The Biggest Losers: Director Mickey Duzyj on His New Netflix Sports Series

The creator of Losers, a just-released documentary series produced by Topic Studios, explains how he brought his stories to life, and what it’s like to trudge through three-story-high sand dunes in the Sahara with camera equipment.

Filmmaker and artist Mickey Duzyj has been fascinated by stories of loss in sports ever since he suffered his own massive fail while competing in a tennis tournament as a teenager. Today, his new documentary series, aptly titled Losers, premieres on Netflix. It’s the culmination of Duzyj’s years working as an illustrator for brands such as Grantland and ESPN, and the follow-up to his two short sports documentaries: 2014’s The Perfect 18, about putt-putt golfer Rick Baird, and 2016’s The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere, about an underdog Japanese racehorse.

Losers, which was produced by Topic Studios, tells the stories of eight athletes in a variety of disciplines—including soccer, figure skating, basketball, curling, and dog sledding—who suffered massive and, in some cases, almost fatal losses. We spoke with Duzyj about everything from trudging through the Sahara to capture what may be Losers’ most dramatic, death-defying scene, to his own personal “loser” origin story. (Spoiler: it was a total rout.)

Let's start at the beginning. Before you became a director, you were a sports illustrator. How did your illustration work evolve?

I started out as an athlete. I was, in my teenage years, a fairly good tennis player. I had some wins and there seemed to be a lane for me to pursue that if I wanted to, at least for a while. When I was an athlete in high school, I got to the state tournament, and I had a really, really bad loss.

This was my junior year, probably when I was at the peak of my powers. And it just so happened to be right at the week when I had to decide whether I was going to try and stay in-state to do this tennis thing, or just really roll the dice and leave town, leave state, and go to art school.

A comic about tennis player Goran Ivanišević, made by Duzyj in art school, 2004.

You picked art school—the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Yes. When I got to art school, I didn't exactly find a lot of other people who shared my same interests. Actually, I had a professor tell me that my interest in sports was a liability. He was like, “You know, I kind of question your tastes—I’m really trying to see the artfulness in something as lame as sports.” It was only when I got to my senior year where I started to really put together a personal portfolio of work that I started to explore sports.

When I got out into the working world, I hit up Tennis magazine. I was like, “I’ve been a tennis player and a reader of your magazine for so many years.” The art director was like, “Where have you been my whole life? I try to commission art to illustrators every month, and nobody knows the rules of tennis, they don't know what a tennis court looks like”—he would have to contort himself to try and get decent work from artists.

What other sorts of illustration and editorial work were you doing after college?

I was doing mostly work for newspapers and magazines, or advertising work. A lot of that work was sports-related. I had a monthly column in Tennis that I illustrated for about five years. Did a lot of work for ESPN. Later, I did work for Grantland. After a while of doing illustration work, I really wanted to pursue more substantive storytelling.

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I started to write and illustrate stories and just post them on my blog. I did one for the Kentucky Derby. Then I did one for the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Those did really well on social media—a lot of people were sending them around. I got a message back from [competitive eater] Takeru Kobayashi, which blew my mind. I was like, “This is like incredible.” And that put me on the radar of what, at the time, was called Page 2—it was an opinion page on ESPN’s website. They said, “Would you be willing to do this kind of written and illustrated thing for us?” And I said, “Definitely.” It was kind of the opportunity that I was looking for.

Duzyj’s jacket design for one of the Grantland books, 2012.

Did you know you wanted to be a director?

In the lead-up to the first film I did, called The Perfect 18 [2014], I actually pitched that story as a written and illustrated blog post to Grantland, and they said that they liked my animation work so much that they asked me whether I would consider turning the story into a short doc. I had never really had aspirations to direct; I’d had experiences working on other people's documentaries doing little animated scenes. I worked on that for four months.

When it came out, I think it got something like half a million hits in the first week, the subject of the short got invited onto the Today show with Matt Lauer and Carson Daly, and it got nominated for an Emmy. I was just like, “Holy shit—this is crazy.” I got asked into another meeting at ESPN, where they were like, “Do you have any other stories?” And that’s when I got in with the 30 for 30 documentary team and did my second film, The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere [2016].

Animation still from The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere, 2016.

How did that film come about? That short is, in many ways—and correct me if I’m wrong—the impetus for Losers.

Shining Star was inspired by a story that I read when I was in art school, a decade before I had any idea of doing animation, documentary film, or anything. It’s one of those things that I put in a drawer for a dozen years, just thinking, Wow, look at this. It was a story about this horse that had never won a race, but was ridden almost ceremoniously by the top jockey in all of Japan, in front of a packed house of people who were all celebrating her—not for winning, but for fighting hard, and for persevering through all of her challenges. I just thought that was really unique. That would never happen in America. And, really, I wanted to know more about it.

It was only after I made The Perfect 18 that I started to look at a lot of the things that were in my drawers, and I realized that a lot of the stories that I had been sitting on for a long time and been collecting were stories of failure and loss that yielded these counterintuitive lessons.

