Bryan James remembers his reaction when childhood friend Jeff Bell first came to him with the idea of making a documentary film on the Sons of Ben, the Philadelphia Union’s first and largest supporters club.
“Yeah that sounds good,” James told him indifferently. “Whatever.”
It wasn’t that James, the co-founder and first president of the Sons of Ben, couldn’t see potential for a documentary about him and his fellow diehard fans. It was more that he was unsure how serious Bell could be, considering the Los Angeles-based producer/director lived on the other side of the country.
But late last year, after Bell pressed him further about the project at their 20th-year high school reunion, James realized this thing could really get off the ground. That idea was further solidified when Bell and his crew flew out to Chester, Pa., for the Union’s home opener on March 18 and gathered enough footage to put together a teaser trailer, which was released last week.
Bell hopes the film, which is simply called Sons of Ben, will be completed by the start of next season, although the timeframe is still very tentative. He’s planning on returning to Chester in July to shoot the AT&T MLS All-Star Game and conduct interviews at PPL Park, where the Union have given him full access.
“It’s cool to have people think it’s a good enough story that bears retelling,” James said. “It’s even cooler when I’m talking to Jeff and he says people in Hollywood are talking about this story. That’s just wild. When you’re living it, it doesn’t seem like anything extraordinary because it’s just what you’re doing.”
Bell, who lived on the same Wilmington, Del., block as James through middle school and high school, became enthralled by the Sons of Ben story when he learned the origin of the supporters group. In 2007, before the Union existed, James and a few others tried to get 100 people together to get Major League Soccer to notice them – what a modest projection that turned out to be.
In James’ own words, they ended up with “more than 3,000 people paying to be a member and having a say in some milestones in team history.”
Bell believes much of the documentary will focus on that novel concept of having fans precede a team, while also splicing in how the group has since provided benefits to the city of Chester, most notably with their Help Kick Hunger campaign, a charity fundraiser which collects canned goods and monetary donations to give to the Bernardine Center. Located about a mile from the stadium, it serves the needy in Chester and its surrounding areas.
“This is a true passion project,” said Bell, who runs Rothbury Road Productions and has produced and directed many musical performances over the past 10 years. “Everyone involved is in love with the idea of getting the movie out there. It’s a story with a lot of heart."
As of now, one of the main focuses for Bell and his producing partner Debbie Axel is to raise money from investors and spread the word about the film. Down the road, they hope to push Sons of Ben into film festivals and also get a small theatrical release. If it is well received, Bell will be sure to thank his old pal James.
“I’ll buy him a beer,” Bell said.