It is a truth universally acknowledged that there aren’t any good tennis movies.
But why? The sport contains elements that should, on paper, make for good drama: The points, games and sets in a match seem to pave the way for narrative movement. With individual players, setting up protagonists and antagonists is a no-brainer, and the court provides a stage onto which their psychological tribulations are writ large. Spectators flock to all four Grand Slams in droves, and millions more around the world watch broadcasts of the tournaments. Yet rarely has something so entertaining in real life been given such short shrift on the screen, with Richard Loncraine’s 2004 romantic comedy Wimbledon being the major attempt at fictionalizing tennis to date.
Admittedly, there are significant barriers to producing a truly satisfying tennis movie. The emphasis on individual psychology makes tennis an extremely internal game, with most dramatic emotional shifts taking place behind a player’s poker-faced competitive mask. With its traditionally royal origins, tennis is bound by conventions designed to preserve propriety, which can turn off audiences used to the extravagant pageantry that accompanies some other sports. And, perhaps most significantly, tennis is hard. It typically takes months, often years, to develop good technique (or technique that can pass for good on camera, at least), a commitment few actors are willing to make.
Enter Jeremy Sisto. The actor (perhaps best known for his television roles in Six Feet Under, Law & Order and Suburgatory), himself a tennis fan and casual player, set out to rescue the sport from the cinematic pit it has languished in all these years. Conceiving a story along with friend and screenwriter Gene Hong, Sisto produced and stars in the comedy Break Point, about an aging tennis pro, Jimmy, who convinces his reluctant brother (Darren, played by David Walton) to be his doubles partner in one last run for a Grand Slam qualifier spot.
It’s lighthearted, lo-fi stuff, directed by Jay Karas (whose background lies in both episodic TV comedy like Workaholics and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and stand-up specials for Demetri Martin, Bill Burr and recently Tig Notaro). But the moviemakers’ biggest goal was to render on-screen tennis more realistically than ever before—and that meant eschewing the failings of previous dramatic attempts: the body doubles, the less-than-believable technique, the CGI’ed balls, the cartoonish on-court antics (dives and tumbles and other over-the-top stunts). In Break Point, all tennis is real tennis, with matter-of-fact long takes that show off the skills that Sisto, in particular, spent three years perfecting.
Does all the work pay off? Yes—Break Point presents what is likely the most realistic fictional tennis ever captured on screen. Will every audience member care? Probably not. But the annals of sport movie history are better off for it.
Kelly Leow, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Why tennis?
Jeremy Sisto (JS): As an actor, there’s the constant frustration of not being able to get the roles that you want to get. Like a lot of people in that position, I start trying to create my own projects. This is one of them. My buddy Gene Hong and I used to play a lot of tennis. As people tend to do in this business, we threw out ideas for movies, and we both felt there was a void where a good tennis movie should be. I mean, golf has been romanticized, baseball, every sport—but tennis has remained outside of that framework. For us, it was always that: Why hasn’t this movie been made yet? It should’ve been made. This isn’t an art-house movie; it’s a movie you could bring a date to or a group of guys or girls. It’s got a pretty wide appeal and it’s a fun night.
Partially it’s because singles is a very difficult game to film—it’s a very internal game—so it’d have to be like a David O. Russell movie or something. But doubles tennis is the perfect stage for a relationship story: a story about two people who are very different and have to work together to become one. That was the initial germination.
MM: I’m trying to think of films that focus on doubles, but I’m not sure if there are any.
JS: Yeah, the only big tennis movie is Wimbledon, which tried to be a tennis romantic comedy, but it was about singles. Even they recognized that the internal aspect of the game was undeniable and they had a lot of voiceovers when [Kirsten Dunst’s character] was on the court. Because it was light fare, it worked, but I’m not a huge fan of that movie.
