The Beat Goes On
A Q&A with the filmmaker of a new documentary on the late, great Wayman Tisdale.
by Jonathan Santiago / @itsJONsantiago
Wayman Tisdale passed away in 2009 after a two-year battle with a rare form of bone cancer. Now his life story is being told in a documentary that features interviews with some of Tisdale’s closet contemporaries in music and basketball.
The Wayman Tisdale Story was written, produced and directed by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Brian Schodorf. He was inspired to make the film after hearing of Tisdale’s fight with osteosarcoma. Following dozens of emails, letters and numerous phone calls to those in Tisdale’s circle, Schodorf finally broke through in 2009 when he connected with the former basketball star. He went on to capture what would be some of Tisdale’s final days, including the self-taught musician’s last jazz tour.
“He would never let anyone know that (his illiness) was more serious than he led them to believe,” Schodorf said of Tisdale. “Because he didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for him. “
Schodorf never expected the film’s production to take as long as it did. But because of budget constraints, the documentary took two-and-a-half years to make.
“Every time we’d watch it, Wayman lit up the screen and we knew people had to see this (film),” Schodorf said, recalling the many days he worked on the film essentially for free in a cold Chicago apartment from 2009 to 2011. “But there were a lot of days when I was like, ‘ This is never going to get done.’”
Fortunately Tisdale’s record label, Mack Avenue Records along with ESPN and NBA TV came along and injected life into the project, which is set to air next month.
SLAM: What compelled you to make a documentary about Wayman?
Brian Schodorf: I get that question a lot. And it’s interesting because I really didn’t know that much about him. I really wasn’t a jazz guy. I didn’t follow his career. I remember he had been in the NBA and he was a pretty good player. But when I saw a little bit about what he was going through with his leg, I just felt like that’s a story I had to tell, and I just had to do it.
So, I got an investor and I ended up going down to Tulsa and I pitched Wayman on the idea. And it’s hard when you are coming from the outside to try and come in and get in a public figure’s life to do a documentary. But you know, Wayman was one of those guys who was so open. He was so touchable. People always say, “I met him he was so cool. He didn’t seem like an NBA player” because he really wasn’t. He was just a regular guy. For me, if my leg had just been amputated and I was going through this struggle and this battle, I probably wouldn’t want to talk to anybody. But that just kind of shows his character and what type of guy he was.
SLAM: Is this your first biographical documentary?
BS: It is. It’s the first biography I’ve done and it was a challenge. I think in the history of my life – I’m not going to say in the history of the world – but in the history my life, I’ve never came across a more flawless person with the coolest life. I mean the guy lived 44 years. He had nine records – many of them went number one. He played 12 years in the NBA. He was a three time All-American. He was (an Olympic) gold medalist. And there wasn’t any one person who had anything bad to say about him. Going from Michael Jordan to Toby Keith – and that’s a pretty tough crowd to impress [laughs]. Those guys aren’t known for their complimentary attitudes toward other people and he just won everybody over. Making a documentary about somebody like that was definitely challenging.
But at the end of the day, we didn’t have a lot of material to work with because he passed away less than a week after our last interview with him. We had two or three interviews that we did. And then we had to go around and look for archival footage and different materials to put it together. Since he had just passed away, it made it a little bit more difficult. But I think we got it done. I think it definitely gives justice to his name.
SLAM: When you told him that you wanted to make a documentary about him, what were his initial thoughts on the project?
BS: He was very, very excited about it. But (in the beginning) you’re really just kind of feeling the process out. A guy like Wayman, being in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Phoenix, had a lot of people approaching (him) that wanted different things. Initially, you have to work through some of those trust issues, especially being a stranger.
(But) he was excited about it. He wanted to do it. We had some good ideas about it. But we were still in the initial phases of trying to feel it out, see what it could be and getting to know each other. We never really ended up getting to the point where we were working on it together. I mean, he passed away so quickly – it was literally a week after. So we were going to hook back up, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough time.
SLAM: How did his passing affect the production process of the film?
BS: As far as the production, it’s tough to say because had he still been alive, had he beat his battle, would we have gone out and interviewed Michael Jordan and all these other guys? Maybe. Maybe we might have just stayed with Wayman and had him tell the whole story. I think it probably sped things up, because knew what we had to work with.
We started shooting in 2009 and a lot of stuff that you see in 2007, 2008 and early 2009 – a lot of that is stock footage and archived materials. I think his death probably did speed things up. We were hoping to get it out sooner. But we were working with the NBA, the NCAA, ESPN – all these different groups - and we were working with the Tisdale family. We wanted to make sure we got things right for them and gave them proper time to deal with everything.
SLAM: The film is primarily told in Wayman’s own words. Talk about the style you chose to tell his story.
BS: We started off (telling the story) from birth until death, chronologically, and we just said “this doesn’t have it.” It was missing that tension, that kind of push, pull (with the audience). So that’s why we (told it) through some flashbacks. We just wanted to keep audiences engaged through that process and we didn’t want it to all be about the cancer too. That’s another reason why we did not get into the medical things about what was going on inside his leg, about the osteosacroma cancer.
Very rarely does a grown man, for that matter a 6’10 former professional athlete develop this disease. It’s one-in-a-million for somebody like Wayman Tisdale to develop this disease. But at the request of his family and kind of the way I saw this whole thing playing out, I didn’t want to make this a cancer movie. I didn’t want to make this about cancer because that’s not what we wanted to remember Wayman by and that’s not how we wanted everybody to see him.