“I had just transferred to [Loyola Marymount University in] L.A., so I was taking a lot of flack from my new classmates since I was from Ohio. They all assumed I was an expert cow milker,” laughs Akron native Kristopher Belman, director of More Than a Game, the basketball documentary out on DVD February 2, 2010. “I was out to show them there was more to Ohio than they thought there was.” Luckily for Belman, this just so happened to coincide with the beginning of LeBron James’ ascension from high school mutant to NBA royalty to one-day global icon.
The doc follows the early basketball happenings of James and his long-time best friends—Dru Joyce, Romeo Travis, Sian Cotton and Willie McGee—cataloging everything from their first few basketball games together as undersized eighth graders, to their controversial decision to attend a mostly white high school, to their final bid for an elusive high school national championship. Of course, most of this happens as James breezily becomes the most famous high school athlete in the history of the world—so, yeah, there’s added drama there as well.
But under Belman’s steady hand, More Than a Game quickly reveals itself as more than “that LeBron James movie”; it’s an educated doc that manages to miraculously turn the Chosen One into an underdog, and doing so while giddily hitting every feel-good sports movie trope—insanely lovable underdogs, last-second shots, a spirited training montage and a supremely talented outsider who joins the close-knit team but is not immediately accepted. The kicker with Belman’s movie, however, is that it’s all real.
When Belman spoke to MovieMaker, the young director was on the tail end of a grueling world tour promoting the flick, but was kind enough to speak about traveling to places where people don’t know James (yet), turning his student short into a widely distributed feature and how a vicious LeBron dunk got him through a 48-hour editing session.
Andrew Gnerre (MM): I think what our readers will be most interested in is how this went from a student short film to a feature-length doc with pretty good distribution.
Kristopher Belman (KB): I’m originally from Akron, but I was going to school at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. My junior year I signed up for an Introduction to Documentary Filmmaking class. Meanwhile, LeBron and those guys were tearing it up in high school basketball and making a huge name for themselves. I wasn’t sure what the stories would be. I knew that four of them had played together before going to high school. I knew that several of them were from the inner city and that they were black and going to a predominantly white school. I thought that was a relatively interesting choice and that there was something there that I could get a 10-minute project out of.
MM: When do you start thinking, “This needs to turn into a feature?”
KB: Sometime halfway through their senior season. They were doing so well on the court, but the all things off the court were becoming more and more interesting. Films are generally conflict and they were being exposed to so many different forms of conflict and adversity at an age—17-, 18-years-old—that it was unbelievable. People in their hometown are starting to root for them to fail; the Ohio Athletic Association was investigating the team and LeBron. And meanwhile these kids are unphased by it. They just turned to each other and that foundation of friendship. There was just something so amazing about it. I felt like, in a lot of ways, it was an interesting way to analyze stereotypes. And I thought that that had the making of a feature-length project.
Meanwhile, I’m learning more about more about coach Dru during that senior season. From the get-go my pitch to the school and the team was, ‘Hey, I want to tell a story about these five friends,’ but I didn’t know where coach Dru would fit into it. During that senior year all this adversity is striking these characters and they’re overcoming; I’m also learning about coach Dru and what his dreams were and how he had lost his dreams, how he felt about these boys. To me that was so phenomenal. I started to realize that this was his story, that he was the lead character of the story.
MM: That’s what you start to understand at some point during the movie, that he is the reason for all their success. Then you finish the short and then you spend two years shopping it around?
KB: Yeah. I finished the short and I graduated in 2004, so those guys [the team] were in either college or the NBA for a year. I spent several months really sitting down, pen to paper, with Brad Hogan—who is the co-writer on the project—and really developing these individual characters. I knew how the film began, how it ended and I knew what the “A” story was, but how do these six main characters fit into the story and how can we do it in a way that has a flow to it? Basketball is a sport with flow and the film has to have that same kind of finesse to it; I don’t want to just go character, character, character in a row. How do we make sure these characters are unfolding in a way that pushes the narrative forward at all times? We spent several months developing what turned into about an 18-page outline. So I took the 18-page outline and a three-minute trailer that I edited together from all my footage and those are what I shopped around to different financiers and producers to try to get the story told in a way that we felt it it needed to be told.
Meanwhile, I’m still shooting. So I’m am shopping it around, but I’m also going back to Akron, re-shooting interviews, keeping close with the guys. This is about five years in and I didn’t know if I would get financing, so I’m trying to do it on my own.
MM: You’re just making sure you don’t miss anything.
