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'Hustle' is Jeremiah Zagar's love letter to basketball fans in Philadelphia

Jeremiah Zagar speaks onstage during Netflix's <em>Hustle</em> Philadelphia special screening on June 7 in Philadelphia.
Lisa Lake
Getty Images for Netflix
Jeremiah Zagar speaks onstage during Netflix's Hustle Philadelphia special screening on June 7 in Philadelphia.

When Adam Sandler calls on you to make a movie about the NBA, it can be pretty difficult to say no. Director Jeremiah Zagar learned this firsthand.

On his latest project for Netflix, Hustle — a movie about a basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who discovers an incredible player out in Spain — Zagar took on the challenge of bringing Philadelphia's passionate basketball culture to life for the film.

In this interview from All Things Considered, Zagar talked with NPR's Cheryl W. Thompson about finding his way to the film, melding his love for fiction and documentary storytelling, and bringing his hometown love for Philadelphia to the big screen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cheryl W. Thompson: I've got to ask you, is it true that you told Adam Sandler that you didn't want to direct this movie, that you had absolutely no interest?

Jeremiah Zagar: I didn't have no interest, but I got the script and it was beautiful. I mean, it was a beautifully written script, but I think when you're taking on a project that's going to take up years of your life, you really need to feel like you can fall in love with it. And I wasn't sure at first. I wanted to make sure that I could do it justice and that it was for me, that there were enough exciting cinematic possibilities that it would be something that I could be proud of and that I could do justice to. And so I told him no.

But then I couldn't get it out of my mind. It took place in Philadelphia. And you know, it centered around the sport of basketball, which I love. And so, you know, I started to think about ways in which I could make it mine and could make it something that I could fall in love with. And I got back on the phone with Adam and we talked about it and we seemed aligned. We wanted to work with all non-professional actors and we wanted to shoot it in a way that felt authentic to both the city and to the sport, and give it a realism that I was excited by.

I know you're from Philly, right? Which is, of course, a huge sports town. You're a basketball fan. And sometimes, the movie feels like it was created by and for NBA fans.

I hope so. I mean, I think Adam is a gigantic NBA fan, obviously, as were so many people in the film. I mean, you know, again, there's so many real NBA players either playing themselves or playing characters based on people like them. You know, Juancho was a real NBA player. He plays for the Utah Jazz. And, you know, he's incredible as an actor too. But he can really play basketball beautifully, as can Anthony Edwards, as can Kenny Smith as can Dr. J, obviously. So these are real people that know the sport intimately. So you're seeing them do the thing they love the most in the world in a beautiful, cinematic way.

[Juancho Hernangómez] plays power forward or center for the Utah Jazz, and he stars in this film as Bo Cruz, the young Spanish athlete who Adam Sandler's character discovers. But there's other NBA talent in the movie, too, like Seth Curry, Doc Rivers, who I have to say is from my hometown of Chicago and is the current coach of the 76ers. And Dr. J., I mean, really, Julius Erving, arguably the greatest player in 76ers history. What was it like directing professional athletes who sometimes forget to check their egos at the door?

So we had a wonderful acting coach here. I have a wonderful acting coach who works with all the non-professional actors I've ever worked with. My last film We the Animals starred three young boys who had never acted in film before. And she spent years with them and she spent years with some of the ballplayers, two years with Juancho. And I got to tell you, these guys have no ego at all. They're like the sweetest, most open, wonderful people. You think that they're going to be ... because they have these giant contracts and they're on this giant stage, that they're going to be tough in some way. But they're very sweet, sensitive people who worked with [our acting coach] and worked with Adam and worked with me. And were just a delight. I mean, it was it was really, really, really wonderful just to be with them.

There are a lot of sports movies about the underdog team, or an athlete trying to make it big. But this one, I got to say, feels different. It's not just about sports. And so, you also don't have to be into sports to enjoy the movie, right?

I don't think you have to be a sports fan at all. In fact, I showed the very early cuts of the movie to my mother and she watched it, and she said, "Oh my God, I love the basketball!"

She doesn't know anything about this sport. I think what we tried to do is we tried to make it as beautiful as a dance and to make the emotions the thing that was driving the scene. So even if you were watching a game, you were following the emotions of the characters. You were following Stanley's emotions or you were feeling those emotions, the ups and downs of those moments, so that no matter who you are or where you're from, you could love the movie.

In the past, Jeremiah, you've spent a lot of time working on documentaries. How did that influence how you approached Hustle?

I think that our ethos as filmmakers is always to make it real. You know, I want to see fiction films that feel like documentaries and documentaries that feel like fiction films, I think. I love authenticity and honesty and specificity. And I love the language of documentary. And so, what we did was we employed the language of documentary and we put it in this fiction format. And I think it makes the scenes feel authentic and true, and that's always the goal.

Can you talk about the role of Philadelphia in the film? What was that like for you, as a native, to do this project?

It was an honor. I mean, what an amazing thing to be able to come back to your city, you know, with a giant film, you know, that's bringing economic possibilities to the city. Philly has supported me my whole life. Obviously, I grew up there. ... And you know, I just love every little aspect of that city. I love the people and I love the sports culture and I love the art culture of the city. And so it was a thrill to be able to bring the specifics of my youth and my love to this film.

Adam was really great about saying like, "Show me where the real Philadelphia is, show me where you grew up. And we'll set it there." And even when we shot in a studio, we would mirror the real locations, so it would look like a Philadelphia row home. We would build it from scratch, and that was important that we had that authenticity.

You're seeing things differently, in the way that people who live in the city see it. Obviously, we're referencing Rocky a lot, but there's a beautiful scene in Rocky where he runs through the Italian market. But my experience of the Italian market, which I grew up two blocks from, is you walk through it and you buy your groceries, you know, you get your pots and pans there, you know, and I wanted to show that kind of Philadelphia that also there's a lived-in quality to the city.

Cat Sposato and Lucy Perkins produced and edited the audio interview.

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Cheryl W. Thompson is an investigative correspondent for NPR.