The Bucs' Hard Knocks life has begun. HBO's and NFL Films' behind-the-scenes documentary series of an NFL training camp — this season featuring the Bucs — started filming before training camp began. That means Matt Dissinger, the show's director, is already the hardest-working man in football. Dissinger spoke with me as Bucs training camp gets under way. (Note: this interview has been edited for space and clarity.)
What has gone on so far?
We arrived on Saturday and started filming on Monday. We like to try to get some off-field shoots. Once camp starts, it's hard to get any flavor of the guys' lifestyles outside of football. That's something I really strived to flush out in the last three years since I've taken over as director. We really want to get to know these players off the field, to make them relatable to a broader audience than what watches NFL games.
Who are some of the players you've met?
Jameis (Winston), Gerald (McCoy). We've done some stuff with Cameron Brate, Dirk Koetter and some of the coaches.
Is this time valuable just getting the team used to you guys being around?
Yeah, it takes some settling in before guys really show us who they are. It's like a week, week and a half acclimation period. Some of the guys, like Dirk and (defensive coordinator) Mike Smith and some of the players have been through it before. We come into these camps and it's obviously uncomfortable. They aren't used to having cameras in meeting rooms and offices and all over the practice field. It's always an awkward first few days of them feeling us out. But, pretty soon, they start saying things, "I don't even notice you guys here anymore."
Do you sometimes have guys who play up to the camera just to try to get on the show?
Hard Knocks is all day every day for 45 straight days. I don't know anyone who can keep up an act for that long. We even tell people, if you play to the camera, you talk to the camera, it's not what we're looking for. We're a documentary series. This isn't a reality series.
What is your work day like as director?
I'm in charge of 35 people here. I just really focus on what we're doing, when we're doing it, who's doing what, who we're following. I'm thinking days in advance so whenever a day comes, that day has been thoroughly planned out and vetted. Then we send all that footage — about 350 hours for every one hour we use — back to (NFL Films headquarters in) New Jersey.
People assume that already know who the stars of the show will be, but do you?
That's a common misconception. Whenever we start a new series, we do get asked, "Who do you think you're going to feature?" There are certain people who you think are obvious. We'll feature Jameis, we'll feature McCoy. Mike Evans. But you cannot anticipate everything. You can come in, research. You can look up videos of guys doing interviews and say, "Oh, this guy seems interesting." But if those things don't transpire during camp while we're here, we can't just manufacture stories. They kind of just have to happen. That's the beauty and challenge of Hard Knocks. The stories we tell just have to happen in front of our eyes.
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The show is very successful. How do you balance trying new things but giving the audience what you know always works?
We're always trying to push ourselves to improve and think of things to do differently. Training camp is so redundant. To me, the difference in shows and seasons of Hard Knocks is the personalities. I've never met someone like Jameis before. I've never meet a guy as charismatic as he is who plays quarterback since I've been doing Hard Knocks. Gerald is a very unique guy. I've met very few people who have his personality, his talent. So you come into these things and that's what keeps it fresh.
Still, your planning must be meticulous.
I plot out hour by hour what I want to film, and I'm usually four or five days ahead. That doesn't mean things aren't going to change in days leading up it. Helps me relax.
Will you sleep for the next month?
(Laughs) I really struggle with that. I stay up late at night thinking about the next day, and God help me if I wake up in the middle of the night because I immediately think of the 14 things I need to do when I get to work.
There's lots of pressure?
We can't do retakes. You either get the moment or you didn't get the moment. We miss stuff. As much as we plan and as much as we try to position ourselves, there are things we don't get, and that's the stuff that keeps me up at night. Maybe there's a great catch in practice. Or a fight. And if we don't have it? That stuff gives me anxiety. I'm always thinking ahead. It's impossible to capture everything. But I'd like to think I'm increasing my odds by being as prepared as possible.
And it seems like a 24-hour job. Do you enjoy it?
Our crew, I ask a lot of them. It can be physically and mentally exhausting for all of them. But I look at it as rewarding because it is a show that has a certain reputation of quality. (Late NFL Films head) Steve Sabol once had a big meeting before Hard Knocks even began. And he said, "It's unusual to have your Super Bowl before the season starts. This our Super Bowl." I was like, "Wow, this is important." And that's the way I treat it. Hard Knocks is NFL Films' Super Bowl.
Contact Tom Jones at email@example.com. Follow @tomwjones