With his critically acclaimed Netflix series Cheer, Greg Whiteley aimed to spotlight the high-pressure world of competitive cheerleading, while showcasing the grit and incredible abilities of athletes in this space.
Following the cheerleaders of Navarro College as they prepare for one of the biggest moments of their lives, the six-part series emerged conceptually, while Whiteley was filming Season 2 of college football docuseries Last Chance U.
“We were looking for ways to film Season 2 in a way that wasn’t just a repeat of Season 1. We were in a pretty small town, a place called Scooba, Mississippi, so we just started looking around and thought, ‘Well, there’s this huge marching band we don’t know much about,’” the director/EP recalls. “‘There’s a cheerleading squad that’s at every game; we don’t know anything about them. Let’s go to a cheer practice.’”
When Whiteley attended a practice, he was immediately surprised by its intensity, also noting that the cheerleaders were doing stunts unlike those he’d seen at any football game. “When we pressed them about this, they said, ‘Oh, yeah. We would never do these at the football game. This is part of our routine for Daytona.’ So, I went, ‘Explain Daytona. What’s Daytona?’” he says. “As it turns out, Daytona is their one competition. They spend the whole year preparing for it, and that just seemed interesting to me. There was something about that that seemed, to me, like it could be a good show.”
Deciding to commit to an exploration of one cheer team’s journey toward the National Cheerleading Championship, held annually in Daytona Beach, Florida, Whiteley then had to figure out where exactly he should place his focus. “We started to do research, and in less than 15 minutes of searching on Google, you’ll get a list of the top college cheerleading programs in the country. There’s some recognizable name brands: University of Kentucky is one of them, Louisville is another,” he says. “Then, there was Navarro Community College, and I thought, ‘That’s just so strange, that they would be on a list with these very prominent, blue-blooded, Division 1 schools.’”
Following his curiosity, Whiteley set up a phone call with Navarro cheer coach Monica Aldama and the president of the school—and within five minutes of their first conversation, he knew that Navarro was where he needed to be.
In gaining access to the Navarro College Bulldogs Cheer Team, the Cheer creator found that the buck stopped with Aldama. “What Monica says with regards to the cheer program goes. So, largely, that initial phone call was simply a function of trying to explain to her the type of show we would be seeking to do,” he notes. “I think by the end of that phone call, it was very clear to me that she was on board.”
Based in the East Texas town of Corsicana, Navarro was fascinating, to Whiteley, simply given the backdrop it was set against. In this small town, where “not a ton goes on,” the top cheerleading program in the world is always quietly and persistently operating, in pursuit of yet another championship title, having won 14 to date. “And yet even people in that small town don’t know who they are. I think Monica was hungry to have that story of that program told,” the EP explains. “I think she believed, rightfully so, that what they were doing was special, and it deserved to be documented.”
In tackling Cheer, one primary challenge was honing in on just a handful of members of the cheer team, whose stories could carry the series. “Strangely, to do this show—and I learned this during Last Chance U—I have to just take a leap of faith, and pick about four or five main subjects that you’re going to focus on, early on. Because if you don’t make that decision right away, you’ll end up focusing on 20 or 30 kids, and your series will end up being a mile wide, but an inch deep,” Whiteley explains. “We would prefer the inverse of that; we’d rather the stories themselves be an inch wide, and go a mile deep in them. So, it just necessitates identifying four or five kids early on, and going all in.”
While figuring out his selections, Whiteley also thought in depth about how he would approach this story, visually. “I had been poking around and doing my research, just looking at national championship cheer routines, even before we found Navarro, and cheer routines are almost exclusively shot in a center wide shot,” the EP says. “Partly, it’s because the architecture of the pyramid, and everything that’s going on, that’s coordinating around a championship routine, is so impressive from a wide angle. To really appreciate a routine and all the moving parts, it almost necessitates a wide view.
“Now, a routine from a wide view just looks miraculous. It looks like Cirque du Soleil. You have these incredibly athletic and beautiful people performing effortlessly and gracefully,” Whiteley adds. “But I also felt that that angle was concealing a lot of effort, and a lot of real work that was going on.”
With Cheer, then, the director decided to show this work, by getting very close up to his documentary subjects with prime lenses. “By getting close, you could now start to feel sweat coming off of the faces of these guys that were holding up these girls. You were getting close-up shots of hands that are wrapped in tape, because they’re blistered, and in some cases, broken,” he says, “and you start to get a different appreciation for the grit of these athletes.”
As Whiteley explains, the Cheer challenge that no one could have anticipated emerged in Daytona, as the Navarro Cheer Team prepared to take on the other elites of their athletic world. While the EP had long negotiated with Varsity Brands, to ensure he would be able to film the competition, he was stunned to find at the last minute that his deal with the company had fallen through. “That was relatively heartbreaking. I mean, as soon as we decided on a school that we were going to go film, we began discussions with Varsity Sports, to get access to Daytona. And I think it was less than eight days before the competition that we were told we wouldn’t be allowed to go,” he says, “scrambling with what we might do to salvage a season that was built entirely around this climatic moment at Daytona.”
Anxiety provoking as the prospect was, Whiteley would have to rely on Navarro cheerleading families, as well as other attendees at Daytona, to provide footage from the competition. “Even in doing research on Daytona, I was surprised at how much footage from the spectators exists online of any given competition. I think part of that is because the competition is no longer televised. When you go there, you want grandma and Uncle Bob to see this routine, so everybody’s got cameras up, everybody’s got their phones up and they’re filming. So, we just hoped that would be true,” Whiteley says. “We couldn’t rely on the cheerleaders themselves to film—or at least film very much—because they’re in the routine. So, you’re really counting on their families, and even just normal spectators who happened to be there, who were capturing it to share with others back home.”
Fortunately, the footage ultimately came through—and while Navarro was almost knocked out of the competition by an ill-timed injury, they were able to regroup, rally and carry the day. “It was one of the great moments in sports that I’ve ever seen. I’ve been filming student athletes for the last five years now, [but] I’ve never met a group of athletes that are tougher than these kids we filmed at Navarro,” Whiteley shares. “To be with them in the water, after they were crowned champions, and to just be in such close proximity of the kind of joy that I think only comes after achieving something, after an immense amount of pain and sacrifice, I’ll never forget it.”
While production on a potential second season of Cheer will almost assuredly be affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Whiteley feels that there is definitely a lot more story to tell. “And I have hopes that one day, we’ll get to tell it,” he says. “Time will tell.”
In the mean time, he’s found himself thinking more about the Navarro Cheer Team itself, and the unfortunate impact the pandemic has had on them. “I think there’s probably not a demographic of people on planet Earth that are impacted more by COVID-19 than a cheerleader at Navarro Community College. They live and breathe to be with each other, to work with each other, to stunt with each other. They thrive off of the social aspect of that community, and it’s not just something that you can replicate by a Zoom or FaceTime call,” Whiteley reflects. “Every five or six minutes, they are sharing a hug, or a handshake or an encouraging pat on the back. So, I think to deny this community of people that level of physical affection is just unbelievably cruel.”