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Q&A: Filmmaker Ryan Koo on His Basketball Recruiting Movies, Amateur and Manchild

Amateur

When you watch some outrageous Andrew Wiggins YouTube mixtape, you could be forgiven for not wanting to know how the sausage is made. There’s all that promise, and all that eye-popping athleticism, all at such a young age. By now, we all know that there is an underbelly to the worlds of high school and college basketball. We know that institutions and money-hungry street agents take advantage of gifted kids who often find themselves in vulnerable situations, financial or otherwise. Maybe you think college kids should get paid. Maybe you think they should consider the scholarship they receive to play sports payment enough. Either way, you know, even when you watch something as glorious as this, that there’s a dark side to the dunk montages, heralded AAU teams, and signing days.

It is on this dark side that New York–based filmmaker Ryan Koo trains his camera. With Amateur, a short film about an encounter between a high school basketball star and a street agent, Koo introduces us to a world of incentives and favors being doled out in whispered locker room confabs. Koo is in the process of making a feature film about this world with his next project, the Kickstarter-funded Manchild. That feature, which counts Phil Jackson and Jeanie Buss among its backers, is a look at the recruiting of a 13-year-old basketball phenom.

I talked to Koo, whom I met while working at MTV several years ago, about making Amateur; crowd-sourcing his films with Kickstarter; how his subject matter seems especially prescient in light of the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit; and the hysteria surrounding young players like Wiggins and Jabari Parker. You can check out Amateur below, and you can check out the Manchild site here, and see how you can help the production.

Let’s start with a very basic overview of how the idea for Amateur and Manchild came to you. Was the topic of recruiting something that had always been fascinating to you?

I grew up playing basketball in Durham, North Carolina, literally halfway between Duke and UNC. There are several elite basketball high schools in the area that have featured players like Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire, and John Wall. Not all of these stars were NC natives, and there were always rumors flying about how someone ended up at a particular school.

I was always a hoops junkie, and separately I had filmmaking aspirations, but I didn’t connect the two until a decade later. After getting some recognition for some of my early work, I was learning the hard way just how difficult it is to get a feature film off the ground. I knew my first feature was going to have to be something I was intensely passionate about, something that I would knock down walls to get made. Basketball was that topic for me, and I realized that while we’ve seen a lot of urban, Coney Island–esque basketball stories, the world I played in growing up wasn’t accurately represented onscreen. This is a world of smaller, Southern, devoutly pious schools where two things matter: religion and basketball, and not necessarily in that order.

Obviously, there have been some changes in the last decade — the one-and-done rule being the most prominent. How has the landscape of recruiting changed? Has that shifting landscape impacted the story you’re trying to tell?

As far as rule changes are concerned, my ears perked up in 2009 when the NCAA lowered the age limit on who is considered a basketball “prospect” to include seventh graders. That was indicative of how much recruiting of middle schoolers was already going on, that the NCAA felt they needed to lower the age limit to try to step in and regulate it. And I was interested in how the Internet played a role in this, thanks to national recruiting websites and online highlight videos accelerating the race to find even younger kids. The idea of a kid in middle school taking a college visit or being offered a scholarship interested me, in the sense that we’re talking about big decisions for little — or not so little — kids.

It seems like we’re hitting another high-water mark, in terms of interest in the topic, because of Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. Have you noticed an uptick? Has that helped the project in terms of funding?

Kids are becoming bigger stars at earlier ages thanks to the viral spread of highlight videos. That’s a big part of the story of Manchild. Wiggins and Parker are prime examples of guys who’ve unwittingly helped build a cottage industry, in the sense that people are making money off the ads on their YouTube highlight videos.

When you see players like Wiggins and Parker being fetishized, already being deemed NBA franchise-savers, do you have a different reaction than what you would have had before starting work on these films?

My parents are academics, so over the years I’ve heard a lot about how kids need to go to school and get an education. But any amount of research shows that by the time an elite ballplayer gets to college he’s not only a professional, he’s been a professional for years. Between school, AAU, camps, and tournaments, he’s been playing a hundred games a year, and now he’s off to play for a powerhouse program halfway across the country.

Playing college ball is a 40-hour-a-week job. But he’s an “amateur” and can’t be paid a dime for all of this? No matter where you start on these issues, I think the more research you do, the more pro-player you become.

How did your personal take on the idea of a student-athlete change while working on the films?

The “student-athlete” is a construct of the NCAA. Even though Manchild is about a middle school ballplayer, the NCAA sets the rules that everyone has to play by from an early age, and so the current Ed O’Bannon v. NCAA case has potential long-term consequences for all youth sports.

