Whether or not you’re a fan of basketball or the music of rap pioneers The Beastie Boys, you can’t help but be impressed by Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot, the first non-Beasties film effort by the group’s resident filmographer Adam “MCA” Yauch. The plan was for Yauch to document the Elite 24 Hoops Classic, which brought twenty-four of the country’s top high school basketball players to Harlem’s legendary Rucker Park for a one-time all-star game that took place on September 1, 2006. Besides showing the game highlights, Yauch used the movie to profile eight of those young players, some of whom are already well known but could one day be household names if they eventually get into the NBA.
Certainly, the sportsmanship and ability shown by the likes of Michael Beasley, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, Jerry Bayless and the others during the game is pretty amazing, especially the way Yauch combines his typically creative visuals with well-selected vintage rap and funk music. Even so, it’s the way the movie shows how these teens remain grounded despite being courted with multi-million sneaker deals and college recruiters that leaves a lasting impression. Fans of basketball will certainly want to see some of these amazing young players at their prime in this once in a lifetime game, but to non-fans, it’s also an informative introduction to the nuts and bolts of what’s going on behind-the-scenes of the popular American sport.
ComingSoon.net spoke briefly with Yauch the day after the premiere of the film at the Tribeca Film Festival a few months back and here’s what he told us about this inventive sports doc, which is the first movie to be released by his new film distribution company Oscilloscope Laboratories.
ComingSoon.net: How was the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last night? Adam Yauch: That was great. I think that’s definitely the most exciting screening yet. We’ve had a few press screenings that I’ve gone to and saw where I felt the movie needed to be tightened up. I think it’s really where it needed to be, and then we really cranked up the sound system and it was a tight projector and it was really nice.
CS: I’m not a basketball fan in the slightest but I was completely caught up in the game once the players were introduced. Yauch: Actually, my Dad is in the same boat. My Dad had a blast. I could hear him laughing and having a great time through the whole movie. The first thing he does is when he picks up the New York Times and puts the Sports section in the trash before opening it up. That’s part of his ritual, so if he liked it, I figured it’s a good sign.
CS: How long before the Elite 24 game did you know that this game was happening and did someone reach out and ask if you wanted to be involved with it? Yauch: Yeah, it was kind of over the summer. The game was shot in the beginning of September of ’06 and it was over that summer where I was playing ball with a friend of mine. We have like a regular game, and he was organizing this game and he started telling me about it, and I asked if I’d come up and if I’d want to be an assistant coach. Then he asked if I had any ideas how to document it. He wanted some advice on how to document it and I started coming up with ideas and saying we can profile the different players, and before you knew it, I was throwing my hat in the ring and I convinced myself it would make a great documentary. (chuckles)
CS: What about finding the eight players you followed? Were all of the interviews with those players still before the actual game? Yauch: Yeah, actually all the stuff that we shot was before the game. The idea is really that it’s lead-up to the game, and the idea is to give you a background on these players and this world going into it so that you watch the game, you have some vested interest in the game, and you sort of feel like you know these guys.
CS: True, though I know it’s easy enough when you’re making a documentary to go “Oh, this guy played well. I should go interview him and do a profile after the fact.” Yauch: I mean, we tried to do some of that, but it really doesn’t work very well, because the tenses get all messed up. People start saying, “Oh, yeah, he did this” or “he played really well.” You really need to shoot beforehand if you’re going to use it beforehand.
CS: Was there any sort of science to picking the eight players you followed? Yauch: Yeah, there kind of is. It’s certainly not knowledge that I had. I was asking for guys that would be from diverse backgrounds, geographically and their lives, and players were really at the top of the game. These were the players that were recommended to me. Actually, I asked for eight players to be recommended and my intention was to shoot these eight players and then cut it down to five for the doc, and actually, I liked all eight of them and used all eight.
CS: How did you approach them and their families? As we see in the movie, they’re being chased down by agents and sneaker companies and sports mags to interview them. Yauch: Since it was my friend who was organizing the game, he had direct in-roads to these players and families and he really helped to make these contacts. The guys who are credited as associate producers on here were very instrumental, too. The co-producers, Chris Stone and Jim Kaufman, but also Chris Rivers and Terrence were very helpful.
CS: Was all of the home footage of them playing from their families or other sources? Yauch: Yeah, we asked them to send us out stuff. That was more in post, when we were in the cutting room. We asked them to send us photos and footage and some people sent more than others.
