It sounds like the plot of a far-fetched Hollywood movie, but now the inside story of Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds’ takeover of National League side Wrexham AFC is being told in the Disney+ series Welcome to Wrexham.
By Adrian Pennington
The 16×30’ documentary traces how the Hollywood stars came to buy the 158-year-old club and follows the exploits of the team and its owners off and on the pitch before and during the start of the 2022-23 season.
“There is a version of this story where we are the villains. It doesn’t work and then we go ‘what do we do? We have to sell it,’ and then we are the bad guys,” McElhenney warns Reynolds early in the first episode.
The series is produced by Boardwalk Pictures, which made Netflix reality show Chef’s Table, with Reynold’s production company Maximum Effort, co-producing. The bulk of the series is a behind-the-scenes doc mainly shot by Boardwalk crews in the UK with access all areas to board room, changing room and match days.
At some point in the process, they realized they needed an episode which could provide more context about Wales, the local history, its people and culture – to give viewers a reason to fall in love with the team.
“Wide World of Wales,” the seventh episode, landed at the door of Bryan Rowland, a key member of the Maximum Effort production team.
“When things end up on my table it usually means we don’t have a lot of time to pull it off,” Rowland says. “It was like, ‘We’ve got the script, can you do it?’”
The concept called for four physical sets with six different looks to be designed and built. Rowland had two weeks to prep and shoot, and a then a little more time for post and to deliver the episode.
“I had a bit of a panic attack,” he admits. “The idea was to have all these different show formats, a sports centre, a set styled like The Tonight Show, another for a cooking programme.”
In addition, they had to shoot it all in just one day to maximize the window of the two stars’ availability.
Fortunately, Rowland has earned a reputation of being able to take an idea and turn it around fast.
A documentary maker by trade, since joining the Maximum Effort team at its launch in 2018 he has made dozens of shorts and commercials for various Reynolds’ projects. The multi-skilled creative variously acts as director of photography, editor, VFX supe and colour grader – the secret to his ability to shoot, post and finish a project in little more than a day if demands dictate.
Rowland himself credits the lack of red tape at the production company. “Ryan has a lot of trust in the team,” he says.
In the episode, the two present Wrexham AFC’s less than stellar start to the season from a set that mimics ABC’s Wide World of Sports to telling the “little known” story of Wales to American audiences including its dialect and food from a kitchen set where the pair prepare Welsh Cakes (Picau ar y Maen).
The go-to studio was Samson Stage in Brooklyn which Maximum Effort have used for previous projects. The date was set for June 25. Rowland tasked freelancer set designer Johnny Love to devise the sets while Samson’s Rich Barbadillo designed the lighting. He also enlisted Charlie Anderson as co-DP.
“With so much to capture and so little time this was going to be a multicam shoot,” Rowland says. He used five cameras, three RED V-RAPTOR and two KOMODOs for handheld shots, fitted with Canon Servo 18-80mm lenses for the broadcast studio look. He handled all post including edit, VFX and colour in DaVinci Resolve.
“We had to be able to flip between formats, shooting 30fps on The Tonight Show sketch to 24fps for the cooking show and alternate lenses quickly. We were able to switch from full frame vista vision 8k to super 35 6k in camera, on demand, which was nice. There was not the time for elaborate set-ups between takes and scenes. Importantly, I wanted to shoot with a true raw format. You give the colourist the opportunity to do good work in the grade if you work from raw footage.”
Rowland incorporated footage of Welsh farmers and Wrexham performances shot by Boardwalk and did all the post work at his home office in Utah.
“On a day-to-day basis it was Rob who I was taking notes from for this episode. I didn’t know him at all prior to this but I was a big fan of his show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s one of the longest running sitcoms on American TV and to have that success you know he knows what he is doing with comedic timing. He’d send me notes on new ideas and we iterated the cut back and forth.”
He adds, “We had enough material for an hour-long episode, so we had to be brutal and leave some of our favourite parts out.”
Rowland testifies that Reynolds is sincere in his interest in Wrexham. “I have known Ryan long enough to know that when he gets involved he is all in. He does not mess around. He is sincere in his endeavor to make this venture a joyful experience for everyone.”
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