I think the case raises a lot of tough questions. If we pay college athletes, how do you set the scale? Football and basketball are profitable, while most other teams cost their school money. Would a school pay its linebackers while charging its swimmers? What effect would Title IX have — would the women’s basketball team get paid the same as the men’s despite differences in ticket sales and revenue?

These are tough questions that I think are worth asking, but the NCAA wants to avoid them entirely. I’m always going to side with those who do the actual work — the athletes who play the sport. Whenever I see the NCAA and its member institutions presenting figures illustrating how most of their athletic departments lose money and how that makes it impossible to pay athletes, I think about the NBA teams crying poverty to the players during the lockout two years ago. The NCAA making a financial argument just feels like a corporation where the executives say they can’t afford to pay their workers more than minimum wage, while they’re all making millions. I don’t know that the NCAA has any legal ground to stand on, but it’s probably more solid than their financial argument.

The NCAA is only one part of the world of profit surrounding elite athletes, and I think it’s patently absurd that kids who take a few hundred bucks are demonized while everyone around them is making money off their talent. I understand the argument that they have a chance in their future to make millions, and I think that there are a thousand professions that are underpaid compared to salaries of many professional athletes. But we have a name for telling someone they can’t be paid now but it’s OK because they have a chance at making money in the future: that’s an internship. The difference is, an intern works at lower levels. Take a film company, for example — the intern gets coffee, uses the photocopier, and maybe gets an entry-level job when they graduate. But what if the intern was the star of the movie and was unpaid, while everyone else on the crew was paid? That doesn’t make sense, but that’s college athletics.

Is there part of you that looks at the underground economy of hoops recruiting — the agents, the payoffs, the sneakers, the favors — as a necessary evil of the whole business?

“Necessary evil” is an interesting choice of words. Even if the O’Bannon suit goes against the NCAA and colleges start paying athletes, that’s not going to change anything for blue-chip recruits. All of the under-the-table enticements are still going to be there, they’re just going to be sitting on top of a modest honorarium.

While I think there’s always going to be dealmaking off the books, I do find myself questioning why those things are even tied to schools. Where does it say that academic institutions should provide full-ride scholarships to those proficient at running and jumping? Does that even make sense? It’s not like there’s a basketball major. The NCAA hasn’t always had a monopoly on so-called amateur athletics, and I think it’s worth examining the link between elite amateur sports and our educational institutions — not just colleges, but schools in general.

At the high school level there are prep “schools” now whose entire enrollment is the basketball team, and the players take their actual classes at a nearby school. Maybe that’s a model to look at, not because it would eliminate the underground economy, but because it might do some good for the kids at the “normal” school who want to play sports recreationally, which every developmental study shows does a ton of good. What’s happening at a lot of schools, from a very young age, is that kids who want to play sports recreationally get squeezed out because the varsity teams are so competitive so early.

Let’s talk a bit specifically about Amateur. There’s obviously a bit of a twist at the end. Was this rooted in research you had done where you had heard/read about players running game on recruiting agents?

The feature Manchild is written entirely from the main character’s perspective — TJ is in every scene except one. With the short Amateur, I wanted to tell the story of one of the minor characters in the feature. The street agent in Manchild, Dominguez, is someone I’d always been interested in. How did he get to the point where he’s recruiting 13-year-olds? The answer I came up with was, he got burned by an older kid who knew better.

There are some stories out there about this kind of thing happening in the real world, but the ones that are reported on publicly are usually the stories where there’s an actual court case. For example, when Marcus Camby was a star at UMass in the mid ’90s, there was an agent that showered him with cash. When Camby signed with a different agent, the first agent sued him, saying Camby reneged on his promises. I’m surprised the guy had the temerity to take legal action when his courtship of Camby was itself illegal, but it’s a perfect example of how trying to make an under-the-table deal can leave you vulnerable.

I wanted to dramatize one such “no honor among thieves” incident with Amateur — one that wouldn’t end up in court and would never be reported on publicly, but that would leave a person emotional and affected one cold night, and one that might cause them to change direction a little bit. As a result of the events in Amateur, Dominguez goes searching for younger, more naïve recruits … and that’s the story of Manchild.

In your mind, how much backstory does Anton have? Is this something he does to more people than just Dominguez?

TJ, our protagonist in Manchild, is introduced to the world of recruiting in front of our eyes in the feature. With the short I wanted to ask, “What would TJ be like five years down the road?” Anton represents that player. As an upperclassman in high school, he knows better. He sees it coming. And while I wouldn’t say Anton’s actively looking for handouts, if you step to him with the assumption that he’s just another poor black kid who can be bought with free shoes … that changes things.

Tell me a little about the difficulties of filming basketball. I remember White Men Can’t Jump famously cast actors who could hoop a little. Was basketball a required skill for the actor(s) in Amateur?

