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More Than A Game: Interview With Filmmaker Kristopher Belman

Documentary Featuring Lebron James

Above: "Only A Game"

Filmmaker Kristopher Belman started a ten-minute project in film and seven years later it has become the feature documentary “More Than a Game” (Opened October 16 throughout San Diego).

In film school, Belman got the idea to go back to his hometown of Akron to make a movie about a group of young basketball players, one of whom was current NBA superstar LeBron James. Belman chronicles LeBron and four childhood friends as they go on a journey to win the national championships. Belman unearths old photos and home videos as well as films interviews with all the major players in the story. The boys’ friendship and determination are central to the film but Coach Dru Joyce also emerges as a central figure.

With “More Than A Game,” Belman proves that sometimes a filmmaker’s best material is literally in their own backyard. I spoke with Belman by phone about the experience of turning his student film into a feature documentary.

What were the challenges of creating a documentary where you needed to go back in time to find footage of your subjects rather than shooting everything you needed for the film?

Kristopher Belman: I really feel like when you are working on a documentary you wear so many hats you are directing but you are also producing and I don’t think there’s a title for this but you’re also a detective because you are trying to unearth some incredible archive materials and I think one of the biggest challenges was getting footage of the boys from grade school or them playing as fourth and fifth graders and the same with off the court footage that was very challenging. A lot of that was just working with the families. And gaining trust. I worked on this thing for about seven and a half years and some of those things we didn’t find until years four and five. When the families see that you are still working on the same project for so long and they see the determination I had I think that meant a lot to them so they’d start looking a little harder and looking in their basements and helping you find these great assets so I think it’s a lot of detective work and there’s no real secret to it, it’s just doing the work.

So you almost spent as much time putting the documentary together as it took the kids to reach the national championship?

Kristopher Belman: In a way I did. It was kind of my goal. It took them nine years to win this national championship but I remember thinking that I have to do this in less than nine years that was kind of like the time limit I gave myself. So I got it in seven and a half. I’m not trying to rub it in but I beat them.

Tell me how the project got started and what sparked your interest in this story?

Kristopher Belman: I’m from Akron, Ohio originally, that’s where I was born and raised, that’s where the story takes place, where these boys came together and I transferred to Loyola Merrimont University in Los Angeles my junior year of college and sometimes when you transfer in you don’t always get the choices of what classes you want. And I got stuck more or less in this intro to documentary class and I don’t say that with any disrespect to the genre but I didn’t really know a lot about documentary. There aren’t a lot of indie art houses in Ohio. I just didn’t have a lot of exposure to that world so I ended up in this class and the assignment was a ten-minute project, a ten-minute documentary and I was taking a lot of heat for being from Ohio. Most of my friends and classmates had never been east of Vegas. And they all assumed I was a farmer and they assumed I was the world’s greatest barn raiser and all that so I decided to go back to my hometown and do a story that showed them that there was more than milking cows and at that time these boys were really doing some incredible things on the basketball court, which I still read about and still kept up with things back hometown but what drew me to this, I remember reading an article about this, four of the boys had played together since fourth grade. And that they made the decision to go to high school together no matter what. And I thought that was such a mature decision. And it showed such a sophistication to their friendship that that was just kind of unbelievable. When you’re twelve and thirteen years old a lot of time you don’t think about things like that. And to top it all off knowing Akron like I do the decision they ended up making, the school they chose wasn’t an obvious one. These are four African American kids from the inner city and they decide to go to a predominantly white private Catholic school. That’s not an obvious decision. And they ended up going there because it gave them a chance to play together and to stay together. And that just spoke to me. It struck a chord and almost made me feel bad that I didn’t have friendships like that.

When you say you worked on it for seven and a half years, were you shooting the whole time, were you mostly working on post-production?

