Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 155 - Mary Mazzio

It became crystal clear to me that the bus would stop. Right. And I get on whatever the opportunity was, but that if my skin color had been different, if I had been born in a different zip code, that bus would not have stopped. 
Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 155 - Mary Mazzio

It became crystal clear to me that the bus would stop. Right. And I get on whatever the opportunity was, but that if my skin color had been different, if I had been born in a different zip code, that bus would not have stopped. That bus would have gone right on by. And I think, you know, as I think about my own responsibility and how much more I can do and how much more I should do. Right? To extend that umbrella of privilege. And what does that mean? And why are so many people not included under that umbrella of privilege?

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Jesse: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I'm your host Jesse Funk. My guest today was a Olympian in the 1992 Olympics competing in rowing. She is an award-winning documentary film director, the founder and CEO of 50 Eggs Inc, an independent film production company. You can find her on Instagram @MaryMazzio. Welcome to the show, Mary Mazzio.

Mary: How are you doing? Thanks for having me.

Jesse: Yeah, thanks for thanks for joining me. For you, the listener. We'll be a little bit more brief today. Mary's got lots of things to do, so we'll do the speed version.

Mary: Grant Hill and I are working on a new film, so we got lots hopping around here.

Jesse: Yeah. And so thank you very much for spending time with me. So we'll we'll jump right in. Just the first question I'm interested in is how do you make the shift from athlete to filmmaker? Because I think if I unless I'm mistaken, you were in law previously. So those things, at least in my own brain, don't really have a Venn diagram where there's an intersection. I guess maybe you're right in the center, but but how does that occur?

Mary: So I you know, I was in law school. Right. And training and honestly, just had an amazing opportunity to when you go to these camps, you're supposed to be like napping in between your three days, right? Especially in the lead up to the games. And I would be writing. And so I actually had a couple of screenplays that were bouncing around Hollywood.

And long story short, I made a short film. I was going to film school on the slide, starting my legal career, and I remember the class responding really dramatically. And that was became my very first film, A Hero for Daisy. So I was on maternity leave. I go make this thing, you know, like, just was a crazy time. I'm having a baby, I'm birthing this film. And the film ended up going from 0 to 60 in ways that none of us behind it could have ever imagined. And it chronicled.

And in the year, the 50th anniversary of Title IX, one of the most amazing Title IX stories, and there are many but few pale in comparison to many pales in comparison to what the Yale women did in 1976 around catalyzing awareness for athletic directors across the country. What is Title IX? What exactly does it mean? What is gender equity? And here are these women rowers. And here I am, a rower.

You know, this rowing team at Yale that effectively stormed the athletic directors office and they dropped their sweats and had Title IX on naked bodies and blue marker. And I was a little girl at that time, and I had never heard the story. I ultimately went to a women's college, Mount Holyoke. I went I was on the Olympic team, and I'm like, how did I miss this story? And and the only reason I found out about it is because I was sharing a house with this veteran, and her name was Chris Ernst, and she was one of the lead protagonists of this way to create social change.

And I remember she told me the story and I laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh. And who knew that that would actually be my very first film and that film, you know, New York Times, you know, half a page later, it was extraordinary what happened in the wake of that project. And so that really launched my career. And, you know, once you're a lawyer, like, you're already going to you're always going to suffer the barrage of lawyer jokes.

But, you know, I think really strategically about all of our films and I would never regret the legal practice that I had or the opportunity. And funny enough, coming full circle, I worked almost, I think, my entire almost my entire legal career for Brown Rudnick. I created this film called I Am Jane Doe. So I worked on this film. I am Jane Doe, which ultimately catalyzed bipartisan legislation.

It's that legislation that my old firm is now using. On behalf of young children who are victimized on Pornhub. And so like how crazy is that to kind of come full circle? So in any event, I've been like knock on, knock on wood had just extraordinary opportunities along the way to be part of a journey of a number of different stories that I sort of view. What I do is I build the risers in the amphitheater, right? And whoever's voice it is like amazing that we can kind of create a sounding board where that that voice or series of voices can just be amplified.

