Exclusive: The Heart of the Game


When Ward Serrill started filming the Roughriders girls’ basketball team of Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, it was more about capturing the unconventional coaching techniques of Bill Resler, a tax professor who pushed the girls to try to be their best. A year into the project and suddenly, a new face appeared on the court, one Darnellia Russell, a girl from a poor area of Seattle who immediately blew everyone away with her skills on the court. As the team worked its way to the State Championships, Darnellia got pregnant and dropped out of school, leaving their future questionable.

Such is the story of The Heart of the Game, a new documentary that falls somewhere between Hoop Dreams and Coach Carter, as it chronicles the RoughRiders’ seven year journey to try to make it to the State championships facing all sorts of ups ‘n’ downs in the process.

ComingSoon.net had a sit-down with director Ward Serrill and Roughriders Coach Bill Resler to discuss the ups ‘n’ downs of making such a movie. We’ve also got an exclusive clip from the film, which you can watch at the end of the article.

ComingSoon.net: Did you always want to make a movie about Darnellia Russell and her struggles or was the plan just to make a movie about the team?
Ward Serrill: Darnellia wasn’t even around for the first year. I didn’t even know who she was. I used to be a CPA, as strange as that might be to you, but I was at a friend’s house and Ressler was there and he started telling me these stories about basketball, and 45 minutes later, I was still listening to his stories about this girls team he had taken on, and I realized I was in the presence of a great storyteller. I followed him into the gym and these girls were crashing and bashing and smashing into each other, and laughing and having a great time, and I’d never seen anything like that in a gym in my life, so I said this is what we’ve missed in sports. This is what we’ve lost sight of. It’s about passion and enthusiasm and having fun and I naively said, “I need to make a movie about this.” And I was also fascinated that it was girls that were returning the heart to the game, that they were playing this physical powerful game and were really doing it with all this self-esteem. It was just marvelous. Things had changed since I was in high school. Then I was just there at the beginning of Year 2 to get some pick-up footage, because I was going to do a really stupid thing and make it seem like I was there at the beginning of Year 1. And then Darnellia walked into the room and…
Bill Ressler: Keep… the camera…. rolling. (laughs)
Serrill: Yeah, and then it grew into this seven-year odyssey. That was a nightmare to me. I had no idea how to tie all that in.

CS: You were already working with the team at that time, so how did Ward approach you to do this movie?
Ressler: He walked out of the stands and he shook my hand and said, “I want to film the way you coach basketball.” And I’m thinking, “What an odd thing to do.” I will say that the movie has forced me to reflect a little bit about me and I have to admit that I’m an odd person, but I didn’t really know that beforehand.

CS: How did you go from being a tax professor to teaching girls basketball? Had you coached before?
Ressler: I love basketball. But they’re actually the same subject. Basketball is these limited rules that you manipulate to your advantage. Taxes are these limited rules that you manipulate to your advantage. And I teach them the same way. We learn what those rules are, we learn where the grey areas are, and we learn how to manipulate around them. I teach with passion at the University of Washington, as well as basketball. In my case studies at UW, people get angry, they cry, they yell at me. There’s passion, because I believe that the best way to learn is to be passionate about your learning.

CS: So somewhere, there are accountants ready to go in and kill like your basketball team?
Ressler: Absolutely. There are a pack of wolves that come in against that IRS and there’s trouble.

CS: Obviously, this project turned into something bigger than Ward expected since he spent seven years working on it, but what’s it like to be in the gym with these cameras all the time?
Ressler: It wasn’t intrusive at all, because the practices are very intense. Four minutes we do this, five minutes we do this, three minutes… we’re changing things constantly, so they’re onto a new thing and everything is intense. And if it’s not intense than something bad is going to happen. We’re going to have to run places they don’t want to run, things like that, and there’s winners and losers in almost every drill, so they don’t want to lose. They’re really into that and he was there often enough that he became part of the woodwork, and it happened really fast. (To Ward) I have to give you a lot of credit in that you were able to disappear and the camera and you didn’t exist very much for them.

CS: That must be really hard to do, especially while trying to shoot the games. Did you film it from the sidelines?
Serrill: If I was actually going to brag about myself, I would say that as a cameraman, I’m really good at sifting right in the middle of things, and I used George Plympton’s adage, which is “The secret of getting away with anything is acting as if you belong there.” So if they had a circle of girls doing a cheer or just to talk or anything, I would just slide in there on the ground under their feet, and they’d just make their way around me and I’d just film. I think they just got used to the fact that I was just going to be in the middle of it and dance out of their way, and they learned to slightly avoid me. I mean, I was out on the court in practices and right in the middle of things…
Ressler: Or right on top of the backboard.
Serrill: So they played all out, and sometimes I’d get bashed with the ball or a girl.

