by Duane Watson / @sweetswatson
In 2011 filmmaker Ryan Koo started a Kickstarter campaign to bring life, and more importantly, a budget, to his debut feature film Manchild. The movie follows the story of TJ, a 13-year-old YouTube basketball sensation, already drawing references as “the next Dwyane Wade” and climbing up the national rankings as he is pulled into the recruiters vortex. While Manchild isn’t a documentary, the fictional film that looks at the high stakes game of youth basketball, exploring how a boy who has just become a teenager, is faced with making decisions that may affect him for the rest of his life.
Koo’s fundraising campaign was successful, so much in fact the $125,000 raised surpassed the original goal by $10,000. It marked the highest amount a narrative film on the crowdfunding platform had earned at the time, and even received support from Phil Jackson and Jeanie Buss. After spending two years working on the film, a number of stories evolved out of Manchild, including Amateur, Koo’s clever nine-minute prequel about a recruiter trying to persuade a high school player to transfer to his school. Amateur provides a look and feel for what viewers can expect in the upcoming feature film.
Koo spoke with SLAM on the status of Manchild, Amateur, and basketball recruiting.
SLAM: This is such a relevant topic to basketball players today, now more than ever. What made you decide to take on this subject?
Ryan Koo: I felt that the most interesting topic to me since the internet, since highlight tapes started and YouTube and recruiting websites were charging for subscription fees, was how there’s been a battle to find the kids younger and younger. I think it’s a different ballgame when you’re talking about a middle schooler facing a lot of pressures and being recruited. ‘Cause you’re not yet a grown up, and that for me was an angle that I thought I hadn’t seen as a feature film before. I thought it was a fascinating world to explore and that’s what I wanted to make Manchild about. Then Amateur was sort of, well let’s make a little prequel about a kid who is a little bit older and does know better and use that as set-up.
SLAM: What made you come up with the idea of doing a prequel short for a feature?
RK: The feature film was really told from the 13-year-old, TJ’s perspective. I found a lot of the characters around him as I was writing to be interesting and I wanted to know more about their lives. In the feature we didn’t necessarily have room to go off in every direction and explore some of the minor characters. I took the idea of one of the street agents Dominguez in the feature and wondered what his life was like. How did he arrive at this point, where he is recruiting middle schoolers? What I wanted to do was make a short that would show my directing ability and show that I knew the sport of basketball. [Amateur spoiler alert] The idea was he went and recruited some kids who knew better—kids who had been getting recruited since they were 13. By the time they’re 18, they see it coming and are able to turn the tables. I wanted to play against the cliché or stereotype of a kid not having a family, not having any money and the recruiter makes that assumption about him.
SLAM: Did the Andrew Wiggins and YouTube phenomena factor into your thought process when conceiving this film?
RK: Not really specifically, although I am from North Carolina and a big Tar Heels fan and was hoping that we would get Wiggins in Chapel Hill. But I was on Manchild long before that, I would see a story in the news about some college coach offering a sixth grader a scholarship, or the number one 12-year-old in the country has a mixtape, those kind of stories interested me. When I grew up playing in high school, there wasn’t no internet, that changed it as far as a kid being known and being recognized. I was interested in how the game had changed since I was playing. When I grew up, I wasn’t great, but I was playing against some players that were pretty good, so I was always curious about the pressures they were facing and now those are really higher.
SLAM: What are your thoughts on the age minimum (seventh grade) that the NCAA has set for basketball prospects?
RK: It’s a really sticky issue. It’s sort of like legalizing drugs or something where you can try to regulate something and create rules that theoretically put the prospect’s best interest at heart. But I think the NCAA rules are so byzantine that it’s really hard to know when there’s a contact period versus a non-contact period, versus when you can talk to somebody and when you can’t. I have been researching this for years and if I wanted to talk to a player right now, I probably would be violating some recruiting statute somewhere because the laws are so complicated. I understand why they wanted to lower the age limit, because they felt it was just like open season and they wanted to regulate it. That moment when thy lowered the age limit was proof of how young recruiting had gotten that they felt the need to declare seventh graders to be prospects. That was something that I felt like, that rule change would help me explain this movie to non-sports fans and non-basketball fans when I was pitching it, because it’s something they can say, “Oh wow, I didn’t know that, that’s crazy!” Then they want to know more.
SLAM: When can people expect to see Manchild? What’s the timeline?
RK: One of the challenges with Manchild is most high school movies cast actors in their 20s and they play high schoolers, yet they’re adults. So you don’t have any restrictions over number of hours to work in a day and all those kind of things. One of the reasons this movie hasn’t been made before, is that when the protagonist is 13—A) your days need to be very short, with child labor you want to make sure they’re not working the kids too hard, B) You need to do it when school is out, because if you do it during the school year, you have to go and hire a tutor for every single minor that’s in the feature, and that can get really expensive. So it’s basically a summer shoot, which means that since this summer is already over, we’re shooting next summer. That’s nice because I have a definite shoot date finally. I can use this time to look for the right kid, look for the right adult actors, and make some script revisions. We’re shooting next summer and we’ll hopefully be at festivals after that and coming out soon thereafter.
A well-known film producer said that the average independent film takes five and a half years to get made and I’m finding that to be pretty accurate. That was the reason I wanted to make a basketball movie, I’m so passionate about the sport as a lifelong player and fan that I knew that if something went over the course of five years, I wouldn’t give up.
SLAM: Many have done the narrative basketball movie before and have been lacking. How will Manchild be different?
RK: I think there have been a lot of good basketball movies that tell the Hollywood version of a story. But the world I grew up in was smaller schools that had really good basketball programs that I haven’t seen portrayed on film before. I think there’s room for a basketball movie that feels authentic from a character standpoint that features compelling realistic basketball action. As opposed to casting a Hollywood star as a basketball player, and it being clear to any real basketball fans from the minute that you start watching the movie that the star can’t actually ball. The nice thing about casting a kid who’s unknown, is that we can find a kid that can actually really play. I’m looking forward to shooting basketball in new ways and I’m looking to tell the story of a character that is really compelling and in a challenging position. A kid who’s 13 that is told that he might one day be LeBron James, that dichotomy between where they are now and where they might be in life is probably larger in youth basketball than probably anywhere else in North American society. I think it’s a really compelling area to explore and hope that our ultimate finished product will be something that hasn’t been seen before.
Amateur will hold its New York premiere at the Urbanworld Film Festival on Friday, September 20.
Images courtesy of Ryan Koo.