Directing “More Than A Game”
LeBron’s favorite director talks about bringing the “Fab Five” to the big screen.
by Ryan Jones
More Than a Game , the film documenting the rise of LeBron James and his childhood friends from snot-nosed AAU underdogs to national high school champs, hits theaters this Friday. I was lucky enough to catch a screening of it back in August, and my well-documented pro-LeBron bias aside, it’s terrific — and I’m not the only one who thinks so. (Check SLAM 132 for my review if you care).
Last week, I caught up with first-time director Kris Belman at the tail end of the film’s promotional tour to talk about his experience turning a 10-minute student project into a feature-length documentary. Ironically, 10 minutes was about the length of our interview before Belman was rushed off by a publicist, which explains why I didn’t get to ask half the questions I’d wanted to. So take from this what you can, then go see the movie. Especially you, haters.
SLAM: How’s the tour going?
Kris Belman: It’s been absolutely nuts, to be honest. Thinking about this whole thing starting as a 10-minute project, and now having been all over the world with the film… it’s been incredible for me as a filmmaker to be able to see this reaction.
SLAM: What’s the reaction been in different places?
KB: Well, we were in London — we were at an event in Nike Town, and there’s dozens of people recording him with video cameras, and half of them didn’t know who he was — even as they were videotaping him. A couple of them asked me, “Who’s that?” They just knew it was an event.
Then in Singapore, there were people who didn’t really know anything about basketball, but were able to connect with LeBron and the other guys in the film on an emotional level. As a filmmaker, that’s been the best part of the tour for me.
SLAM: That gets to the idea that most reviewers seem to be picking up on, that the film really isn’t about LeBron. It’s really about this sort of extended basketball family that LeBron was part of. Did you set out with that angle in mind?
KB: That was the goal from the get-go, and honestly, it’s the reason they let me be a part of it in the first place. My original pitch to them was, it’s a story about friendship — it’s really about these five guys. It was my junior year in college, I’m doing this student project, and as an aspiring filmmaker I really wanted to challenge myself. I felt that just focusing on LeBron would’ve been too easy, and I felt like getting into who these other players are would certainly be a challenge — at least enough that I could fill my 10-minute class project (laughs).
SLAM: As much as it’s about these kids, the hero of the story is really St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Dru Joyce, who’s a father to one of the players but a father figure to all of them.
KB: Definitely. The Coach Dru aspect evolved over time, as I started to realize not only how important the players were to him, but how important he was to them as well. Coach Dru, to me, has the most complete story arc. He’s the coach, the one that has the most life experience, the one who spoke with the most authoritative voice on life matters. Like LeBron says all the time, Coach Dru isn’t an X’s and O’s coach, he’s a life coach who somehow makes it work on the court.
SLAM: You could’ve made a good film just with the story of this team growing up and succeeding together, but you obviously couldn’t have counted on the attention and adversity these guys had to deal with along the way.
KB: Definitely. I’d say about halfway through their senior year, as they took over the No. 1 ranking in the nation, all of a sudden you really saw a lot of negativity and adversity pop up. Some of the jealousy arrived — it’s that old adage, you want to knock off the king, even in their hometown, and yet these kids handled it.
SLAM: It’s funny how many people don’t remember the hate LeBron, and to a lesser extent his teammates, were catching back then. There’s a sense now that everyone loved LeBron in high school, when in fact national columnists and the guys on ESPN were hammering him for representing everything that was wrong with high school sports.
KB: I think we’ve gotten some of that surprise reaction — that people didn’t realize even in their hometown, people started to root against him. People tend to remember the Hummer thing, but they didn’t remember the jersey thing, how he actually had to sit out a game because of that. I think that stuff is definitely surprising to people. I think a lot of people will have a newfound respect for LeBron after seeing the movie, for where he came from and why he is who he is.
SLAM: What else in the film do you think will surprise people?
KB: I think people tend to have a sense that he had some struggles in childhood — like, they tend to know about his single-mom situation. But I think they’ll be surprised how open he is about those things on camera. We developed a level of trust, and it allowed him to go places he might not have gone with other people. I think people have been surprised at the openness, and how much he lets the audience in.
SLAM: What are your personal memories of that time? What sticks out?
KB: Just that it was unbelievable. I always thought of it, like, these guys are on a rock tour. They got bigger and bigger, the schedule started to expand across the country, and it really became like a rock tour. I felt like the kid in Almost Famous, doing this little project, trying to fake it ’til I made it. (laughs) But they always seemed to rise to the occasion. Junior year aside, they handled it with so much poise.
SLAM: It’s obviously taken this a long time to see the light of day – LeBron’s been out of high school since ’03 — and the film’s release now coincides with Nike’s marketing push for his new shoe, the theme of which is all about loyalty and roots. This is obviously no accident, right?
KB: The timing was definitely planned. A lot of that has to do with LeBron’s scheduling — he only has a couple of months each summer to do the things he needs to do. But Nike’s been great to kind of use the film’s message as part of a bigger event. Thankfully, that doesn’t affect the content of the film.