KB: Absolutely. And also the relationships. As they’re getting older I need to make sure these guys are remembering all these details for the interviews. Any time I pop into town, I’ve got a camera and they’re like, “Oh jeez, Camera Man is back.” They didn’t know my name for the first five years, they called me “Camera Man.” “Oh man, he’s still doing this. When are we going to see this thing?”
MM: I mean at this point you’ve probably spent as much time with them as they have with each other, almost.
KB: It’s funny, they joke about how I was the member of the team that couldn’t play basketball. (laughs)
MM: When you were filming the original footage, what kind of camera were you using?
KB: A Sony PD-150. MiniDV. It was the top-of-the-line one they had at the school at the time. (laughs)
MM: Small camera?
KB: Oh yeah, a prosumer, handheld camera. It had a little shotgun mic…
MM: And the interviews were with a better camera.
KB: Yeah. That was actually done like a year before [the film’s premiere at the] Toronto [International Film Festival in 2008]. I went back to re-shoot my interviews just because I was able to get the financing, which made them look nicer. I really wanted it to translate to the big screen. Those were shot on the Panasonic HVX, the high-definition. And we used Prime Film lenses.
MM: How has the world tour been? Seems like that has been an absolute grind.
KB: (laughs) To think back to when this thing started, when I had access to one practice and I wasn’t supposed to come to a second practice, to think back to that… and now we’re flying across the country and then the world to screen this film, it’s unbelievable. Honestly, I’ve been calling every day a “pinch me day.” I don’t know if it’s real, and if it’s not I don’t want it to end.
Especially the overseas stuff. Screening the film in London, where basketball is not prevalent at all and a lot of the people at the screenings didn’t really know the rules and didn’t really understand the sport—and a lot of them didn’t know who LeBron was.
KB: Yeah. I mean for me that was phenomenal. I loved that! I was fun to see them connect to the story and these other elements—I talked to people afterwards who just loved the story about Willie and his surrogate father and his brother—because I always wanted it to be more than a sports film. I hate thinking of it as a sports film, to be honest; I hate hearing it described as that. I love it when people talk about these other elements that transcend the court.
MM: Does it bother you when people refer to it as “the LeBron James movie?”
KB: That’s a double-edged sword. That’s kind of been the battle throughout the entire making of it. When you have someone like LeBron in your film I think a lot of people right away assume it’s easy. When I was trying to get financing for this film, after five years of going solo, having LeBron was definitely a huge selling point, but it was also kind of a downfall. Everyone wanted to write a check or buy the footage to make “the LeBron movie.” Or they wanted to pay me to direct a LeBron movie. That was a really rough two years because no one believed in the other stories. But at the same time, I understand that having LeBron attached is a huge draw. He’s a phenomenal character himself; the story wouldn’t be the same without him.
[People calling it “the LeBron movie”] doesn’t bother me, per se. I’d prefer they’d discuss all of these characters, but I think that’s going to happen when they leave the theater.
MM: I think people will recognize that once they see it, that it’s about more than LeBron. There’s a point where it even stops being about basketball so much.
KB: Oh great. I appreciate you saying that. That’s what I hope, that people will be pleasantly surprised. They’re going to come in expecting LeBron, which is fine with me as long as they come out talking about Dru Joyce III or Willie McGee. I’m cool with that, it’s kind of a nice surprise.
MM: The other players end up making almost more of an impact, because everyone knows about LeBron, but no one knows about these other players.
KB: Exactly. Especially coach Dru. To me it was always his story and he was the lead.
MM: What projects do you have lined up?
KB: I did some nonfiction commercial work in the past couple months, some stuff with Gatorade, just to get back into the seat and get my hands on some equipment. But I’ve been reading a lot of screenplays lately and I would like to make the jump to narrative, at least for the next film. I do want to come back and do some nonfiction work, but I want to jump into something different after working on this thing for seven years.
MM: Was the “no regard for human life” dunk [that is featured during James’ “Where is he now?” post-script] always going to be in the movie?
KB: (laughs) That’s interesting because a Boston sports writer yesterday gave me a hard time for using that one. The reason we used that one was that we were editing one day really late, I think we had pulled an all-nighter and were really tired. It was during that playoff series [against the Celtics in 2008] and [editor] Scott [Balcerek] and I took a break to watch the game, and when that dunk happened we just got so rejuvenated. We ended up pulling an all-nighter again. It gave us a second wind. We knew we wanted to use a play, but that one had kind of a personal significance that’s why we threw that one in there. It gave us that second all-nighter wind.