, I have to say, I prefer the way it’s presented in the series. As an audience member, you get amped up while you watch them perform with Monica pounding on the stage and all the music blasting around you.
GW: , it’s crazy.
AD: What did you think about the Saturday Night Live skit of Cheer?
GW: I have a funny story about that.
AD: Oh yeah?
GW: I am a lifelong SNL fan. That show was the first forbidden TV for me. I would sneak out of bed, and I would peek in through the kitchen into the family room watching my dad watch SNL. So the sketch was an incredible honor. There’s probably nothing I can do professionally top that. Having said that, someone texted me a Twitter post of Will Ferrell at the SNL studios on the day that episode aired. Right after that somebody else had texted me a heads up that there was SNL rehearsal footage of these cast members in red cheerleading uniforms. In my mind, I thought Ceri Oteri and Will Ferrell were going to reprise their Cheerleader sketch as members of the Navarro cheer team. I’m going to sound greedy, but when I watched the actual sketch, I was slightly disappointed (laughs)
AD: Oh no!
GW: But it was an honor, nonetheless.
Cheer is currently streaming on Netflix.