Steelers is a new documentary streaming on Amazon Prime that follows gay-inclusive English rugby team the King’s Cross Steelers as they attempt to win a major European tournament in 2018.
It seems like a story that's bursting to be told – but it almost got left in its creator’s drawer after a major technical snafu.
We caught up with Australian writer/director Eammon Ashton-Atkinson – a former team member himself – to find out more.
And in case you are wondering, no, Eammon Ashton-Atkinson didn’t give up his spot in the team to film his mates as they competed for the coveted Bingham Cup in Amsterdam.
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The director was in the 3rd XV, a lower rung in an organisation that boasts around 200 active members, so while his usual teammates ribbed him about being too good for them and wanting to hang out with the first team he was able to focus completely on documenting what it was like to be part of the world’s first LGTBQ rugby union club.
But while the film is very much a sports documentary – with rousing speeches, slow-motion match footage and nervous coaches throwing up in the bushes (“My sports teacher at school would die if he knew I went on to make a sports documentary!” he laughs) – it’s also about much more than that.
Mainly that’s because of Ashton-Atkinson’s journey to get to the Steelers, which saw him bullied relentlessly at school and suffer from depression. As such, the movie also highlights another, far more tragic side of the gay experience, mainly through Ashton-Atkinson’s honest revelations and the testimony of leading player Simon.
“We’d spoken about our mental health struggles before,” says the director.
“I politely pressured him [to share] and he caved in. We hear about mental health a lot, [but] how often do we hear people talking about anti-depressants and the ins and outs of taking medication and that step of going to the doctor?
"I think it was incredibly brave of him to share that but really important, because it’s something I struggled with for a long time.”
Both men had to think carefully about what they wanted to say once it became clear that Steelers was going to be something more than what was initially on the cards.
“I looked back at the [original] message recently and I said, ‘maybe we can get a 20-minute documentary out of it than we can put on YouTube.’ That first day, where I’m just standing around with this heavy camera with people having conversations like reality TV, I felt like a fool. But I stuck with it and I’m so glad I did.”
A self-shooting TV news reporter by trade, Ashton-Atkinson did everything himself, which he found liberating.
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“There was something special about being a one-man-band filmmaker,” he says.
“Especially with Simon, he opened up so much in his interview. Because there was no external funding, there was no one commissioning me, there was no pressure, so if it all fell apart it just would have been a good learning curve for me.”
Gradually though, a full-length film took shape. Aside from Simon, Ashton-Atkinson concentrates on two other characters in the set-up, female head coach Nic Evans and Andrew (Drew) McDowell.
“You say now Nic’s an obvious choice, but at the time it wasn’t obvious because it’s a story about a gay men’s rugby club,” says Ashton-Atkinson. “I sat next to her on the tram after that first training session and because she wasn’t my coach I didn’t really know her that well.”
The pair started talking and it “unlocked the heart of the film”.
“As gay men we often overlook women and gay women and I’m so pleased Nic is a central character in this documentary,” he says. “She is the heart of this team.”
The director also had to challenge himself when it came to how much he was prepared to reveal about his own mental health difficulties.
Not only is his life story threaded throughout, but there’s one particularly heartbreaking moment where we see him sitting in front of his computer recounting one of his most upsetting school experiences.
“I thought, what’s the bare minimum I can do that shows the trauma I suffered as a kid, where that led me as an adult with depression and how the Steelers helped,” he says.
“And I thought that story summed up the bullying I got, it was the worst of it. If I ever had a question or a choice to make and I didn’t know [what to do], I always went back to the basic principle that it’s about honesty and authenticity."
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He adds: “I did a version of the edit where I was just a silent filmmaker. I showed one of my husband’s friends and she was checking her phone throughout the viewing. I was like, this isn’t working. It was clunky and didn’t explain what was happening.
"And then I reformatted my computer and forgot to back it up and it was like, okay that’s another sign that edit was s**t. Start again!”
We’ll avoid spoilers here, but as shooting wrapped up, he didn’t know what the ending would be. Things weren’t helped when his camera ran out of power in the middle of a particularly climactic moment while filming.
“Afterwards, I threw the battery on the floor,” he admits, still disgusted with himself. “I didn’t know how to finish the film. The drive sat in a drawer for 12 months.”
Then in April 2019, Australian rugby player Israel Folau started tweeting and Instagramming homophobic comments, and it spurred something in Ashton-Atkinson. “I was like, I’ve been putting this off but I need to get that hard drive out and finish this project,” he says.
Two years later, the film is showing on Amazon Prime and has the backing of the English Rugby Football Union. “Simon got recognised in a park in London,” he laughs. “He was pretty chuffed.”
There are even inquiries about turning it into a fiction movie. Asked who would play him, Ashton-Atkinson says, remarkably quickly we might add, “Chris Hemsworth.”
Future plans aside, Steelers is ultimately a love letter to a rugby club helping to transform the sport.
“It gave me so much, enriched my life so much,” says Ashton-Atkinson. “It literally changes lives, as you can see in the film.
"I hope this is my little gift back to the club.”
Steelers is streaming on Amazon Prime Video now
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