Yesterday I posted a film review of the Kris Belman’s STVM documentary More Than A Game, which had its US premiere at the Silverdocs Film Festival in Silver Spring, MD. In said review I promised two more follow-up pieces. This is one of them. I got a chance to catch up with Kris on Tuesday morning, after seeing the film Monday night. Kris is a native of Akron and graduated from Walsh Jesuit High School. We talked for half an hour, about everything from his film, the ’97 World Series, Macbooks not going to sleep properly (I’ll spare you the details), and life as a Cleveland fan in LA. Below is how our conversation unfolded.
Denny: So you went from Northeast Ohio where you grew up, and transferred to Loyola Marymount in LA for film school. You had kind of a small fish in a big pond situation, catching a lot of flak from people, so you wanted to show these people that there’s something worthwhile in Ohio. What made you pick these guys?
Kris Belman: Well, it’s funny because the first thing I did after I transferred in, is nobody from that school was from east of Arizona – I think maybe they’d been to Vegas, but whatever – the first thing I did was buy a book on Ohio and I tried to learn all these Ohio facts. I started spitting out all these ridiculous facts like I knew Cincinnati is the number one exporter of caskets, which is probably not something we should brag about, but I knew that. I was going with that for a while – all these stupid facts and then I was like “I need to find something tangible here, this is absurd.”
I started looking into what my options were for my documentary project and I wanted it to be something specifically hometown – Akron related, not just Ohio related. Honestly, at that point I thought – there’s Goodyear, Firestone, it’s the birthplace of Jeffery Dahmer, and these things aren’t the greatest things visually at least. At that point LeBron and the boys were starting to make noise on the level in Ohio. I kept up with everything going on at home, online and my parents still being there, so I just decided that it was a cool enough story that I could do my ten minute project on it.
I knew that the four of them had played together before high school so I figured inherently, there would be some cool story and relationship to build on. It was supposed to be a ten minute project and I figured I could get something done. So, I flew back and decided to talk to the coach.
D: So this was about 2001?
KB: Early 2002.
D: So they would have been juniors at that point, and you started filming then?
KB: I talked to the coach (Coach Dru Joyce II) and at that point they were being approached by other people – 60 minutes, Sports Illustrated, and understandably Coach wanted to keep some of that distraction away. I was kind of intimidated at that point, because I had talked to some of the people at the school and they said “Well, we can put you in touch with the coach, but we just rejected 60 Minutes, and LeBron just turned down Letterman” and I thought – well, I’ve got no shot, I have no chance.
I went and talked to Coach anyways, and I honestly it was the whole “I’m just trying to get an A on this project” angle, and he was really understanding, and he said “Alright, come to one practice, come tomorrow, it’s at three o’clock, and try what you need to get there”. I went to the one practice and was listening to my footage later and heard Coach saying “Tomorrow’s practice is changed to 5:30″ so I thought, I’ll go back. I went back and Coach wasn’t there, someone else was running it and nobody said anything. So I kept going back and after a while they never really said anything – I was just there, that’s how it went.
D: So was this while you were on break?
KB: Yea – it was in between semesters, so I was in a break and then later I was flying back and forth. Honestly, that’s probably why I didn’t get an A on the project, because I was missing so much school – I had so many “illnesses” that those entire 2 years I was racking up a ton of miles.
D: Was there any point in the seven years that you were working on this where you ever had to sit and think “I don’t know if I’m ever going to get done”, or a point where you got frustrated?
KB: You work on something for seven and a half years and you have an idea of what you want it to be, what you think it can be. I was working on it well after they had won their national championship. I knew what the film could be, what the story could be. Certainly there are moments when you’re frustrated and down about it but honestly those guys were always so supportive of it and always gave me what I needed.
The real frustration was when I was trying to take it to the next level and get some funding behind it, get visual effects and the right soundtrack, things like that. That’s when I started meeting people in LA – producers, financiers, things like that and everybody was interested in just buying LeBron footage and making a highlight reel. They certainly didn’t want me involved it, because I was just out of college and who’s going to trust me? I literally took two years of the same meeting, that was “Oh, let’s buy all of the LeBron dunks all of you, and we’ll cut you a check and that’s it.” I was never interested in that, because at that point I had put so much into it and I knew what the story could be. That was the most frustrating thing, just meeting with countless people who thought all these other stories were completely a waste of time.
D: You’ve said there were issues with support – how were the guys during the whole timeframe?
