'Hustle' is Jeremiah Zagar's love letter to basketball fans in Philadelphia Many of the actors who star alongside Adam Sandler in the new basketball movie Hustle are real NBA athletes. NPR's Cheryl W. Thompson talks with director Jeremiah Zagar about the film.

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

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In the new movie "Hustle," Adam Sandler plays a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who dreams of being a coach. When he discovers an unknown talent playing on the neighborhood courts of Spain, he may just get his chance.


ADAM SANDLER: (So Stanley Sugerman) So how do you think you did?

JUANCHO HERNANGOMEZ: (As Bo Cruz) They score couple times, but I think I did pretty good, I guess.

SANDLER: (As Stanley Sugerman) Three guys were running at you full-tilt for 5 minutes straight, and they scored a couple times. You crushed it. The only thing in your way is that big brain of yours. You're sensitive. I get that. I'm sensitive, too. I cried at the end of "Titanic," but I'm not in the NBA. You? You can never be soft again.

THOMPSON: Academy Award winner Robert Duvall and Academy Award nominee Queen Latifah co-star in the film, which is directed by Jeremiah Zagar, who joins me now. Jeremiah, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JEREMIAH ZAGAR: Thank you so much. It's an honor to be here.

THOMPSON: I 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?

ZAGAR: (Laughter) 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 - you know, when you're taking on a project that's, you know, 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, you know? I wanted to make sure that, you know, I could do it justice and that it was - for me, that there was enough me inside of it, enough exciting cinematic possibilities that - you know, that it would be something that I could be proud of and that I could do justice to.

And so I told him no (laughter). But then, I couldn't get it out of my mind, you know? It took place in Philadelphia. And, you know, it centered around the sport of basketball, which I love. And I got back on the phone with Adam. And we talked about it, and then, we seemed aligned. You know, we wanted to work with all nonprofessional actors, and we wanted to shoot it in a way that felt authentic to both the city and to the sport, you know, and, you know, give it a realism that I was excited by.

THOMPSON: Well, I know you're from Philly - right? - which is, of course, a huge sports town. You're a basketball fan. And sometimes - sometimes, not always, but sometimes, the movie feels like it was created by and for NBA fans.

ZAGAR: I hope so (laughter). I mean, I think - Adam is a gigantic NBA fan, obviously, as were so many people on the film. I mean, you know - and there's so many real NBA players either playing themselves or playing characters based on, you know, people like them.

You know, Juancho is a real NBA player. He plays for the Utah Jazz. And, you know, he's incredible as an actor, too. But, you know, he can really play basketball beautifully, as can Anthony Edwards, you know, as can Kenny Smith, as can Dr. J, obviously. So you're seeing them do the thing they love the most in the world, you know, in a beautiful, cinematic way.

THOMPSON: And Juancho Hernangomez can block, too.


ZAGAR: Yeah, he can. He can.

THOMPSON: He can block.

ZAGAR: He can do anything.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) And as you say, he 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?

ZAGAR: So we had a wonderful acting coach - or I have a wonderful acting coach who works with all the nonprofessional actors I've ever worked with. My last film, "We The Animals," was - you know, starred three young boys who had never, you know, acted in a film before, and she spent years with them. And she spent years with the - some of the ballplayers, too - 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 know, it's like you think that they're going to be, you know - you know, 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, you know, worked with Noelle and worked with Adam and worked with me and were just a delight.

THOMPSON: Well, one of the characters did not come across as sweet in the movie, and that would be Anthony Edwards - right? - who was Bo Cruz's rival and the movie's villain. And Edwards is the guard, as you know, for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He's all of 20. What made him a good fit for that role?

ZAGAR: Well, I don't think of him as a villain. I think of him as an anti-hero. I think he's a great anti-hero. He's friends with Juancho. They played together on the Timberwolves. And Adam had watched Anthony's press conferences and, you know, some of the media he'd done. And he's, you know, incredibly charismatic and natural. And him and Noelle worked for a while. And then when he came to set, it was like - you know, you just felt like you were hanging out with Paul Newman. I mean, he was that good.

Adam and I kept being like, who is this guy? Where did he come from? And although, you know, he does get under the skin of Bo Cruz, of the character, you know, it's important to note that the things he's saying, they're - you know, they're the things that are said in basketball, you know? He's just trying to play the game and do it the way, you know, winners play.

THOMPSON: Well, in that scene, you know, when they're on the court, that was one of the questions I had - I asked myself when I was watching this. I was like, hmm, I wonder if he actually does this.

ZAGAR: (Laughter) I wondered, too.


ZAGAR: He's good at it. It must come from somewhere.

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

ZAGAR: You know, I want to see fiction films that feel like documentaries and documentaries that feel like fiction films. I think - you know, I love authenticity and honesty and specificity, and I love the language of documentary.

THOMPSON: What do you mean by the language of documentaries?

ZAGAR: Well, often, when you shoot a documentary, you're shooting it handheld and in the street and with natural light because you don't have the opportunity to throw in, you know, giant lights and cranes and, you know, tripods even. You know, you're off the cuff and moving. And so, you know, as soon as an audience sees that language, which is, you know, handheld, natural light, and the acting language, which is often improvisational and fluid, they feel the reality and the authenticity of the scene because they've seen it in documentaries. They say, oh, I recognize that as real. And that's a thing we're trying to emulate and trying to create.

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

ZAGAR: 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 and force to the city. You know, Philly has supported me my whole life, you know, obviously. I grew up there. I - you know, I went to TLA Video and rented, you know, five movies a week and - the Ritz Five. And, you know, I just love every little aspect of that city. I love the people, and I love, you know, 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.

THOMPSON: Jeremiah Zagar is the director of the new movie "Hustle." Thanks so much for joining us.

ZAGAR: Oh, thank you for having me.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) They're playing basketball. We love that basketball.

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