‘They trusted me to do something at a level no other team had’: sitting down with Redblacks’ Josh O’Connor, the man behind Behind the R

Photo by Richard Redmond

When Behind the R dropped in February, many across the CFL were shocked at its unfiltered and unprecedented access.

Like F1’s Drive to Survive and HBO’s Hard Knocks, the series pulled back the curtain and brought fans into the same rooms as the front office staff shaping the Ottawa Redblacks roster and creating the news they typically only read about on 3DownNation.

The show is the brainchild of Josh O’Connor, a video dude and content creator for OSEG, and seeing it come to fruition was the realization of a long-time dream.

Recently, I caught up with Josh to chat about what it was like to put everything all together, and find out what else he’s got coming down the pipeline.

How long have you been with OSEG?

I started with OSEG in March of 2020, and my first day was the very first day of lockdowns. That first year was so up and down. On one hand, I felt like my dream was becoming a reality but on the other, I had to wait an entire year to film a snap.

Where did the idea for Behind the R come from?

In late 2015, I actually wrote a treatment for a CFL behind-the-scenes show. I thought it would be groundbreaking for the league and reached out to a producer at TSN but got no response. In 2016, I actually reached out to OSEG to do the same show, but alas, also got no response. [laugh]

It’s kind of wild how all of this ended up working out, but I’ve been trying to produce this show for seven years.

Now, that’s a lot of words to just say ‘Hard Knocks’.

I started pursuing a career in video production in 2011 because of two programs, Hard Knocks and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. Both of those had such deep storytelling elements built in between the music, cinematography, and narration. Those shows had me emotionally investing in things that I otherwise wouldn’t really have cared about. The idea that you can show something like professional football in a way that makes you pull for teams or players that you’ve never heard of — and may never even see play — was a huge lightbulb moment for me. It totally changed my life and my outlook on storytelling.

Obviously, the goal was never to lift every detail of Hard Knocks — in fact, we’ve really tried to put our own spin on the concept and make it our own — and as biased as I am, I do think that even with other CFL teams following suit by releasing their own behind-the-scenes shows, ours in Ottawa still stands out.

How long did it take to produce each episode and, since I know you’re an energy drink aficionado, how many cans were consumed during each edit? 

Tough question to answer — it really depended. Certain episodes, we were able to baby them and take two or three weeks at a normal working pace, which was great. But there were at least a couple of episodes that we either changed direction right before release or in the case of the draft episode, we really wanted to be first to market.

For example, during filming for the draft, I was running hallway cameras, board room cameras, and office cameras — all day, every day — for a week. That meant I had to scrub through 40+ hours of footage to pull key moments that told the story in the best way possible. I think draft week, I likely consumed somewhere in the ballpark of 20-30 cans of various energy drinks.

How did you decide on the themes for each episode?

It’s funny, but just like most sports nowadays, there really isn’t an off-season in football. However, making what is happening come across as captivating and interesting to the casual fan can be a real challenge.

With things like the combine, the draft, free agency, and hiring a new general manager, it’s very straightforward what the story for the show should be. It’s the time in between those where you have to decide on what stories you want to tell and how much you want to look back. That can be tricky.

Usually, all of our ideas come to life in a spiral notebook where I list out all the active/ongoing stories. I also jot down who’s in town, what their availability is, etc. Then I bring that to my boss, Kenzie Scott. From there, the themes she and I agree on are then brought to Chris Atack and Adrian Sciarra. Once they approve the episode story, we’re off and running.

Were you surprised by just how much access you were given?

Yes and no.

Speaking with Shawn (Burke) about the show initially, there was no hesitation or apprehension on his part. Like, literally, nothing. He was all-in and fully supportive. If anything, it was a very, “You have my full trust, until you don’t” kind of thing. It was my responsibility to handle that appropriately, and I take that trust as serious as anything in my life.

It also helps that both Shawn and Coach LaPolice understand the importance of this type of coverage for the players and for our brand. They’re both incredibly smart individuals, so was I surprised, no.

But am I surprised that twelve games into the season no one has said “No” to any of my pitches?  A little, yes. [laugh]

Photo by Chris Hofley

What would you consider your biggest challenge in creating something like this? The actual filming? The editing process? Deciding what to leave on the cutting room floor? Getting guys to open up?

Time. Like the example I gave with producing the draft episode, time is not on your side. The advantage of doing all the heavy lifting on my own is I’ve seen everything already, so it saves time with things like confessionals, or certain types of coverage, but you simply can’t get around the five hours of footage of LaPolice and Masoli sitting together in a room and breaking down tape. I have to watch every frame to try and find that one line, that one expression or reaction that has to be in the episode.

Plus, as I already mentioned, although I could take my time with a few episodes, others wound up being torn apart and reshot, cut up and sent out on our socials inside of 72 hours.

One of the most interesting aspects of Behind the R is how it highlights the people behind the scenes who shape the roster, but who aren’t the GM. Why did you feel that was important to do?

If I’m being totally honest, I personally, not only find their respective jobs super interesting, but they’re all wonderful people too. Obviously, I can’t speak for how other teams are, but our entire football ops staff are some of the best people — always willing to help, field questions, keep me apprised of anything coming up, you name it.

