On Christmas Eve in 2006, Greg Whiteley, camera in hand, knocked on the door of Mitt Romney’s cabin in Park City. He wasn’t totally sure whether he’d be welcomed in or thrown out. That night Romney gathered with his family to discuss his potential run for president, and Whiteley knew he wanted to be there.
“I remember thinking that sounds like a really great beginning to a film,” Whiteley tells me over lunch at a country club near his Laguna Beach, California, home.
But Romney was not thrilled with the idea of a documentary. Months prior, Whiteley pitched the idea of the documentary to Tagg, Romney’s eldest son, who quickly fell in love with Whiteley’s vision.
“I said, ‘This would be amazing, but my dad is never going to go for it,’” Tagg told me about that first meeting with Whiteley. But Whiteley pleaded his case: He’d film the evening and if the family didn’t feel right about it, they could keep the footage. So on that morning, Whiteley packed his family in their green Volkswagen station wagon and drove from Los Angeles to Utah. And Romney reluctantly let Whiteley in.
There was an ease in the room that Whiteley hadn’t expected when he began filming the Romneys. “If you look at that footage, everyone was incredibly comfortable from the jump,” Whiteley tells me. (Tagg recalled that after the first slightly awkward 15 minutes, they forgot Whiteley was even there.)
“I can’t explain it. I think it’s partly that we were just supposed to do it,” Whiteley says, referring to making the film.
He can’t quite pinpoint what, exactly, compels him to surrender himself to some stories, without any certainty where they will lead — which, in the case of the “Mitt” documentary, turned out to be six years of filming, taking out a second mortgage and maxing out his credit cards. A promising character, scene or story seems to capture his curiosity with something more to reveal — to himself and the audience — a hidden and exhilarating world that merits closer attention.
When he learned about competitive cheerleading after seeing a stunt on the football field sidelines, he had a hunch the sport would bring out the humanity and complexity a great documentary needed. Thus began the docuseries “Cheer.” And the minute he read the GQ magazine story about the junior football league in Mississippi, he settled on the right team to follow, he says, which eventually gave birth to the show “Last Chance U.”
It’s an intuition he has learned to trust that has guided his pursuit of the truest version of reality that he’s able to glean. “You’re hoping to be surprised and changed by what it is you’re seeing and hearing,” he says.
And he’s had an astounding few years.
“Cheer” was both critically and commercially successful — a “home run” by industry standards. It won three Emmys this year in directing, editing and “outstanding unstructured reality series” categories. “Last Chance U,” also an Emmy winner and the longest-running sports documentary series on Netflix, is going on its seventh season. The new season of “Last Chance U: Basketball” will be released on Dec. 13. The themes of hope and overcoming in the sports docuseries are threaded throughout his earlier films that dive into American schools and education system, “Resolved” and “Most Likely to Succeed.” And Whiteley spent his summer shooting a new project in Louisville, Kentucky, that he can’t publicly discuss just yet.
Allowing real life to drive the plot and the narrative in his work, Whiteley has managed to expand what the documentary can be — not only something audiences watch to be educated, but also a genre we can turn to for entertainment. Something that presents reality, but also paradoxically allows viewers to escape it.
On a sunny, crisp November afternoon in Laguna Beach, Whiteley opts for a table inside a country club restaurant nestled in the hills of the lush Aliso and Woods Canyon. A group of men in fleece vests congregates outside before heading onto the secluded golf course.
Whiteley is relatively new to Laguna. About a year and a half ago, he and his wife Erin bought a 1960s house in a COVID-19-prompted move out of San Diego. “It was totally impulsive. We went to look at this house and have breakfast in Laguna, and we bought it that night,” Whiteley says. At 52, he has a boyish face, graying curly hair and bright eyes that tend to focus intensely. His outfit is both stylish and unassuming: a cream-colored Levi’s shirt, relaxed cropped pants and black Converse All Stars.
As we sit, it’s Whiteley the documentarian who begins interviewing me. He asks me a question and without fully realizing it, I start giving my biographical details until I catch myself and remember to reverse roles. Whiteley’s colleagues tell me later that he has a knack for eliciting genuine responses from his subjects through the kinds of disarming questions he asks and at just the right time.
