USC Annenberg alumnus Critelli writes and produces "From the Rough"

Above image: USC Annenberg graduate Mike Critelli discussing a scene with From the Rough Director Pierre Bagly (From the Rough Productions)

By Senta Scarborough

USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism alumnus Mike Critelli wasn’t the likeliest of candidates to pen From the Rough, an inspirational family sports film hitting screens nationwide this week.

The 27-year-old screenwriter prefers to write edgier Coen brothers or David Lynch-style films and wasn’t always a big fan of sports.

Still, Critelli not only wrote the screenplay for his first film, but also served as a producer who was instrumental in the creative direction of the independent feature from casting to post-production.

From the Rough is inspired by Dr. Catana Starks’ true journey from swim coach to first African American female golf coach of a NCAA Division 1 college men’s team. Career highlights include an all-time record at The PGA Minority Collegiate Golf Championship and coaching Tiger Woods’ former swing coach.

FTRThe film is being released on Friday (April 25) and features two Academy Award nominated actors—Taraji P. Henson, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” as Coach Starks and the late Michael Clarke Duncan, “The Green Mile,” as the coach’s confidant. This is among Duncan’s last films.

A famous British face, Thomas Fenton, best known for playing Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” movies, takes on the role of a charming but rebellious international student golfer.

Starks’ challenge, a woman creating Tennessee State University’s men’s golf team, sets the film’s backdrop.

Faced with a lack of resources and players, Starks is forced outside the confines of the historically black university to recruit underprivileged students with raw potential from around the world.

Starks finds only one African-American player to join the team, a former caddy with talent but no confidence. To win, he must overcome his insecurity of competing against the players whose clubs he once carried.

“My goal was to pull out what is exciting in sports,” Critelli said. “It’s about getting past whatever barriers and internal struggles you have and connecting with each other.”

This spirit comes from the real-life coach who in her youth overcame asthma, at a time before treatments, to play sports.

“I had two inspirations growing up-- my mom and grandmother. The doctors said I couldn’t be an athlete but they wouldn’t let me be limited by circumstance,” Starks, now 69 and retired, said. “They encouraged me and I played all the sports I could.

“This is a movie for families. Something you can talk to your kids about-- never giving up and always trying,” Starks said.

It’s been a family affair all along. In 2004, Critelli’s father, Michael J. Critelli, a former Pitney Bowes CEO and National Urban League chairman, first discovered the story through his younger son’s chess coach who was one of Stark’s international recruits.

For years, Critelli Sr.’s attempts fell short of developing a screenplay that embraced his passion of exposing discrimination and encouraging inclusiveness.

Finally, at the start of 2009, he turned to his then 22-year old son to give it a shot. 

Critelli had just graduated the year before from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism where he learned an appreciation of sports and gained the skills that helped him create the film.

“I always loved watching sports movies like the Mighty Duck and Cool Runnings when I was kid but I wasn’t a huge sports fan until I got to USC. I was there during the Pete Carroll era and fell in love with the football program,” Critelli said.

Critelli chose Annenberg to study at one of the top schools of its kind.

“I view communication and its study as the cornerstone of almost everything I do,” Critelli said. “Communication as an academic subject is focused on theories and experiments involving the way people interact with large groups, small groups, individuals and themselves.  Whatever I’ve learned is always in the back of my mind. If writing dialogue isn’t coming naturally, I always have theory to fall back on.”

Annenberg Associate Professor Ken Sereno who taught persuasion, human interaction and communications theory classes provided a solid overview of the way people communicate and influence each other, Critelli said.

“Ken Sereno was great in that he taught potentially dense material with warmth and humor. Since they tended to be the foundational classes for the program, he helped prepare me for everything else,” Critelli said.

In one class, Critelli gave a presentation on nonverbal cues as they relate to power that helped him in the making of the film.

“Power cues would inform the way I wrote characters who were powerful or attempting to display power like actor Henry Simmons as the Athletic Director Kendrick Paulsen Jr. in the film,” Critelli said.

After numerous drafts and with a final script in hand, the father and son team pitched the screenplay. No one would take a chance on a golf film starring an African-American female.

In a last-ditch effort in early 2010, they sought help from an Urban League friend, Pierre Bagley, a documentary filmmaker who later became the film’s director. Bagley suggested they work together to make the movie.

“Up to that point our goal was to sell the project. I don’t think we ever thought we could make it ourselves,” Critelli said. “He gave us the confidence to go forward as filmmakers.”

That’s when Critelli decided to visit TSU’s campus and meet Starks.

Initially, the story was more of a  “fish out of water” tale focusing on the student players until Critelli interviewed Starks. He knew then that this was her story.

“She has an knack for inspiring people. She is quite humble and didn’t appreciate how remarkable her story was,” Critelli said. “Meeting her gave the screenplay clarity and helped crystallize what we were trying to do.”

And, what had initially been a hurdle, the unique roles for African-American actors, became a casting selling point.

“We got a lot of interest from big stars and international talent because of great roles that don’t come around very often,” Critelli said. “The cast and crew were incredibly supportive and their dedication is what made this film happen.”

Duncan’s performance completely broadened the role.

“He had such personal gravity that we couldn’t ignore it,” Critelli said of Duncan. “He was a great professional, mentored the younger actors and always wanted to get it right.”

Meeting Duncan and the rest of cast was a “great thrill” to Starks who also attended several screenings to help promote the film.

“I had no idea it would be as big as it turned out to be,” said Starks. “When I saw people coming out, I saw some had tears in their eyes and it felt wonderful.”

Making the film has been an “eye opening” education and especially rewarding creating a movie others wouldn’t take a chance on, Critelli said.

He discovered a love for films that “celebrate everyday people ” and hopes to make more in the future.

“It’s a fun family movie and they don’t come around much anymore,” Critelli said. “I hope the film does reach kids and inspires them the way those sports movies did for me.”

For more information about the film, check out

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