Roy Scheider was an actor, not a debate coach. So when the actor was cast to play a debate coach in “Listen to Me,” he sought help from UCLA senior lecturer and debate team coach Thomas Miller.
In order to prepare for his role in the 1989 film, Scheider attended several of Miller’s lectures. UCLA’s debate team let Scheider travel with the team members to observe Miller’s coaching style in the months before filming, Miller said.
Scheider shadowed Miller and the team at competitions, since story elements were based on Miller’s experiences as a coach throughout the years, Miller said.
Scheider’s attention to detail and insistence on accuracy touched Miller. In one scene, Scheider’s character sat in the back seat of a car on the way to a debate tournament during competition season. Miller was on set and immediately offered a piece of advice.
“I said, ‘No, the coach always rides shotgun,’” Miller said. “And Roy said to the director, ‘You hear that? The coach rides shotgun.’ And he just got in the front seat, wouldn’t move.”
Miller worked with writer-director Douglas Day Stewart to help craft the narrative of the film, contribute anecdotes, shape the story and to serve as inspiration for Scheider’s coach character. During filming, he helped as a technical adviser to increase the realism of the film and ensure the film was an honest depiction of debate.
“Listen to Me” centers on a motley group of college students at a fictional university who join the debate team under the direction of the debate coach. After various debate competitions, the team wins the opportunity to debate the topic of abortion before the Supreme Court.
Miller collaborated with Stewart and worked to add details from his experience into the fictional screenplay, Miller said.
Miller wanted the film to emphasize respectful interaction between opposing teams, something he tried to instill in his students.
“We have championed a style of debating that stresses communication and logic and reasoning, and not fast-talking and real aggressive behavior,” Miller said. “The movie was able to show that – show a good side of debating.”
Once the film began production in 1988, Miller reached out to student members of the debate team to get them involved, including David Smith and Scott Stratman, two debate partners who were on UCLA’s debate team at the time. They helped research the laws debated in the film and eventually made it into the film as extras.
Although the film captured much of the debate experience, including the recruiting process and the clash of different styles of debate, it represented a more commercial, Hollywood version, Smith said.
Stratman said the film accurately depicted Miller’s spirit through the debate coach character, as someone passionate about the program and his students.
Scheider’s character spends time with his team members outside of class and serves as their friend and mentor, similar to the way Miller told stories and gave advice to students, Stratman said.
“(Miller) has a tremendous amount of attention to detail,” Smith said. “What he refers to as audience analysis, and they had that in the film.”
When watching the film, Stratman was reminded of Miller’s love of debate, as well as the recruiting and training process Miller underwent to build the team. In the film, Scheider’s character builds his team with seasoned debaters, as well as taking two new debaters under his wing.
“Both that character and Tom, I think, sort of understood that process,” Stratman said. “They had a great passion for developing that talent, a great passion for succeeding and winning.”
Twenty-eight years have passed since the time of filming, and although Miller’s coaching style and passion for debate have remained constant, he believes there would be one notable difference if a character was molded after who he is today, Miller said.
“I don’t think I’d be quite as intensely competitive as Roy Scheider was,” Miller said. “Back then, I felt I had something to prove, and maybe I’m just old, but I don’t feel like I have anything to prove to anybody.”