Whiteley started college at Brigham Young University with what felt like a solid plan for the future: study political science and become a lawyer like his father. He idolized his dad, he told me — a practical, intelligent and pensive man, who was also the first kid in his family to leave their potato farm in Idaho. “I really wanted nothing more than to be just like him,” he says, his voice losing some of its steadiness. His father passed away in 2004 after a seven-year illness.
“I really wanted nothing more than to be just like him.”
Whiteley thoroughly documented those years on video, grasping for fleeting moments together. He hasn’t touched the footage since, apart from a short video he made for the funeral.
Inheriting his father’s career trajectory no longer felt certain when Whiteley caught the filmmaking bug. First, a friend from the dorm invited him to audition for a theater company that had an opening. Whiteley read for and got the part. Later, his friend and film professor Charles Metten asked Whiteley if he had considered film for his major. The idea struck him as irresponsible.
“There was no one I knew that had ever done that, so I wasn’t even sure what the template should be,” he says.
But Whiteley’s Latter-day Saint mission to New Mexico instilled in him newfound confidence and he caught himself thinking about his future profession: “Daily, you’re put in uncomfortable situations, and you survive all of them,” he says of his mission and how it helped him gain confidence.
But he didn’t quite know how to break the news to his dad.
He apprehensively called his father to confess his nascent ambition to be a filmmaker, expecting a total straightening out. But that’s not what he got.
“As I was explaining my situation, he stopped me and said, ‘I always knew you’d do something like that,’” Whiteley recalls.
That simple affirmation became Whiteley’s unwavering source of resilience throughout years of uncertainty when he left Provo after graduating from Brigham Young University to Los Angeles without a job or a place to live. He carried it with him through the years of waiting tables, driving a forklift and working at a refrigerated warehouse, all while trying to pitch scripted films or get hired as a director.
“I experienced many years of doubt and wondering if it was going to work out, but I could always lean back on that conversation. The smartest person I knew in my life, the person I trusted the most, believed that that’s what I should do,” Whiteley says. His production company is called One Potato Productions — an homage to his father’s Idaho beginnings.
Becoming a documentarian happened by accident.
In his Los Angeles congregation, he was assigned to home teach Arthur “Killer” Kane, a former glam-rock bassist, who described his midlife conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an “LSD trip from the Lord.” The pair hit it off. Both nursed dreams that appeared out of reach: Kane longed to reunite with his 1970s band New York Dolls, which by then had lost some of its members and was largely forgotten. Whiteley wanted to be a film director. One day, while giving Kane a ride to the pawn shop to retrieve his guitar, Whiteley had an inkling to grab the camera in his back seat and film Kane’s reunion with his instrument.
Still mourning his father’s death, every moment, regardless of how small, felt sacred, he explains.
“I just kept filming and that became ‘New York Doll,’” Whiteley recalls, remembering the day he rushed to the Hollywood Sundance headquarters to submit the burned DVD with the documentary before the deadline. “All of a sudden I’m a documentary filmmaker,” he says, dipping a triangle of pita bread in hummus with large cherry tomatoes.
But somewhere in between were a slew of sacrifices that teetered the line between brave and reckless. Erin, Whiteley’s wife and co-producer, told me it was a big moment for the family when Whiteley was considering quitting his full-time job with benefits at Preferred Freezer, a refrigerated warehouse in East L.A., to follow Kane on the journey to reunification with his band in London.
“Maybe that was crazy, but it felt riskier to be safe.”
Their kids were 1 and 3, and giving up health insurance was a significant risk.
“Now I look back at that and maybe that was crazy,” Erin says. “But it felt riskier to be safe, if that makes sense.”
The couple sat down, she recalls, and Whiteley laid out two possible paths for where he could be in 10 years from that moment: If he stayed with the company versus if he pursued directing his own films.
“(The first option) felt boring and predictable, so we thought, let’s just try this,” she says.
Erin has collaborated with Whiteley as field producer, assistant editor and adviser on just about everything. The Whiteleys are currently collaborating on their confidential project. Whiteley spent the summer in Louisville and Erin worked in Mississippi while they were simultaneously working on another project in Texas.
