Director Bradley Jackson on piecing together ‘Facing Nolan’

(Photo by Jim Bennett/WireImage)
(Photo by Jim Bennett/WireImage) /

Born and raised in Houston, Bradley Jackson knew the child’s dream of playing professional baseball wasn’t something in his reach. Attending a Houston Astros‘ lock-in in his youth, Jackson built a fandom for baseball by meeting the likes of Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Ken Caminiti.

But in 1989, when Jackson was developing his interest in the sport, one of the greatest pitchers of all-time was on the move from his home-town team to an in-state rival. Nolan Ryan was beginning his final bout in Major League Baseball, starting his first of five seasons with the Texas Rangers.

Following his graduation from Second Baptist School in Houston, Jackson was off to Austin where he attended the University of Texas. Staying in the state’s capital for 10 years, he started his first steps in his 12 years in film which eventually pushed him to Los Angeles.

With an idea born on a July 2020 road trip through Texas, Jackson felt creative jealousy rewatching ESPN’s The Last Dance. His love for Michael Jordan and 1990s basketball made Jackson think who was his Michael Jordan of professional sports in Texas.

The first two names to come to mind were Hakeem Olajuwon and Nolan Ryan. Telling Ryan’s story seemed more possibly now. Forming a pitch with his production team, Jackson with the help of “some elbow grease” got it to the Ryan family who were all for it, except for one family member — Nolan, himself.

A road trip and binge of a Michael Jordan documentary kickstarted a dream Bradley Jackson soon chased on his path to tell Nolan Ryan’s story with “Facing Nolan.”

Jackson gathered the humbleness of Ryan’s nature as the Hall of Famer wasn’t intrigued by a lot of attention on himself. Nolan’s wife, Ruth, wanted the documentary more than anyone, convincing her husband of what it would mean to the entire Ryan family.

"“I think had it been just been Nolan Ryan’s decision, we would not be talking right now,” Jackson said. “There would not be a documentary about him. But his children and especially his wife are the people that told him that his story is incredible, and it needs to be told.”"

The family aspect is what drew Jackson deeper into Ryan’s journey. The importance of Ruth and his children played a long part in his continuation of playing the game of baseball.

"“‘I’ve always felt like my dad’s story was a love story wrapped up in baseball,'” Reid Ryan, son of Nolan, told Jackson."

Ryan considered retirement about five years into his career after not finding a consistent role with the Mets nor finding a pitching coach to take him under their wing. His numbers looked below average but what kept him in the game was Ruth.

For months following the conception of the film, finding a place to start and finish the film was an early challenge for Jackson. Ryan pitched in 27 seasons, spanning across four different organizations. And as Jackson noted, he doesn’t have six hours on a major network, he and his team needed to hone in on certain parts of Ryan’s playing career.

"“He was a pitcher, he was only pitching every five games. I think you want to try and tell as condensed as a story as possible to reach the widest audience possible,” Jackson said."

The benefit of following through four different story lines with four different organizations showed the frustration and the dominance Ryan displayed over his extended career. As a young reliever for the New York Mets, Jackson spoke about the exasperation Ryan felt in a small role for a World Series team.

"“When you think of Nolan Ryan, especially a 37-year-old guy like me, you only think of him being dominant,” Jackson said. “You don’t think of him being this frustrated relief pitcher and not really getting an opportunity.”"

Moving on to the Los Angeles Angels, Ryan’s role changed. He became who Jackson described as the guy who “transforms from Bruce Wayne into Batman or Clark Kent into Superman.” In Ryan’s next stop in Texas, Jackson sees his time with the Astros as a “stable-seasoned guy” before becoming the “old gun in the west” for the Rangers.

The high points and low points along with the seven no-hitters were focus points weaving through the 27 years Ryan pitched off the rubber in the Major Leagues. With each passing season, Jackson and his team realized the importance of all seven feats, while he noted not all accolades could fit into the documentary.

Talking with Hall of Famers who faced Ryan and played alongside him, Jackson realized he wanted to focus on Ryan’s career and not take another step into his ownership of the Rangers, keeping the flow of the story surrounding the ups and downs of playing Major League Baseball.

With every passing story, words got lost and stories were cut out along the way. Jackson didn’t want to be granular with each passing season, breaking down every high and low point Ryan and his respective team faced. But one story Jackson loved didn’t make the cut.

Near the end of Ryan’s career, he worked with a struggling starter by the name of Randy Johnson. Changing the trajectory of a future Hall of Famer’s career was something on the long list of Ryan’s impact which Jackson couldn’t fit into the overall picture.

"“It was really the story of an old guy essentially helping a struggling young guy kind of find his form and find his throw,” Jackson said."

“Facing Nolan” had the quickest turnaround of any documentary Jackson has worked on over the last 12 years. From starting production in November 2020 to premiering the film in March 2022 at South by Southwest, not even two years separated the idea from its product.

“When you close your eyes, which jersey do you envision (Ryan) in?” is a question Jackson carries with himself, and even to this day after filming a documentary with the Hall of Famer, he closes his eyes and sees Ryan wearing a Rangers’ uniform.

"“If he doesn’t go the last six years of his career, he doesn’t throw these two more no-hitters, hit 5000 strikeouts, have the (Robin) Ventura moment, have the Bo Jackson moment or put up the numbers that he does at the age of 44-45,” Jackson said. “The story is different, but once he does those things, then he becomes the ultimate legend, the ultimate Texas legend.”"

For what the future holds, Jackson isn’t looking to produce another baseball story for the time being. If a player of Pete Rose’s nature calls, he won’t pass it up, but for now, he wants to stay within the sports world while his next two projects in the queue are basketball focused.

"“You don’t want to repeat yourself in filmmaking,” Jackson said. So would I be open to another baseball story one of these days? Yeah, definitely. But I don’t think I want to jump into making another baseball documentary right after (“Facing Nolan”).”"

Jackson compared it to how sports are driven at the youth level now. Seeing more of the current generation focus on one sport, Jackson believes it’s imperative to broaden your horizons and focus on what you are best at later down the line.

Jackson considers Reid Ryan the unofficial co-producer of “Facing Nolan.” In his time as the Astros’ president, Reid helped produce a documentary on Jose Altuve which was an experience he always enjoyed.

Reid’s assistance in helping convince his father to agree to the film to reaching out to all the former players interviewed left Jackson grateful for it all. Jackson described Reid Ryan as a natural storyteller who realized the power his father’s story could have on all fans of the game.

Nolan Ryan is his own industry. From meat products to the Round Rock Express, his mark is forever left on Texas, and at the end of the day, Jackson sees “Facing Nolan” as valuable to the Nolan Ryan experience.

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“Facing Nolan” first premiered one-night only May 24 through Fathom Events, ending the day the No. 1 movie in Texas and the No. 7 movie in North America.

With a second premiere date scheduled for Friday, “Facing Nolan” will be on big screens in 60+ theaters across Texas, mainly in Houston, as well as a couple other states. The full list can be found on the documentary’s website. “Facing Nolan” will be available on streaming platforms July 19.