Jesse: I mean, you've got you've got the option as I guess as a creative individual, your palette is your canvas is blank, right? So you can technically focus on anything you want, right? So why, why focus on the particular subjects that you end up spending all this time on? Because I mean, making making any kind of film, let alone the films that you make, is a big undertaking to put it to put it mildly.

Mary: Huge, huge. And honestly, like each film has had a different rationale. Right. And so the my very first film, you're cobbling this thing together and I'm about to have a baby girl. What does it mean for her to be out in the world? Right. And so in many ways, my first film was for her. Her name is Daisy, but for other little girls just like her, right? That it's okay to go out, get dirty, explore your limitations.

And you don't necessarily, notwithstanding the media all around us, have to conform to that like highly idealized notion of beauty. Right. Which is typically white, a blonde, leggy. Right? And and so in any event, that's how that started. All of my other projects, sometimes people have come to me, you know, my most recent film, A Most Beautiful Thing, the protagonist of that story, which is out of the West Side of Chicago, actually tweeted at me and I and then my phone rings and I had no idea the journey that would take me on.

And when somebody like Archie Cooper out of the west side of Chicago with an amazing story out of the west side of Chicago, calls and says, would you? There is no other answer, but yes.

And so, again, sometimes it is just the most extraordinary stories that become, for me, a responsibility in many ways. So each each film that we've worked on for us, you know, in the beginning I thought, "Oh, I'm going to write these screenplays and I'll have a chair with my last name and a black leather jacket." And, you know, I don't smoke, but I can, like, fake it.

And little did I know that I would have an opportunity in this world of documentary filmmaking and every project that we work on, it's all about how do we move the needle on a social issue? And so we really roll up our sleeves and we dive in. And then what's the strategy for change and how are we thinking about bringing the left and the right together?

And so we focus on those things and we don't really pay much attention to sort of awards or like the glitter piece of it, although we do often work with famous people or actors or celebrities, but it's all mission-driven. How do we think about the issue at hand and how do we bring just our skill set and talents to really think about forward momentum on that?

Jesse: What I think is. Interesting or. I don't know. Almost, almost. I guess it's a universal. I'll make a generalization here. It feels like it's much easier to communicate an issue through a story, be it real or fictionalized, than it is to like necessarily, "Let's report the facts of what happened." Like there's something about film or television, something that's on the screen. I feel like when you get it cut right and then it's scored and everything's working, like there's something that I think helps move you more than simply the story being recounted to you verbally.

Mary: Well, it's a different exercise, right? It's a creative. It almost bypasses the brain and goes directly to your heart. It's an emotional experience that people can have in the theater. And one of the things we learned with A Most Beautiful Thing, another project that I worked on with Grant Hill, the Winklevoss brothers, a number of people stepped in to be supportive on A Most Beautiful Thing was that notion that you can spend 90 minutes in the shoes of somebody that you may that may come from a zip code that you never have visited, never have contemplated, and may have certain preconceptions about the people located in that zip code.

And at the end of the day, we're all human. There are beautiful aspects to every person, every story. There are challenging and dramatic aspects. Right? And yet there are many voices of many segments of our population that just simply aren't heard. And so how do we think about that and what's our role around that? And particularly the most beautiful thing? You know, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the film itself became incredibly resonant.

If you had said to me, "What journey do you think you're going to go on?" And then what one did you go on to profoundly different the exploration of privilege, the exploration of this notion of profound inequality of safety that exists in this country. Right? Everybody talks about the income gap or achievement gap, but nobody talks about the simple nature of inequality of safety and how that affects children.

And so when you go to a place like the West Side, you know, people in privilege make certain assumptions like those people join gangs. Right? That's a fundamental sort of like going in assumption that many people in the world of privilege have. In fact, there is often no such active choice. Right? Young person is navigating these worlds at ten, 11 years old, how am I going to get off my block to go to school safely? And what a lot of people don't realize is there is no active choice. Right? There's going to survive.

