Q&A: The Directors of Linsanity Talk About Their New Film, Taiwan, and February 4, 2012

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images Jeremy Lin

Jeremy Lin is pushing the ball up the floor at a hellacious pace. Confronted with one defender near the free throw line, then another to his left, and later a third to his right, Lin picks up the ball, spins around and between all three bodies, and softly lofts a layup that touches off the glass and falls straight through the hoop. If that image conjures memories of the winding, spinning banker Lin dropped over Derek Fisher, Troy Murphy, and Matt Barnes in his 38-point, seven-assist masterpiece against the Los Angeles Lakers, you’re not alone. But this footage wasn’t taken from Lin’s sensational February 2012 run of play in Madison Square Garden and other arenas around the NBA; it was from his preteen YMCA days in northern California.

Linsanity, the Evan Jackson Leong–directed documentary about Lin’s life and career, was originally conceived as an idea for a six-episode web series but eventually morphed into so much more. The 88-minute feature film charts Lin’s rise from under-recruited high school stud to worldwide phenomenon, making sure to cover his stints as an Ivy League superstar, NBA benchwarmer, frustrated D-Leaguer, and everything else in between.

Interspersed with footage from his youth, high school, college, D-League, and NBA games are revealing interviews with Lin’s mother and father; his two brothers; various coaches and front-office personnel from high school, college, and the NBA; media members who covered Lin at Harvard or in his NBA career; and Lin himself. While the film studiously chronicles Lin’s rise as a basketball player, it also takes time to let viewers glimpse a bit of his personality.

Lin’s proud Christianity is an indelible part of his image and obviously permeates the film’s themes of faith and perseverance, but his love of The Lion King (as recently as his rookie season, Lin still had a blanket from his childhood with images of Simba, Nala, Timon, and Pumba on it), aversion to doing laundry (“If I don’t do laundry now, I definitely won’t do it when I’m married”), hilariously bad singing voice (the footage of Lin and his mother butchering karaoke on a family trip to Taiwan is far and away the film’s funniest moment), and talent for the piano are some of his lesser-known qualities that the film brings to light.

Grantland had the opportunity to discuss the film, the process, and the parallel rises of subject and project in one-on-one sit-downs with producer Brian Yang and director Evan Jackson Leong a few weeks ago. What follows is an edited transcript of our chats.

How did this project come about?

Yang: I read about Jeremy when he was in Palo Alto High School. I grew up eight miles down the road from him. I’m a lot older, but same neighborhood. I was home at my parents’ house one year. I pick up the San Jose Mercury News and I see “Jeremy Lin, Boys’ Basketball Player of the Year” and I’m like “Holy crap!”

You know, Asian kid, Nor-Cal player of the year! I played high school basketball in the same area, played his school when I was in school. And I was instantly just like, “Wow. This is someone that I have got to keep tracking because you don’t see this too often.”

So I got acquainted with his story, tracked him to Harvard. I actually did an interview with him when he was a freshman at Harvard for a basketball website that I used to write for.

And then again, I just started following his career. When he’d come down to Columbia, I’d go to the game with like three or four people. Little by little, every year you’d see that crowd grow. Even in college he developed a little of a cult following, especially in the Asian American community.

He started having some big games — as a junior against Boston College, I think Georgetown. Then, by the time of the start of his senior year, there were NBA rumors. You know, “Maybe he’s got an outside shot.”

My producing partner Chris Chen and I, we are long-time friends. He had just produced The Year of the Yao, the documentary on Yao Ming. We were riffing one day and were like, “Hey, what do you think about this kid Jeremy Lin?” And we were both into it, both hoop-heads, so we decided to pursue what was then a web-series idea.

We were going to shoot stuff and cut it up into six episodes, put it online. We figured our audience would just be those cult followers — ardent Jeremy Lin fans; people from the Ivy League, from Harvard, from back home, Asian Americans. Maybe 1,000 people at the end of the day. And he actually turned us down a bunch of times initially.

How did you finally break him down?

Yang: It’s kind of like a classic “Boy chases girl, and she’s not into it for a while.” For a long while. He actually didn’t even say yes while he was an undergrad because we ran up against some roadblocks. Harvard is a very tough institution to have cameras around. With NCAA regulations, amateur athletes being wooed by a “professional” film crew looks bad.

When he made the NBA as a Warrior, that’s when things started to fall in place. So obviously you saw the movie and we had Harvard footage. We went back in time and went to Harvard with him after he graduated.

A little bit of movie magic there. How did you transition from the idea of a web series to this full-blown documentary?

Yang: It was no decision, really, because all the way up until February 4, 2012, we didn’t have an ending. Our ending would have been he made the NBA. “Asian American makes the NBA.” Great story. That’s why we [originally] pursued it, but we knew that it wasn’t going to be something that was necessarily worthy of the big screen.

So when February 4 came along — and I don’t need to tell you this — he gave us an ending. Just against the Nets. If he didn’t play another game, we’re like, “That’s pretty cool.”

And then began the stretch of game after game, and suddenly we’re getting phone calls from people that didn’t know we were alive a week ago. So that’s when we decided to shift gears.

What was a typical day of filming like?

Leong: It definitely varied over the time and the process of this film. In the beginning, I didn’t know Jeremy. And I think for me, as a filmmaker, you need to get to know your subject and build a level of trust. When you build that level of trust, it’s a lot easier to just turn the camera on. There’s no massaging the situation.

In the beginning, it was like you schedule a time with Jeremy, you have this many hours. Where are we going to go? How are we going to get there or transport all the different things we need? But as the process develops, it’s just “Hey, I’m going to show up at 10 and we’ll get going.” “OK, cool.”

With a documentary, you’re kind of just exploring to find out what you want to get out of it. You have an idea of where you want to go with the story, but you’re going to listen to the material, to the subject, and find an angle.

How involved was Jeremy in that process? Was it something where you would just schedule times to film and that was it, or did it grow as you went along?

Yang: Jeremy was a part of the process. He was a great partner throughout. But he’s a busy guy. He wasn’t in the editing room with us or all, “Send me the dailies!”

Leong: It definitely grew. Initially it was “What are you doing?” and then as time went on it was more “Whatever you want to do.” And that was from the level of trust that we built. He said, basically, “Hey, I’m going to give you things that I wouldn’t give everybody else, because I’m comfortable around you and I know you’ll use them in a way that’s a conduit for my story, versus an agenda.”

Were any of his teams more or less accommodating than others?

Leong: Everyone in the NBA has been very helpful from the start. In the D-League, we have audio. He’s playing with our mic on. Who even films D-League players?

But in the NBA, they put the mic on him themselves because they knew it was a good story. The NBA, the Knicks, everybody has been super accommodating to us.

After he blew up in February 2012, did things change at all for you with either your process or the access you had?

Yang: There were a lot more licensing needs. Before Linsanity, we were doing a small documentary and we would have needed to license footage from here and there, but Jeremy wasn’t on David Letterman before Linsanity and then suddenly he was. Kenny Smith wasn’t talking about him before Linsanity and suddenly he was.

Leong: He definitely didn’t have as much time to just hang out like he did before. He was getting pulled in 50 different directions and he was playing a lot more. We still got probably more access than anyone, but at the same time I had to be respectful of [his] space.

When he’s being pulled in all these different directions — commercials, more appearances, other responsibilities — are you going with him?

Leong: We went to a couple of them, but ultimately at the end of the day I didn’t need to film [as much] anymore because everything is being filmed. We did a couple of behind-the-scenes things, but I had more media than I’ll ever need at that point. So it was more trying to aggregate all this stuff.

How was it filming in Taiwan?

Leong: It was great. We filmed in Taiwan before he really blew up. He didn’t even really play that whole year, and he is still the idol of all these kids out there.

OK, the ending. You ended it right after the Mavericks game. How was the decision made to not cover his injury and the departure from New York?

Leong: There’s a lot of story. Anything he does is magnified. For me, personally, I wanted to make a legacy film. I wanted to end it with that Linsanity moment. The story is really that he’s arrived. I want to be able to pop in this DVD 20 years from now and show my kids how it happened. This is what it took to get to that level. That’s why he’s so famous.

Everything after is another documentary to me. Or two. It’s just a different story.

Have you guys read any of the reviews? They’re almost universally glowing.

Yang: Yeah. We’re human. We’ve been very lucky, and definitely the reviews have been by and large very positive. And I’m very thankful for that because obviously people are reading these things and that’s what helps build the word of mouth.

Leong: It’s scary, too, because they can write anything they want. They don’t know me. They might not even care about Jeremy. That’s whole other documentary because of how polarizing he is.

The last thing I want to ask: Daniel Dae Kim did the narration. That was [Brian’s] hookup, I’m assuming?

Yang: Yes. And I see you’ve done your homework. DDK has become a good friend of mine through Hawaii Five-0.

I recognized that voice right away as a huge Lost nerd. I was like: It’s Jin!

Yang: Daniel did it as a favor. Through my work on Five-0, I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. I was just making small talk one day and I told him I was doing a doc on this kid Jeremy Lin. And Daniel goes, “Yeah, you know what? I’ve read about him.”

He keeps up with his pop culture and he was reading a blog one day and he asked how Jeremy was doing out at Harvard. I said he’s doing all right, and we’re following him, and we’ve got this documentary idea. And he’s just like, “Great. Great.”

And then when Linsanity blew up, he was like, “Hey, Brian, are you still doing that doc? Whatever you want, I will do it for you.”

So he volunteered for this?

Yang: Yeah. And I told him, “I have a great idea. You have this awesome voice. I think you should narrate.” And he was awesome.

Filed Under: Movies, Jeremy Lin, Linsanity, NBA, New York Knicks, Grantland Q&A