Shooting NBA Players and Philadelphia for Authenticity: Jeremiah Zagar on Hustle
The NBA Finals have just concluded, but the most popular film on Netflix remains Jeremiah Zagar’s basketball drama, Hustle. Adam Sandler (continuing his Happy Madison Productions partnership with the streamer) is Stanley Sugerman, a jetlagged international scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. In Spain, Sugerman discovers an exciting new talent, Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), dominating local competition on an outdoor court. Convincing this raw talent that he’s a star in the making, Sugerman brings Cruz to Philadelphia to prepare for the NBA Draft Combine. Unfortunately, greedy team owners, spiteful American prospects (including Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards, giving a “I’m going to take full advantage of acting in a Hollywood movie” performance) and shady events from his past threaten to derail Cruz’s success before it even takes off.
Regardless of whether or not Cruz getting drafted into the NBA is a foregone conclusion, Hustle is enjoyable for its plethora of cameos from real NBA players and executives and its inclusion of all things Philadelphian. Not since Jonathan Demme directed a film named after the City of Brotherly Love has there been a movie with as many local Philly sights and sports ephemera as Hustle (indeed, 76ers Hall of Famer “Dr. J.” Julius Erving, after making a cameo as himself in Demme’s film, brings back his “character” for Zagar’s). The film is less interested in reinventing the wheel then greasing it for further usage and, as the film progresses toward its dramatic climax, you may find yourself surprisingly invested in the outcome. With a score by composer Dan Deacon that increasingly ramps up the emotional release, Hustle is a familiar movie that satisfies.
Chosen by Adam Sandler and Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos to direct the film after viewing his previous narrative feature, the 2018 Sundance-award winning We the Animals, Zagar is a native whose 2008 nonfiction feature, In a Dream, is about his father, the Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar. A few days after Hustle premiered on Netflix, I caught up with Zagar by phone to discuss niche Philadelphia haunts, working with the current 76ers roster, finding new ways to film a basketball game, and more.
Filmmaker: Given your Philadelphia upbringing, it makes sense that this film would have your name on it, but I read that when the screenplay was brought to your attention, its Philly connections were already established. What elements of Philly were already written into the screenplay by the time you read it and what did you feel you could expand on that made you the right guy for the job?
Zagar: I believe [co-screenwriter] Will Fetters chose to set the film in Philadelphia as he’s from Philly and Delaware [where the 76ers’ developmental team, the Delaware 87ers, are located] and is a Sixers fan too. It was Will who baked Philly into the story and there were some [geographic] details that he just nailed. Take the Manayunk Wall for example, an area that Philly-based cyclists cycle often and rigorously. It’s somewhat of an iconic local spot, yet it isn’t something you’ve seen in a movie before.
There were also intangibles that weren’t necessarily written into the script, like where Stanley Sugerman’s house would be, where he would shop for food, where his daughter would watch a midnight movie with friends in a graveyard [set at the Old Pine Street Church], etc. So, what I was able to do was place the location of Stanley and his wife in the area that I grew up in in South Philadelphia. I grew up on South Street but we put Stanley deeper in South Philly, where a lot of my friends are from. The kind of house we wanted to use was pretty close to the Wells Fargo Center [the Sixers home arena], but truthfully all of South Philly has those cute, little rowhomes that are like the one we used.
The film is also doing throwbacks to other Philly sports movies, Rocky obviously and specifically. Rocky runs through the 9th Street Italian Market in the film’s [training montage]. From when I was a kid to even last week, I’ve always shopped at the Italian market for groceries. That’s where I get my pots and pans! That’s what I wanted the characters to do in our film, the things real Philadelphians do. Everybody knows about Philly cheesesteaks, but who knows about the chicken cheesesteaks, and where in Philly would you get one? Ishkabibble’s isn’t instantly on everybody’s list, but that’s where I was, growing up [laughs]. There are little things like that that only a Philadelphian would know and get. We even set a scene at John’s Water Ice, although it didn’t make it into the [final cut] unfortunately. We also feature various murals in the film, of Dr. J [Julius Erving] and Allen Iverson, that are somewhat esoteric and that you’d have to travel deep into Philly to find. You’d have to go to places that tourists wouldn’t normally go.