Kristopher Belman: With documentary I think it’s a constant back and forth. I spent so much time with them firsthand then there was a period when I graduated in 2004, and I spent two years really trying to develop the film further. I was still going back and shooting, I was still going in the editing room deciding what holes needed to be filled. And then I knew that I really needed to raise financing to finish the film the way that I really felt it deserved to be told with original music and professional editing, things that were out of my capabilities. These things were all happening concurrently. I was working the odd jobs at the coffee shop. Then I’m hopping back to Akron to do interviews because you have to stay fresh with the guys. When you are doing a documentary that trust is at the heart of it. More than anything they have to trust you because they are letting you into their lives they are letting you go places that they don’t even talk about even with their own families. It’s kind of a unique gift you are given. So you are still keeping in touch with the guys, you are still working odd jobs, you are still editing, you are still writing, things are happening all at once and there was a two-year period when it was kind of a down part of the film, kind of the low point. I took two years of literally the same meeting with potential producers and financiers who all thought these other stories weren’t worth telling and that this coach Dru figure wasn’t really interesting or marketable. And that they would love to buy the footage off of me and make their own LeBron project or pay me to direct the LeBron movie, which is not why I got into this, not what I was interested in telling. But that was a disappointing two years because people that are in the industry that I am trying to get into and they are telling me that these stories are not worth telling, that’s a pretty disheartening thing to hear right after college. You come out of film school, you’re excited to join the film world and here they are telling you these things. And at that point I had to get back in front of LeBron, he was in the NBA, a couple years in and there are a lot more established people than me trying to approach him about similar things. It was a difficult period but I was able to meet someone, Harvey Mason, Jr., who, I can’t say enough great things about him, rolled the dice on a first time filmmaker, and he had never worked in film either so maybe that’s why it ended up working out. He took that chance and saw the vision I had and just wanted to support it and nurture it. He came up with the financing. And then I ended up in front of LeBron, it was those boys, those four friends who ended up doing it. Romeo one night called me up. I actually went back to Akron and had a twelve-minute trailer that I wanted to show LeBron. It had what I thought were the character beats of the film, kind of the emotionalities of the film that I would hope would resonate with him and that would show him that this is a story that is important for everyone to see not just basketball fans but people that appreciate dreams and friendship. So I went back to Akron and had dinner with the Fab Four with the guys other than LeBron and I said, “hey I never asked you guys this before but I need you guys to put me in front of LeBron so I can show him this.” That was the first day and I was home for ten days and on the last night I got a call about 11:00 pm at night from Romeo and he said, “Cameraman” (because he didn’t know my name until about a year ago they still called me “cameraman” but they call me Kris now), he said, “meet me at the gas station at Route 18.” It was 11 at night and I’m thinking what is he talking about? So I show up at the gas station and he says all right get in my car. So we start driving and I go where are we going? And he said we’re going to go to LeBron’s house. I go does he know we’re coming? And he goes no he doesn’t. We completely cold called LeBron James. And I had the twelve-minute DVD with me and we showed up and LeBron was surprised to see us of course but he was pleasant and I popped in the DVD and he loved it. He played it about ten times in a row. He couldn’t get enough of it. He had friends coming over to the house to hang out and he played the DVD for them and said, “you gotta see this.” He was just getting so excited I could see that high school LeBron wash over his face and he was instantly taken back to these times that were so much simpler and at that point he said all right whatever you need from me, I wanna do this right, so let’s do this the right way. That was kind of the rebirth of it all.

During those seven years did the film change in any way? Did it morph into something different than you had originally imagined?

I think probably the biggest surprise of the film when people come out of it, I think most people go into it thinking about LeBron and thinking it’s going to be his life story. When they come out I hope they take away that it’s more coach Dru’s story. And when I first approached the school and the team and said this is what I want to do and they finally gave me permission, I originally pitched the five friends and that stays true, that aspect of it and that was important to me but coach Dru being a central figure that’s something that evolved throughout the seven years as I realized not only how important he was to those boys but how important they were to him and his dream. And I thought he was the most complete character out of everybody and his arc was the most full. He evolved throughout the years as the lead character. That was something that definitely changed.

You said you wanted to hire professional editors, how did you work with your editor?

In documentary so much of the writing takes place in the edit room. It’s not scripted so you can gear the questions to certain themes but you have no idea what’s going to come out of their mouths. And so much of it actually does take place in the edit room. So it was really a back and forth collaboration and a lot of times side by side.

You said you wanted to make a film about Akron your hometown but in the process of making it did you feel you learned anything about the city?

You don’t appreciate where you’re from till you leave it. When I moved away from Akron I was just so excited to move to LA and all the excitement that comes with that. I love LA but there’s a lot of things about my hometown that I miss. When I’d bring crew back, after I got funding I’d bring crew back I was always amazed at how many people loved the city. People who had never been to Ohio and never would have considered going there and going, “Man I really love this place.” Everyone was so friendly in Akron and helpful and I think they were just excited to have cameras around. My crew was amazed at how helpful the city was.

Tell me a little about how you put the film together in the sense of how you used stills and archive footage. It seems that especially after a film like “Dogtown and Z Boys,” documentaries felt freer to be more visually creative.

One of the things I wanted from the get go, and this could be because I’m not from the doc mindset, was to create a film that hopefully wasn’t known as a documentary. I just wanted people to focus on this story. I felt this story could reach so many people whether they were fans of documentary or of fiction, whether they were fans of sports or not, I felt there was a message that was universal and I felt like the storytelling itself had to have a more broad appeal and not like the documentaries that people might be used to. We’ve made some incredible strides as of late, picture animation like in “Kid Stays in the Picture” were incredible and very influential on what we did with our visual effects, “Dogtown and Z Boys” as far as the editing goes and also with the visual style I think there have been so many great strides that we definitely wanted to build upon that and take it even to a new level. I mean we recorded with an eighty-piece orchestra for the score, you don’t really see that in a documentary. We wanted top visual effects, we wanted to hopefully break ground with what we did with still photos and incorporate all those different assets, all those things that you normally see in a feature film we wanted to try and bring those to this world and see if it worked, and I was really happy with what we got.

Companion viewing: "Hoop Dreams," "Dogtown and Z Boys," "The Kid Stays in the Picture"

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