And then the second piece somebody told me later, that was like, you're just identified by where you live, period. Full stop. Right? In terms of territory. And when you think about that, right, like that's not an active choice that that young people are making. And so we've seen A Most Beautiful Thing, and especially Archie Cooper really just captured hearts and minds around the profound lack of access and opportunity that exists for so many of our citizens in this in this country.

And yet talent is equally distributed. Talent is an intelligence and humor and capability and work ethic evenly distributed. Right? And it's just why is it that opportunity only comes to those in the world of privilege, by and large?

Jesse: I mean, the first thing I thought of when I saw the film for A Most Beautiful Thing and was watching the trailer. I couldn't help but think of a previous guest of Aquil Abdullah. Back in episode 93 of the show, I don't know if you're familiar with Aquil.

Mary: Oh yeah, he's a pal.

Jesse: And I was like, I would assume you're probably familiar with him.

Mary: Well, not only that, but he became, as he will say, a wingman to the entire project. And Aquil is the board chair of the A Most Beautiful Thing inclusion fund. It was extraordinary philanthropy in the wake of A Most Beautiful Thing. And so Aquil has really stepped up around how do you think about a sea change of our sport, rowing, which has been affiliated for so long with the Harvards, the Yale's?

And how do you make the sport which is unique around conflict resolution, which is unique around repetitive motions for healing trauma, right? Like our sport is unique in many ways. How do we create greater accessibility for for those that that don't have access? So that's been a really exciting project to move along the spectrum with Aquil.

Jesse: Yeah, that's something I talked with him about back on that. So if you want to dive deeper into that with Aquil and me is episode 93. But yeah, we had talked a lot about like again, accessibility, like. How? There's equipment. You need bodies of water. You know, how do you make this sport more accessible to a wider range of people? Full stop, let alone underserved communities. So it's a huge undertaking and challenge. And he seems like both a wonderful human, but also probably a great representative of the sport.

Mary: Well, yes. And he was the first African American man.

Jesse: Right.

Mary: To become an Olympian in the sport of rowing. Right? We had a needed to France in 1976 on the women's side, but Aquil was the first and he was in 2000. So and on top of everything else, he is the genuine deal, right? Like he is so thoughtful and cares deeply about these issues and he's funny and he's warm and all of those things.

And so he has been just a great leader around the philanthropy that's happened. And of course, our Shay Cooper himself let this past year put 2500 young people of color on the water in brand new boats around the country.

And he had me go to Newark with him and to see a community that had African American mothers pouring champagne over brand new boats that these communities simply don't get or have access to. I was blown away. Like, personally, I was like, "Wow! Our Shay, you are making things happen." And how lucky am I to be along just tagging along in all of this, right? Like it was just such a moving experience. And our Shay is a very, very powerful person in terms of the work that he's doing.

Jesse: And I think I read that you're now adapting the story to a series, is that right?

Mary: So Amazon Studios actually optioned the both the documentary and Archie's book to develop a scripted series. So it doesn't mean right, like you still have to be greenlit and all that goes, but it's it's a very exciting process. So we'll see where that all nets out, but very excited to be part of that effort as well.

Jesse: Mary. This is a hard juxtaposition, but I can't help by asking. There's a cello sitting behind you. Do you play the cello or is it there --

Mary: Yeah, no, well, I did play the cello for years, which means I'm just a pain in the ass to my composer and all the team that works on the music score for our film. Because I know just enough about music. I was classically trained and and know just enough that I'm just so anal and meticulous and a real pain in the ass. But yes. Yeah.

Jesse: Can I bother you to play anything or is it. Are you not?

Mary: No, no. I think the bridge may have even fallen down. I'm not sure.

Jesse: Okay. I'm a violinist. So I just see. I see classic instrument. I go.

Mary: That's cool.

Jesse: It's time to jam. I can't help myself. So it is it's just the I guess I'll say the process with the series is that is that the current thing? Do you have stuff coming up on the plate you're looking at? Anything you can discuss?

