Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Netflix
When Adam Sandler calls you to make a movie about the NBA, it can be pretty hard to say no. Director Jeremiah Zagar learned this firsthand.
About his latest project for Netflix, Rush — a film about a Philadelphia 76ers basketball scout who discovers an incredible player in Spain — Zagar took on the challenge of bringing Philadelphia’s passionate basketball culture to life for the film.
In this interview from All togetherZagar spoke with NPR’s Cheryl W. Thompson about finding his way into film, combining his love of fiction and storytelling, and bringing his hometown’s love of Philadelphia to the big screen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cheryl W. Thompson: I have to ask you, is it true that you told Adam Sandler that you didn’t want to direct this movie, that you had absolutely no interest?
Jeremiah Zagar: I did not have no interested, but I got the script and it was beautiful. I mean, it was a beautifully written script, but I think if you’re taking on a project that’s going to take years of your life, you really have to feel like you can fall in love with it. And I wasn’t sure at first. I wanted to make sure that I could do it justice and that it was for me, that there were enough exciting cinematic opportunities that it would be something I could be proud of and do justice to. And so I said no to him.
But then I couldn’t get it out of my head. It took place in Philadelphia. And you know, it was about the sport of basketball, which I love. And so, you know, I started thinking about ways I could make it mine and make it into something I could fall in love with. And I got Adam back on the phone and we talked about it and we seemed to be on the same page. We wanted to work with all the non-professional actors and we wanted to film it in a way that felt authentic to both the city and the sport, and give it a realism that got me excited.
I know you’re from Philadelphia, right? Which is of course a huge sports city. You are a basketball fan. And sometimes the movie feels like it was made by and for NBA fans.
I hope so. I mean, I think Adam is obviously a huge NBA fan, just like so many people in the movie. I mean, you know, again, there are so many real NBA players that are either playing themselves or playing characters based on people like them. You know, Juancho was a real NBA player. He plays for the Utah Jazz. And you know, he’s also incredible as an actor. But he can play basketball really beautifully, just like Anthony Edwards, as well as Kenny Smith and Dr. J of course too. So these are real people who know the sport through and through. So you see them doing what they love most in the world in a beautiful, cinematic way.
[Juancho Hernangómez] plays power forward or center for the Utah Jazz, and he stars in this film as Bo Cruz, the young Spanish athlete who discovers Adam Sandler’s character. But there’s other NBA talent in the movie, too, like Seth Curry, Doc Rivers, who, I must say, is from my hometown of Chicago and is the current coach of the 76ers. and dr. J., I mean, really, Julius Erving, arguably the greatest player in 76er history. What was it like directing professional athletes who sometimes forget to check their egos at the door?
So we had a great acting coach here. I have a great acting coach who works with every non-professional actor I’ve ever worked with. My last movie we the animals starred three young boys who had never acted in film before. And she spent years with them and she spent years with some of the ball players, two years with Juancho. And I have to tell you, these guys have no ego at all. They are like the sweetest, most open, wonderful people. You think they’re going to be… because they’ve got these giant contracts and they’re on this giant stage, they’re going to be difficult somehow. But they are very sweet, sensitive people who have worked with [our acting coach] and worked with Adam and worked with me. And were just a delight. I mean, it was really, really, really great just being with them.
There are many sports movies about the underdog team, or an athlete trying to make it big. But this one, I must say, feels different. It’s not just about sports. So you don’t have to like sports to enjoy the movie, right?
I don’t think you have to be a sports fan at all. I even showed my mom the very first snippets of the movie and she looked at it and she said, “Oh my gosh, I love basketball!”
She knows nothing about this sport. I think we tried to make it as beautiful as a dance and to make the emotions the thing that drove the scene. So even when you were watching a game, you were following the emotions of the characters. You followed Stanley’s emotions or you felt those emotions, the ups and downs of those moments, so that no matter who you are or where you come from, you could love the movie.
In the past, Jeremiah, you spent a lot of time working on documentaries. How did that affect how you approached Hustle?
I think our ethos as filmmakers is always to make it real. You know, I want to see fiction movies that feel like documentaries and documentaries that feel like fiction movies, I guess. I like authenticity and honesty and specificity. And I like the language of the documentary. And so what we did was we took the language of the documentary and put it in this fiction format. And I think it makes the scenes authentic and true, and that’s always the goal.
Can you tell us about Philadelphia’s role in the film? What was it like for you, as a native, to do this project?
It was an honor. I mean, it’s great to be able to come back to your city, you know, with a giant movie, you know, bringing economic opportunities to the city. Philly has supported me all my life. Of course I grew up there. … And you know, I just love every little aspect of that city. I like the people and I like the sports culture and I like the art culture of the city. And so it was a thrill to be able to bring the details of my childhood and my love to this film.
Adam was really great at saying, “Show me where the real Philadelphia is, show me where you grew up. And we’ll put it there.” And even if we were shooting in a studio, we’d mirror the real locations so it would look like a Philadelphia row house. We would build it from scratch, and it was important that we had that authenticity.
You see things differently, the way people who live in the city see it. Obviously we are referring to rocky a lot, but there’s a nice scene in it rocky where he walks through the Italian market. But my experience with the Italian Market, which I grew up two blocks from, is you walk through it and do your shopping, you know, you get your pots and pans there, you know, and I wanted to show that kind of Philadelphia that there is also a lived quality to the city.
Cat Sposato and Lucy Perkins produced and edited the audio interview.