Next Goal Wins – Inspired by a true story of loss, redemption, & joy

When Oscar-winning Māori filmmaker Taika Waititi learned about the epic failure and the story of an underdog team whose dreams finally came true, he knew he had to make Next Goal Wins. “You’re always looking for inspiration, but with this one, it was all already there,” he says.

It all began in 2001 at The International Sports Stadium in Coffs Harbour, Australia. Australia sets the world record for the largest victory in an international football match in a 31-0 thrashing, and the American Samoa football team becomes the laughingstock of the sports world following this defeat in the World Cup – setting the stage for Waititi (Jojo Rabbit, Thor: Ragnarok)’s Next Goal Wins, who directed the film from a screenplay he penned with penned Iain Morris.

The calamitous loss became the worst defeat in international football history, a humiliation that hung over the small Pacific Island of American Samoa like an unforgiving cloud.  The American Samoa team remained the lowest ranking in the FIFA world standings until November 2011, when things finally changed and the tiny island achieved its first-ever international victory in a 2-1 win over Tonga during the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) World Cup Qualification.

Producer Jonathan Cavendish and executive producer Andy Serkis, under their production banner of Imaginarium Productions, secured the rights to adapt the 2014 documentary Next Goal Wins, which previously captured the story. The documentary directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison also serve as producers on the film, along with Waititi’s frequent collaborator, Garrett Basch.

Taika Waititi on the set of NEXT GOAL WINS. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

They knew that Waititi was the perfect person to lead this re-imagining. “There was no other filmmaker in the world who could or should make this film with this cast and crew that he assembled,” states Brett.

In 2015, Waititi joined the project as director, recruiting his longtime friend, BAFTA nominee Iain Morris (The Inbetweeners), to co-write the screenplay.

Four years would pass before Waititi would have a very short window of availability and the producers took the film to Searchlight Pictures for a Fall 2019 shoot in Oahu, Hawaii. Throughout that time, Waititi remained passionate and committed to the project. As he explains, “It always felt very special to me. It’s the ultimate feel-good underdog story.”

Cavendish adds, “It was such a classic story, and we thought it had all the right ingredients. We didn’t want to make to remake the more dramatic documentary, we wanted to re-imagine it.”

“Throughout the process, Taika’s top priority was authenticity, particularly in depicting Polynesian culture,” says producer Basch. “We paid close attention to every aspect of the production, including casting, wardrobe, and production design, to ensure a genuine portrayal of the American Samoan people and their environment.”

Based on a true story, Next Goal Wins follows the American Samoa soccer team, infamously known for their brutal 31-0 loss in 2001. With the World Cup Qualifiers approaching, the team hires down-on-his-luck, maverick coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) hoping he will turn the world’s worst soccer team around in this heartfelt underdog comedy.

Adapting a Documentary

Co-writer Morris recalls his approach to weaving new elements into the script. “We intended to try and make it as funny as possible while retaining the tone and warmth that was there from the beginning,” he says. “We wanted a version that felt true to the story, but also true to the beats of the story that come across in real life.”

Says Waititi, “When you’re making a film that’s an adaptation of a documentary, you have to allow yourself the freedom to change things. It’s an opportunity to get deeper into the characters and understand them on a human level, making them relatable to the audience by opening them up.”

Adds Cavendish, “Taika always looks for the truth in a scene as well as the comedy. He understands the people, the culture, and the sense of humor.”

“He’s just got a very unique style, and you can see that in his films,” says Michael Fassbender, who plays Coach Thomas Rongen in the film. “He has an understanding of that idea of outsiders – or misfits – he embraces that.” “Taika is a very special talent. When you’re making human stories and you want to take somebody on an emotional journey, laughter is always the best tool. He has an understanding of that and people and he loves what he does.”

Taika Waititi, Michael Fassbender, and Kaimana on the set of NEXT GOAL WINS. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

“We approached the film as a kind of family project. I know so many people in American Samoa, and I’ve worked with a lot of this crew for years,” says Waititi. “Being around my people and the Polynesian culture, there was an ease. Next Goal Wins feels more natural than any other film I’ve made.”

“We always recognized that some narrative elements would have to change between the documentary and this remake, and we welcomed those changes,” notes producer Jamison. “The most important element to keep was the role that family – Aiga in Samoan – and family values play.”

The core values of American Samoan life are selflessness and the priorities of faith, family, and acceptance. These are a direct counterpoint to the ignorance and anger that coach Thomas Rongen (Fassbender’s character) carries with him when he first comes to the country at the beginning of the film. As Rongen opens himself up to the American Samoan way of life, his heart cracks open too.

Waititi was able to rely on the cast to ensure authenticity. “A lot of the cast who portray the players on the team are friends of mine that I know from New Zealand to Samoa,” he shares.  “Having them there to keep the cultural specificity was hugely important. I could always rely on them to let me know if something wasn’t feeling quite right or authentic.”

The Beautiful Game” is a nickname given to soccer by one of its most renowned players, Pelé, and adapted by its legions of fans around the globe. So, it comes as no surprise that soccer is the world’s most popular sport, culminating every four years with the FIFA World Cup, the most-watched sports competition globally.

Self-described “football nerds” producers Brett and Jamison set off for American Samoa scouting locations, in pursuit of reigniting their love for the game. So what is it about football that transcends age, culture, race, religion, and socio-economics? The resilience of the human spirit.