Mary: We have a number of projects, one we're actively in production on. It's an indigenous project we've got, which I'm working on with Grant and a number of others. There are several projects in the pipeline. I can't say too much, but all really three of them. In fact, sports related. So really, really fun to go back to those roots. So yeah, that's what's cooking. It's never a dull day around 50 Eggs that's our company and really indebted honestly to the team of people that make these things happen.

Jesse: I know you're a little squeezed for time today, so I don't want to run you too late. Each person I interview for each particular season I do. I have a singular question that I ask each and every guest for that particular season, and I think you've got plenty of these. So I'll ask you the question for this season, and that is how do you celebrate your wins?

Mary: You need to do it, right? Because the obstacles are fast and furious, right? The down days. The hardships, the challenges. Too many to count. And life is short. And you have to celebrate the wins, even if they're little wins. Because that's what it's all about. And for me, how do I celebrate wins? That's that's really depends on the definition of what you call win. You know, when I can go to a place like Newark and see our Shay Cooper do his magic, and I know that the film has catalyzed some of that visibility for him. That's a win, right?

When you see a CEO's mind sort of expand around certain notions, that's a win, right? We have big wins and little wins. One of our films catalyzed bipartisan legislation. That's a huge win, right? Another one of our films, we partnered with the Obama administration and the film ultimately raised. This was a film about undocumented students that built a robot and kick the shit out of MIT. Right. Just a great, great David and Goliath story. And that film ultimately raised more than $100 million with the White House in public and private partnerships with companies that were pledging to donate monies for STEM initiatives for underserved students.

Jesse: And for the listener. That was underwater dreams. Yes.

Mary: Yeah, yeah. That was underwater dreams. That's a huge win when you can motivate third parties to kind of like, let's dig in, let's all try and move this wheel together in a way where there's more access, more opportunity. And, you know, I didn't come from money, but I'm white. And that necessarily means I come from privilege. Right?

And I have been given opportunities that I know had my skin color been different, simply, you know, my mother used to say, "Mary, you're always there when the bus comes." And I never really used to know. I'm like, okay, she thinks I'm like, super lucky, like, you know, and you know, in the context, especially after A Most Beautiful Thing, it became crystal clear to me that the bus would stop, right? And I get on whatever the opportunity was, but that if my skin color had been different, if I had been born in a different zip code, that bus would not have stopped. That bus would have gone right on by.

And I think as I think about my own responsibility and how much more I can do and how much more I should do. Right? To extend that umbrella of privilege. And what does that mean? And why are so many people not included under that umbrella of privilege? Because, you know, we're it's just luck that we are born in the circumstances that we are. And as my friend Rafael used to say, you know, your location should not determine your destination. And out of the mouths of boy was 17 when he said that to me in our our film 1098 Raphael Gordon and how true it is.

Jesse: Mary, if people want to see what you're up to, check out the films, any of that kind of stuff. Where can they do that?

Mary: Thank you. Come to We -- A Mst Beautiful Thing is streaming on both Amazon and Peacock. We had a great relationship with Comcast, NBCUniversal doing a whole host of different events, and we just remastered our very first film, A Hero for Daisy, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX. And that is also on our website,

And come buy a t-shirt. We do -- we have a very significant philanthropic commitment on the tail end of these sort of socially impactful projects that I'm really proud of. But, you know, for us, it's one foot in front of the other. And how do we move forward in a way where we can? For me, it's how do I take the skills and the blessed blessings of privilege that I have been accorded? You know, like, how do I use that for others?

And without sounding sanctimonious. Right. But, but I think being on this journey during A Most Beautiful Thing with our Shay Cooper, it really made me think how much more can I do? Because there is more that I can do on a personal level and that I should do so. Yeah, that's the goal. To be a better person.

Jesse: Awesome.

Mary: Every day.

Jesse: Yeah. Right.

Mary: All right. Thank you for having me, Jesse. Great to see you. And onward and upward.

Jesse: Thank you so much.

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