Doubles is an external game. It’s much faster, there’s more of a visual dynamic, like boxing. It really lends itself to telling a story, in the same way that baseball has the great catcher-pitcher dynamic where players can sit on the mound and talk in the middle of the game. The same thing can happen in doubles tennis: You have dialogue between players during the game itself. In singles tennis you can’t even look at your coach for very long, so it makes it real difficult to tell an external story. Doubles set us up perfectly.
MM: I feel that filmmakers sometimes overcompensate in tennis movies to make up for the lack of cinematic-ness in the sport. Besides voiceover, what other “tennis film” conventions did you want to avoid?
JS: With Wimbledon—because that seems to be the only movie where tennis is a central storyline—they had CGI balls and an overall sense of the tennis being imitation, as opposed to real people being out there on the court. You’ve gotta have the grit, the sweat. You can see them trying to do it; Paul Bettany is a great actor. But because of the genre of the movie, I think, they worked against themselves.
With Break Point, what I’m proud of is that it feels like real tennis. I busted my ass to hit good enough to really understand the game, both on a technique level and the mental level. David Walton grew up in tennis; we had a lot of pros out there. We didn’t cheat at all. Full disclosure: Even though I’d spent three years trying to get as good as I could, I was still scared shitless that it wasn’t going to come off good enough. Secretly I was hoping that the director would be like, “Oh, we’ll have a double standing by,” or “We’ll have some tricks planned,” but of course everyone was like, “No. You gotta be out there doing it because that’s going to feel like you’re in the game.” When we’re out there, that look of “God, I hope I don’t fucking humiliate myself,” that’s all real. We were really trying. The stakes were that high for us. And you really feel that in the movie.
MM: Were you guys playing actual, full points? Or hitting a shot here, a shot there?
JS: We were actually playing out the points, but it was trial and error. We weren’t sure, obviously, how much tennis the audience would be engaged with. So we fought out each point, but we then also did a bunch of rallies too because we weren’t sure how we wanted to put it together in the editing room. Some of the most exciting points are almost too fast for your eye to see, and that kind of stuff is really hard to plot out. We had the right amount of rallies that go long enough for you to feel, “Ohhh, they’re not gonna get the ball back!”
MM: How much coverage did you get of the court?
JS: We had two cameras for most tennis days. We were a fairly low budget movie, so we weren’t able to have as many cameras as we would’ve liked throughout the production. There was a lot of it that was covered pretty cleanly and easily, and enough shots that had some fun with where the camera was on the court. In the beginning they created this big, plastic, see-through shield for the camera but it never quite worked properly, so pretty soon it ended up just being the cameraman and the crew around him, and then one of our grunts with a tennis racquet just standing there by the camera guy, hoping to be able to block any shot that was going to hit the camera guy in the head. So it was definitely not a high-tech situation. We wanted to shoot it in a way that wasn’t filmed like you see tennis on TV. Nobody had done anything like it before.
MM: Were you worried about visual variety?
JS: Yeah. I had so long to visualize how we were gonna shoot the tennis, that there were things in my arsenal that I’d have liked to try. But it was more important that if there was a great point, we’d be able to catch it in a clean way. And Jay Karas and DP Jim Frohna put enough of a signature on some of it that it’s a uniquely shot perspective on the sport.
MM: Another way to make tennis more visually dynamic is to have a loud, John McEnroe-type player. Were you basing your character on anyone real?
JS: One of our theories on why there hadn’t been a good tennis movie, or why Wimbledon hadn’t been the movie it wanted to be, is that tennis is a real bourgeois, rich sport. And politeness isn’t quite so much fun in movies. So we wrote a character that really enjoyed making people uncomfortable, which had a lot of comedic possibilities.
A lot of the real colorful personalities in tennis are so carried away with losing and winning, that they lose control of their emotions and do things that they probably regret later. Jimmy isn’t like that; he enjoys making fun of the game and the people in the game more than winning. He does want to win, he does get pissed off, but then he starts to enjoy berating the umpire even more than winning the game. If he loses, but got a great insult on the other player, then he won. We felt like that was a fun character in this world.