When I had a meeting with ESPN, I told them the story about the racehorse, and they said, “That sounds amazing. You should make that.” And I was like, “Great.” I remember walking out and calling my wife on the phone to say, “The meeting went amazing. They love the idea, and now I just have to figure out how to make an international documentary.” I had no idea. I just went in with the story, just having made a seven-minute piece that was domestic and very modest in scale.

After The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere came out—or maybe even before—were you already thinking that it could be one of multiple stories about losers?

A series was the idea from the beginning. Shining Star was to be the proof of concept. I was like, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a show that was an international survey of failure in sports?

Still from Losers.

What were you trying to go for with the mix of stories that you ended up using in the Losers series? I assume that you settled on them not just because you thought that they would make a good story, but so you would have the access you needed in order to flesh out the episodes. You also probably wanted a mix: no two episodes in the same sport, a mix of locales.

I think that part of what was most exciting about working with Netflix: they are an international company, and we had so many international stories, and I really wanted the themes of the show to feel as broad as possible. Having done The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere, I learned so much in making that film, but the biggest lesson was that other countries deal with failure in slightly different ways than we do as Americans. So I thought, Wouldn't that be great if I found all of these stories of failure from around the world that really speak to that? It’s not necessarily about the failure itself: it’s about how the subjects react to the failure.

Production photo from the Losers shoot in the Sahara.

What was the most difficult of the eight episodes to do?

Logistically, doing the “Lost in the Desert” episode was the most challenging. The story is about an ultramarathon runner who is doing this extreme race in the Sahara, and he gets separated from the other runners after a sandstorm. He has to fight for his life, and there is a very important part of the story in which he finds himself at this remote Muslim shrine that’s surrounded by miles of desert in every direction. I had this idea: wouldn’t it be amazing if we brought Mauro Prosperi, the runner, back to the shrine?

That was something that all of us got really excited about, but getting an entire film crew and Mauro out to this very remote shrine near the Morocco–Algeria border … it was in a militarized zone. We had to walk 14 miles with all of our gear through desert, over these three-story high dunes—following a guide who wasn't completely sure he knew where the shrine was, but who had an idea. We walked in the desert for five hours and eventually got there. I guess we were the first film crew to ever shoot footage of this place. And it was very, very moving for Mauro to be back there. It just felt really, really gratifying for our team, who had to go through intense security protocols and finding guys and finding drivers and getting out to this very remote place in the Sahara desert, just to create this moment.

Can you tell me more about the artistic process of doing the animation for the series?

I have a lot of drawings that were done during the production. The show had to be storyboarded before it was drawn. We created 1,500 storyboards for the show. Many of them started on paper in thumbnail sketch form before we drew them into the computer. All the final art for the show, though, was drawn digitally. That was a decision that we had to make, just so we could finish 50 minutes of animation in one year, on top of all the other traveling and everything we were doing. It was just gonna be prohibitive to do it any other way.

Illustrated direction for Pat Ryan, star of the Losers episode “Stone Cold.”

Do you still keep in contact with any of the characters from the episodes?

I love Michael [Bentt, former boxer and star of the episode “The Miscast Champion”]. I would say, probably of all the subjects in the show, he and I are the closest. We text and call each other almost every week. I just really like him a lot.

He seems to have processed what happened to him when he was growing up—to be able to recognize that, no, you don't do that to your kid.

Now that you say it, that was one of the things that we connected about—not only taking these feelings of frustration, or whatever, and finding a creative outlet for them. It allowed him this kind of ... when he cut free of boxing, he had this real independence where he could say, “Yeah, I’m not going back home. That's not really an option. I gotta do something else.” He found this outlet. It was beautiful.

Writer Brin-Jonathan Butler, Duzyj, producer Aaron Ernst, former boxer Michael Bentt, and production assistant Jeremy on the last day of shooting Bentt’s episode of Losers.

Last question: I want to hear more about your big teenage tennis loss.

I do love this story. So, I was 17 years old. I was rail thin. My tennis game was ... I was gritty, but not a power player. I would force my opponent to make errors. I would sort of wear them down with endurance. And I was pretty successful at doing that—so much so, that I got to the quarter finals of state when I was in my junior year.

I was playing against this kid—he was a freshman who had grown up, probably, taking private lessons. He was really, really good. We got on the court, and it quickly became apparent that I was in over my head. And I think it was the first taste for me that there were levels far beyond what I could imagine in terms of opponents’ skill, especially considering he was much younger than I was.

I was getting destroyed. Balls were, like, flying past me. During a changeover in tennis, you’re allowed to go and speak to your coach to get some tips or pointers for things that they might be seeing. My coach’s name was Larry Hart, he always had something for me to try—some different tactic that I could use. I went up to him and said, “Larry, I’m getting killed out here. Nothing that I’m doing is working—give me something.” And he looked at me, and he said, “Mick, you wouldn’t beat this guy on your best day. So I think you should just go out there and enjoy what’s left of this match. But there’s not gonna be much.”

And I went back out there, and I finished. I lost 6-0, or 6-1. I decided to go to art school probably about a week later.

Would you say that that experience was not only the impetus for you to go to art school, but that it’s directly connected to your interest in loss?

Yes. It’s one of my many personal loser stories.

Losers premieres on Netflix today, Friday, March 1. You can learn more about the show and watch it here.

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