Free: As the saying goes, every villain is the hero of their own story. Roy very much believes that he’s the hero of this story and everything that he’s doing is for a noble and well-meaning cause. Then he’ll tell you the opposite of those things ten minutes later! He’s a really tricky interview subject for that reason alone. He does not believe that he did anything wrong. That was a strange experience. Even after seeing the film itself, he still thought it made him look good! I don’t know how to wrap my brain around it.
GQ Sports: How did you become aware of this story in the first place?
Roe: We kind of couldn’t believe it. The first thing he said when he sat down in our chair for three days of interviews was, “Do I look like a con man?” This guy’s on a different level. We knew we had an extraordinary subject by the end of the first day. This guy thinks he can charm his way through everything and no one will care. Because he’s funny and witty, he can ignore the consequences of his actions and everyone will forgive him. Part of this strange code he has is that if you catch him, he feels like he has to admit it? I don’t know. It’s hard to understand him. We had to be a little pushy to get some stuff out of him, but he wanted to say it! He’s proud of it!
Were you surprised that Roy was so willing to talk about all this?
While the film centers on a fake football team and their fraudulent coach, BS High also touches on parenting, coming of age, and true crime, with elements that will remind some viewers of infamous figures like Caroline Calloway and Elizabeth Holmes. Free and Roe sat down with GQ to discuss the origins of this project, the experience of hearing the players’ sides of the story, and what it was like to conduct three days of interviews with a smiling swindler like Johnson.
Is it fair to say he’s a pathological liar?
Roe: We learned about it at the same time that everybody else did. We are very online, and Travon was sending me the memes. We were laughing and enjoying it like everyone else. On that day, Travon tweeted that there was going to be a documentary about it and it would be called BS High. He was manifesting our future together. Three or four weeks later, we got a call from an old producer friend of mine who said he got in touch with the guy and he wanted to talk. We were like, “Really? The guy, the guy?” A few days after that we got on a phone call with him. We both knew we had to find out how this all happened.
As someone who didn’t know just how deep this story goes, for the first ten minutes or so I found myself thinking, “This guy’s not so bad!” because he’s all smiles and jokes. But as the movie goes on you realize that he uses those things as a shield. How was the first hour or so of talking with Roy?
He definitely has a lot of self-awareness, which kind of comes out when he asks right away whether he looks like a con man. But he doesn’t seem to have enough self-awareness to realize that he sucks.
Roe: He says he’s the most honest liar he knows.
Free: I’ve never met anybody with a brain like his. All the instincts that we have in terms of what you’d do or say? He does not have those! He wants to do and say everything you’d think a person wouldn’t.
And it does so through Roy Johnson, who coached Bishop Sycamore—despite not having a brick and mortar school, athletic trainers, or a real playbook. Johnson is a remarkable documentary character: he managed to draw the national spotlight to a made-up school, but he also draws real-life inspiration from the fictional worlds of The A Team and superhero movies, lies through his teeth at nearly every opportunity, has had over 30 lawsuits filed against him, admits to killing a wild animal, and, despite having an internship with the Bill Parcells-era Jets, does not seem to possess any of the actual qualifications one would need to be a football coach.
Free: We thought it was funny like everyone else did. That also kind of played into our experience with making the movie. No one knew how sad it was behind the scenes until we started poking around and asking questions. At the time, it was just this crazy, fun-ish story, kind of like a bad version of The Bad News Bears. It turned out to be way worse.
Free: It’s very similar to the overall Roy game. He uses the charm offensive to try and get you to like him. He’s just saying what he thinks you want to hear. Eventually that’s going to wear off. The beginning [of our conversations] felt like how the movie feels. This guy is a little charming and a little funny! Then reality sets in and you get a taste of who you’re actually dealing with. The way you see his emotions change throughout the movie is how it happens in real conversation with him. He can tell you a happy story and then the next minute he’s angry and pissed off at whoever he’s talking about, then the next minute he’s crying about who he let down. It’s the strangest cycle of emotion. You can almost feel, for some people, what would be master manipulation.
BS High, a new HBO documentary premiering tonight, is ostensibly a sports story. The film, from Academy Award-winning filmmakers Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, tells the tale of Bishop Sycamore, the Ohio high school that played a football game on ESPN two years ago. Except, oh wait, Bishop Sycamore wasn’t a real school at all, and not only did they lose that game 58-0, the man in charge of the whole scheme was revealed to be a prolific scammer.