CS: So you did all of your own camerawork?
Serrill: Yeah, I couldn’t afford to hire anybody. It’s all one camera. There’s a couple games where there’s two cameras, but the reason I’m in the credits so much is not because I’m an egotistical maniac, it’s because I couldn’t afford to hire other people to do it, so I did all the stuff myself.

CS: You touched upon it a little bit, Bill, saying that you took a look at yourself after seeing the movie. Obviously, your coaching techniques are played up in a humorous fashion…
Ressler: They could have laughed with me, rather than laughed at me. It would have been appreciated.

CS: So how do you react when you see this movie with audiences and they’re laughing at the things you do when you’re just doing your job?
Ressler: The first time I saw the movie, there was no audience. I was absolutely stunned at what he had done. The emotions that pour off that screen are amazing, and then when I saw it with an audience and see how people react to what I think is just walking down the road, it was surprising. And you know, I’m an odd fellow. I guess I’m odd in this sense: If I believe in something, I’m going to do it, and it doesn’t matter to me what you think. I’m going to go do that, and if I end up hurting your feelings in that process, I’m going to apologize to you, but my thing is that if I thought of it and I believe in it, I’m going to go after it, and that makes me a risk taker. When you take risks, odd things occur.

CS: The key is that you get the job done, and what’s amazing to me is the story that runs through this. When you start making a movie like this, what would happen if you spend all that time, and you don’t have that story? Or the story doesn’t go the way you want?
Ressler: Then you wouldn’t be here today.

CS: It seems like a long time to spend on something that might not pay off.
Serrill: Oh, yeah. (laughs) I was in a fetal position about six times during the course of the thing, and part of it was “How the hell am I going to weave this story together?”
Ressler: I would say [he was] emotionally and financially bankrupt several times. It was amazing that you rallied back.
Serrill: And you were very helpful in the end with a lot of it.

CS: Maybe someone should have had a camera filming you (Ward) while you were trying to make this movie.
Ressler: It would be a much better movie than the one he made.
Serrill: Yeah! (laughs) With all my hairdos. I was bald at one point and I had long hair. All of the changes.

CS: How much footage did you end up with when all was said and done and did you try to edit as you went along or wait until the very end?
Serrill: 200 hours, and I started [editing] two and a half years ago after what was then Season 4. I thought, “Okay, the movie’s over.” That was before Darnellia decided to come back to school, so I thought that was the end of the movie.
Ressler: This is one of the biggest mistakes I made in this process. Unbeknownst to Ward, I had hired a professor from the University of Washington to sit side-by-side with Darnellia to teach her how to read and do math. Professor Mever was here, Darnellia here, and in front of Darnellia’s desk was “Desk of Darnellia Russell, College Bound” and I never said a word to [Ward] about this. So he thinks the school thing was all over. In fact, I probably did too, which is why I didn’t say anything, but Denver Mever, as much as anybody, got Darnellia over the hurdle and gave her some confidence.
Serrill:That’s the first time you’ve said this. In the past you said, “Well, a good filmmaker would have been there…”
Ressler: Well, you’re not going to print this…

CS: (lying) No, no, of course not. What happened with Devon? Her story was tragic, but she kind of disappears from the movie completely.
Serrill: Yeah, there’s a structural problem there. I’ll tell you what happened. She went on to graduate in librarian studies, got her master’s degree. She went and worked in Europe for a while; she’s now in San Francisco working as a librarian and running marathons. Part of the structural problem of the movie is that you just have these characters that fall away and how do I wrap it up and move on?
Ressler: Imagine how good my team would be if they never graduated.
Serrill: She quit before she came forward, and even to this day, the resonance between basketball and what happened to her… it’s just something she feels she’s moved on from.
Ressler: I wouldn’t be astounded to see her go back to coaching.

CS: What do you think the appeal of basketball movies are, both documentaries and dramas? I’m not a fan of the sport, but I love movies about it.
Serrill: Well, I want to answer it this way. I don’t think this is a basketball movie. I think it really appeals to people that are really interested in life’s ups and downs. It’s really a story about life. I didn’t look to any basketball movies as a model in any way. Basketball just happened to be the backdrop for these amazing characters that were playing. The cool thing is that a lot of people, the thing I hear most, is that people come forward and say, “I don’t even like basketball. I don’t like sports and I loved this movie.”
Ressler: I had a friend of mine who just loves basketball, he’s one of my assistant coaches, and when he saw the movie, he said, “This is not a basketball movie.”

CS: Is there potential for a sequel or some sort of follow-up to this movie where you can go back and film some stuff for the DVD?
Serrill: There hasn’t been enough time to really make a DVD subsequent thing that’s real earth-shattering. I mean there is some DVD stuff. What we’re working on now actually is a screenplay adaptation of this.
Ressler: I might turn out for the NBA, which would change the whole story.
Serrill: Yeah, because a lot of those teams really do need new mascots.

CS: So will you play yourself in the movie?
Ressler: I suggest they get Brad Pitt.

The Heart of the Game opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday and in other cities on June 16.