With all the hoopla (pun intended) surrounding NCAA basketball this month, we were inspired to rediscover some of our favorite basketball films—and, in doing so, uncovered some strong lessons for filmmakers.
As it turns out, those locker room speeches apply just as much to the art of filmmaking as to the game of hoops, so here are our final four. Ok, BREAK!
Finding Forrester (2000)
Why we like it: A youth struggling to leave the projects by any means necessary, urban and suburban worlds colliding, one of the final scenes hinging on a free throw—we have seen all this before, right? Well, yes and no. The film’s inspiration isn’t just carried by the Scottish accent of one Sean Connery, but by some original spins to the genre of sports films.
Jamal, the film’s protagonist, is a high school basketball phenom with a passion for literature hidden beneath a veil of teenage apathy. Through a situation of circumstance, he meets a crotchety recluse played by Connery, who we later learn has seen better days as a celebrated author.
“Why is it the words we write for ourselves are always better than the words we write for others?” he asks Jamal, which makes up for the meme-worthy line “you’re the man now, dog!” spoken by the same aging white actor. Together, the off-court team forms a strong bond that helps each push through weakness and adversity.
What we can learn from it: Finding Forrester hits a strong theme that sometimes great inspiration can be found in the most unsuspected of places, and director Gus Van Sant certainly practices what he preaches in this film. Van Sant has a penchant for including new talent in his films, with Elephant (2003) comprised almost exclusively of non-actors and Finding Forrester featuring the debut of Rob Brown as Jamal. An amazingly talented actor, Brown originally auditioned as an extra—reportedly out of desperation to pay his cell phone bill.
With an equally strong performance by Busta Rhymes (remember this was filmed in 2000) as Jamal’s older brother, Van Sant proves you don’t need a Sean Connery in every role. There are many lessons aspiring filmmakers can learn from Van Sant, but perhaps the most important is that fresh talent is everywhere—and equally worthy of the spotlight.
The Basketball Diaries (1995)
Why we like it: Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his most depressing roles of all time, right up there with Shutter Island, The Aviator, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (come to think of it, it seems like he has a tendency to go dark). Basketball Diaries is a simple story about living and losing—as in losing friends, opportunities, and control. It’s quite a simple plot, based on a true story about the life of writer Jim Caroll, played by Leo, and his friends (one of whom is played by Mark Wahlberg) spiraling into drug abuse, assault, and worse in their early teens. Whereas Jamal in Finding Forrester is kind hearted and reflective, Jim is the complete opposite, and you don’t exactly root for him as much as you pity him.
What we can learn from it: The Basketball Diaries only loosely follows a plot, with much of the story primarily character driven. Jim goes through his life recklessly and hedonistically, and at the end confesses his sins on a darkened stage to an emerging audience. The whole scene makes us question his legitimacy as a reliable narrator. Is he really remorseful or is it an act for the audience? Furthermore, did the previous 95 minutes actually happen or was it an entire screenplay fabricated by Jim in his desire to capture audiences? This might frustrate some (cough…Roger Ebert…cough), but to us it is a bit liberating. Not all films need a third-act redemption for the protagonist and, in fact, sometimes it’s more successful for them to illicit frustration by never learning any lesson at all, right Larry David?
Why we like it: It’s 1951 in Indiana and there is a new coach in town. Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) is on his last chance to coach a basketball team, and after more setbacks than successes, he eventually leads his team to take home the 1952 Indiana state championship, all with Dennis Hopper on board as the town drunk—remarkable! Norman’s coaching skills are constantly questioned throughout the movie, but he remains headstrong, at one point playing only four players after benching one for taking, and making, an unauthorized shot.
What we can learn from it: Norman is an outsider in a town that does not appreciate his unconventional coaching skills, his temper, or those with whom he surrounds himself. If Hoosiers can teach the aspiring filmmaker anything, it’s that bold confidence can take you a long way. Becoming a great filmmaker does not require a great deal of money, or even a degree from a film school. The most important quality that you can have as any creative individual is confidence, and as Norman Dale himself tells his players, “We have to be confident! It is the most important mental skill, and it is also the most difficult. If we doubt our ability to recover from mistakes or to take risks, we will never be successful, period. We must believe in ourselves!”
Teen Wolf (1985)
Why we like it: Teen Wolf is a bit of a dense movie so lets unpack it. Michael J. Fox plays Scott Howard, a self-proclaimed average high school student who plays basketball for his terrible high school team and is picked on quite a lot. Then one day he realizes that he is actually a werewolf. That pretty much wraps it up! Scott discovers his powers slowly and tries to keep them a secret for as long as possible. Of course, eventually his alter ego gets the better of him and he transforms mid basketball game. After a few between-the-legs dribbles and a pretty radical dunk, his teammates and the opposing team openly accept his transformation and resume playing—only now to an epic soundtrack. “The Wolf” becomes loved throughout the school, and Scott becomes the leader of the pack until he loses control on the night of the big dance and scratches Mick McAllister, the obligatory ‘80s bully. Scott then decides to hang up his claws, leaving it up to his ordinary self to win the big game against none other than Mick!
What we can learn from it: We hear all too often that there are no new ideas, which if truly believed even for a second can frustrate and depress even the most prolific writers. If there is anything we can learn from Teen Wolf, it’s that this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. Writers (that’s right, plural) Jeph Loeb and Matthew Weisman conceptualized a film about a basketball-playing werewolf and not only sold their (original) idea, but landed one of the biggest actors of that time to star in it. Creativity comes in the most obscure places (Alien was famously pitched as “Jaws in space”), so instead of churning out sequels, let’s not abandon the pursuit of originality just yet.
Bonus: Have you seen our royalty-free basketball footage?
Brian Platt writes about film trends, stock footage, and introspective basketball films for VideoBlocks.