by Duane Watson / @sweetswatson
With the WNBA season underway, it’s only right that the ladies got next, and although the number of films chronicling women and basketball are few and far between, they do exist. The Gray Seasons follows Shimmy Gray-Miller, head coach of the St. Louis University Lady Billikens as she takes over the Division I program. Documenting the team for four years, the film showcases the losses, which sometimes occur more than the wins, the countless moments of Gray-Miller’s determination, and the courage, pain and resolve of her team.
The issues and realities a basketball team and Gray-Miller face are the same, regardless of gender. Winning games is the measuring stick and the Billikens record since moving to the Atlantic 10 Conference has been less than stellar – a new arena doesn’t lessen the pressure either. The resiliency of the Lady Billikens and how they will fold or rise is what makes The Gray Seasons a compelling film. With a number of honest and candid interviews that offer perspective, the viewer is put right in the middle of their campaign to equally appreciate the joy of victory and the pain of defeat.
The Gray Seasons was released in 2011, enjoying a lengthy run on the festival circuit and is now available on various video on demand services throughout the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. Filmmaker and director Robert T. Herrera promises a DVD release next month and the film is currently in discussions for Netflix and talks to SLAM about the film.
SLAM: How did The Gray Seasons come about?
Robert T. Herrera: The people who were interested in making a film wanted to make a film about the St. Louis University men’s basketball team. I, being a young filmmaker having just finished a pretty good film that legally got blocked and went nowhere was like, “Ok, I would love to make a film about basketball.” So I was given access to the men’s team and simultaneously I was given access to the women’s team. I began to film the women’s team out of courtesy and very quickly the team and coaches were very engaged with the idea of having us around. The coach was a new young coach, her personality and her personal story was interesting to me and she had the idea that she was going to turn this program around. So I filmed men and women for one year and not really knowing exactly why or what I was going to do with the women’s footage. Then at the end of the first year, the head coach of the men’s team was abruptly fired and they brought in Rick Majerus. One, I didn’t want to make the Rick Majerus movie. Two, Rick Majerus wouldn’t want me to make the Rick Majerus movie, so it was just dead. The men’s basketball movie just wasn’t going to happen. So I talked to my people and I said look, I’ve been filming this women’s basketball team for a year, I think they’re more interesting, I think they’re more open to the idea of being interviewed, being on camera, telling their story, and I think this could be an interesting film. Maybe I should film for another year? They agreed, they really liked Shimmy and the girls I was following in her freshman class. They had nothing to hide and were willing to talk about their team, their lives, struggles and eventually their success and failures. It seemed like there was a story there and everybody was on board and we went forward with it.
SLAM: Coach Gray-Miller has that great quote in the film, “This is not Hoosiers… not even close. This is not Coach Carter or Hoop Dreams …” but would you say that the film is in its own way?
RH: I guess it depends on how you view those films. I think Coach Gray-Miller’s perspective at the time was, all these films like Hoosiers and Coach Carter were about a new coach coming and taking over and taking this team to the championship. To her at the time, that’s what a sports film were and I think to a lot of people that’s what a sports film is. She used to ask me all the time, “What kind of film are you going to put together? Cause we’re not winning the championship.” So I think it’s similar to those films in that, their career and their successes as people and individuals are a metaphor for that championship. So by the end of the four years in The Gray Seasons, regardless. lf they’re winning or losing, they achieved growth as people and it was the struggle that made that possible.
SLAM: Going into it did you know you would be shooting for four years?
RH: I thought I would be shooting for maybe two years at the very beginning. After the first season the women’s team had a big improvement, they won way more games, had the new players, a new coach, and lost to Xavier by one point in the conference tournament at the end of the season. So our thinking went along the ideas of normal sports stories, like, “Oh well they’re going to improve until they win the conference championship.” Everyone felt that would be the next year or two, but its always unclear how long you can shoot in terms of money. You don’t know at which point somebody is going to say you cant keep hopping around the country shooting a basketball team if nothing’s going to come of it. “We shot this season, do we have a movie? Not really, so I guess we shoot next season.” We debate it, debate the cost, debate the story and eventually the third season happened and by the time the third season is over, we’re like “We got to finish with Katie (Paganelli), the girl who came in as a freshman and is the only one left, we have to finish with her leaving cause this is what its all come down to. Her commitment to this coach and whether they win or lose is irrelevant right now, she just has to finish her career.” That’s how that played out it was a year-by-year analysis of “What’s our story, do we keep shooting?”
SLAM: The film was shot in black and white, or “gray,” was that a decision from the outset?
RH: When we were done shooting, we just kind of made this choice to convert to black and white for a lot of reasons. The main reason is just because I love black and white. I thought the story lent itself to black and white, we wanted to separate ourselves from place and time as much as possible and kind of focus on coach and players. I wanted it to be irrelevant who they were playing in terms of the color of their jersey, I wanted it to be irrelevant where they were, what city they were in, almost to try and stand alone as much as possible and be about character. I think it looks badass, and then with Shimmy Gray-Miller, The Gray Seasons had always been thrown around as a title, but once we were 100 percent black and white, it was a done deal.
SLAM: You’ve had a chance to step back and reflect since the film has been released, what has the response been like?
RH: I’m really surprised with how many men love the film. Very competitive type men LOVE this movie, which was surprise. I kind of thought this would be an all women kind of movie and women would really take to it. But I think the majority of reactions that I have gotten have been from men, which I find interesting. I don’t really have an answer for why that is, I think maybe the film does a good job of really capturing competitiveness. I think they really hook into that and it really makes the movie very engaging and very interesting to them.