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VIFF 2017 Interview: GAME director Jeannie Donohoe

By Jason Whyte
Posted 10/03/17 11:39:16

"GAME is a sports film with a twist! The story of a young basketball player who wants to go all the way. AJ Green is a new kid in town who shows up to tryouts for the high school boys varsity team. While testing the limits, will talent and drive be enough to make the team? The film stars former L.A. Laker Rick Fox and a cast of real basketball players. GAME is a story for anyone who has ever really wanted something but felt on the outside." Jeannie Donohoe on GAME which screens at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?

Yes! This is my first time with a film at VIFF, and my first trip to Vancouver. I am excited to share GAME with Vancouver audiences!

Look forward to having you here! Tell me about how you got your start.

I am a writer-director based in Los Angeles, originally from the east coast, Boston then New York. I went to Dartmouth College and studied art. I then worked as a middle school teacher in the Bronx through the Teach for America program before I went to film school at Columbia University to study writing and directing. After getting my MFA, I moved out to L.A. to work in film.

So how did GAME come together for you?

GAME was selected to be made through the Lexus Short Film competition. I had made a previous short film called LAMBING SEASON, which was my MFA thesis from Columbia, shot in Ireland. I submitted it to the competition, and pitched the idea for GAME. I was really shocked and excited when I was chosen, as one of four filmmakers internationally, to write and direct my short and have it produced by The Weinstein Company. I had a few weeks to lock the draft, a few weeks of casting and pre-production, and then we shot the film last August in L.A. at a high school in Watts and an outdoor court in San Pedro. Joey Horvitz from The Weinstein Company was the producer. He and our casting directors Lisa Pantone and Gigi Berry, and producer Greg Gilreath from Divide/Conquer assembled a huge, awesome team to make the film happen. The cast was amazing to work with; former NBA Champion-turned-actor Rick Fox, newcomer Nicole Williams, Tye White, Jamie McShane, Dominique Columbus, Charles Parnell, and Michael Purdie, and 30 additional basketball players. Paula Huidobro was our talented DP. In post-production, the collaboration with editor Saira Haider was a great experience. And the composer Deron Johnson, his crew, and I spent a few weeks working on the music into the wee hours. The sound and color artists at Wildfire Studios were amazing as well.

While you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you, creatively? How much coffee?

A lot of coffee, healthy food, exercise, yoga, and friends. I am also driven by the reality that when you finish a film and put it out there into the world, it's to some extent permanent. It's something that can be watched years from now. So every decision, small or big, is something you want to think through, feel good about, and make sure it serves the story and your vision. Being mindful of that motivates me. All the work that goes into prep, on set, and in post is completely worth it.

What was your biggest challenge with making GAME?

One of the biggest challenges was casting the lead role, AJ. Even in writing that character, I knew it was going to be a tough part to find. The person playing AJ would need to be great at basketball, be a great actor, be able to conceivably pass as a boy, and be young enough to play high school age. We had excellent casting directors who brought in a number of basketball players to audition, many of whom were great, but we were still searching. Then one day, the casting director was shopping in a clothing store, and she noticed an employee who was tall, muscular, and had that look. She went up to the employee and asked if she played basketball, acted, and would like to audition. She said Yes, No & Sure to those respectively. And that was Nicole Williams. Nicole came in and knocked it out of the park. She was terrific to work with. For all the team parts, it was a huge priority to me to cast real basketball players, both for authenticity and for the style of shooting I'm interested in, which is real, un-cheated, un-doubled shots, and a group dynamic of a real team. We held the call-backs for all the player roles on a basketball court where I could watch them play.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

There were so many great moments! I am very nostalgic thinking back to the shoot and how special an opportunity it was. I think the time I felt the most joy and thrill was directing the five-on-five scrimmage sequence. It was a very complicated situation; 10 players on the court, two coaches, several background performers, a fairly long scene with a lot of quick action, multiple pre-choreographed plays in a row, two cameras, the entire court in view in terms of equipment, art, wardrobe, personnel and so forth. It was extremely stressful. But we rehearsed it and blocked for camera, and because of the way the scenario and shots were designed; the way we cast, and the blocking and shooting style to capture real basketball play, it was actually very fluid once the takes began. We had great camera operators capturing the fast action and specific story beats, and I remember watching at the monitor, feeling like I was watching an exciting basketball game. The team was fully playing in character, the coaches really coaching. It was so gratifying. It took a ton of collective focus to make those scenes flow, and it was a thrill to direct!

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film!

We shot on the Arri Alexa, which is a great camera and seemed most ideal for our lighting conditions given the locations. Our amazing cinematographer Paula Huidobro and I met as much as we could in the limited time prior to the shoot to discuss the shot list and style. I shared an extensive look book with reference imagery and films. I wanted things to look very real and natural, not calling extra attention to stylized lighting or camera work. I have a strong interest in naturalism. Paula led a great team in the camera and lighting departments. The gaffer Erik Folsom made the environments look real but also much more beautiful than your standard high school overhead fluorescents.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing GAME to audiences here at VIFF?

I am really looking forward to screening the film in Canada! Rick Fox has roots in Canada, so Canadian audiences will hopefully enjoy his starring role. I have never been to Vancouver, but have been hearing how great a city and region it is for years. I'm excited to experience it first-hand. And I have heard a lot about how great a festival VIFF is!

Where is this movie going to show next? Any ideas of how you would like to distribute the film?

After Vancouver, I will be attending Tacoma, Mill Valley, BendFilm, and Ojai Film Festivals to screen GAME. I am on a long, international trip right now for September and October. We are then screening at Washington West in DC, Citizen Jane in Missouri, Pittsburgh Shorts, Aesthetica in the U.K., Heart of Gold in Australia, Santa Fe Independent, Lone Star in Texas, St. John's International Women's Film Festival in Newfoundland, Fort Lauderdale, Fairhope in Alabama, Moondance in Colorado, New Hampshire, Savannah, Hawaii, Tallgrass, and San Pedro. In terms of distribution, Lexus is streaming the film on their website.

If you could show your movie in any theater in the world, which one would you choose and why?

This isn't an especially film nerdy answer; there are so many great theaters in L.A., New York, internationally, and in smaller American cities and towns I have been lucky enough to visit for festivals, but I would love to screen the film with an audience of high school kids. One of the best screenings I have had was watching the film with my two young nieces, just on a laptop sitting together. They had a running commentary and very genuine reactions, and I felt very connected to the reason I wanted to make the film in the first place.

Movie theaters are the best place to see a movie, but sometimes they can be distracting! What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?

I agree. In my experience people don't deal well with being policed by their peers, though. I only say something if I think I'll get a reasonable reaction, otherwise I will move or maybe tell a theater employee. As important as conflict is in storytelling, I'm not a big fan of it in real life, especially with strangers!

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews for inspiration. If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

Keep putting yourself out there. There are a lot of rejections and missed opportunities in a competitive field like filmmaking, and I have had my share of them. But persistence often yields a yes and sometimes one big yes is enough.

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

I saw an excellent movie on the festival circuit this year called SAMI BLOOD, and I just saw that it's playing at VIFF! It's a Swedish film about two sisters in the Sami tribe, an indigenous reindeer-herding population in Sweden. It's a very moving story, beautifully directed, shot, and performed. And I didn't know anything about that group of people before seeing the film, so it was an education in culture and history through a very personal story. I love having my point of view and understanding of the world expanded when watching movies.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 28th to October 13th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.viff.org.

Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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