Making City Lax, the award-winning film on Denver's unlikeliest lacrosse team

Los Angeles documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite didn't know what to expect when two years ago she returned to Denver, moved into the basement of her parent's house with her one-year-old twins (daddy stayed in LA) and turned the cameras on City Lax, the inner-city youth lacrosse program that her friend Erik Myhren had helped start. To learn more about City Lax, check out this week's feature story, ""These Inner-City Athletics Stars Stick it to All the Stereotypes of Lacrosse"

"In my mind, it was going to be like Hoosiers or Bad News Bears, where the bad team is going to get really good," she says of the project, which she conceived of with film producer Tor Myrhen, Erik's brother. "I thought would just be few months."

The season didn't exactly turn out as expected -- and to get the real, even better story, she came up with a new game plan.

"I found you can't just sashay in just because you happen to be this director from Los Angeles," she says. "Nobody cares. In order to get them to trust you, you've just got to be yourself and you have to live with them." So she ended up spending six months with the players, hanging out at neighborhood barbecues, yelling at kids to get to class, becoming for many of them an unofficial auntie.

The effort paid off. The resulting film she and Tor created, City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story (a trailer for which can be seen below), recently won best documentary at the Sonoma International Film Festival and has drawn accolades form the likes of Morgan Spurlock. Now a version of it is slated to be shown on ESPN, possibly in the next few days to coincide with the NCAA lacrosse championships that begin on May 28.

The key to the film, she says now, was the way the kids opened up on camera, talking with brutal honesty about themselves, their lives and their many challenges. "It's amazing how in touch they are with what they are going through," says Gabriela. "I realized the story is telling itself, and I am just a bystander."

When all was said and done, that bystander had 400 hours of footage, material that took her nine months to distill down into the final film. She says the process of making the documentary, her first independent, feature-length film, was life changing -- and she hopes it will touch others in the same way.

"The long, sad story of documentaries is you are not going to make money," she says. "But what you can do is inspire people. That's why I hope for as many people to see it as possible, and be inspired to be a part of some kid's life."

To help people do that, the Denver premier of City Lax will be shown in August at the Paramount Theatre, with proceeds going to KNUW Seeds, a nonprofit youth organization founded by Erik Myhren, as well as to a much-needed school scholarship for Jaden Franklin, one of the stars of the film. If that's too long to wait, copies of the movie can also be purchased from the City Lax website.

Hoosiers and Bad News Bears, eat your heart out.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner