Don Argott and Sheena Joyce of 9.14 Pictures discuss their careers as Philadelphia filmmakers, the place the Kelce family holds in Eagles fans’ hearts, and the evolving story of the most-watched Amazon documentary of all time.
By Matt Skoufalos | October 13, 2023
Back in 2002, filmmakers Don Argott and Sheena Joyce of 9.14 Pictures turned heads with ROCK SCHOOL, their award-winning documentary about the Paul Green School of Rock in Philadelphia.
They followed that with the acclaimed The Art of the Steal, which details the struggle for control of the Barnes Foundation, and a variety of projects ranging in subjects from author Kurt Vonnegut, auto maker John DeLorean, and Batman creator Bill Finger, to rock icon Ronnie James Dio and Motown producer Phil Spector.
Their latest collaboration, KELCE, just became the most-watched documentary in the history of Amazon Studios, according to Deadline. It chronicles the story of Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce and his family as he contemplates retirement en route to an unprecedented showdown against his brother, Travis, and the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII.
We spoke with Argott and Joyce about how the project came to life, their connections to its subject matter and the city of Philadelphia, and how the Kelce family manages to be relatable even as it’s thrust into the (inter)national spotlight. This interview has been edited and condensed from that conversation.
NJ PEN: How did you get attached to this project? How far back did the planning start?
DON ARGOTT: [Philadelphia Film Society Executive Director] Andy Greenblatt reached out and said, “Jason Kelce’s looking to do a documentary about retirement, and he’s looking for filmmakers.” This was two seasons ago, during their 9-and-8 season.
We weren’t full-blown making the movie at this point. We were testing the waters, filming, and the idea was, we were going to follow his transition out of football and into the next chapter of his life. Jason being the intelligent, thoughtful guy that he is, said, “I’m staring down the barrel of this. It’s going to get real; I’d better prepare myself.”
Obviously, after that  season, he decided to keep playing.
NJ PEN: So when he didn’t retire…
ARGOTT: Okay, let’s keep shooting. What was great about it was how organic the process was.
We were just getting to know each other in this timeframe. After the past season that we had filmed, we already had developed a shorthand. Jason was very comfortable with us.
NJ PEN: Kylie Kelce, Jason’s wife, features prominently in the film. He’s in the media all the time. How did she handle being on camera?
ARGOTT: Kylie was very hesitant to be involved at all. But we made the case that the family’s so important to [the story].
SHEENA JOYCE: We had been filming for a year at that point, so we had built some trust. We were both moms; we were both Irish dancers when we were growing up. We just had a lot in common, and hit it off. And we spent time with Donna and Ed and Travis before that magical season.
I also think Don and me being a couple was helpful for Jason and Kylie to relate to; how hard it is to be a working parent with jobs that require a lot of travel, or high-stress situations. They’re both working parents, trying to be as involved as they can in their kids’ lives while trying to make a living.
The pressures you feel to have split obligations definitely connected us. We could have those off-camera conversations about being moms and being dads, and how hard it is to balance.
NJ PEN: You started off making a film about a professional athlete contemplating retirement. Then the family you’re following around becomes a central pop culture focus as the 2022 season plays out. Moment after moment, that whole thing got bigger and bigger as you were following it.
JOYCE: The incredible season that the Eagles had; getting him and his brother into the playoffs. Starting the New Heights podcast; then the podcast hits number one on Apple. Getting pregnant, having Kylie pregnant at the Super Bowl, baby Bennett — we got all of it.
ARGOTT: And the original premise is still there!
NJ PEN: For sure, it’s still there. You’re watching someone at the highest level of his profession confront the realization that he’s mortgaging his future — his health, his mind, his body, time with his kids — for the chance to still do the thing he’s great at. And he’s plain-spoken about the emotions around that choice.
ARGOTT: One of the reasons the film has really resonated with people is how honest and real it is. Jason struggling to make that decision is one of the top five things I’ve ever filmed.
As filmmakers that’s what you strive for: being there in the right moment, capturing everything as it’s happening; trusting someone who let his guard completely down and is vulnerable in that moment.
It’s easy now to say, “All these things happened, so it must have been easy.” We were moment to moment in this film. What happens if they get knocked out in the first round? What happens if they lose the NFC championship? Do we still have a film? Do we still have the same kind of film?
Once you get to that point of, “We’re into the playoffs now,” as a fan, there’s only two games to win to get to the Super Bowl. But those games are everything. We have the added pressure of, “If we lose this, we’re back to Square One,” or have to figure out where the story goes next.
At that moment in Chickie’s and Pete’s, [where the Kelce family watches the Chiefs win the AFC Championship]we could at least exhale a little bit because the Eagles were in the Super Bowl. We had that storyline.
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NJ PEN: You see in that moment all the love Jason feels for Travis getting to the Super Bowl; how he’s welling up with pride. And then immediately, he throws that switch, and changes out of his Chiefs sweatshirt because his brother just became his opponent. I think the thing people connect with so much about the Kelces is how unafraid they are to embrace these complex emotions without losing sight of their love for one another.
JOYCE: In the very first sit-down interview we did with Jason, when we thought we were doing the retirement story, we asked what we thought was a pretty easy, icebreaker, get-to-know-you question.
“What was that Super Bowl parade like? Talk to me about what you were feeling before that speech.”
Jason got emotional immediately, and started talking about the fans. People who brought ashes of their loved ones to the parade; that being a Birds fan was a part of that relationship, and they had to have that person there.
It was an extremely thoughtful and emotional answer from out of the gate. We knew that Jason was as thoughtful and authentic as you could get, and would be open in telling his story to us.
