The Legend of Swee' Pea

by Habeeba Husain

I’ve been quite fascinated with storytelling lately and all the ways in which the art manifests. Be it an article in a magazine, a blog post online, an exhibit in a museum or a documentary film—storytelling is a powerful and inspiring skill.

To think there’s a story behind The Story is pretty meta. It’s that necessary creative process and action a storyteller must triumph to convey a message in the best way possible. Piecing together The Story is a story of its own.

SLAM caught up with first-time storyteller Benjamin May, a physician turned filmmaker who teamed up with Daniel and Marc Levin of Blowback Productions (Remember HBO’s Prayer For a Perfect Season and CNN’s upcoming Chicagoland?) and assistant producer Eric Newman. With about three weeks left in the Kickstarter campaign to fund his film about New York City playground legend Lloyd Daniels, May told SLAM his story of working on The Legend of Swee’ Pea.

SLAM: What exactly fascinated you about Lloyd Daniels?

Benjamin May: I first got interested in the story as a high school student growing up in Bemidji, MN. I’ve always been a basketball fan, and I heard these stories about this mythic playground player in New York City named Lloyd Daniels. And it wasn’t necessarily that he was such a fantastic basketball player—it was more the aura around the way he played the game. He had a transcendent feel for the game. He was like a savant, he was just a very graceful player. And I was really drawn to that—that he was this mythic, transcendent talent.

Obviously, a lot of the problems surrounding him made the story even more interesting. When he went to Las Vegas and got in trouble at UNLV, went back to New York City and eventually got shot, and his story as a basketball player…was completely written off and his career was felt to be over. Then to see from afar that he made this amazing comeback and went to the NBA with bullets still in his body as a 25-year-old rookie and years of drug addiction behind him, it was really an amazing story and I always knew it would be a fantastic basketball documentary.

SLAM: The story is great. In the trailer, you said it’s more like a portrait of a person, it’s all really intriguing.

BM: Initially it began as a portrait of his life, which has dramatic highs and lows—getting shot, addiction, going to the NBA, coming from the mythic schoolyards of New York City. But as we got to know him, the story became much deeper because he is a very interesting person. He’s like a lone wolf, he can play basketball by instinct, he’s a hustler, and there’s a lot of tragedy as well as redemption involved in his story.

SLAM: Did you know him before you took on the project?

BM: The first time I met him was in the spring of 2012 when I approached him about doing the documentary. And so it was during the process of filming him that we actually got to know him…Over the last two years, I’ve gotten to know him a lot better as a person. And that’s how the documentary has really transformed, from not only this tremendous basketball story but also to a portrait of this unique American life.

SLAM: Was he enthusiastic about the idea right from the beginning?

BM: Yeah, Lloyd was very enthusiastic about the story and doing the film. He was enthusiastic because I think it would help his legacy and it would help show some of the great things he’s doing with his life, including coaching for his team, the Lloyd Daniels Rebels in the AAU, and it would help to sort of expose him as this good person, not just someone who was a basketball figure addicted to drugs and getting shot. He’s also doing tremendous things for kids today.

SLAM: So what are all those cool animations? What sparked that idea?

BM: The animation idea was originally by a producer Karl Hollandt. Lloyd is nicknamed after a cartoon character, Swee’ Pea, and a lot of our interviewees have anecdotes about Lloyd that we knew would blend well to animation. Lloyd was a playground player before Instagram, before Twitter, before Facebook. We wanted to recreate some of those playground stories about him as as this archetypal basketball player as well as animate and show people what the playgrounds were like and the culture around the playgrounds in the 1980s.

Kelsey Kuno, our animator, she’s not even a basketball fan. But we felt that adding animation would add to the mystique and add to the dramatic arc that is inherent in Lloyd’s story.

SLAM: What are you most excited for viewers to see?

BM: The Lloyd Daniels story has elements of redemption. It has elements of tragedy. It has elements of the highest level of basketball. It has elements of New York City playground culture. It has elements of addiction and recovery, as well as hope. I’m excited for viewers to see an innovative documentary about a unique American life that contains all of these elements and includes animation to really create a portrait of a unique American, flawed hero.

When we were out in Las Vegas, we captured some amazing footage of him revisiting the crack house that sidelined his career and we caught some fantastic footage of him reflecting on his life and becoming emotional.

To actually hit that moment, it was really powerful. It took the story beyond a basketball film. It’s not all about basketball, it’s really about life, about one man’s journey through life.

SLAM: What’s been the best part about working on this project?

BM: Making a film is a journey, and the coolest part of working on this project has been meeting people from all over the world who knew Lloyd, uncovering a story that needs to be told, and actually creating that story through film so that people can see it in the way that you feel that it actually happened. It’s a tremendous learning experience and it really, as a filmmaker doing a documentary film, puts you out of your comfort zone. It really helps you grow as a person. For me, personally, working on this film has been the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.

SLAM: You said when you were a teenager you thought Lloyd’s story would make a great documentary. Did you ever think you would be the person to create it?

BM: [Laughs] I was having lunch with my wife one day, and we were talking about the Lloyd Daniels story. I said, “I just can’t believe no one has done a documentary film about Lloyd Daniels.” My wife, Annemarie Lawless who is a writer for the film, said, “Ben, you can do this film. You’re interested in film. You can make this happen.”

To actually be going through with this film and to be in production, to be making, in my opinion, a fantastic documentary several years later—it’s really almost a surreal feeling to be doing it. It’s great to be living your dream.

SLAM: That’s powerful to be able to say that’s your dream and you’re living it.

BM: Yeah, definitely. You know, you only live once, and if you really want to do something, you just have to get out and do it.

SLAM: What’s been the hardest challenge?

BM: Two things. The most challenging part is actually making a film about Lloyd because Lloyd is oftentimes a difficult person to get a hold of…but at the same time, he’s a fantastic subject. As a subject, Lloyd has been a challenging person to document, but I think documentaries love challenging people.

The second most challenging thing is raising funds to finish production. Although it’s a great story, we still need outside help to get the story told and to complete the finished film.

SLAM: What exactly remains to be done?

BM: Right now, we’re halfway through production. We are currently involved in a Kickstarter campaign to finish all the primary interviews and to create a fine rough-cut edit of the film. At that stage, once we finish the final rough cut and all the animation, then we will take the film to festivals and try to find a wider audience and a distribution channel and try to sell the film. But primarily right now, what we need to do is raise money to finish filming our interviews, film the rest of the stuff with Lloyd, finish the animation, and create a rough cut of the film.

SLAM: Any last words for the SLAMonline readers?

BM: I think this film will appeal to not only basketball fans, but people who are fans of documentary filmmaking and people who are interested in seeing a story about a unique American life. Lloyd Daniels is a Jekyll-and-Hyde character. In our film, we’re going to use interviews, archival footage, tremendous verite sequences as well as animation to recreate the mythic talent that Lloyd Daniels displayed on the playground. This is a story that needs to be told, and we really need people who believe in this film to support us on Kickstarter and share it with their friends. Become a part of the Swee’ Pea team today!

To support The Legend of Swee’ Pea documentary, visit the Kickstarter page.