They bring complementary skills to their work, she explains: His strength is story, while she will often pick up on details in that story that need fleshing out. They’re bad planners, she says, and that’s almost been an asset. “If there’s a crazy or interesting idea, we try to follow that,” she says. “I really try not to base our decisions out of fear.” The two just celebrated their 23rd anniversary, and Whiteley’s relentless optimism still astounds her. “He doesn’t take no for an answer, he always thinks there is a workaround,” she explains.
At the time when Netflix bought “Mitt,” the documentary division at the company consisted of two newly hired people. “House of Cards” was the only other original programming on Netflix. But Whiteley could see his future with Netflix and the platform wanted to ramp up its original documentary options. After “Mitt’s” smashing success, Whiteley pitched to the Netflix executives an idea they’d never done before, a serialized high-intensity sports documentary that became “Last Chance U.” His vision involved shooting it as a narrative indie film, using prime lenses that would give the documentary a raw, cinematic quality. “I could tell they did not want to do it, but I think they trusted me to try it,” Whiteley says.
To make the show, he insisted on assembling his own team of folks from diverse backgrounds — including a comedy show editor and a cinematographer who had never even seen a football game. “It wasn’t a normal cast of characters to hire on a show like that,” says Adam Leibowitz, a supervising producer at One Potato Productions, who met Whiteley as a production assistant in 2006. “He was way nicer than any other director would be to a PA,” Leibowitz recalls.
“If you’re trying to scrub away someone’s warts, you’re also going to lose the thing that makes them beautiful and human.”
In the early days of “Cheer,” Whiteley brought on long-time collaborator Chelsea Yarnell, also a supervising producer with his company, to develop the series. “He gave me space and the confidence to develop the series, even though I didn’t have the experience,” Yarnell says. “And that’s really rare, honestly.” The same impulse that permeated his sports docuseries — to elevate the underdog — seemed to be behind Whiteley’s hiring decisions. “Greg’s very interested in finding new people who have good ideas and he doesn’t care if they don’t have the most impressive resume. He very much goes on what he thinks: Do their ideas ring true? Do they sound interesting? Does he like them?” Leibowitz says.
A typical day of shooting, whether it’s football, basketball or cheer, follows a very rough plan, Leibowitz says. The crew shoots all day, as much as they can, which results in a long editing process. “But it allows you options,” he says. “Greg’s M.O. of being really open-minded and trying lots of things fits really well with shooting lots of stuff and seeing where you go with it.”
In the last episode of the second season of “Cheer,” coach Monica Aldama and one of the former Navarro cheerleaders La’Darius Marshall meet in a hotel room in Daytona, Florida, before the long-awaited championship. Their relationship had been on the rocks since Marshall left the Navarro team with a grudge against Aldama, claiming accusations of mental and physical abuse and being unsupportive.
“Are you OK with them filming this? We don’t have to talk in front of the cameras,” Aldama asks, and Marshall doesn’t seem to object. Whiteley was in the room with two other crew members, and it was important for him to keep Aldama’s aside, the acknowledgment that the cameras were there and rolling. The two cry, hug and forgive each other in a powerful moment of cathartic closure. “I think it’s healthy for the audience to remember that they’re getting my perspective of that scene,” Whiteley says.
You can shoot with a cold heart and edit with a warm heart, Whiteley likes to say. “I just feel like my job is to film everything and I’m going to keep filming until somebody tells me to stop. And even then, I feel like it’s kind of negotiable.” Whiteley sometimes explains to his subjects why filming the uncomfortable, vulnerable moments is necessary. “If you’re trying to scrub away someone’s warts, you’re also going to lose the thing that makes them beautiful and human.”
I ask Whiteley how he ultimately gained Romney’s trust — and the trust of Kane, Aldama and others — to let him into the most private, vulnerable moments. Whiteley himself couldn’t believe the kinds of scenes he got to film.
“I don’t think there is anything that I do to engender that trust,” he says. I honestly feel like there are just some films that are meant to be made, and there are people that are ready to have their story told, and they feel it and I feel it.”