If you haven't already seen it, you need to make More Than A Game required viewing if you call yourself a basketball fan. In what many are calling the best sports documentary of the last decade, Kris Belman captures the lives of five high school players giving us a glimpse into the world that is high stakes, high pressure high school basketball. With a day off in Raptors' action, and in case you missed it Sunday morning, the HQ brings you Ray Bala's recent interview with the film's director before the Canadian premiere in Toronto...
By now, all of you basketball fans reading this should know a little something about the well chronicled life of one LeBron James. It would be almost impossible not to know something about him in the internet age. But what you may not know is his life before he was THE LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers' all world basketball player. The documentary More Than A Game gives all of us basketball fans, as well as film appreciators, a rare glimpse into the early life of not only LeBron, but also his four close St. Vincent-St. Mary's high school friends Dru, Sian, Willie and Romeo. Directed by Kris Belman, the documentary premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008 and has since become what some have called the best sports documentary to come along in quite a while. This film gives us a look into the lives of the players, their relationships to each other and how they make everything work their senior season under a very intense media and public microscope.
RaptorsHQ: Thanks for taking the time out Kris of your schedule for Raptors HQ. Now first off you began this project when you were still in college. Was this a project that you had envisioned while in school?
Kris Belman: No. I had no idea. I had transferred to Loyola Marymount University in LA, I’m from Akron. And when you transfer you end up not necessarily getting the all top classes (you want). You kinda have to take what classes they’re giving you so I ended just kinda stuck, and I hate to use the word stuck, in this documentary class. I didn’t really know anything about documentaries but I ended up in this introduction to documentary class and the assignment was to make a 10 minute film, a documentary. I probably would never have made a documentary if I had never ended up in that class, you know. It wasn’t something that came to me. Because I had recently transferred I was taking so much heat from being from Ohio. All my LA friends assumed I was a farmer, all those stereotypes so I determined to do something on my hometown. That was really important to me.
Now I remembered an article that stuck out in my head that I had read two or three years prior about some basketball players. The article had said that four of them had played together since fourth grade and that they had made a pact that they were going to go to high school together. And that really stuck with me. When you’re 12, 13 years old, you’re usually just thinking of yourself. You don’t really have that kind of sophisticated friendship so that really stuck in my mind. So when I really felt like I needed to do something for my hometown, this was the idea that stuck to me. LeBron was obviously becoming this giant player, but to me it was really the friendship element that was really cool. I figured I could at least get 10 minutes out it (for the assignment).
HQ: Now with LeBron coming into his own at that time as a player on the national scene, was it hard to gain access to the team during this time?
KB: It was. That was one of the more challenging things early on. I remember I took my camera equipment from school (in LA) and went back to my parents’ house and I was there for about two and a half weeks before I was finally able to connect with someone from the school. And I was calling everyone I could that was associated with the school or knew someone, like six degrees of separation from Coach Dru, that’s how I was doing it. After about three weeks of trying, the public relations director (said) "Ok, you’re going to talk to Coach Dru and he’ll let you know whether you can do this or not." And I remember her saying they had just rejected 60 Minutes and LeBron turned down David Letterman. So I’m thinking "they're never gonna let a college kid with a camera do it!" So that was my fear. I went in front of the coach and I had to use that weakness as a strength saying "listen, I’m just in college, I’m trying to get an A." I mean you can’t turn someone down from trying to get an A right!? That was my angle and they loved the fact that it wasn’t just LeBron, it was about these five players. It was hard to get in front of coach, it took a long time. But once I did, he said I could come to one practice and that’s how it all started. I was to come to the one practice (the next day) and get what I needed from that. After that first practice, I just kept coming back and they never said to stop coming. After that point, I just kept showing up.
HQ: With you showing up regularly to practices and games, did you manage to befriend the five players quicker? Were you able to get into the "circle" so to speak?
KB: It took a while, a long while. I actually don’t think I entered that fully until they were outta high school to be honest. During that senior season, my big thing was to make sure that I didn’t get thrown out of this (situation). Because they didn’t really give me permission to be a part of (the team) they didn’t say anything. So I always felt like at any point this can end and I was really nervous (about that). I just made sure to stay out of the way and all the liberties I took were taken in due time.