NJ PEN: Even if you’re not a sports fan, “Hungry dogs run faster!” is an all-time Philadelphia moment. The people of this city don’t just appreciate that Jason Kelce is charismatic; they appreciate that he gets them, too.
ARGOTT: One of the things that worked so well for this project is that Jason’s story is similar to our story. Our whole careers, people have asked us why don’t we move to New York, or L.A.
Choosing to stay in Philadelphia, where there is no film industry, saying, “We’re going to stay here and make it,” in spite of everyone telling us we can’t do it here… I still feel like I have something to prove. That fire is still burning inside us, just like it is with Jason. We understand what being an underdog is. We understand “put your head down, and work really hard,” because that’s what we’ve had to do.
Our first film was Rock School, about the Paul Green Rock Academy Now we’re here doing the Kelce film. For this to be our anniversary film, the first 20 years of our career has culminated in our love letter to Philadelphia; to the Eagles.
JOYCE: We’re also Birds fans, so we know what the team means; we know what this speech means to the city. Those are things that resonate beyond football.
NJ PEN: There’s a lot of weight in this film given to the original premise of understanding life beyond football. The conversation Jason has with retired Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin — “How do you know when to walk away?” encapsulates a lot of things: his career longevity, wanting to be there for his family, concussion risks, playing through pain. It’s got depth, but it’s also very direct,
ARGOTT: We shot that firepit scene the day after the Damar Hamlin situation. I felt like that was a great opportunity. That was a ground-shaking moment in the NFL, where everyone was in uncharted territory, and we have access to a player who’s contemplating retirement. That was a perfect storyline to use as a jumping-off point to discuss playing in the NFL and all the unintended consequences.
And all of it was unprompted. It was an honest conversation. [Jason] knows what he’s getting into. In an environment where everyone’s got an opinion on everybody else’s life, it’s his decision. He knows the risks.
He knows the impact that playing football has had on his physical body; the surgeries, the fact that he can’t operate at a high level without painkillers. He’s 35 years old and his body’s like that of a 60-year-old man, to a degree. All of that is weighing on him.
You realize that, at the end of the day, whether it’s football or something in your personal life and career, these decisions are how you live your life. One of the most impactful things he says in that speech is it’s on him to go out every day and prove that he’s worth it; that he goes out and earns it. That’s what drives him.
JOYCE: Jason’s work ethic and his authenticity come through on the screen and in everything he does. You see that they’re a family that you want to root for. And you understand Jason’s struggle with the decision to retire: “Who am I if not this one thing?”
NJ PEN: A lot of the questions in the film center on Jason’s and Kylie’s household, but we also hear from Donna, Ed, and Travis Kelce, as well as Kylie’s dad, Ed McDevitt. Tell us a little about the family dynamics you’ve captured in the film.
JOYCE: There’s a scene where Jason and Travis are gardening. Travis missed his flight, and ended up coming to stay with his family. Jason had his plans for the day, and Travis was forced to garden with him and their dad. We just caught them giving each other a hard time.
That was before they started the podcast together, but that’s a glimpse into why the podcast is so successful. Their dynamic is so funny and so real. They would have done that whether there was a podcast or not.
ARGOTT: Same with Jason and Kylie. We were able to show it how it really was without us forcing the narrative with clever cuts to make it funny.
JOYCE: I didn’t understand that players had to buy their own Super Bowl tickets — and how much that cost — until Kylie had to pull the trigger on those tickets. When Ellie comes around pushing the baby in the shopping cart and said, ‘Baby wants to go too,’ it’s hysterical.
NJ PEN: And then there’s the interactions between Kylie and her dad, which are equally funny.
You get the sense that they have a clear understanding of each other.
JOYCE: As Eagles fans, we all have family members we can’t watch the games with.
Her dad has to watch the games by himself because his family said they won’t watch games with him. And then in her hotel room at the Super Bowl, you see how hard it is to get those kids going, and she’s taking five minutes to get herself together, and he’s just staring at her until she kicks him out.
NJ PEN: You’re in the room for those unscripted interactions.
ARGOTT: Those are the moments you just don’t ever get to see. To be in the hotel room after Jason Kelce lost the Super Bowl; that scene encapsulates what the film’s all about.
Winning is great, but there’s only one winner. That doesn’t mean you’re a loser because you came second on the biggest stage in the world. It’s celebrating life, and what it means to live a life and put things in perspective.
In the grand scheme of things, of course the city is hanging onto the hopes of having a Super Bowl win, but when you don’t get the outcome you want, that doesn’t mean your life’s over.
In that moment, you realize what really matters is your family, what really matters is relationships. It would have been an incredible story if our main character wins and puts on the mummer suit one more time. But I think the film does a nice job of helping people move on.
NJ PEN: Right, everyone is holding out hope for the Rocky ending; that’s just not how it played out.
JOYCE: We were capturing things as they happened. It wasn’t a reflective piece; this was a present-day story. So all the highs and lows were in real-time.
It’s dealing with some big issues, but there’s also a lot of joy in there. There’s a new baby girl at the end. What a moment, to have Jason hand her to Travis, and say, “ball security.”
ARGOTT: When you get big-time athletes involved in projects, people want to know “How honest are they being? What aren’t they showing us?” There’s a curation that happens in a lot of those things that’s nobody’s fault. But people see through bullshit, especially in a town like Philadelphia. As advertised, that’s who they are.
NJ PEN: So what’s next for 9.14 Pictures?
JOYCE: We’ve got a series called Thick Skin premiering on Sundance & AMC Plus. We follow four larger-bodied women who are doing their best to de-stigmatize obesity.
ARGOTT: We’re also working on a cooking show for IFC: In the Kitchen with Harry (Hamlin).
NJ PEN: We’ll be on the look-out!
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