Next Goal Wins reminds audiences that the essence of competition isn’t defined by what happens on the field, it’s all about relationships and lessons learned off the field.

Taika Waititi on the set of Next Goal Wins with cinematographer Lachlan Milne. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Lachlan Milne is an Australian cinematographer. Next Goal Wins marks his second collaboration with Taika Waititi, who he worked with previously on Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Lachlan has also shot some of the most memorable A24 films in the past few years such as MINARI with Lee Isaac Chung and The Inspection with Elegance Bratton. Other features include Monster Problems directed by Michael Matthews and Little Monsters directed by Abe Forsythe. In television, he recently worked with Alma Har’el on “Lady in the Lake” for Apple TV+ and worked on “Stranger Things” Seasons 3 and 4. 

From Page to Screen

For numerous logistical reasons, shooting in American Samoa was not feasible, so instead production scouted Hawaii and found that the island of O’ahu had all the various design elements and locations needed to recreate the small Pacific island 2,500 miles to its south.

“It would be very difficult to shoot a film in American Samoa,” explains Waititi. “But we wanted a place that was as close to it as possible. And Hawaii – O’ahu in particular – has a lot of studio space and crews, so that just made sense.”

But more poignantly, O’ahu, an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, spoke to the viscerally deep ancestral ties that bind the Polynesian Triangle into one extended family.

“This film feels like my most personal to date,” shares Waititi. “Being in Hawaii, surrounded and embraced by this Hawaiian and Polynesian family was so familiar for me. I’ve lived on and off in Hawaii for many years; my second daughter was born there. There are deep personal ties for me and shooting there speaks to the larger Polynesian Pacific Island community as well.”

With a paradise of natural elements literally at their doorstep, including the bonus of consistent sunny weather throughout the 30-day shoot, cinematographer Lachlan Milne (Minari, The Inspection) could take advantage of using natural light to film in some of the most awe-inspiring locations around O’ahu.

Waititi’s longtime collaborator, Academy Award® winning Production Designer Ra Vincent (Jojo Rabbit, Thor: Ragnarok) explains how Hawaii was a seamless transition, not only in terms of the practical sets and visual story elements needed but also the tangible shared history and culture that connects and defines the Polynesian Triangle.  

“We would’ve loved the opportunity to shoot in Pago Pago but because of technical issues and availability of crew and so forth, Hawaii was a perfect match,” explains Vincent. “Taika’s inclination is to shoot in places that are a little unpredictable – being outdoors, being at the mercy of the clouds, the weather and what nature is doing, adds a layer of spontaneity to the performance you wouldn’t normally get in a studio.”

For the finale, the team found the Waipi’o Soccer Complex just outside of Honolulu – they wanted a bigger, more elaborate stadium feeling and the complex has about 12 fields and is the largest stadium. They settled on it because of its World Cup qualifying grass.

“You’d be surprised how important grass can be,” says Vincent. “With a FIFA-qualifying pitch quality lawn, there’s a whole bunch of different stringent international rules to adhere by and we had to do a very thorough search of Hawaii to find the right kind of pitch to perform this finale on.”

Concludes Fassbender, “It was a fantastic, beautiful place, great people – and there’s a large American Samoan culture there as well.”

Taika Waititi is an Academy Award and GRAMMY-winning, Emmy-nominated writer, director, actor, and producer. Most recently, Waititi directed and co-wrote the highly anticipated film Thor: Love and Thunder now streaming on Disney+. His film Jojo Rabbit received six Oscar ® nominations, including Best Picture, and earned him an Oscar ® for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film, which was released by Searchlight Pictures, was also nominated for a Golden Globe ® for Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy and won a GRAMMY for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media, among other accolades. Previously, Waititi directed the critically acclaimed blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok for Disney, as well as the beloved indie films Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do In The Shadows, Boy, and the Oscar®-nominated short film Two Cars, One Night. He also executive produced through Piki Films, his production company with Carthew Neal, The Breaker Upperers, Baby Done, and the first Indigenous Canadian/New Zealand co-production, Night Raiders, which premiered at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. 

Waititi is also the executive producer of Billy Luther’s film Frybread Face and Me, which premiered at SXSW 2023. Previously, Waititi was seen in Shawn Levy’s Free Guy from 20th Century Studios, alongside Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, and Joe Keery. 

For television, Waititi is in post-production on Hulu’s ‘Interior Chinatown’, for which he directed the pilot and also executive produced, as well as ‘Time Bandits’ for Apple TV+ and season two of the HBO Max fan-favorite period comedy, ‘Our Flag Means Death’, in which he stars as “Blackbeard” and serves as executive producer. The latter two shows are expected to be released this year. 

Also for the small screen, Waititi is the co-creator and executive producer of the Indigenous American teen comedy ‘Reservation Dogs’ for FX, for which he co-wrote the first episode with co-creator Sterlin Harjo. The series, now renewed for a third season, has been well-received, winning the 2021 Gotham Award for Short-Form Breakthrough Series and the 2022 Independent Spirit Award for Best New Scripted Series, as well as earning nominations for last year’s Critic’s Choice Awards, Golden Globe Awards ®, and Writers Guild of America Awards. Additionally, Waititi directed the season one finale of THE MANDALORIAN for Disney+, in which he also voices “IG-11,” and serves as executive producer on the critically acclaimed TV adaptation of What We Do In The Shadows, for which he’s directed several episodes.