Meeting Mack Beggs and Making Mack Wrestles

The directors of the ESPN 30 for 30 film describe the experience of crafting their intimate portrait of the trans wrestler.

Our first glimpse of Mack Beggs was like that of so many others: on a screen, slightly pixelated, with a litany of voices muddying the audio. This particular clip was shot moments after Mack won the Texas State Girls Wrestling Championship as a transgender boy, a victory that would thrust Mack into headlines both nationally and internationally for years to come.

Standing there, a medal draped around his neck and his hood pulled over his head, Mack stares back at reporters thrusting microphones toward him and asking how he feels about what he’s just done. He stumbles quickly through his words, acknowledging the teammates surrounding him, recognizing their hard work.

Just 30 seconds long, it captures a profound moment: the image of high schoolers grappling with a firestorm erupting around them, the dazed look in Mack’s coach’s eyes as the only adult present, and the fact that Mack, at the center of it all, is just 17 years old. The moment would only grow more complex as we got to know Mack, learned of how he didn’t want to wrestle on the girls’ team in the first place, and of how, ultimately, he didn’t feel he deserved his win.

Mack Beggs in Mack Wrestles

When we decided to make Mack Wrestles, we already knew that Mack Beggs had broken records and changed history when he won the Texas state title as a transgender wrestler two years in a row. With high school ending and college on the horizon, we wanted to capture what would happen next.

We had an introductory phone call with Mack and his grandmother Nancy that lasted a couple of hours as we expressed our interests and reasons for wanting to make this film. There was a synergy on that first call, but also a lot of unknowns. At the time, we were strangers to them and they were a little more than strangers to us. Of course, we knew awkwardness or shyness always creeps into any early conversation with a journalist or documentarian, and yet we wanted them to feel like we had a sense of them even though we didn’t know them yet.

The night we finally met, we chatted on the back patio with Mack and Nancy for about an hour. It was 106 degrees in Dallas that day, and we felt it as we sat there sweating, slapping mosquitos, and sipping cans of Dr. Pepper. By that point, Mack was 19 years old and was more than used to having cameras around. We had watched every news clip we could find of him online and had witnessed Mack’s progression from athlete to activist. It was uncanny to finally meet someone who had, from a distance, grown so much larger than life. Here he was, standing before us, 5’1”, nervous, and with a small, endearing laugh.

Erin Sanger and canine companion during the making of Mack Wrestles.

We’d seen so much coverage of Mack at this point and wanted to differentiate our film from previous iterations of Mack’s story. We wanted an intimate portrait of him as a person, of the story behind the headlines. We explained this to Mack – that we wanted him to shape his own narrative, capturing his daily life for a short period, however he lived it. He nodded, unusually agreeable, we thought, for a teenager who was being asked to let two late-twentysomethings tag along with him and his friends. One thing we hadn’t fully anticipated when we set out to make this film was what it would be like to spend so much time with this age group, and how it would transport us back to our own high-school experiences. It was powerful to witness how, despite all he’s been through, many aspects of Mack’s life are exactly what you might expect of a teenager.

Production on Mack Wrestles was highly unpredictable, and we captured so many scenes that seemed to materialize out of thin air. We crashed a high-school party at a lake, where we tried to convince everyone we were cool enough to be there but quickly proved otherwise when we asked them to turn down the music so we could record a conversation. We picked up Mack’s girlfriend Presley from school, blasting DJ Snake and snapping selfies, finally stopping at their favorite spot for an impromptu date – Taco Bell. After Mack qualified to compete on the High School Men’s National Team, we wanted to interview one of his teammates but couldn’t get anyone to go on record because of the controversy surrounding him. Mack finally found a teammate willing to be interviewed under one stipulation: we would drive him to the mall afterwards. We dropped him in front of the food court after interviewing him on a lawn chair in his parents’ backyard. Shoot days were filled with late nights and gossip, chores and young love, speeding tickets and the occasional stern talk from Nancy.

In getting to know Mack, we were always seeking to learn more and more about him and his experiences. There’s something incredibly special about the years we spend as teenagers: the ways in which we feel emotions so deeply, how insecurity can be crippling and vulnerability terrifying, how everything can feel possible and how our dreams can still carry us. It’s both a wonderful and fragile time, something we were reminded of frequently while making this film.

Directors Erin Sanger and Taylor Hess drive Mack and his friends to Taco Bell!

Mack also had additional challenges on his mind — saving money to afford top surgery, something he’d wanted for so long, and submitting the paperwork to legally change the gender marker and name he was assigned at birth. Think about everything teenagers go through to create their identities. A person who is transitioning has to address that identity shifting. In Mack’s case, something that was incredibly helpful to his mental health during that process — sports — had been thwarted in difficult and complicated ways.

More than just emphasize the larger forces Mack had to contend with in order to wrestle, we wanted the film to show the value that sports can offer, how important they are for young people, and the impact of denying young athletes the opportunity to compete in an inclusive space. As we got to know Mack better, it became increasingly surreal to witness how many adults readily attacked him for competing in the only way Texas law permitted. The hostility came at tournaments, in courtrooms, on social media and television, and in our statehouses.

But, all of this was also something we could easily lose sight of when we were back with Mack, eating Crunchwrap Supremes and talking about college, forgetting for a brief moment how this teenager was pulled into something so much bigger than himself, and pushed forward anyway.

Erin Sanger is a writer and director whose work spans both narrative and documentary realms. She is a Wasserman Award Winner, Student Academy Award Nominee, and Webby Award Honoree. Her directorial work has been featured on ESPN, National Geographic, PBS, The Atlantic, Topic, and Hulu. She is currently completing her first feature-length documentary. She is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Taylor Hess is a filmmaker, journalist, and contributing editor for Filmmaker Magazine. She recently wrote and directed two episodes for a Vox Media documentary series on Netflix and directed a short documentary for The Atlantic called Guts. She’s produced at Part2 Pictures and has worked at Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions, the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP), and for Scott Rudin Productions. Taylor is a graduate from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.