Born to hippie artists, Jeremiah Zagar grew up in South Philly spending most afternoons in a dark movie theater or wandering the aisles of his local TLA video store. Later, on trips home from Emerson College, he started filming his parents, resulting in the documentary, In A Dream, which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and screened theatrically across the US and in film festivals around the world. It was broadcast on HBO, shortlisted for an Academy Award and received two Emmy nominations, including Best Documentary. His next feature-length documentary, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival and aired on HBO to much fanfare in 2014. He directed and co-wrote the feature We The Animals – based on Justin Torres’ best-selling novel of the same name – which was selected for the Sundance Directing and Screenwriting Lab fellowships and premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. His latest work, the documentary series The Fix, based on Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, is now streaming on Roku.j
I love basketball. I think it’s the most beautiful sport. I never could afford to go to basketball games when I was growing up, but it’s something I do now on special occasions. I’m not a mega-fan like Adam Sandler and some of the other people who made my new movie, Hustle. They know players like I know directors.
When I got hired to direct Hustle, I started talking to one of the producers, Joe Vecsey, a former streetball player, who told me about his favorite basketball movies and the best basketball scenes in them. When I watched them, there were some strong sequences but nothing we could rely on as a model for shooting the film. Obviously, the problem with movies vs. the NBA is that in movies, they’re not real basketball players, so you have to fake a lot of it. But a big reason I signed on was because Adam was committed to casting real basketball players in Hustle, which opened up a whole world for us in terms of what we could shoot and how we could shoot it.
I wanted to capture basketball in a new way, so we did a camera test to try out a bunch of gear and see how we could best utilize it. For me, camera tests are pure creative spontaneity, without any pressure attached: I can’t fail, I can only succeed. When you’re directing a film, you’re doing something that scares you that you haven’t done before – you’re jumping into the unknown – and creating storyboards and doing camera tests are ways to ensure the unknown is not completely impossible. When you get to set, you’re moving so fast that if your ideas don’t have a backbone, you can easily derail and destroy them before you get to make them a reality.
When we did the camera test in Philadelphia, we had near unlimited resources, which was a joy. We did it with Joe Vecsey as our on-camera test subject, and when we got there, we just said, “Let’s have fun with it.” We started to realize which cameras worked and what we were able to achieve with them, and we all had a great time. It was a unifying moment also for the team – the camera team and the basketball choreography team, because we were working together, all of us, for the first time and enjoying the collaboration. It was like, “Oh, shit, this is going to be cool.”
Even though the camera test went great, I still had no idea how things were going to go during production, especially for the streetball game in Spain, which was the first one we shot. The test was a one-day hodgepodge where we broke things down into component parts to test them, but what we were doing for the movie itself was shooting whole games documentary-style, 20 or 30 times. The component parts looked mediocre on their own, so people were initially nervous, but I told everybody, “It’s not going to look good at first.” But then as we continued to shoot and the footage was cut together, it was like this beautiful flower blooming, opening up, bit by bit.
I’m very dyslexic and I realized when I was young that I couldn’t do anything but make movies. I also struggle to adjust to people’s expectations. It’s sad and demoralizing when people don’t trust me, but I have nothing to fall back on, so I just keep going.
When you’re editing a film, you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. You’re creating something as you go and if you believe in it, it will come to fruition. What I love about sports and filmmaking is that both are all about will. Even if people don’t believe you’re going to succeed, if you believe it, you can do it. Both sports and filmmaking are powered by an irrational belief that everything will work out.
The most beautiful moment on Hustle was when what we experimented with in the camera test became a reality. When we saw that first game in Spain come together, I felt a sense of euphoria. It was like, “Fuck, I got it. I believed in it. I tested it. I knew it would work, I executed it in practice and it did work.” We were still shooting the movie, so the Spain game working meant we knew that every game after could work, so I could experiment and have fun with them and push things in the way that I wanted to.
Everybody who made the film is really psyched about how the basketball sequences turned out, and I’m really happy about that. I seldom watch my own movies, because it makes me uncomfortable – all I see is what’s wrong with them. But because we had such a great team on Hustle, who gave it their all, when I look at the basketball games, I’m proud of them.
Featured image shows director Jeremiah Zagar, Juancho Hernangomez and Anthony Edwards during the making of Hustle. Photo by Scott Yamano/Netflix.