Q&A with director Arlene Nelson, ACFC co-owner Julie Uhrman on ‘Angel City’ docuseries

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MAY 04: (L-R) Kara Nortman, Arlene Nelson, and Julie Uhrman attend HBO Documentary Films' Series
(L-R) Kara Nortman, Arlene Nelson and Julie Uhrman attend "Angel City" L.A. premiere at Pacific Design Center on May 4, 2023 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Launching a women’s soccer team in Los Angeles was always an ambitious idea. How was adding yet another sports team to an already crowded landscape possibly going to work?

That question would be answered later down the road, but great outcomes begin with just that: an idea.

It was a vision Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman had, and she ran it by her friend Kara Nortman, a venture capitalist. Nortman liked the thought and tapped in with Julie Uhrman to assist the efforts. The three would later become the founders of Angel City FC, an expansion club in the National Women’s Soccer League that debuted in 2022.

Early brainstorming quickly hit the ground running because the network and reach of the founders is unparalleled. Basically, when Portman calls, you answer. It’s what U.S. Soccer legend Abby Wambach did, and without hesitation she jumped on board. As did tennis icon Serena Williams and her husband Alexis Ohanian, who is the lead investor.

The list of notable names is expansive and forged Angel City into the largest female ownership group in all of professional sports, including 14 former USWNT players as investors. ACFC took a unique approach and it was evident from the very beginning.

To answer the aforementioned question: yes, it did work.

The club set an NWSL record for attendance in its first year while also making a major impact off the field. In the nature of being trendsetters, Angel City partnered with HBO for a three-part docuseries profiling everything from the inception through the inaugural season.

“I never imagined that I would have anything to do with professional sports,” Portman says as the documentary begins. “But it’s been one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.”

Yahoo Sports recently caught up with director Arlene Nelson and co-owner Uhrman to discuss the "Angel City" docuseries, which premieres Tuesday on HBO Max.

Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Yahoo Sports: What intrigued you about Angel City and getting involved with this project?

Arlene Nelson: Not only do you have the backdrop of heart-pounding competition and drama of sports, but you also have the powerful story of these three women coming together and wanting to make change happen from the inside out. Based on my experiences of having the ability to shoot documentaries of large scale events but also intimate scenarios, it was a really great fit for this Angel City story. I was really moved by the mission and the women, they are so incredible. Having that purposive narrative drew me in. I was hooked and I am now a total soccer fan.

What was the creative direction you took in terms of planning?

Once I got on board, I devoured everything I could about women’s soccer. It was important to think about what the team was coming into and the context of everything that came before Angel City arrived. I wanted to be able to bring the audience in and understand that but always at its core, it’s a story about Angel City and its inaugural year. The parallel stories such as a collective bargaining agreement, equal pay decision from U.S. Soccer Federation, Sally Yates' report were not just stories we wanted to tell, they’re woven into the fabric of the Angel City story. Everything needed to connect back up to that, and it just happened to be a watershed year for women’s soccer.

How intense was the actual production process?

This was a full-on 12 to 14 hours a day, five days a week operation. And then they play games on the weekends. It was a very hungry story because it had so many layers to it. We had 90 hours of footage and could’ve made many more episodes, but distilling it all down to make one jam-packed series was challenging. My editors were absolutely incredible. We edited for almost as long as we filmed.

Do you have a fond memory or favorite part of footage you shot and how it came together?

We put so many resources into the home opener and I think it paid off. It was really rewarding to see how everything turned out. I’m equally as proud of the Louisville game that we went to. I covered that single camera, Christen [Press] going down and all that unfolded there with not as many resources was a different experience. Those two sequences are standouts because they’re both on opposite ends of the spectrum but still tell the stories completely. That as a filmmaker is really satisfying.

Jun 11, 2022; Louisville, Kentucky, USA;  Angel City FC teammates celebrate a goal made by Angel City FC forward Christen Press (23) against Racing Louisville FC during the second half at Lynn Family Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Angel City FC teammates celebrate a goal made by Angel City FC forward Christen Press (23) against Racing Louisville FC during the second half at Lynn Family Stadium. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

You mention Press tearing her ACL. In an ideal world, this doc would be about all the success stories, but there are also some raw moments that bring the humanity aspect into it.

Christen’s injury was devastating. There’s so much excitement going on with Angel City, but it’s important to show the other side and struggle. Kudos to Natalie and Julie for supporting and being open to that.

Speaking of, one thing I noticed and enjoyed was you capturing moments where sporting director Eniola Aluko (who has since left the club) and head coach Freya Coombe kind of bumped heads.

That’s one of those instances people aren’t always enthusiastic about. We went back and forth on how to frame that because I think at the end of the day it was philosophical differences that just became unhealthy conflict. Eni didn’t officially leave until after we finished filming so we had to tread lightly with how we put that together. They’re all spectacular people and I think differences are just part of it.

Angel City helped get put together quite literally because of a banner from fans calling to bring NWSL to L.A. It was pretty cool to also see that recognized.

It was really important for us to honor the supporters. The players are the heart, the owners are the brain and the supporters are the life-blood. You need all three to have an Angel City. Big shoutout to them for showing up and also playing a role in this documentary.

What has the internal reaction been like, specifically from Portman and Uhrman?

They were able to watch themselves and their team in not the most ideal conditions. To their credit, they were like "this story has to get out there." Starting a club from the ground up is incredibly complex, and what makes it even more is when you want to change the status quo. So you have to go up against the system that you also have to work with. They rode that really fine line of pushing boundaries and working within the system.

If you could have people take one message from these three episodes, what would it be?

That women professional athletes are elite, talented and skillful. It’s worth it to follow them. There’s value there and they’re just hitting a stride that’s unstoppable. It’s something to sit up and pay attention to.

This might just be my journalistic way of thinking, but the ending almost seems like the door is open for a continuation.

You’re spot on. We would love to be doing a season 2 right now. We have to see how people respond to it, but the interest is definitely there. Angel City has this unwavering belief that if the product is good, people are going to come. I hope everyone is drawn in and tells their friends, and we do more seasons.

Interview with co-founder and president Julie Uhrman

Yahoo Sports: Notably, but not surprisingly, your enthusiasm stands out. How was it having all these cameras around?

Julie Uhrman: We realized very early on there was no playbook for what we wanted to do. When we decided to do the documentary we wanted it to be real and honest so that other people could see how hard it is to run a startup, but also see that it’s possible to do things that most think are impossible. And to hopefully create that playbook that others can take, improve upon and build something special.

What were your thoughts on the finalized product?

It was intense watching and reliving that year. Everything we did was a first, so to relive those firsts was really emotional. But to see how hard everybody worked and how it took everybody working together to make Angel City so magical and special, it’s just so beautiful to watch again.

From the Angel City side, what was a message you really wanted to get across?

We wanted to elevate the game — create higher expectations for our players, fans, owners and really build something special for the sport that eventually would lead to real pay equity for these players and ultimately gender equity for women. We just kept setting the bar high and I think you see throughout the series, we kept surpassing our bar. Unbelievable period of time where we kept raising our expectations. How do we keep building on this momentum and driving interest and awareness to the sport and Angel City? This is it.

Speak to the monumental importance of having something of this magnitude on HBO.

I believe HBO is unquestionably one of the best storytellers in all of television, and they’ve been doing it for decades. So the fact that they found something really inspiring about our stories and wanted to tell it is a testament to these players, this product and this sport. You literally have the best in the business wanting to partner with Angel City, and that just makes us feel like we’re doing something right.