CS: Must have taken a long time to go through it all. Yauch: It was great. I don’t know. I mean, the stuff of Kyle playing hockey and all that stuff.
CS: You had 8 cameras to shoot the game, so were all of these run by cameramen you’ve worked with before? How did you set this up? It’s obviously a one-day event and you only had one chance to capture it. Yauch: Yeah, most of them are cameramen that I’ve worked with before on different things. One of them is my friend Evan Bernard, who’s a video director and a camera operator I’ve worked with a bunch of times. Most of them I knew. A couple of them were recommended to me at the last minute.
CS: “Awesome” was unconventional as a concert movie but this takes a more straight-forward approach as a sports doc Yauch: Did you call it a concert movie? I’ve heard people make that comparison before, referring to “Gunnin'” as a concert movie.
CS: Did you intentionally take more of a straight-forward approach to this and try to watch some of its predecessors like “Hoop Dreams”? Yauch: I don’t know. I think this is pretty different in its approach than something like “Hoop Dreams.” I don’t know. I guess it’s straightforward in some ways, but the way it uses the music and relies on the music is pretty different from something like “Hoop Dreams.”
CS: It reminded me more of this movie “Once in a Lifetime,” a soccer movie that had a similar energy and dynamics, very music-driven with visuals. I wondered if you went back and watched a lot of docs before starting this. Yauch: I do watch a lot of docs in general, just because ever since I was a kid, I loved documentaries. I don’t know that soccer one you’re talking about. It sounds interesting.
CS: You’ve done a lot of music videos in the past and I wondered if you approached this in a similar way. Yauch: I think traditionally, the way that moviemaking is done is cut together film and dialogue and then score it afterwards, and the way that music videos are done is very much the opposite. You start with a song and then you figure out what picture you’re going to put to it, and then you cut to music. Having come up making music videos, I definitely come from that school more, of cutting to music, so that was much more the approach in this documentary. Of course, there are parts that are just based on the interviews, but there’s a lot of it where we’re just cutting to the music.
CS: You picked very specific songs for each player and songs that are fairly familiar. Did you have a lot of those songs in mind while you were talking to the players? Yauch: Not necessarily while I was shooting. I think it was more in post. I think I had some idea that I was going to use those kind of hip-hop tracks, to use things like Nas and Biggie and Jay Z and things of that ilk, like Fat Joe, but a lot of that was in the cutting room, just playing around and see what worked.
CS: The one thing that most documentary filmmakers tell me is what a pain it is to get clearance for the music Yauch: Yeah, it’s a maddening process, and we’re going through it right now.
CS: But you have some experience, because you had to clear samples over the years, and you probably knew a lot of the artists whose music you used. Yauch: I have enough experience to know that it’s maddening. Yeah, it certainly helps that I’m in the middle of the music business and I can get some calls through to people that normally one might not be able to. Like I got on the phone with Puffy the other day and told him I wanted to clear this Biggie track, and he helped put me in touch with the right people. Hopefully, we’ll get it done within the budget of a documentary, but we’re still working on it.
CS: Was it hard getting the balance between showing the game and other stuff and getting the movie down to 90 minutes? Yauch: I don’t think so. It’s a process. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s hard, but it definitely takes time. You cut and you see where things work and don’t work. You keep whittling at it until it is what it needs to be. It’s definitely a lot of work and time.
CS: How did “Awesome” prepare you for this, because that was another example where you had tons of footage, but I presume it’s a different experience since you were cutting everything to the performances? Yauch: It’s a bit different, but in some ways, it’s all the same thing, which is just chipping away at something until it works. When you look at it, you can see what needs to be done, and that’s true of music videos, it’s true of feature films. It’s true of music, too. You don’t necessarily have a whole game plan of how the whole thing is going to turn out. You probably, for me anyway, I’ll have some ideas of the way I want the thing to turn out, and then some of it is improvising as you go.
