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Austin and Meredith Bragg on their film 'Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game'


Here's something you probably didn't know - it used to be illegal to have a pinball machine in public spaces in many large cities in the country, in LA, Chicago and New York, where the ban started in the 1940s.


DENNIS BOUTSIKARIS: (As Mr. Sharpe) And it wasn't just a ban. It was a public relations crusade - major raids throughout the city, squads of police swarming into bowling alleys, bars, anywhere they could find them. And in what has to be one of the most heavy-handed metaphors in U.S. history, the city used the legs of the confiscated machines to make new police billy clubs.

RASCOE: That's a clip from the feature film "Pinball: The Man Who Saved The Game." It's a fictionalized story of Roger C. Sharp, who helped overturn New York City's ban in 1976. The movie was written and directed by brothers Austin and Meredith Bragg, and they join us now. Thank you so much for being here.

AUSTIN BRAGG: Thank you for having us.

MEREDITH BRAGG: Yeah, thank you.

RASCOE: So I guess I have to start off with I had never heard of this ban. Pinball being banned (laughter) was not something that was on my radar. So how did you first hear about this ban and Roger Sharpe?

M BRAGG: Austin and I have a Google doc filled with embryonic story ideas, and this was one of them. We had come across a picture famous in the pinball community of Roger Sharpe standing in front of New York City Council members, proving that it was a game of skill and not chance and helping prove that it should be legalized. That was our germ, and then we cold-emailed Roger in February of 2020 and proceeded to talk to him for many hours. And at the end of that conversation, I texted Austin and said, hey, I think this might be a feature. He had told us about all of the other things happening in his life surrounding the time that he helped legalize pinball.

RASCOE: So, Austin, why was pinball banned in all these places?

A BRAGG: Well, the first thing I think people should realize is that the pinball games of the '30s were definitely not like the pinball games today. The earliest pin games were really just a plunger and then a series of nails pounded into a plank of wood. And if you managed to catch it in a certain part, then you got points. So it became a cash-only business that was popular among kids. And it was obviously, you know, just going to steal their lunch money and lead them down a road to trouble.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

A BRAGG: So they had to ban it, of course.

RASCOE: The way you tell the story in the movie, Roger Sharpe discovers pinball at college in the Midwest, and then he rediscovers it when he moves to New York. And it sort of saves his life, and he begins to idolize the people who built and designed the games. I think we have a clip of this.


MIKE FAIST: (As Young Roger) And they built something that allowed all of us to understand that we have control over our lives. Whenever I start a game, I know that it's going to end, but it's the choices we make with the opportunities that we are given. That's what I love about pinball.

RASCOE: So it sounds to him like pinball is more than a game. It's a life philosophy. Is that what you found in talking to the real Roger Sharpe, and that's what you wanted to portray?

A BRAGG: Yeah, Roger 100% has that connection to the game. He sees it as a sort of way to calm him, to focus, to get his energy back. He's sort of an ambassador for the game. Roger Sharpe is sort of like the Santa Claus of the pinball world.

M BRAGG: Yeah, I'll just add if I can, when we were interviewing Roger - and we talked to him cumulatively for days over Zoom while we were writing - he kept coming back to this idea that people think of him having saved pinball, but in his mind, pinball rescued him. It sort of helped center him in a way. It helped him feel like he was good at something, and how important feeling like you're good at one thing will allow you to start taking risks in other places.

RASCOE: The movie has more than one love story in it because there's a love story with pinball, but there's a love story with a woman who Roger falls in love with. Was that something you added to the movie because, you know, it's great to have a love story? Or was that really a part of Roger's story?

A BRAGG: No, that was 100% part of Roger's story. Roger met Ellen, a single mom in New York.


CRYSTAL REED: (As Ellen) So if you just want to have, you know, a bit of fun, then we can just go our separate ways, and you don't have to spend a dime. I didn't scare you off?

FAIST: (As Young Roger) No. No, I'm still here.

A BRAGG: Most everything in the movie is directly from what Roger told us - their meeting in an elevator, playing with Ellen's son, Seth, at a bowling tournament together. And it was part of what drew us to this as a feature - right? - that it wasn't just about this pinball story. There was more going on in his life that kind of paralleled a more universal theme.

M BRAGG: Yeah, I would just say we are not pinball people, so we did not come at this from a deep love and appreciation of pinball. I think that's grown since making this, but it was really everything else happening around Roger and the fact that there's this universal story we could tell about taking risks and the value of taking risks.

RASCOE: I mean, love is the greatest risk - right? - the biggest risk of them all. You know, you make it look like a documentary, with the actor portraying an older Roger Sharpe sitting in a chair and kind of narrating the story about his younger self. And then at times, the older character of Roger Sharpe would break the fourth wall and kind of interrupt the story and say, that's not how it was.


BOUTSIKARIS: (As Mr. Sharpe) Stop, stop, stop. This is ridiculous. This is a fantasy. Nobody does that. Come on, what are you doing?

RASCOE: Why'd you decide to tell the story in that manner?

A BRAGG: I think so much of that was born out of the process of writing it. We spent so much time talking to Roger and crafting the story from all of his real-life events. There was sort of a natural push and pull between us as to, you know, OK, can we Hollywood up this section a little bit? Or how close are we hewing to the truth here? And it became sort of a way in. I mean, in a lot of ways, this is obviously a movie about pinball, but it's obviously about other things, as well. And I think we sort of mirror that as the relationship grows in the film, the directors, the sort of off-screen director pushing him to tell the pinball story while Roger is taking these side trips into his work life and his love life. And by the end, you know, what has become important has flipped.

RASCOE: What has happened to pinball since the 1970s? Where is pinball right now? You know, there are competition leagues and stuff like that. But do you feel like it has that widespread appeal that it may have had in the 1970s?

A BRAGG: Well, I will say, I think Meredith alluded earlier that we did not start this project as pinball people, but going through this project, we have found that there are pinball people everywhere.


A BRAGG: They are among you.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

A BRAGG: And once you tell them what's going on, they will tell you everything they know. It's a fantastic community, super helpful, by the way. We got a lot of support from the community in terms of sourcing machines for the film. It's a - you know, I think pinball is always in a state of flux. I think it's in a resurgence now. It seems to be. But you'd be surprised how many people have a machine in their basement that they don't talk about normally.

RASCOE: That's Austin and Meredith Bragg. They wrote and directed a new film called "Pinball: The Man Who Saved The Game." Thank you both for joining us.

M BRAGG: Thank you.

A BRAGG: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.