Japan is hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup from Sept. 20 to Nov. 2, a first for both the country and Asia. But in 2015, the last time the quadrennial tournament was held, the Japanese national team was a rugby world joke, remembered more for its 145-17 wipe-out in 1995 by the New Zealand All Blacks than any on-field heroics.
Then one coach, one team and one game changed all that: Meeting the mighty South African team in Brighton, England in the 2015 World Cup first round, Australian Eddie Jones and his Brave Blossoms squad pulled off a stunning 34-32 upset.
The team tagged as the weakest in the tournament had beaten its two-time winner, a victory that, four years later, is the subject of the aptly titled docudrama, “The Brighton Miracle,” which will debut on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Google Play, on Sept. 23.
For scriptwriter and director Max Mannix, a former rugby player who helped Jones train the Brave Blossoms, the film is a passion project. And Mannix had both the credits and the connections to bring it off. He co-wrote the Kiyoshi Kurosawa family drama, “Tokyo Sonata,” winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, and directed “Rain Fall,” a 2009 thriller starring Gary Oldman. He also had the cooperation of Jones and key players from the 2015 team.
The idea for the film, Mannix says, came during the 2015 World Cup.
“People kept saying to me how amazing the game with South Africa was,” he says. “It was then that I starting thinking that there was more to winning that game than the game itself. After the World Cup, I contacted Eddie Jones and told him I thought a great film could come from this because it was about so much more than rugby. He agreed to support me.”
The journey to a completed film, however, turned out to be almost as long and winding, if not as physically arduous, as Japan’s preparations for the epic Brighton contest. Mannix originally scripted a fiction film but key funding fell through. “The film looked like it wasn’t going to happen,” he says.
Then, Jack Wareham, a cameraman with extensive Hollywood experience who was to serve as the film’s cinematographer, suggested incorporating real people into the story, including Jones, team captain Michael Leitch and star player Ayumu Goromaru.
“It gave (the script) a fresh feel,” Mannix says, adding that the unwavering support of the film’s main backer “gave us the drive we needed. Having said this, there were times when I questioned if the film was going to happen. But I couldn’t walk away from it. I really wanted the film as a keepsake to remind people of what the team did, of the fantastic work they did in preparation.”
Central to both the film’s eventual completion and its credibility as drama is the casting of Temuera Morrison as Jones. A New Zealand actor of Maori, Irish and Scottish descent whose many credits include the 1994 hit “Once Were Warriors,” the “Star Wars” series and the 2018 sci-fi fantasy smash “Aquaman,” Morrison not only bears a passing resemblance to Jones, who is of mixed Japanese-American and Australian parentage, but also nails Jones’ combination of puckish humor and fierce dedication.
Australian producer and director Greg McLean, who is best known for the “Wolf Creek” series and films, suggested the actor to Mannix in a text message.
“I was stunned,” Mannix says. “I was literally standing in a grocery story with a shopping basket in one hand. Of course! I put the shopping trolley down, walked outside and immediately called Tem’s agent. … Within a week Tem had read the script and had agreed to do it.”
Morrison, who was born in 1960, the same year as Jones, and is the same height, “worked hard to make the same weight, so the figure, shape and look that we see in the film is a carbon copy of Eddie,” Mannix says. “I can’t thank him enough.”
And what did the real-life model think of his on-screen double?
“Eddie didn’t make too many comments about Tem,” Mannix says. “He once asked, ‘Isn’t he that ‘Once Were Warriors’ guy?’ I better not say too much.”
While writing the script, Mannix consulted Jones, who was then coaching in the U.K., by email (“I would never contact him post-Wednesday if he had a game on Saturday”) or in person when he returned to Australia to visit family.
“He’d tell me little things like, ‘My father’s favorite Japanese word was yukkuri (slowly). It was about taking your time to do things right.’ Those were great things to find,” Mannix says.
Mannix also drew on his own experience helping Jones to train the team during a five-month camp in Miyazaki Prefecture.
“I had the luxury of sitting with him for breakfast, lunch and dinner 100 plus times, as well as being with him on the rugby pitch at training,” he says. “I could see how he worked. How he interfaced with the players and coaches. He absolutely expects you to give your best. I’m sure he has 10 eyes because he misses nothing, and he works harder than anybody. He leads from the front.”
Jones also had what Mannix describes as “a certain way of speaking” that he captured in the script.
“I felt I had his pattern of speech clearly ingrained in my mind,” Mannix says, giving as an example a favorite Jones’ admonition: “Go home and apologize to your wives. They’re at home making this possible for you and you put in a bulls—- effort.”
“I liked that — giving credit to the heroes at home with the children,” Mannix adds. “Eddie is an exceptionally sharp and witty person, but above all he cares for people, and that’s what drove me to do this.”
The film is more than a portrait of a charismatic coach prepping for the big game, however.
“The main message is to have the courage to be yourself,” Mannix says. “That’s what underpinned the victory.”
Instead of insisting on his way or the highway, Jones tried to understand and motivate his team as individuals, beginning with his captain, Michael Leitch (Lasarus Ratuere).
“Eddie was always wanting Leitch to make his own decisions,” Mannix says.
Both men, Mannix adds, shared a similar background of being mixed race and dealing with discrimination from childhood on. In the film, as a young rugby player, Jones pushes back against a racist opponent, while an adult Leitch stoically endures harassment from the Japanese police as his Japanese wife (the single-named Sumire) steams.
“Seriously, who gives a damn if they are white, black, gay, hair, no hair, blue hair, short or tall,” Mannix says. “How does somebody get off by putting somebody down? That’s what made this victory so intoxicating. Absolutely nobody outside of the team believed they could win. In a way it unified people, because a lot of people have doubts, that’s normal. But to see Japan win a game they had no chance of winning, it gives people hope.”
How much hope does the Japanese team have this year for a repeat of the 2015 “miracle”?
“Because of Brighton, Japan are no longer under the radar,” Mannix says. Consequently, a victory against Ireland or Scotland in the pool rounds, he adds, wouldn’t have the same shock value as the 2015 win over South Africa.
“For Japan to shock people they need to make it to the semifinals, the top eight. The fact that they can talk of it and people don’t laugh is a carryover from 2015,” he says. “There is now a sense of expectation from Japan. I hope that they can handle the weight that goes with that expectation. I think they can.”
“The Brighton Miracle” is available now via Amazon Prime Video. For more details, visit www.thebrightonmiracle.com.