KB: Incredible. I can’t say enough. When you asked about the frustrating times over the seven year period, obviously there were some, but it doesn’t seem like it took that long while it was going on because they were so supportive. Whenever I called and said “Hey, I’m coming back to Akron for X, I’d love to sit down to interview.” Or “Dru, I really need a picture of you and your mom”, they’d scour the basement and look for it. They never said “Is this really gonna happen?” – it started out as this ten minute project, and six years later I still hadn’t stopped. They never questioned me and I guess they felt it was meant to be in the same sense that I did, and that support meant a lot to me.
D: It seems like there was a lot of family being involved as well, because you jumped in pretty late in terms of the time frame of the film, so everything from before came from the family, Mrs. Joyce sitting up top filming the games.
KB: Absolutely. It’s funny how that worked out, because I would call Coach Dru and say “Oh, I need more tapes, do you have any footage of them not on the basketball court?” and it seemed like every time he’d be like “Oh, I think I’ve given you everything”. Then three months would go by and he’d call and say “I was looking in the corner of the basement and found about thirty tapes”. I was shocked, saying “send them over, send them over!” Then I get the tapes, and it’s LeBron dunking for the first time and all these cool things. Then, four months later I get another call – “I was in the other corner of the basement and I found like ninety tapes”, and I’m thinking “how many corners of the basement does he have?”
The families were hugely instrumental, especially Coach Dru and his wife, they had a lot of those tapes, and we got some great photos too.
D: You’re in a kind of a unique position, being the documentary filmmaker. How much interaction was there between you and the guys as things were evolving – was it basically just you in a corner, or were you doing any sort of directing?
KB: When I was with them while they were in school, for that period, I tried to stay mostly observing, especially the first couple of months. I was a student, I didn’t understand the camera all that well, I wasn’t technically savvy. I was really trying to stay out of the way and be sure I was allowed to keep coming. I didn’t want to be a distraction. For the first period I was just trying to observe and capture as much as possible, and try and learn their stories as I went. I did a lot of interviews with the guys back then that didn’t make the final cut, because we chose a position all retrospective looking back so we had one cohesive tense. I was really trying to learn what their stories would be.
As time went on I started to interact more. It was never telling them to do particular things, directing in the traditional sense – it’s doc so you want to keep it as natural and as verite as possible. As time went on I was definitely more involved with them and it wasn’t as much fly on the wall at that point. I think that made the interview process. We did the final HD interviews, which were the majority of the ones in the film, probably in 2007. At that point it was “wow, it took seven years and my entire twenties went towards this film” but in another sense it went another way. After seven years I think those guys were comfortable enough to discuss those issues. You know, LeBron was talking about growing up without a father – those topic could never have been broached two years in. I think it took seven years of trust and always building, and I think that’s part of what makes the experience so special.
D: Was there ever a point where you got kicked out for needling a bit too much?
KB: No. There were maybe one or two instances during the season where the players during a halftime would want to work it out amongst themselves and the coaching staff would leave. At that point the coaches would take me with them. So yea, I was tempted to leave the camera behind and try to catch something, but I was pretty respectful at that point. Other than that they were really good. There were a couple of times that I thought I’d get tossed from the school because I thought the guys were acting up for the camera and getting all rowdy in the hallways. I remember thinking I’d get thrown out or sent to the student’s office or something but honestly everyone was very cool about letting me hang around.
D: One thing I noticed as the film went on – you’ve said you wanted to avoid a highlight reel type situation. When it got to be later during the team’s junior year it seemed that their cockiness was beginning to show, and there was more of this highlight reel feeling to the film. Was this something you did on purpose?
KB: Definitely. They really did get cocky their junior year when they ultimately lost in the state finals to Roger Bacon. I think the thing about that is I don’t think LeBron would have become the player he is today without that loss. That loss forced them all to realize how hard they needed to work to win.
D: We hear a lot from LeBron and from the guys towards the end of the film and especially in the Q&A session last night (Monday) about how between them, things haven’t changed. From your standpoint do you think things have changed at all?
KB: It’s funny, a lot of times people say that – we’re still friends or whatever and you roll your eyes and think to yourself “Is that true?” With these guys it really is. Coach Dru has a Christmas party every year Christmas Eve, and last year I was at it. I walked in and said hi to Coach and all the family members say “The kids are downstairs.” I’m thinking to myself “The kids are downstairs?” At this point these five grown men are downstairs, playing poker. It’s all five guys, giving LeBron a hard time because he didn’t shoot well that night against Portland or something. It was really like things hadn’t changed at all – they were joking around, I saw LeBron take two bucks off of Little Dru. LeBron obviously doesn’t need that money, but it’s a friendship thing at that point. Honestly, when those guys are together it’s really funny. It really is like nothing’s changed, all they’re doing is cracking jokes at each other.