Funny you should reference White Men Can’t Jump — my house growing up was full of Disney movies, but we also had a bootleg copy of WMCJ that a friend taped off of HBO. I can say definitively that I’ve seen White Men Can’t Jump more than any other movie in the world. And not to cross the streams here, but everyone should really read Grantland’s oral history of White Men Can’t Jump. It’s just fantastic, and in it they talk about how Woody could really hoop but Wesley, while being a terrific natural athlete, had to get a crash course before filming.

For our short we didn’t have time for any kind of crash course, so when we were doing callbacks for our actors, I scrambled to find a gymnasium where we could find out which actors could really play. I absolutely refuse to make a basketball film where the “star” is obviously not a good player, so I had the three actors at callbacks play each other for an hour. And this wasn’t just to see who could actually hoop — it was also to find out what they were good at ahead of time, so I could choreograph the action to their strengths and avoid discovering a hole in their game while we’re burning through our budget with the camera rolling.

One other potential pitfall in shooting basketball is when the script calls for a character to have a conversation while making shots and getting the ball passed back to him. Every take is different timing-wise — it’s like when you cut back and forth and someone’s cigarette goes from short to long. And every time your actor misses, that’s a cut. Thankfully, Curtiss hit a totally respectable percentage of his shots while we were filming. I’d peg it at 72 percent.

Anything you didn’t expect to be a problem that came up?

It dropped 40 degrees the night we were filming the last scene in Amateur. It got down to zero degrees, we were all freezing with no place to take shelter, and then the actors that showed up to play the parents didn’t have driver’s licenses and couldn’t even drive a car. The car itself was already a replacement, because I’d reserved a Zipcar for us but the people who had the reservation before me crashed it. Then after we got replacement actors, the car wouldn’t start. When we were finally rolling, I was running in place to stay warm, and I told Curtiss, “You’re a hypercompetitive athlete. You beat the other team on the court. You beat your teammates in one-on-one. You beat your friends for the hottest girls. And now you’re thinking, Yeah, I beat you too.” And Curtiss, as he did throughout, just nailed it. The short hinges on the ending, and so I was glad that we got it in the can despite a night that was the perfect example of the constant reminders of Murphy’s Law that is filmmaking.

What can we expect from Manchild? Where else do you want to go with this story?

One reason I want to make Manchild is, it’s not The Blind Side. And one reason Manchild hasn’t already gotten made is, it’s not The Blind Side. When you pitch a sports movie, there are often expectations of what’s going to happen in it. But Manchild is not about a rich white lady saving the day by rescuing a poor black athlete.

Those movies are financed based on star power, not subject matter. It’s “Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side,” or “Sean Connery in Finding Forrester.” Look at the Forrester poster: Rob Brown’s face is 1/100th the size of Connery’s. And this isn’t limited to sports movies — Tom Cruise sells a film about samurai, Leonardo DiCaprio sells a film about African conflict diamonds. I understand these are perfectly sound decisions for studios, but sometimes I want to see films where the main characters are the actual samurai, or the kids working in those mines, or the athlete who isn’t rescued by anyone.

Big-budget sports films are an even more particular beast, because they need to cast actors with proven box office appeal and then try to pass them off as elite athletes. More often than not those actors aren’t convincing practitioners of the sport. As an indie we can look all across the country and discover someone — a kid who is charismatic, can act, and can really play ball — and cast on the basis of merit. And the only way to do this is to make our movie as inexpensively as possible and bank on it finding an audience because the characters and basketball are compelling and authentic — not because demographic research shows so-and-so star brings out this or that quadrant of the audience.

Manchild is not the Hollywood version of a story. My goal is to ask, what do you do when no one shows up and makes all of your problems go away? And if someone does show up and their intentions are anything but benevolent, how do you deal with that? Manchild is a film about a kid who very specifically does not have a father figure, and everyone who wants something from him represents a would-be parent. He has to navigate between all of these competing desires and choose who he’s going to trust — all at the age of 13.

A lot of people talk about sports as if they’re “just” a matter of putting a puck through a net, or running across a line, or throwing a ball in a hoop. Plenty of people find sports to be innately stupid. But by that logic, you know what else is stupid? Art! Art is “just” a matter of painting a canvas, or sculpting a rock, or stringing together a series of photographs. One of my goals for Manchild is to move the conversation past this reductive logic, to help non-sports fans see things through the eyes of a kid who’s got a dream. If you show Manchild to a friend who doesn’t like sports — someone who believes athletes are successful just because of their genetics and demonizes them for not getting a four-year degree — I’ll feel like I’ve succeeded if that same person says, “Man, I really feel for that kid. I hope he makes it.”