Adam Sandler’s “Hustle” is not a true story. But here’s why it feels like a
Over the past few years, it feels like Adam Sandler has rewritten the rule book for what he does onscreen. ‘Hustle’, which has topped Netflix’s most-watched movies list since its launch last week, is just the latest example in a series of unexpected twists included “The Meyerowitz Stories”, “The week of” “Murder Mystery” and “Uncut Gems.”
Directed by Jeremiah Zagar, whose previous film “We the Animals” has been named for five Spiritual RewardsSandler’s basketball comedy-drama was 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 traveling the world for the next NBA sensation, away from his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull) while desperately wanting to become a coach. When he discovers Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez), a stranger living in Spain, Stanley risks everything to get him on the team.
Besides Utah jazz player Hernangómez, the film is full of other real 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 touches has many viewers wondering if the film is based on a true story.
Zagar, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, recently spoke about his experiences creating “Hustle” from his office in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives.
So Adam Sandler calls you about a movie and you think the project isn’t for you. Then you think about it some more and decide to do it. What made you change your mind?
When I was a kid, I really liked sports movies. Now I find a connection with what we do as filmmakers. Storylines are all about willpower – do you have the willpower to do that seemingly impossible thing? That’s how to make movies, they seem impossible.
So I started thinking – if I’ve always wanted to do a sports movie and one falls in my lap and it’s set in Philadelphia where I’m from… wouldn’t it cool if we could recruit real players? And Adam mentioned that. I just started dreaming a little. There were details in the script that I felt could be improved and evolved, 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 there that I could hold on to.
What did it mean to you to make Philadelphia such a part of the fabric of the film?
In some ways, that means more now that I’m hearing people talk about their feelings about it. For me, it was just intrinsic. It was like, “Well, you should make it real.” It’s kind of my philosophy in all things, how do I make it real? How do you get the audience to suspend their disbelief?
Part of making something feel real is imbuing it with specificity and details that are intimate to someone who lives in a place, comes from a place. We really wanted to make sure everything was as authentic as possible. I think it helps the actors feel that the spaces are lived in and real, it helps for me and it helps for the audience.
What was it like working with Adam Sandler, first as a producer and screenwriter, then transitioning into an acting and directing dynamic?
Well, it was wonderful to write with him. We wrote together on Zoom because it was the pandemic. We spent very little time in person together 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 part, and I could just sit back and let him do his thing. I’d give it low marks, but most of the time it’s just amazing and wonderful to watch. He’s that guy and he’s done it perfectly every time. One of the cool things about watching Adam act is that there are no bad takes. They are just good in different ways.
In your early conversations about the movie, you were talking about bringing in real players – how was that? First, find guys who were available and wanted to do it, and then get them in on it as actors?
It’s the great joy of making this film for me, of working with these ball players. And not because they’re famous or anything, but because it’s amazing to watch them become characters. Watching a person go from zero to 60 – from never having acted before, to, you know, crying in a car and finding a place where they can dig deep into their own emotional core.
I worked with Noelle Gentile, my acting coach on “We the Animals,” and she brought out these incredible performances from these boys. And she did it again with those ball players. I think there is no bad performance, personally. Boban is amazing and Anthony Edwards is amazing and Kenny Smith is amazing and Jauncho is a revelation. This is a testimonial from Noelle. I get a lot of credit for his work, but for me it’s just a joy to know that they’re as good as they are on screen.
How did you come to cast Jauncho in particular? This role requires a lot.
We have many bands. And we got Jauncho’s audition, and it was OK. It was him in his room with his brother, and he was kind of in it. But then we called him back and he started working with Noelle, and all of a sudden it just poured out on him. It was like magic. You saw this guy not only bring what he had to the table, but bring Bo to the table. And that’s when we knew we had a movie. Adam always said to me, “If we can’t find the guy, we don’t have a movie, don’t worry.” But when we found it, I sent the tape over to Adam and the rest of the crew, and it was off to the races because we knew we had the heart of the movie.
Was it difficult to find the grammar for how to film the games?
It was. We watched a lot of basketball and we didn’t see it in the movies we watched and we didn’t see it in the game that 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] zack [Mulligan] and me, when we watched ‘Raging Bull’, there was like a light bulb that went off like an explosion for us. Because what Scorsese is doing in this movie is every boxing match has a different style and vibe and a different technique.
How did you get Robert Duvall for the role of team owner?
Adam and I were just tossing around names to see who Rex might be. And I think actually 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 thought, “Can Robert Duvall come?” And he was like, “Yes, Robert Duvall can come.” …Robert Duvall has arrived on set and it’s like having a king among you. He could be the greatest living American actor. And here I am in a trailer with him.
His last scene was the moment of never backing down. It was written like, “Never back down!”, that rah-rah kind of thing, and I couldn’t quite imagine it. And then Robert did this thing where he was in front of Adam, and he looked at Adam and he said, “Come here.” He made Adam get up and walk towards him. And suddenly there’s this huge gravity in the moment. Then he whispered the line to her. You could feel shivers all around the set. The movie kind of made sense. All of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, this is the movie. Robert Duvall just told us what the movie is. It was magical.
Casting the woman in an Adam Sandler movie could go a number of ways. How did you land on Queen Latifah?
He followed many different paths. I had told the producers and Adam that I thought it would be cool if it was an interracial couple. And he said, “Actually, I’m thinking Queen Latifah. I would love for it to be Queen Latifah.” And I thought to myself, this is great. Philly is a very mixed city, where I grew up, it’s mostly Italians, blacks, Jews, and everybody, all those people come together. My children are mixed and my brother’s children are mixed. I thought it was wonderful to have a couple like that in this movie. And Adam was excited about it because he had known Queen for so long.
They have a way of talking without talking and they can improvise together and have fun and make each other laugh and it shows on set. They would just amuse each other. I just had to step back and watch them do… 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 hybrid between your sensibility and a Happy Madison sensibility. What does it do to you?
I know exactly what you are saying. There are times when I’m like, “Oh, that’s all me. That’s a Jeremiah Zagar vibe.” And then there are times when I go, “Oh, that’s all Adam Sandler.” And there are times when I look at him and I’m like, “Oh, it’s Jauncho Hernangómez.” But I think it’s a real hybrid, and there are times that are completely my aesthetic and there are times that it’s a very Happy Madison aesthetic.
I think that’s what’s cool. I think people react to the hybrid. I’ve always been thrilled to bring a more experimental aesthetic of truth to a great Hollywood movie. You can make a giant Hollywood movie that looks like a documentary. Why not? You know, people like to feel like things are real.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.