MM: These days tennis players are so serious and unemotional, almost robotic, on the court. That’s maybe a modern trend in tennis, whereas 20 or 30 years ago there were much more colorful personalities.
JS: And there are whole PR teams behind that. Jimmy is a guy who’s exactly where he wants to be: He’s ranked but just barely. He’s a journeyman, making just enough money to get by from tournament to tournament, and going to the afterparties. McEnroe and those real players, if they lost, they really beat themselves up. That’s a different movie. I’d love to see that movie too: the insanity of a top singles tennis player.
We loved the idea of this sport where the top 30 players are in the spotlight and the others are just barely getting by. They’re all pretty much as good, it’s just that there’s something slightly different in each of their makeups. We saw a documentary called Journeyman, which isn’t a very good documentary, about a guy like Jimmy. He traveled around and made just enough money and was a big drinker. That was inspiration.
MM: You did a lot of training to play top-level tennis believably. That’s a big commitment for an actor—tennis isn’t an easy sport to pick up. You can’t just learn it in a few months.
JS: It was frustrating, man. Not being someone who did it as a kid, it was even harder. David Walton played as a kid, went to tennis camp, yada yada. Even though he hadn’t played much at the time and I’d been playing every day, he could still beat me easily, because it was all in his body. In my experience, one day suddenly everything is going out and you can’t figure it out; can’t pinpoint which muscle in your body is not adhering to the rules of overall body technique. Then you start hating yourself: “Why can’t I figure this out?” It really creates a sense of frustration. I left the court so many times just not liking me, just being very disappointed in who I was.
MM: Did you ever want to give up?
JS: Yeah! Totally. But I’d gone too far. I don’t think things through—it’s not a great quality. And so by the time I was two years into developing this—I’d been with one company for a year and a half, developing it—the first time we were going to do a tennis scene, I was like, “What did I get myself into? I don’t know if I could pull this off at all.” But I had too big of a fear of humiliation that I wouldn’t stop. I had to keep going. If I was going to fail, I’d fail out there in a big way.
MM: Did you stiffen up while playing for the camera? I imagine that’s even more pressure to hit well.
JS: Completely. I’m not used to being watched as an athlete. It’s like anything else. If you’re not used to being watched when you’re acting, or even when you’re walking down the street… even me, sometimes they’re like, “OK this scene is just you walking down the street,” and I start the walk and go, “Wait, how do I walk again?” But fairly quickly, after you’ve failed a few times in front of everyone, you get over that fear. And then you’re just doing a close-up and taking a huge swing at the ball and it’s sailing out of the stadium, but you’re celebrating, and all the extras are thinking, “This person is crazy.” You just start to get into it. Once you get comfortable with the people around you, failing gets a lot easier.
MM: I know you guys got to hit with the Bryan brothers, who make a cameo.
JS: Yeah, that was fun. They were hitting with us, and we were feeling good about ourselves because they were like, “Great shot! Wow!” Then they’d do something like, “Bryan brothers attack!” and we’d realize, they weren’t really hitting with us. They were so used to playing with people and pretending they were good. We were like Make-a-Wish Foundation kids. We felt a little patronized!
They were really sweet guys. I think everyone in the tennis world is annoyed that the sport has never been made legendary by a movie. And because it had never been done successfully before, money people see that as a sign to steer clear. Fortunately we found Gabriel Hammond, a hero of mine and a good friend, who made it all possible and then went on to create Broad Green Pictures, a stellar company that’s an important player in the movie world these days. Back when I met Gabriel a few years ago, he was just starting to get intrigued by the idea of moviemaking, and now he’s the first guy I call for advice on everything in the business. I’ve never met anyone who’s learned so much so quickly about a new world. He was really kind and really cool—I don’t usually open movies, I’m not a tentpole actor, but that isn’t what motivates him to make a movie or not. He wants to make a movie that he believes in, and it takes people like that to make movies in this age—willing to take chances and trust their own instincts. MM
Break Point opened on VOD July 21, 2015, and opens in theaters September 4, 2015, courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.