So it felt natural to want to sit them down and speak with them about what they do. There are so many areas of this business that people don’t see. Football ops are the first ones in and last ones out. They live and breathe the facilities, and when they aren’t here, they’re on the road scouting. I have so much respect for their love and passion for this team, and as an organization, we wanted to make sure that they got the credit they deserved.

How nice was it to not have to censor language? Was that something you asked for, or just a natural thing that occurred? 

It was a little from column A, a little from column B. Kenzie and I had submitted an episode to senior management for approval without censoring it, and even though it wasn’t over the top or anything, we just sort of figured, “let’s see if this comes up when we get notes back.”

It never did. So when we dropped Episode Three — which is pretty heavy upfront with expletives — and senior management fully backed leaving it uncensored, that was that.

All that said, I make a point not to abuse that freedom. I think, like in life, when you choose specific placement of those words, they have a far greater impact. Like at the end of Episode 6 (‘My motherf*ckers!)

In terms of the players who made appearances in Season One, was it more a case of guys volunteering, or guys being voluntold to participate? 

The worst thing you can try and do is make someone open up on camera who does not want to be on camera. I’m incredibly lucky that the guys on our roster are not only always willing to give me their time, but generally very comfortable in giving honest, genuine answers when asked about something.

Nate Behar, Richie Leone, Brendan Gillanders and so many more are always there for me. I can text them on literally no notice — as has definitely happened in a pinch — and they always come through.

Who was the biggest surprise in the sense of being a natural in front of the camera?

Not to give a non-answer, but there are a lot of people who are very good on camera, and then there are people who are very natural on camera. There is a difference.

Coach LaPolice is an elite-level broadcast professional. He will not let me comp answers, and he knows exactly what he wants to communicate. To be honest, I’ve learned a lot from a producing standpoint from sitting him down for interviews.

Then there are your Nate Behars and Mark Goudies who speak to the camera like you’re on stools with them at a bar, perfectly at ease and very conversational.

To give you a proper answer, I suppose Mark Goudie. I think I had expected him to be far less comfortable and sincere than he was. I guess I had almost a cartoon CEO image in my head; very stiff, all-business, and no emotion.

It’s a gift from the content gods when the CEO of your organization sits down and every answer he gives is so sincere. It’s easy for viewers to understand who he is and perceive that he truly cares about this place.

Given that you still always have a camera in your hand, what are you working on now? 

Right now we are actively filming Season Two of Behind the R, which is an ‘every day, all-day’-type of gig. Additionally, I’m still responsible for the lion-share of the video content that goes out on our social media platforms, our community event coverage, partnership events, the Locked In Podcast, etc. With so many moving parts in-season, I keep busy.

 Did you ever consider releasing any kind of bloopers cut? 

That’s a really great question. If I were to do something like that, it would probably be after Season 2 was fully released. However, I do clip off the odd sequence from practice and send it out to the boys. There was a ‘Flex-off’ back in July that made its way to Instagram, for example.

When might R-Nation be able to expect Season Two to drop? 

We recently started mapping out what our promotional plans will look like, and when we’ll start dropping teasers. I would say keep your eyes peeled shortly after the Grey Cup! I actually just finished the first trailer for Season 2, and have started sending that around for approvals.

Let’s touch upon the technical stuff. What kind of gear do you use and what is your editing program?

We are very much a Sony team at heart. We have a pair of FX3s, and an FS7, alongside a fleet of GoPros and the odd Panasonic GH5, Z Cam and RED mixed in.

Photo by Chris Hofley

I used Panasonic all last season, and was happy with the image, colour, etc — but the FX3 just produces such a stunning image.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I’m acutely aware of how lucky I am to have people like Kenzie and Adrian, who have invested so heavily to ensure that we have the tools to produce the best-looking content in the league. The support and investment into this project is honestly absurd. [laugh]

For post-production, everything is Adobe (Premiere, After Effects & Audition). I do have some ‘secret sauce’ plug-ins, but those I’ll keep under wraps.

Finally, how does it feel to have perhaps inspired/spurned some of the other teams into action with more video content?

It kind of freaks me out, honestly. So many people have been so cool about the show, and have tossed out similar lines about sort of kickstarting this movement.

All I really feel comfortable saying regarding that is, I was/am only able to do this because of the Redblacks leadership group, having an insanely awesome and supportive boss like Kenzie Scott, backed by incredible people like Chris Atack, Adrian Sciarra, and Mark Goudie. Without them, I’m not even doing this show. And most importantly, CFL fans. I am so blown away and grateful for the support and viewership from fans across the league

The fact that those first two groups trusted me to do something at a level no other team had is still crazy to me, even today. But it goes without saying that if not for the support of everyone watching online — R-Nation, other CFL fans, people like Braydon Stachel, and the CFL media in general — none of it goes beyond Episode One. I very feel spoiled to be where I am today.

All of that to say, there are so many insanely talented individuals across the league. Nik in Vancouver, Corey in Hamilton, Blake in Sask, Riley & co. in Winnipeg, Colin Wouda — all of them are crushing it. So although I might have been the first one through the door in this particular case, I’m flanked and followed by some of the best creatives in the country.

Thanks for your time Josh and we look forward to seeing what Season Two of Behind the R has to offer!

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).