Festival Daily

By Eleni Deacon

Who: Kristopher Belman, director of More Than a Game
What: Whisky and cola; gin and tonic
Where: The Pilot Tavern, 22 Cumberland Street
When: Sept. 6, 7:45pm

Though his flight from Los Angeles had landed just a few hours before, first-time director Kristopher Belman is a great sport as we climb the three flights of stairs to the rooftop patio of The Pilot Tavern. His documentary, More Than a Game, has been six years in the making, having started as a university assignment. Initially unsure of how to even operate his camera, Belman shadowed five promising basketball players from his home state of Ohio, one of whom went on to become an NBA superstar – LeBron James. On the eve of his film’s debut, Belman gives some insight into his fortuitous journey to the Festival.

ED: What inspired you to start shooting a high-school basketball team?

KB: I was doing my undergrad in Los Angeles. I’m from Ohio, and nobody from my school could even find Ohio on a map. So I was getting made fun of for being a “farm boy.” I took an introductory documentary class and we had to do a project. I told myself, “I want to do something hometown-related so I can show it off.” At the time, people locally had heard about LeBron. I had heard that he and three of the four guys had played together under the same coach since they were in fourth grade, so I just thought there’d be a story there.

ED: How did you meet the team and gain such inside access?

KB: The team was being bombarded by all kinds of people. They had rejected 60 Minutes. LeBron had already turned down appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman. They were high-school kids, so I think they were trying to ward off all distractions. Finally one of the coaches said, “You can come to one practice with your camera and just see how it goes.” So I stayed out of the way. And they didn’t say I could come back to the second practice, but they didn’t say I couldn’t. So I just came back the next day. And then I came back the day after that. And they never really told me to stop. At the time I was 21, and I barely knew how to use the camera.

ED: Can you share any funny stories from filming?

KB: The first three months, none of them knew my name. They just called me “Cameraman.” I think two of them probably still don’t know my name. If I call them – I’ve seen their cellphones – it says “Cameraman.” They’ll call me up and be like, “Hey, Cameraman, what’s going on?” I think if someone said, “Kris Belman directed the film you were in,” they’d be like, “Who’s that? Did Cameraman sell the rights to the movie?”

ED: How did it go from being a school assignment to a feature-length documentary?

KB: It took about a year and a half to find a producing partner because everyone wanted the same thing. It was, “Let’s do a LeBron movie. I want to see LeBron highlights. I want to pump rap music behind this and go straight to TV.” And nobody believed in the other players. Nobody believed in the other stories. I was working in a coffee shop, trying to pay back student loans, and I was being offered these large sums of money just to sell the footage outright. But I had a responsibility to those guys. That’s one of the reasons it took so long. But it was done right, and that’s all that matters.

ED: Is the movie only for basketball fans?

KB: I think the reason that we’ve been able to go to a festival like Toronto is because there’s a lot more to it than just the sporting element. People’s biggest surprise when they go to see the movie is that it’s not about LeBron. There are five characters and then the coach, and honestly, it’s the coach’s story. It’s about taking these boys and teaching them what it means to be men. All the other players have really life-relevant moments and find stability in basketball. So basketball is the vehicle that these kids use to become men, but that’s just what it is.

ED: What does it feel like to finally be at the Festival?

KB: I’ve been working on this for six years now. It started out, like I said, as a school project – which I didn’t get an A on! I got a B+. I would never in a million years have thought that this project would be at this level. Neither did my professors, obviously!