Filmmaker: Had you always dreamed of someday being able to direct a scene set in Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar? [laughs]
Zagar: Well, I wasn’t really part of a scene here, but I do have photos of me attending afterparties at the bar. Once after a friend’s wedding, we went to Ray’s and got drunk when I was 20 years old or so. Well, not 20 years old…I was older than 21 [laughs] and I still have pictures from that night. When we were talking about potential dive bars for this movie, we were like, “Where in the neighborhood is the right spot? There’s Friendly Lounge, there’s Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar…,” etc.
Filmmaker: It’s been cool seeing Philly businesses taking to their social media accounts to share that they make a cameo in the movie.
Zagar: I’m not on social media, so I don’t tend to know when these things happen! That’s cool.
Filmmaker: How did you choose which courts to set the nightime streetball scenes at? You have one in Spain and, of course, there’s a significant one in Philly set at the Capitolo Playground, right behind the bright ambient lights of Pat’s and Geno’s. How did you choose which courts to film on?
Zagar: The ethos that my DP, Zak Mulligan, and I share is to always “do it real.,” meaning using real, on-the-ground locations with as little greenscreen as possible. When we shot in Spain, we shot in Spain. When we shot in Majorca, we shot in Majorca with all Majorcan extras. It’s intangible that way and and it’s not a Majorca that you would know from only looking through travel brochures. It’s a Majorca that only people from Majorca would know.
We applied the same approach to filming in Philadelphia. There are a bunch of iconic basketball courts in Philadelphia, but what’s the one that you want to go to to watch a game at night? Obviously the one next to all the neon [lights] of Pat’s and Geno’s. When I was a kid, I went to see Bill Clinton speak at Pat’s and Geno’s [Clinton visited both cheesesteak mainstays while on the campaign trail for presidential relection in 1996]. I remember it was nighttime and I went up there and he said, “I don’t know what’s better! Pat’s or Geno’s?” You could feel that the area had an energy to it, and when we were filming there last year, that same energy [was apparent]. We hired a bunch of extras for those scenes, but in addition to them, there was tons of people on dirtbikes by Pat’s and Geno’s who were watching us film. It was a wild scene but it felt like it all made sense.
Filmmaker: Those collection of blocks almost form a very narrow triangle, so as you drive down [South 9th Street], it all feels very compact.
Zagar: Are you from Philadelphia? You know so much about it.
Filmmaker: I’m not. I’m from Queens, but I have friends there.
Zagar: Queens is very Philly. I feel like every time I see Philly in a movie, it’s [shot in] Queens.
Filmmaker: That’s true, even recently in The Irishman [scenes set in Friendly Lounge, a South Philadelphia dive bar, were recreated in Ridgewood, Queens]. For the training montages of Juancho running through what look like empty Philly streets as the city is fast asleep, were you given certain hours of the night (from say, 1AM-4AM) where you could take over these residential blocks?
Zagar: We had an amazing locations department, [lead by] Troy Coffee, who’s from Philadelphia and actually lives right around the corner from my parents. He knew the city like the back of his hand, knows everybody and it was [through him] that we were able to lock down those spaces in the middle of the night well into the morning.
Filmmaker: The film also includes the hits of several Philadelpha artists, the most notable to my ear being Beanie Sigel’s single, “Feel It In the Air” when news of a character’s death is revealed, and Sigel’s collaboration with Eve, “Philly Philly,” as Bo Cruz arrives in Philadelphia for the first time.
Zagar: Beanie even makes an appearance in the movie! This goes back to our wanting to get as much Philly in the movie as we possibly could. Beanie’s [inclusion] was a part of that and we did our best. Then, when we were in the edit,, we thought, “We could use a track here” and were able to include [Beanie’s songs].
