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?
CS: You were already working with the team at that time, so how did Ward approach you to do this movie?
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?
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?
CS: That must be really hard to do, especially while trying to shoot the games. Did you film it from the sidelines?
CS: So you did all of your own camerawork?
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…
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?CS: (lying) No, no, of course not. What happened with Devon? Her story was tragic, but she kind of disappears from the movie completely.
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?
CS: It seems like a long time to spend on something that might not pay off.
CS: Maybe someone should have had a camera filming you (Ward) while you were trying to make this movie.
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: 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?
CS: So will you play yourself in the movie?
The Heart of the Game opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday and in other cities on June 16.