After a couple of weeks, I started going into the locker room. Then I started feeling comfortable I was going on the bus to games. Pretty soon I was in hotels and blending in so I certainly felt like I was in at that level at some point. But to (be able to) sit down to do interviews, pull them emotionally, to let me into their lives and bear some of their worst and some of their better times, that took years to get to. That took years of still coming back and I think it was because I was still coming to Akron after they were out of high school and I’m still asking about Sian, Little Dru. The most obvious story was LeBron, but I was still trying to tell these little stories (outside LeBron) and they respected that and that‘s when that really started to come around and I could really gain that trust.
The heart of a documentary in my opinion is trust. You have to have that trust from everyone in the film. If you don’t have it, you’ll see it as an audience. I like to think when you watch this film you are seeing the real LeBron, the real Sian, all the players.
HQ: I noticed that there were different clips of the players during interviews in film during different times it seems. How long did the stories and interviews take for you to get together for the film?
KB: Seven years. By the end, the majority of the interviews in the film were taken in the fall of 2007. I had interviews I had done all along, but they weren’t as in depth. Four, five years after high school, they trusted and respected me that we could go places that two years in, they may have answered the same question but not with the same degree of emotion. A lot of those interviews are recent because it took a lot of time to get to that place.
HQ: So with that in mind, were there a lot of re-edits?
KB: Absolutely. (Sigh)The thing with documentary, the editing is a beautiful thing but it’s just such a headache too. You’re always writing it in the edit room. You don’t know what they’re going to say in the interviews and they usually give you something better than you could write, but you still have to go into the edit room and make it work somehow. So I was constantly in the edit room making sure that it was evolving.
HQ: Through that evolution, were you constantly changing the story lines?
KB: Most of the stories pretty much stayed the same (player wise). You always knew right away the main story was them trying to win the national championship, you know where the beginning and end is. The secret with a film like this was trying to insert the character’s stories in order to drive the main story forward.
HQ: Going back to the players, how hard was it getting those early images and video clips?
KB: It’s funny, it was very much like being a detective. A lot of it was actually Coach Dru’s wife, who filmed a ton of stuff and it was a matter of finding it. I remember Coach Dru gave me four or five tapes of them playing in fifth grade and I called him back saying "Coach, I need more stuff. I’d love to find something off the court." He’d say he’d "given me everything we have." A few months would go by and Coach would call and say "I was in the corner of the basement and I found 50 tapes." And it was like that. The families were very supportive and they went out of their way to help out what really started off as a small project. They’re as big a reason why the film’s a success.
HQ: Now this all started out as a ten minute school project. Did you ever expect the film to balloon in this kind of way?
KB: I felt early on, after my first couple of weeks with the team, that this was bigger than 10 minutes. I didn’t know what that meant and I certainly didn’t expect to premiere in Toronto last year or have a theatrical release, those things were never in my head. But the time I spent with those boys, even in those first couple of practices, I felt it was (definitely) bigger than 10 minutes. It is certainly something every film maker hopes for but enough things worked for it to take off.
HQ: So then I’ll assume that at this success was a pleasant surprise for you?
KB: It’s hard to say pleasant surprise because it was just such a long journey. This was seven years of my life and it wasn’t easy. There were some real hard moments. Five years in, I contemplated giving up because I didn’t think this was going to happen. I couldn’t get in front of LeBron, he was in the NBA and I needed his interviews. I couldn’t raise money for the finishing of the film because everyone was only interested in the LeBron portion and they thought I was wasting my time with the other stories. That was a pretty low point about five years in. But then I started watching some of the scenes that had been edited like Little Dru’s 3-point extravaganza in the freshman game and I’d get excited again. I’d think that people need to hear these stories, plural, and if I don’t tell them, I don’t think anyone’s going to and that drove me (to finish).
HQ: Well the end result was well worth it Kris! Thanks for your time and best of luck with the film.
For some added audio from the screening, click the link for the Q & A session done with Kris after the showing. In Theatre Q&A - Kris Belman