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As crowds made the sidewalks virtually impassable and traffic choked Sixth Avenue in New York City last Thursday evening, Arian Foster emerged from a black SUV onto the red carpet outside Radio City Music Hall. But few onlookers at the NFL draft recognized the Texans' All-Pro running back, who'd shaved off his trademark facial hair and was introduced by the public address announcer as tailback Ray Jennings.
This was no ad campaign gimmick, like Deion Sanders playing fictional draft hopeful Leon Sandcastle. Yes, Foster was pretending to be someone else—for a movie, not a commercial—but the moment was as much a part of the real draft as Mel Kiper Jr.'s slicked-back hair. Cameras flashed, the crowd roared, and, perched nearby, movie director Ivan Reitman hoped one of his five cameras captured the shot.
Reitman (Animal House, Ghostbusters) knew there would be no second take. When he called, "Cut," the cameras stopped but the action didn't. Trailing Foster on the red carpet were real-life prospects whose images were being broadcast live on ESPN and the NFL Network.
Reitman walked this logistics tightrope for all three days of last week's draft, having been granted unprecedented access by the league to film his feature, Draft Day. The drama, which will finish shooting in Cleveland and is slated for a 2014 release, tells the story of Browns general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (played by Kevin Costner) as his life falls into disarray on the first day of the NFL draft. Denis Leary plays the Browns' coach, and Broadway mainstay Frank Langella is team owner Harvey Molina.
Foster beat out nearly 40 candidates, most of them trained actors, for the role of Jennings. "He has a sweetness and a strength," Reitman says. "He's real."
Authenticity was the goal of shooting at Radio City. Everything the NFL produced for the actual 2013 draft—hats, jerseys, credentials, placards—was re-created with a 2014 logo for the movie. Kiper and NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock mixed scripted remarks on fictional draftees with their real commentary, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced fake picks. He also wore the same outfit for three straight days—at least when shooting scenes—to give the movie continuity.
Using a skeleton crew and bare-bones equipment, Reitman continuously moved the set from the draft floor, to the stage, to the green room, to the network TV sets. He even filmed in the commissioner's suite, where Ray Lewis, playing himself, gets offered a job by the Browns' owner.
That scene went smoother than Langella's encounter with Sanders. After doing a take as an NFL Network analyst, Sanders extended his hand and said, "Frank, I'm a big fan." Langella leaned in and asked, "What's your name?" Without missing a beat, Sanders said, "Leon Sandcastle," then exited stage left.
It may have been the only awkward moment in a production that had to deal with groups of NFL fans filing past the set on official tours of Radio City, stopping constantly to snap photos.
"We're the ones who crashed the NFL's party," producer Ali Bell said. "We tried not to disrupt their workflow. We became documentarians telling our own story."