Exclusive: ‘Wolves’ Writer/Director Bart Freundlich Talks Making A Good Sports Movie
Bart Freundlich talks capturing the heart of basketball in his new film “Wolves” and how watching Michael Shannon act is like watching a “Lightning Storm.”
We caught up with writer/director Bart Freundlich a week before the release of his most recent feature, “Wolves.” The film tells the story of Anthony (played by relative newcomer Taylor John Smith), a top talent on his Manhattan high school’s basketball team with a possible future at Cornell. But, the dangerous gambling habits of Anthony’s often intoxicated father (played by Michael Shannon) put Anthony’s dreams in peril. Continue reading FilmFad’s exclusive interview with “Wolves” writer/director Bart Freundlich after the jump.
“Wolves” is a family drama set in the world of high school basketball. On a broader level, it’s a coming of age story about a kid who’s oppressed by his father’s gambling and alcoholism, and is unable to be his biggest, best self that he can be on the basketball court, which is really his ticket to the future. – Bart Freundlich
As a filmmaker Freundlich has already given audiences many different stories. From pulling heartstrings with a broken family trying to find closure in his feature debut “The Myth Of Fingerprints,” to the tale of a girl, played by a young Kristen Stewart, and her two friends precariously navigating through a criminal world in a bid to save her dying father in “Catch That Kid,” it’s safe to say Freundlich has covered different genres with each movie. This time, Freundlich details his favorite contenders in the sports film market and what he took away from them when making his new basketball-centric feature “Wolves.”
As a filmmaker, I unfortunately never think of it as a market. I wish I did. It was a story that had grown in me for a really really long time. One, because I’m a basketball fan and played basketball growing up. I’ve noticed it’s sort of a big repository for a lot of emotional life, sports is, for a lot of people. It certainly was for me growing up. I loved the built in drama of that, and my intricate knowledge of basketball sorta drew me to write about it in a really in depth way. All the sports movies I love, like “Rocky,” “Hoosiers” and even “Miracle,” all have these three dimensional complex characters. And my earlier movies like “The Myth Of Fingerprints” are all about family, so it seemed like a natural combination to me. I kind of found myself writing it rather than planning on writing it.
With a divisive election in the rear-view, Freundlich explains why “Wolves” is relevant in today’s political climate and why he hopes the ending will give those who have ever been bullied some satisfaction.
But as far as how it fits into the world today, I really do think there’s argument to be made there’s a political allegory there. It speaks to how universal the movie is. This is about someone who’s being bullied, and he’s being kinda dominated, and being asked to be silent in the face of it. Who struggles and struggles and finds a way to have his own voice, and break free from it at the end. Though, that’s a cliche very stereotypical basic structure. I think because it’s done with all the specificity of the family relationship and all the specificity of the basketball, the hope is that it’s extremely satisfying in the end, to watch someone fully own who they are.
Often we see a lot of movies that are sports related, where the sport is heavily diminished and in the background. Freundlich explains his thoughts on the important balance between capturing the action-sports element as well as the dramatic element.
It was very important for me to capture the basketball. All of the subtlety of it, all of the intracity of it. I was using the specificity of the basketball to kind of represent my main character Anthony’s inner life. So we spent a long time choreographing each of the basketball sequences to serve the purpose of expressing who Anthony is, or allowing his shortcomings at that moment to be expressed through the basketball. For instance, in the semi-finals Anthony is being pushed and pushed and pushed by everyone to be bigger and to be stronger. He kind of goes over the top and ends up leaving his man open, trying to double team another man and force a steal. And leaving his man open results in the other team hitting a three and going up in the game. It was important it wasn’t just setting up some cameras and getting some good basketball players out there and saying, “Go Play.” But actually saying no this is what’s happening here emotionally for our lead character and this is why he’s making this decision.
Sports actors need to be believable, but they also need to be able to act. Freundlich continues the conversation by detailing his, at times, painstaking approach to casting for the lead role in “Wolves” and how his teenage daughter’s advice helped lead him to picking Taylor John Smith.
I focused really heavily on the basketball to start out with, when I was auditioning people. It was my daughter, who’s actually 14 years old, who pointed it out to me, “Dad, people come to the movies to see acting not basketball.”
The film also stars Zazie Beetz, who plays Anthony’s supportive girlfriend. Now with the success of FX’s “Atlanta,” of which Zazie is a cast member, Freundlich responds to whether the press has helped or hindered the launch of “Wolves.”
Zazie actually didn’t shoot the show until right after we finished. She couldn’t come to the wrap party because she was going to shoot “Atlanta.” The answer is, I was excited on two levels. First of all for her, because she deserves it. She’s a major talent and such a beautiful girl inside and out. So, she deserved it. And two, of course, anything that can help the word out about the movie, anything that can help can kind of cross pollinate fans, is good.
In life, some people are radiators, constantly putting off positive thoughts and actions, and others are drains, sucking those nearest to them down an increasingly dim hole. While Zazie undoubtable portrays one of Anthony’s radiators, the stoic screen-veteran Michael Shannon plays a major drain as Anthony’s alcoholic gambler father. Freundlich talks about his experience working with Shannon and whether or not his real life personality matches that of his intense on-screen persona.
The truth is, that at the base of it all he is, “Happy Go Lucky” is not how I would describe it, but deeply funny and searing smart. A bull-shit meter that is perfectly tuned, which is I think what allows him in part to hear his performance and tune it to that, but it also allows him to know when you’re not on your game. He doesn’t want to be a part of anything false. At the same time, as an actor, he is one of the most generous people. All he wants to do is be there for you. I told him one time, It’s just like watching a lightning storm. It’s freaking beautiful.
From the villainous General Zod in “Man Of Steel” to a cold blooded killer in “The Iceman,” Michael Shannon’s stoic on-screen persona surely precedes him. Freundlich speaks on whether the cast was intimidated by the experienced Academy Award, Golden Globe and Tony Award nominee.
It’s kind of like playing tennis with someone who’s a great tennis player. You might at a certain point be intimidated by the thought of it, but once you get out there the hitting is so pure.
New York plays a major role throughout “Wolves.” From the Manhattan high school, the street basketball encounters and dreams of heading upstate to Cornell, the film pushes a decidedly NYC dream. Freundlich explains how he wanted to convey his interpretation of the authentic New York feeling to audiences.
It’s important to me, when I’m portraying New York City, that the geography is all correct… but that, I think, is just a pet peeve of mine because I know the city so well. I think it was very important to portray the sense of small town mixed with the slight sense of danger there always is about New York City. Certainly the Basketball court and the West 4th Street Court represents that epicenter of excitement and danger in Anthony’s life. To me authentic New York is a combination of many many many things. I guess that that’s in my blood and I was hoping to communicate that in the movie. When you’re a local and you move through it like that, and you stand outside in the street and eat a slice of pizza and watch basketball, then walk back to your school and hang in the park, there’s like the same kind of small town feeling people growing up outside of New York have.
Returning to classic sports cinema Freundlich concludes the interview by explaining why “Wolves” is a movie not just for the fans of film, but for the fans of sports as well.
Whenever I think of a sports film that I respond to and that has stuck with me, the word that comes up is satisfaction. Whether it’s “Hoosiers” or “Rocky,” the’re things where I invest in the character and then that character succeeds or fails in doing something that is kind of mythical.
Watch the official trailer for “Wolves” below: