TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

One-on-One with the Hollywood Jock
Written by Denis Faye


WHERE TO LOOK

Web sites abound for the armchair point guard when it comes to basketball research. If you’re looking for the ins and outs of professional ball, the NBA has a comprehensive site filled with stats, news, rules, and blogs. The Women’s National Basketball Association also has a great site. If college ball is your game, the NCAA has a site, but ESPN’s college basketball site is much more comprehensive, featuring similar content, only more smack talk. 

However, sooner or later, you’re going to want to get off your butt and check out a few games if you really want to get inside the sport. When you do, Ryder recommends showing up early and leaving late. “I love all the stuff around the games,” he declares. “I’ll go down the hallways and into locker rooms. I love seeing cheerleaders warming up before they hit the floor.” 

He also recommends reaching out to people. Sure, Kobe Bryant might not return your calls, but there are hundreds of players, coaches, and refs, past and present, who will. And while you’re at it, check out the practices. “You get a lot of stuff by getting out of your chair, by going and getting to where it’s actually happening.” 

There’s more to basketball than throwing an orange ball through a nylon net. If anyone knows this, it’s Rob Ryder. As a technical advisor, the former Princeton player worked on films like White Men Can’t Jump [Written by Ron Shelton], Blue Chips [Written by Ron Shelton], and Eddie [Screenplay by Jon Connolly & David Loucka and Eric Champnella & Keith Mitchell and Steve Zacharias & Jeff Buhai], all of which he details in his book Hollywood Jock. He’s also written on the sport across all sorts of media, including The New York Times and ESPN.com.

Approaching the game from so many different angles has given him plenty of opportunity to consider what makes it so unique. “The players are right there in your face. They’re not wearing face masks and padded up,” explains Ryder. “And the African American element started coming out strong. It had that cool kind of jazz/R&B vibe to it. That tapped into people’s imagination. But mostly, it’s just five guys on a side and you pretty much stay with your starter. It’s the coolest game in the world, ultimately.”

Ryder took all this to heart and came up with his current project, Hoop de Ville, an arena show on par with The Harlem Globetrotters that he describes as, “not just the ball players and the game, but the dancers and cheerleaders, the pep bands and the mascots all mashed up together. A lot of people don’t get that experience unless they find a local high school game where they really rock it.”

And of course, when Hollywood comes knocking, he’s ready. “I’ve knocked off a credible screenplay,” admits Ryder. “I’m just keeping it off the market until the time is right.”

Ryder talked to Technically Speaking recently about how Hollywood treats his chosen sport and offers some great advice on some writing strategies that’ll hopefully help you slam dunk that epic hoops spec you’re working on.

What does Hollywood get right about basketball?  

You got to go movie by movie, because they get a lot wrong. I’ve worked on a few dogs and I’m not embarrassed about it.

We got a lot right in White Men, Ron Shelton, a friend and a mentor, had a real design for that in terms in how he was going to shoot it.

How about with the script?  

Here’s one thing I learned from White Men Can’t Jump. We were 3 to 4 weeks into production and I said to Ron, “These scenes coming up that you need to shoot are bugging the shit out of me. You see, once Wesley Snipes betrays Woody, that’s a turning point. It’s hard to recover from.”

He kind of grabbed me – he’s a pretty gruff guy – he grabbed me and he said, “You know what? I don’t give a shit. This movie is working, just look at it. The dailies were just popping off the screen.”

He said writers can make themselves nuts, especially once they’re into shooting, about getting into too much self doubt and rewriting and then the studio’s wondering what’s going on because you’re varying too much from the script. He said, “The energy and the story is carrying it and if there are a few places that stick with you, I’m not worried about it because you’re more intellectual than the rest of the audience.” He just didn’t care because he had it right and he knew he had it right.

So when it comes to the script, can a writer make the basketball work, or is it the players that’ll make it happen?  

The players, except in one case. If you look at Hoosiers [Written by Angelo Pizzo], which is one of my favorite basketball movies. I don’t like the basketball in it. I don’t know why, but they had the players running at 3/4 speed for most of it and basketball’s not a plodding game, even back then. But what happened in the screenplay is that in several key games, especially, in the end, they really plotted out how the game would go back and forth and who’s up and who’s down. They played the clock well. You felt the tension. It’s surprising how rare that is in sports movies, to get really white-knuckled about it. The writer can help a lot with that.

But you can only do so much, then you turn this shit over to the people on the floor and hope they get it right.

Can you suggest a way that a writer could create that white-knuckle feel?  

I’ve written several sports movies myself. The dilemma is, to get it right on the page, you’re going to lose your reader – and it’s so hard to get people to read in Hollywood these days. You can’t plot out in detail as a screenwriter. You’ve got to suggest it and play it up. It’ll kill you when you go out into the marketplace if you have too detailed sport sequences. Readers’ll glaze over because they don’t have the imagination to see it, hear it, and smell it. You’ve got to keep this stuff really punchy, and if you’re lucky enough to get a script optioned or bought, and you’ve got a director attached, that’s the time to say, “All right, here are my ideas about how this game can really go to milk it.”

What would you like to see more in basketball movies?  

When you’re a player on the floor, and they say time speeds up and slows down, it really does, especially if it’s speeding up on you and you feel like you’re a half step behind everybody. It’s one of the worst feelings in the world. Also when you go into a zone and your stroke is there, and you’re launching three pointers and they go in. Literally, time does slow down for you. You feel like, “Wow I’m quicker than the ball.”It’d be nice to get inside the game. I’d love to see that more.

Something fairly unique about sports movies is that the protagonist can lose the game, not achieve their outer goal, but still have a happy ending. Why do you think that works?  

It’s as simple as there’s always a loser for every winner, and one of life’s most important lessons is to learn how to lose and keep moving. Shelton again – I go back to him a lot because he’s done three of the best sports movies ever – his game is, “I’m going to go for something pure with my characters, and I’m going to risk them losing the game to win the bigger battle in life.” He does it so well. Back in Bull Durham [Written by Ron Shelton], you got a sense of these guys, like, “Wow, it was fine that Kevin Costner didn’t make the jump into the majors.” And in Tin Cup [Written by John Norville and Ron Shelton], you see him just refusing to lay up and just hitting ball after ball into that pond. You love that! It’s Cool Hand Luke [Screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson]! Cool Hand, in a way, is a sports movie. It’s the character and the fight of the character that kept you with it.