Filmmaker: The amount of cameos by NBA players, coaches and management in the film is unparalleled, as are the use of private, team-owned locations (including the 76ers practice facility in Camden, New Jersey). Was it through having The Springhill Company [co-founded by LeBron James and Maverick Carter] be producers on the film that you were granted this access? Was it thanks to Netflix? Other producers on the film?
Zagar: That’s by-and-large thanks to the producers, yeah, and that includes Spencer Beighley [head of film at The SpringHill Company] and Adam Sandler [Happy Madison Productions]. It’s also thanks to producer Barry Bernardi and co-producer Joe Vecsey—we had a whole team. We even had people like [current Utah Jazz assistant coach] Dell Demps, who works in the NBA, be our basketball technical advisor, so we put him in the movie. We used every inroad we possibly could to do it right and capture the authentic, real thing.
Filmmaker: It’s nice that you also include Philly-born players, including [Miami Heat point guard] Kyle Lowry. Did you get to meet with the current Sixers roster before filming began or did they show up exclusively for their shooting days? Since you filmed with them during the NBA offseason in August of 2021, I assume they would be vacationing or committed to family obligations at that time.
Zagar: We really met them [filming] subsequent scenes. When we filmed our first scene with the players, they wouldn’t have met us [previously], so we got to know them as we progressed. [Current Sixers guard] Matisse Thybulle is a film geek who really appreciates what goes into the craft, and if you’ve watched his vlogs on his Youtube channel (including his videos in the NBA bubble in 2020), he’s an amazing filmmaker.
Filmmaker: I saw some behind-the-scenes footage where it appeared like he was always asking you questions and requesting to be by the monitors when he wasn’t needed in front of the camera.
Zagar: He was always asking questions and even came to the color session with us. The [Sixers] were playing a game in New York and Matisse came by and sat in color with me and Zak and my assistant, Caitlin Kim, and we all just talked film together. He’s a super film nerd.
Filmmaker: Did they recreate practice drills for you and your camera team to get involved in? Were you telling them the types of shots you were looking for, that you’re looking to get a wide here, then you’ll come onto the court for the close-up and some coverage?
Zagar: You’re always relaying that kind of information day-of. Those are the dynamics of a scene that you make sure the actors are aware of [in the moment]. Each NBA star in the movie put in the effort to be present and to be there for the other actors they were sharing a scene with. We were very clear about what we needed them to do and they understood and wanted to be fully present. That goes for everyone from Matisse to Dr. J.
Filmmaker: In another interview, you mentioned that you were really struck by how the Chicago Bulls documentary, The Last Dance, was shot and, specifically, it being on film and its use of zoom lenses. Did you shoot on film?
Zagar: No, we didn’t. I wanted to, but we couldn’t.
Filmmaker: Do you know what kinds of zoom lenses you used?
Zagar: This might be more of a question for Zak, as I don’t know the exact names. They were all vintage zooms though, albeit a few different kinds. We used a couple of anamorphic zooms as well as spherical zooms.
Filmmaker: There’s a moment in the film where Juancho is dribbling the ball on the court and we get what appears to be the POV of the court itself, as Juancho is dribbling on top of us. How did you achieve that shot?
Zagar: That was cool. We decided to build out a giant plexiglass floor for the shot and the second-unit team set it up so that Juancho would then would play atop the plexiglass floor. That’s how we made the audience feel like they’re literally placed within the hardwood. Zak and I had sat down and asked, “How do we shoot basketball differently than it’s been done before?” We threw out as many ideas as we could. Luckily, because the movie had the kind of budget that it had, we were able to do things that we wouldn’t be able to pull off on a smaller budget, like build a giant plexiglass floor to shoot under [laughs].
Filmmaker: Toward the end of the film, a number of current NBA players are practicing at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx [actually shot at Philadelphia’s Girard College]. We see [Atlanta Hawks point guard] Trae Young warming up by hitting his signature three-point shot, the camera gliding around (and almost through) him as we transition to the next player, [Utah Jazz shooting guard] Jordan Clarkson. It feels like one continuous shot done with a Steadicam. Is that correct?
