‘Hustle’ is Jeremiah Zagar’s love letter to Philadelphia basketball fans

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When Adam Sandler asks you to do an NBA movie, it can be pretty hard to say no. Director Jeremiah Zagar learned that first hand.

On his latest project for Netflix, Hustle — a film about a basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who discovers an incredible player in Spain — Zagar took on the challenge of bringing Philadelphia’s passionate basketball culture to life for the film.

In this interview of All things ConsideredZagar spoke with NPR’s Cheryl W. Thompson about finding her path to film, merging her love for fiction and documentary storytelling, and bringing her love of native Philadelphia to the big screen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cheryl W. Thompson: I have to ask you, is it true that you told Adam Sandler that you didn’t want to direct this film, that you had absolutely no interest?

Jeremy Zagar: I did not have Nope interest, but I got the script and it was wonderful. I mean, it was a beautifully written script, but I think when you take on a project that’s going to take years of your life, you really have to feel like you can fall in love with it. And I wasn’t sure at first. I wanted to make sure that I could do it justice and that it was for me, that there were enough exciting cinematic possibilities that it was something I could be proud of and do justice to. And so I told him no.

But then I couldn’t get it out of my head. It happened in Philadelphia. And you know, it was centered around the sport of basketball, which I love. And so, you know, I started thinking about ways to make it my own and make it something that I could fall in love with. And I got back on the phone with Adam and we talked about it and we seemed aligned. We wanted to work with all the non-professional actors and we wanted to shoot it in a way that felt authentic to both the city and the sport, and gave it a realism that I was excited about.

I know you’re from Philadelphia, right? Which is, of course, a huge sports city. You are a basketball fan. And at times, the movie feels like it was created by and for NBA fans.

I hope. I mean, I think Adam is a massive NBA fan, obviously, like so many people in the movie. I mean, you know, again, there are so many real NBA players playing themselves or playing characters based on people like them. You know, Juancho was a real NBA player. He plays for the Utah Jazz. And, you know, he’s also amazing as an actor. But he can really play great basketball, just like Anthony Edwards, just like Kenny Smith and Dr. J, obviously. So they are real people who know the sport intimately. So you see them doing the thing they love most in the world in a beautiful, cinematic way.

[Juancho Hernangómez] plays the center forward or center forward for the Utah Jazz, and in this film he stars as Bo Cruz, the young Spanish athlete that Adam Sandler’s character discovers. But there are also other NBA talents in the movie, like Seth Curry, Doc Rivers, who I have to say is from my hometown of Chicago and is the current coach of the 76ers. And Dr. J., I mean, really, Julius Erving, arguably the greatest player in 76ers history. What was it like managing professional athletes who sometimes forget to check their egos at the door?

So we had a wonderful acting coach here. I have a wonderful acting coach who works with all the non-professional actors I’ve worked with. my last movie We the animals featured three young boys who had never acted in a film before. And she spent years with them and she spent years with some of the ball players, two years with Juancho. And I have to tell you, these guys have no ego at all. They are like the sweetest, most open and wonderful people. You think they’re going to be…because they’ve got these giant contracts and they’re on this giant stage, they’re going to be tough in a way. But they are very nice and sensitive people who worked with [our acting coach] and worked with Adam and worked with me. And were just a delight. I mean, it was really, really, really wonderful just to be with them.

There are plenty of sports films about the underdog team or an athlete trying to make it big. But this one, I have to say, feels different. It’s not just about sports. And so, you don’t have to do sports to enjoy the movie either, do you?

I don’t think you have to be a sports fan. I actually showed my mom the very first cuts of the movie and she looked at it, and she said, “Oh my God, I love basketball!”

She knows nothing about this sport. I think what we tried to do was make it look as beautiful as a dance and make the emotions drive the scene. So even if you were watching a game, you were following the emotions of the characters. You were following Stanley’s emotions or feeling those emotions, the ups and downs of those moments, so that no matter who you are or where you’re from, you can love the movie.

In the past, Jeremiah, you’ve spent a lot of time working on documentaries. How did this influence your approach to Hustle?

I think our philosophy as filmmakers is always to make it real. You know, I want to see fiction films that look like documentaries and documentaries that look like fiction films, I think. I like authenticity, honesty and specificity. And I like the language of the documentary. And so, what we did is we took the language of documentary and we put it into this fictional format. And I think that makes the scenes authentic and real, and that’s always the point.

Can you tell us about Philadelphia’s role in the film? How was it for you, as a native, to do this project?

It was an honor. I mean, what an amazing thing to be able to come back to your city, you know, with a giant movie, you know, that brings economic opportunity to the city. Philly has supported me all my life. Of course, I grew up there. …And you know, I love every little aspect of this town. I like the people and I like the sports culture and I like the artistic culture of the city. And so it was a thrill to be able to bring the specifics of my youth and my love to this film.

Adam was really great to say, “Show me where the real Philadelphia is, show me where you grew up. And we’ll put it there.” And even when we were shooting in the studio, we mirrored the actual locations, so it looked like a townhouse in Philadelphia. We would build it from scratch, and it was important that we had that authenticity.

You see things differently, as people who live in the city see them. Of course, we are referring Rocky a lot, but there is a beautiful scene in Rocky where he travels the Italian market. But my experience of the Italian market, which I grew up two blocks from, is that you walk through it and you do your shopping, you know, you get your pots and pans there, you know, and I wanted to show that kind of Philadelphia that there is also a lived quality to the city.

Cat Sposato and Lucy Perkins produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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