D: Changing it up a bit to discuss Northeast Ohio sports and more specifically Cleveland sports, what would your favorite memory be growing up?
KB: Favorite memory? I’m gonna say – I sold cotton candy at Jacobs Field back when they were in the World Series against the Marlins. Some of those games leading up to that, when they beat the Yankees and Sandy Alomar hit a big home run, some of those moments as they were climbing their way towards the world series were probably some of my favorite because I was there in person. I was supposed to be selling cotton candy, I think after the third inning I just went and hung out somewhere and watched the game. To me that was so special.
It reminds me a lot of this past playoff season for the Cavs where everyone was so excited and you see people coming out of the game and everyone’s giving each other random hugs. Things like that. I’ll never forget that I had this big thing of cotton candy and I’m trying to hold on to it so it doesn’t blow away or I don’t get docked pay and I’m just hugging random people and getting beer spilled on me – I want to say it’s fall of ’97, that was pretty special to me because I was at The Jake selling cotton candy then.
D: So was that your worst memory (the World Series loss)?
KB: Yea, it really was because that World Series itself was obviously no fun. It was really bad. The series itself was freezing. I remember the flag ripped at Jacobs one night, it was one of the coldest games in World Series history. I remember I wouldn’t even bother selling, because you couldn’t give people change wearing gloves. It was pretty bad.
I want to say that’s probably not the worst now that I think of it, because I do remember the Drive, mostly because my parents were at the game and I remember the Byner fumble. I think that’s almost worse because you’re so young and you’re seeing grown men cry and you’re seeing people around you – to see them affected in a sad way, that was probably worse.
D: So which of the teams would you call your favorite?
KB: At this point I would definitely say the Cavs. I love all the sports in Cleveland, they’ve all had their hard times and good times but with the personal nature of this project with LeBron, I’d have to say the Cavs. With those kind of things it’s such a great time in Cleveland, not to sound like a fairweather fan or anything I’d say the Cavs have been my favorite.
D: In terms of your filmmaking, what’s up next for you? What are you up to now that you’ve finally gotten this one done?
KB: Haha, now that I’ve finally gotten this one done – a couple of things. I’ve been working on a project with Gatorade which is documentary in nature. It started out as a web series, and there are talks of taking it to TV, which would be cool. Basically we took two major high school rivals that have played football against each other every year for like a hundred years. They’re based in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, separated by the Delaware River. In ’93 they actually tied the game. So we took all the players, who are in their mid-30′s and they trained for twelve weeks and they replayed the game, full contact football. Peyton Manning coached one team, Eli Manning coached the other. It was a blast, and we did five or six webisodes and right now we’re discussing putting them together and making an hour-long TV special out of it. That was a lot of fun. In the non-fiction world I’m exploring some more documentary type stuff.
As far as film film goes, I’m looking at something that will probably be a narrative. Something kind of different from More Than A Game to show some range. The problem is I’m reading a lot of scripts that are being sent to me and I’m kind of being really picky right now because I was on this one for so long, and I’m so proud of the way it turned out that I want to make sure the next film that I dive into is going to be something that I’m equally as gung-ho about.
D: What’s your experience been like as a Cleveland fan out in LA?
KB: There’s nothing like Cleveland fans. There are tons of Browns bars and Ohio State bars in LA, but there’s not really any Cavs bars, so my brother and I – well, mostly my brother, but we decided to turn a bar into a Cavs bar, so by the second round we had probably half Cavs fans there. People were driving from an hour away, all over – San Dimas, just to cheer the Cavs. Lakers fans hated it, but we love it.
D: I’m sure you’re kind of glad you were out of town this week…
KB: Oh yea, I pushed back going back – I was supposed to go back today but I pushed it back until at least Wednesday because I don’t want to deal with that. It’s the worst.
D: That’s kind of how it goes.
KB: There’s always next year, right?
We’d really like to thank the folks at Silverdocs and Lionsgate again for hooking this all up, especially Minjae, Mia, Michael, Wendy, and Tolley. It’s been a remarkable experience to have and we really appreciate the great job they’re doing with the festival.