Ball Don’t Lie tells the story of Sticky, a 17-year-old basketball prodigy from Venice, California who takes to the courts to deal with the emotional scars left by his troubled, foster-care-ridden childhood. Adapted from the 2007 award-winning book of the same name, the story unravels in present time and flashbacks with a cast that includes Melissa Leo (Frozen River), Emilie de Ravin (“Lost”) and streetballer Grayson Boucher. Here, director Brin Hill discusses how he went from short film auteur to feature film director, bringing Ball Don’t Lie to the big screen.
Goldy Moldavsky (MM): Your lead star is a touring streetballer. Was it more important to get someone who was a believable basketball prodigy than a professional actor? How did you decide on casting Grayson for the role?
Brin Hill (BH): My biggest gripe with films depicting any sport is that the action rarely rings true; when you get actors jumping off trampolines to dunk a game winner, you lose me. Ball Don’t Lie is a story that begs for authenticity and, to that end, we really needed someone whose ball skills would wow even the most jaded viewer. It was pivotal to find someone who could both play ball and who could relate to Sticky’s journey; someone like Grayson was a perfect choice. I knew Grayson and while he didn’t lead as difficult a life as Sticky, there are key traits he shares with the main character. And because he’s been in front of cameras and large crowds, we knew we could get him comfortable with the business of acting in a film and turn in a truthful, hopefully riveting, performance. I think he did a wonderful job.
MM: The West Coast and basketball are two main focuses of the movie, and, being from Santa Monica and a two-guard on the basketball court, they are also two things to which you obviously relate. How much of yourself would you say is in the movie and are those shared similarities a necessary connection to have as a moviemaker?
BH: My work always tends to treat locale as a major character. The architecture, the light, the music and the rhythm of a place are all so integral to my storytelling because I believe they inform character and journey. I know they’ve always helped define me. I was drawn to the source material because of the location as well as the basketball element, and I see this film as a coming home of sorts. Santa Monica, Venice and basketball are all well-documented, but I wanted to show sides of those places and the game that are seldom seen in an honest way. I think as long as you are honest to a place, the fabric of your story and a theme, anyone can make a film about any place or topic. But, man, you better do your homework if you’re going to get it right.
MM: You’ve got a range of actors in your cast, from acting novices to TV stars to an Oscar nominee. Is your approach to certain actors different from others on the set or is the bar set the same for all of them?
BH: We were blessed to get an unbelievable cast. I was watching the film the other day and was reminded that every turn Sticky’s journey takes, another great actor and performance pops up. It’s a powerful ensemble. I think outside of my work with Grayson, which was more like creating an acting education on the fly, my approach to all these wonderful actors was the same: Find language that a person responds to, be honest, give everything of yourself and do your homework. I created mood books, character CDs and diary entries that would help define each character and give a sense of time, place and purpose for them.
MM: The movie is a literary adaptation of a popular book. Was it difficult to try to stay true to the tone of the book or they two different animals? What about working so closely with the author, who also wrote the screenplay?
BH: Here’s the thing: A book and a movie are two different animals and the sooner you recognize that the better. I love the book: I love the prose of the book, I love the world of the book. That’s why I was so impassioned to make this film. But I also started the process being too precious with it. If you’re too precious with the book, the film will suffer. I think [author] Matt de la Peña freed himself from the chains of the novel earlier than me, so that, in turn, ended up freeing the whole team to make changes and cuts that helped the film. We also adapted it before the final version of the book was published, so there are some story lines that will seem like real departures from the novel, but that were once in it, so they are authentic to the original narrative. I think the book and film are now two different ways to tell the same story of Sticky and that’s how it should be.
MM: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey from short film veteran to directing your first feature?
BH: I’ve made a slew of short films—docs, narratives, experimental—some good, some OK, many of which have won prestigious awards from festivals like Sundance and schools like UCLA. When I won those awards, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t half expect the flood gates to open on celebrity and the keys to the studio gates to be handed over. But when no one recognized me on the streets of Los Angeles, I realized that my job was not to get a great table at Katsuya, but to keep making films; films about folks whose stories normally go untold. Now it’s a fight to make a film that’s not a tent-pole movie, especially now, and it took a long time to tell Sticky’s story, but it’s been worth it. It’s my hope that many folks will watch Ball Don’t Lie and perhaps think about Santa Monica, Venice, basketball and the foster care system a little differently as a result.