Director Jeannie Donohoe’s award-winning film Game is a story about pushing boundaries to achieve your goals. The film stars Rick Fox (Dope, He Got Game), Nicole Williams (film debut; Univ. Nevada point guard) and Tye White (People Vs. OJ Simpson, Drumline).
AJ Green, a new kid in town, shows up at the high school boys basketball varsity tryouts and instantly makes an impression. Coach takes notice, and so do the other players, some of whom feel threatened by the new blood. The school’s team is excellent— second best in the state—and this is the year Coach plans to win it all. AJ proves himself on the court and clearly has talent, heart, and drive... as well as a big secret. Will AJ make the team once the players and coach discover the truth?
Jeannie Donohoe is an award-winning filmmaker who has written and directed several short films, including Game, Lambing Season (selected for over 50 film festivals and multiple awards; named one of the “Best Short Films of 2014” by Indiewire; currently airing on PBS Film School Shorts) and Public (Palm Springs ShortFest, PBS Imagemakers). Jeannie was selected from over 4,600 applicants to write and direct Game through the Lexus Short Films program. This talented director is currently developing her first feature-length film.
We chatted with Jeannie, here are the excerpt.
- What inspired to make you this film? What are your thoughts on gender inequality in Hollywood or in America?
For starters, I love basketball. I've played a lot of sports in my life, and I also love sports movies. I see many parallels between athletic pursuits (especially team sports) and filmmaking. So making a sports film was an exciting prospect that combined a lot of my interests. Being on teams, in school, in jobs, and working in the film industry, I've also experienced and observed stark differences between opportunities for women compared to men. I wanted to talk about gender inequality, but to do it within a character-driven, action-packed sports movie that's also entertaining and optimistic. I think it's pretty undeniable that we live in a patriarchal society with a lot of gender-based injustices. I actually wrote, directed, and we finished the film in the months leading up to the presidential election last summer and fall. Like most people, I thought we were on the verge of electing our first woman president. We premiered the film the day after the election, and suddenly the story took on a whole new meaning and urgency (locker room scene and all). And 2017 has continued to illuminate the obstacles women face and the struggle for equality. The message of GAME feels more timely than ever.
- What do you enjoy about short films?
I love short films. Making a short is a very common way for filmmakers to get their start. You really discover your cinematic voice in the process. I've made several short films -- GAME has been the most ambitious and the highest-level production. I think shorts are a great form for experimenting and working to pack a screenworthy story into a concise period of time. They also have a unique opportunity to explore a specific moment or turning point in a character's life. I watch a lot of shorts, mostly at film festivals, but also established directors' early short films. Looking back at these, you can see the beginnings of an artist's style and interests. These early films are often powerful, brief capsules of themes or ideas that continue to inspire later work.
- How was the funding & casting for this film?
I had made a previous short film called Lambing Season as my thesis from Columbia University's graduate film school. It's an offbeat family drama set on an Irish sheep farm (involving a live lamb birth!) so it's very different from GAME's high school basketball story set in Los Angeles. I entered Lambing Season into the Lexus Short Films competition, a program that supports up-and-coming filmmakers with funding for a new short film production. I was (miraculously) selected as one of four international filmmakers out of 4600 applicants, and Lexus generously funded GAME. I'm extremely grateful! We worked with great casting directors: mother-daughter duo Lisa Pantone and Gigi Berry. GAME had some big casting challenges written into the script: we needed kids who were great basketball players on top of being great actors. And the lead, "AJ," also needed to be able to pass as a boy. We auditioned many great young women for the role, and one day, the casting director was shopping in a clothing store and she spotted an employee who was tall, lean, muscular, and kind of had that look. She went up to the employee and asked if she by chance played basketball (yes), and had she ever acted? (no). Would she like to audition? (sure!) And that was Nicole Williams, who came in and blew me away. Nicole played four years of college basketball at Nevada, as point guard, and she was a total natural in the scene work. Casting the Coach was another challenge. While writing the script, I had this dream of trying to get an NBA player or retired player for the role, both to bring an authenticity to the character and to shine a light on the message of the film. I'm from Boston originally, so I've followed Rick Fox's career from his early Celtics days to winning NBA championships with the Lakers, and also his transition to acting. He's in my favorite basketball movie, Spike Lee's He Got Game. I wrote a long letter and we sent him the script. One of the most exciting days of this entire process was when Rick came on board. The material resonated with him, and he brought tremendous expertise, insight, and heart to the character and to the set experience. Jamie McShane, Charles Parnell, Tye White, Dominique Columbus, and Michael Purdie were all incredible to work with. The rest of the team is also made up of real basketball players--some actors, some not. It was such a joy to work with this dream cast, from the auditions to rehearsals to the shoot.
- What other filmmakers do you like? And why?
I like a lot of styles of films, but I tend to gravitate toward naturalism and humanism in filmmaking. Some of my favorite filmmakers are: Andrea Arnold, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Jane Campion, Kelly Reichardt, Ryan Coogler, the Dardenne Brothers, Lisa Cholodenko, Thomas Vinterberg, Lynne Ramsay, Peter Berg, and Kenneth Lonergan. For me, the most compelling films prioritize emotional truth in performances and story, and they have a specificity about them. Filmmaking is an incredible mode of expression -- I think it's very powerful to get access to someone else's outlook, life experience, or imagination.
- What's your message to other aspiring filmmakers and storytellers?
Make work from the heart. Tell the story only you can tell. And just keep going. Filmmaking is an obstacle course, full of challenges and plenty of rejections, but the field is also full of opportunities to keep moving forward. I think of this career as a marathon, and my daily work is logging miles, chipping away at the dream.