Zagar: Yes. Every basketball scene has a different ethos, and for those concluding scenes, we’re on Steadi on a rickshaw. We would come up with three [camera] moves at a time and choreograph the action to those moves, then we “roll around them” and try to capture the action in the best way possible. There were usually two or three cameras on the court at any given time, so it depended on the movement of the shot.
Filmmaker: The film concludes with a matchup between the Boston Celtics and the 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. If my research is correct, some of your footage is from an actual game that was played between the two teams on January 14th, 2022 where Matisse Thybulle and Josh Richardson got into a scuffle. And then on a separate day, I believe, you shot footage of the players’ bench (with Adam Sandler and head coach Doc Rivers) when the arena was empty, is that right?
Zagar: That’s right. Barry Bernardi, a producer on the film, was very amenable to our crazier ideas, and this was maybe one of the kookier ones, as we had to make sure that all of the lighting matched. What that means is that on the days we were filming [scenes on the players’ bench in an empty arena], we had the arena lights turned on exactly the same way they would be lit for a game day. We got our [high-speed] Phantom [camera] crew in the arena and lit it up identically to how it would be lit during a Sixers game. We then peppered in enough extras in the background [behind the Sixers bench in section 103] to film the first game.
Filmmaker: When you say “first game,” does that mean the reaction shots?
Zagar: First game meaning that Stanley’s side, Doc Rivers’s side and the assistant coaches’ side [of the court, near the players’ bench] was shot on a day where there was no live game. The arena was completely empty and we just populated the area [behind the bench] with a few extras for those specific shots. All other parts of in-game ball play, with Matisse and Seth Curry and Joel Embiid, were shot during an actual live game [between the Sixers and the Celtics] and we made sure that the lighting matched our [empty arena footage]. Juancho was on the Boston Celtics roster at that time, so all we had to do was use a little VFX in post to change his jersey number [while Juancho Hernangomez wore #41 on the Celtics, his character in Hustle wears #22 as a tribute to Sandler’s character]. We were able to shoot the Sixers vs. Celtics game as if it were a documentary, essentially. We shot the first footage on a [high-speed] Phantom camera and the second game on these newer REDs that could get really slow. We then augmented the footage with [speed] ramps in the edit and it looks fairly seamless, as if they were from the same [night]. It’s emblematic of the kind of filmmaking I believe in, which is to “make it real.” The more real you can make it, the more the audience will respond.
Filmmaker: It’s fun seeing Doc Rivers and Adam Sandler in another basketball-related film that concludes with a 76ers vs Celtics game. Although in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems, Doc is head coach of the Celtics, whereas in Hustle, he’s head coach of the Sixers.
Zagar: That’s so funny [laughs]. Doc is great. He has a great presence.
Filmmaker: The film’s closing credits feature footage from the NBA cast members in their prime, with impressive slamdunks and fast-breaks. Was that a fun process, digging through the archives to select a clip for each individual player?
Zagar: That was thanks to our editorial team and Joe Vecsey communicating with the NBA and getting the footage that we requested. We hadn’t scripted [ending the film] that way, but my editor, Keiko Deguchi, and I began building that out on our own in the edit in New York, then shared it with the rest of the team in Los Angeles. It became a team effort that everyone got excited by.
Filmmaker: Have you seen your approach to narrative filmmaking change or grow from We the Animals to Hustle? Knowing your nonfiction background, have things become a bit easier?
Zagar: What you find is that the people you love working with are the people you want to continue working with. I’ve worked with the same collaborators for a while now. I’ve worked with my editor, Keiko, on every movie, my producer, Jeremy Yaches (who I’ve been working with since I was 13), Noelle Gentile, our acting coach, etc. These are people that I love that helped me when I was making the small movie and are now helping me when I’m making this big movie. I’m so appreciative to them for helping me get through it. As a director, I think my best skill is surrounding myself with people who are more talented and better at what they do than I am.