CS: One thing you covered which I liked was that we see how famous these guys are already, how some are already on magazine covers, but they’re also in their teens. That’s something easy to forget while you’re watching them play basketball. I was interested in whether you thought they’d be able to be normal people after their basketball careers is over since they’ve become so famous at such a young age? Yauch: I don’t know. I don’t even know what a normal person is really, but certainly, the stuff is having an influence on who they are, but I don’t necessarily that it’s a bad influence or that their lives would be any better or they’d be any happier without having these influences around them. While the film looks at some of the stuff that’s potentially negative in their lives, when they have these bottom feeders (for lack of a better word) around them, trying to get what they can off them. There’s also a lot of people around them that care about them. I don’t know. I’m not necessarily saying, “Oh, these guys shouldn’t have articles written about them, and shouldn’t have this and that.” It’s just sort of interesting to take a look at the world that they live in.
CS: I ask because you started fairly young in the music business. Did you see any correlations between the two things, starting young in the music business compared to what these guys are dealing with? Yauch: Yeah, I mean I think there are correlations, but I think in some ways, it’s very different because I started in a punk band when I was in high school, and we would just make fanzines or record our own music or make a record cover and put out a record. If the record sold 5,000 copies, that would be amazing. It was a much smaller group of friends, and there wasn’t so much mainstream business going on. It wasn’t until I was maybe like 21 or 22 that “Licence to Ill” was so successful, and I got more thrown into this crazy mainstream world, but for these guys, they’re still in high school. Some of them, like Lance Stephenson, is still 15 years old when this film is shot and they’re being groomed to potentially have a $50 million contract with Adidas or Nike and another $50 million contract with Gatorade. The amount of exposure and money that’s on the line is crazy, so the people that are around them, it’s a much more intense game.
CS: Have you considered doing anything with them in 15 or 20 years? I know it’s a long time ahead to do any planning, but have you thought about doing any kind of follow-up to this movie down the road? Yauch: I think it would certainly be interesting. I don’t know that I’ll even really need to, because my hope is that most of these guys will be pretty successful in the NBA and that latter part of their lives will be well-documented. I certainly think in any case this film will be interesting to look back at years from now to see where they are.
CS: I have a question about the aerial shots of New York. Was that something you shot specifically for this movie or was that stuff you’d done before for music videos that you decided to include in the movie? Yauch: Yeah, the aerial stuff is some stuff that I shot when I was working on the “Open Letter to New York” video, but it’s outtakes from that. Actually, I ended up using some of that stuff I shot for “Open Letter” I ended up using some of it in the “Right Right Now Now” video. I ended up using some of it in the opening to “Awesome: I F*cking Shot That.” I sort of keep going back to it like stock footage or something.
CS: It’s such a great shot and it’s amazing to see it in that one take sort of way. Yauch: A lot of it didn’t get used in the video so there’s a lot of cool outtake footage.
CS: When I spoke to you two years ago for “Awesome,” you were talking about directing a drama in the world of graffiti. Are you still going to do that and maybe go back to that now? Yauch: You know, I was never able to raise the funds to do that, but I hope to at some point. I kind of threw in the towel. I guess I’m not very good at going out and asking people for money. It’s not my forte, so if somehow, that magically comes together, then I would be really psyched to make that film. I think I’m a little better at making sh*t than asking for money to make sh*t.
CS: What’s the story with this new Oscilloscope Laboratories thing with THINKFilm? Are you producing films and trying to find new filmmaking talent? Yauch: Yeah, it’s not actually connected with THINKFilm. Just a couple guys left THINKFilm to come and start this company with me. Basically, Oscilloscope has been my studio and production company for years, and now we just added a distribution wing to it, so we’re starting to distribute films and produce films to distribute.
CS: Anything coming up that you can talk about? Yauch: No, there’s a bunch of stuff that we’re looking at, but since we haven’t actually closed any deals, I probably shouldn’t talk about it, because I think it’s bad luck.
CS: Do you think you’ll be going to film festivals to try to find movies to distribute? Yauch: Yeah, we’ve been going to film festivals and looking at films, trying to figure out what would make sense for us to distribute.
CS: Do you have any specific themes or genres of films you’re looking for? Yauch: Yeah, good films nothing more specific than that. We’re looking at stuff that’s domestic and foreign, documentaries, narratives. It’s pretty across the board as long as the films really feel like good films to me basically.
CS: As far as your own filmmaking aspirations, are you going to try to do more docs. Is there anything else you’d like to examine now that this movie is done? Yauch: I’m kind of more interested in working on a narrative as my next thing. I feel like I’ve been documentary stuff for a while, and feel more excited about working on a narrative.