In recent years, it’s felt like Adam Sandler has rewritten the rule book of what he does on screen. “Hustle,” which has topped Netflix’s most-watched movies list since it launched last week, is just the latest in a string of unexpected twists including “The Meyerowitz Stories,” “The Week Of,” “Murder Mystery” . and “Uncut Gems”.
Directed by Jeremiah Zagar, whose previous film We the Animals was nominated for five Spirit Awards, Sandler’s groundbreaking basketball dramedy is written by Taylor Materne and A Star Is Born co-writer Will Fetters.
The film from Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions stars the comedian as Stanley Sugerman, a Philadelphia 76ers scout who spends most of his time scouring the globe for the next NBA sensation away from his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull) while he was dying to be a coach. When he discovers Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez), an unknown player living in Spain, Stanley risks everything to get him on the team.
Aside from Utah Jazz player Hernangómez, the film is packed with other real-life current and former NBA players including Anthony Edwards, Boban Marjanovic, Kenny Smith and Julius “Dr. J”Erving. And the blending of so many real-life elements with Zagar’s naturalistic cinematic touch has left many viewers wondering if the film is based on a true story.
Zagar, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, recently spoke about his experience with “Hustle” at his office in Brooklyn, New York, where he resides.
So Adam Sandler calls you about a film and you think the project isn’t right for you. Then you think about it a bit and make a decision. What changed your mind?
As a child, I loved sports films very much. Now I find a kinship with what we do as filmmakers. The storylines are all about will – do you have the will to do the impossible? That’s how it is to make films, they seem impossible.
So I started thinking – if I’ve always wanted to do a sports movie and one just fell into my lap and it’s set in Philadelphia, where I’m from… wouldn’t it be cool if we could cast real players? And Adam had mentioned that. I’ve just started to think it up a bit. There were details in the script that I felt could be improved and developed further, and Adam was open to working on the script with me… [Working with] Will Fetters, one of the writers, we got to a point where there was an authenticity that I could hold on to.
What did it mean to you to make Philadelphia such a part of the film’s fabric?
In a way it means more now that I hear people talking about their feelings about it. For me it was just intrinsic. It was like, “Well, you should make it real.” That’s kind of my ethos in all things, how do you make it real? How do you get the audience to reverse their disbelief?
Part of making something seem real is immersing it in the specifics and details that are intimate to someone who lives in a place, is from a place. We really wanted to make sure everything was as authentic as possible. I think it helps the actors feel the spaces are inhabited and real, it helps me and it helps the audience.
What was it like working with Adam Sandler, first as a producer and writer and then as an actor and director?
Well, it was wonderful writing with him. We wrote together on Zoom because it was the pandemic. We spent very little time together in person because we were afraid of killing each other with this disease. And then when we got on set… he was the right guy for the role and I could just sit back and let him do his thing. I’d give him little notes, but mostly he’s just amazing and wonderful to look at. He’s that guy and he’s done it perfectly every time. One of the cool things about watching Adam trade is that there are no bad takes. They’re just good in different ways.
In your earliest conversations about the film you talked about involving real players – how was that? First of all, just find people who were available and wanted to do it, and then groom them as actors?
That’s the great joy for me, making this film, working with these ball players. And not because they’re famous or anything, but because it’s amazing to watch them become characters. Seeing a person go from zero to 60 – from never acting before, to crying in a car and finding a place where they can go deep into their own emotional core.
I worked with Noëlle Gentile, my acting coach on We the Animals, and she got these incredible performances out of these guys. And she did it again with those ball players. I personally think there is no such thing as bad performance. Boban is incredible and Anthony Edwards is incredible and Kenny Smith is incredible and Jauncho is a revelation. That’s proof for Noëlle. I get a lot of credit for their work, but for me it’s just a pleasure to know that they’re as good as they are on screen.
How did you come to cast Jauncho in particular? This role demands a lot.
We have many cassettes. And we got Jauncho’s auditions and it was OK. It was him in his room with his brother and he was kind of there. But then we called him back and he started working with Noëlle and all of a sudden he was bubbly. It was like magic. You saw how this guy not only brought what he had to the table, he brought Bo to the table. And that’s when we knew we had a movie. Adam used to say to me, “If we don’t find the guy, we don’t have a movie, don’t worry.” But when we found him, I sent the tape to Adam and the rest of the team, and it went to the races because we knew we had the core of the film.
Was it hard to find the grammar of how to spin the games?
It was. We’ve seen a lot of basketball, but we haven’t seen it in the movies we’ve seen and we haven’t seen it in the game as it was filmed on TV. And so we started watching other sports movies, we watched Creed and Rocky and we watched Zidane and we watched as much as we could. [Cinematographer] zak [Mulligan] and me when we saw “Raging Bull” was like a lightbulb that went on like an explosion. Because what Scorsese does in this film is that every single boxing match has a different style and atmosphere and technique.
How did you land Robert Duvall for the role of team owner?
Adam and I were just throwing around names of who Rex might be. And I actually think Jeremy Yaches, my producer, suggested Robert Duvall to me. I suggested it to Adam, and Adam said, “Yes, Robert Duvall.” And everyone said, “Yes, Robert Duvall.”
And then we called his agent, “How old is Robert Duvall?” And he was like, “90 years old.” [Duvall is now 91.] And we said, ‘Can Robert Duvall come?’ And he was like, ‘Yes, Robert Duvall can come.’ … Robert Duvall showed up on set and it’s like having a king under you. He could be the greatest living American actor. And here I was with him in a trailer.
His last scene was the moment he never gives in. It was written like, “Never back down,” that sort of rah-rah thing, and I couldn’t quite picture it. And then Robert did this thing where he was face to face with Adam, and he looked at Adam and said, “Come here.” He had Adam get up and walk over to him. And suddenly there is this tremendous gravity in the moment. Then he whispered the line to him. You could feel the showers all over the set. Somehow the movie made sense. All of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, that’s the movie. Robert Duvall just told us what the film is about.” It was magical.
Casting the wife in an Adam Sandler film could go many different ways. How did you end up on Queen Latifah?
It has gone many different ways. I told the producers and Adam that I thought it would be cool if it was a mixed couple. And he said, “Actually, I’m thinking about Queen Latifah. I would love to be Queen Latifah.” And I thought that’s great. Philly is a very mixed city that I grew up in especially like Italians, Blacks, Jews and all, all these people come together. My kids are mixed race and my brother’s kids are mixed race. I thought it was wonderful to have such a couple in this film. And Adam was happy because he had known Queen for so long.
They have a way of speaking without speaking and they can improvise together and have fun and make each other laugh and it shows on set. They would just enjoy themselves. I just had to step back and watch them do it… I keep saying they shine like movie stars but they act like real people. It’s such a rare quality.
The film feels like a mix of your sensibility and a Happy Madison sensibility. how does it feel for you
i know exactly what you’re saying There are moments when I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s all me. It’s a Jeremiah Zagar vibe.” And then there are moments where I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s all Adam Sandler.’ And there are moments where I actually look at it and I’m like, ‘Oh, that is Jauncho Hernangómez.” But I think it’s a real hybrid and there are moments that are totally my aesthetic and there are moments where it’s a very happy Madison aesthetic.
I think that’s the cool thing about it. I think people are reacting to the hybrid. I’ve always been fascinated by bringing a more experimental, verité aesthetic to a major Hollywood film. You can make a huge Hollywood movie that feels like a documentary. Why not? You know, people love to feel like things are real.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-06-16/hustle-adam-sandler-netflix-true-story-jeremiah-zagar Why Adam Sandler’s ‘Hustle’ on Netflix feels like a true story