GAME first screened at Tokyo Lift-Off, then went on to screen in New York, and will be screening with us again at our next festival, in Vancouver. We had a chat with writer/director Jeannie Donohoe about herself and the film that’s taking our festivals by storm!
Interviewer by Claire Richardson
GAME premiered as part of the Lexus Short Films series. What was the commissioning process?
I had made a short film called Lambing Season as my thesis from Columbia’s MFA film program. It’s an offbeat family drama set on an Irish sheep farm, so it’s very different from GAME, although if you watch both, you might see some similarities. Lambing Season played in festivals and on PBS, and I submitted it to the Lexus Short Films competition. I made it to the next round, where I pitched an idea for this new short film I wanted to write and direct. When I got the opportunity, I wrote the script for GAME about this unique player who boldly enters a new high school’s basketball tryouts. The Lexus competition’s theme for my year was anticipation, which is a pretty broad theme — I mean, most movies have some element of anticipation — so I built the story around the question of whether this special but challenged character could make the team.
I’m so grateful that the Weinstein Company and Lexus selected this project. They’ve been incredibly supportive of the story and of me.
So you wrote the film after the commission, what was your first inspiration for the story?
I played a lot of sports growing up, and I’ve always really loved watching basketball. I wanted to talk about the issue of women’s equality, both in sports and more broadly, but to do it in what I hope is an entertaining, character-driven, action-packed film. I love sports movies, especially when they take on bigger topics and can be more of a metaphor for something about human nature or society. I wanted to explore a character who is ambitious, talented, and hard-working, but who perceives and experiences limitations based on gender.
Before becoming a filmmaker, I was a middle school teacher in the Bronx for several years. I continue to be inspired a lot by that experience. I like writing characters in those transformational teenage years, and I enjoy working creatively with young people.
How long was the production in total?
We made the film last summer, and it was a pretty fast process. We had a very short pre-production, a 5-day shoot in August, and then post-production up until its premiere in the fall. I think about 4 months total.
It’s an incredible cast, what was your casting process?
It was an amazing experience to work with the whole cast: Nicole Williams in her first acting role, NBA champion-turned-actor Rick Fox, Jamie McShane, Charles Parnell, Tye White, Dominique Columbus, Michael Purdie, and all the young basketball players who brought the team to life. It was a dream cast — I couldn’t have asked for more! We had great casting directors, the mother-daughter duo Lisa Pantone and Gigi Berry, and they brought in a lot of young, real basketball players, some of whom had acting experience and some who didn’t. We held auditions for one day in a casting studio and a second day on the basketball court.
When we were looking for the lead girl, (a tough set of requirements in a role—someone who can play basketball extremely well, is a good actor, could pass as a boy, and looks high school age), one of the casting directors, Gigi, was shopping in a clothing store, and she went up to a tall, athletic-looking woman who worked in the store, and asked if she played basketball. That was Nicole! So Nicole said yes – four years of college basketball at Nevada as a point guard. She had never acted in anything before, but agreed to audition for the role. She came in and she was amazing!
For Rick Fox in the Coach role, I was really, really hoping we could get an NBA player. I thought it would help bring authenticity to the type of role I had written, and also shine a spotlight on the topic and the message of the film. GAME’s producer, Joey Horvitz, the whole team at The Weinstein Company and Lexus, and the casting directors were very supportive of this goal and we all worked really hard to make it happen. We wrote Rick some long letters saying how much we admired him and his work, and why we thought he’d be perfect for this character. I grew up in Boston, where Rick played for the Celtics before coming to the Lakers, and I’ve followed his career for decades, including his transition to acting. He’s in my favorite basketball movie, He Got Game, by Spike Lee. It was an amazing day when I found out that Rick said yes, and a great experience working with him throughout.
What was it like the first time you met him?!
Well he invited Nicole, the lead, Joey, the producer, and me, to his apartment to talk about the script and go through the scenes. Rick has an extremely charismatic personality and he’s a really smart, emotionally tuned-in guy who obviously has a lot of relevant experience and insights. And beyond that he’s nice, down-to-earth, and very personable. He really connected with the script and brought a lot of great ideas to the process – he was truly collaborative and generous, start to finish. Rick was also terrific with the rest of the cast on set, like a real coach on the court with all those boys (girl).
What have you taken away most from your experience of making GAME?
One of the main things I learned and grew from as a director was working with such a big cast and crew. I had only ever made movies with up to 5 or 6 characters in them before this, always on a shoestring budget. So getting to write and work with a sizeable lead cast, 35 background performers, having 2 cameras and 100 people on set every day, was a huge leap for me in terms of directing. It was really exciting and makes me want to work at that level all the time now. I strongly value the relationships I developed with members of the cast and crew, and the great people at Weinstein and Lexus, and I hope to work with many of these collaborators again.
The film has had a brilliant reception at our Lift-Off screenings. What other responses have you had to it?
I’m very grateful to the exceptional Lift-Off team and wonderful audiences in all the regions for embracing the film! The response I get from people when they watch the movie has been a continuing part of the learning process with this film. Many people have come up to me or written to me to share their own experiences in sports or with issues of gender limitations or triumphs. It’s been profound to connect with people on such a personal level and about this topical issue. I recently had a very elderly woman come up to me after a screening, and she said “I’m so proud of you.” It was very touching — I’d never met her before but she really responded to the story and the message behind it, and that meant a lot coming from someone who has lived through some very different times as a woman. Overall, it’s been informative and inspiring to hear what people have to say about the film afterwards, especially as I work on a feature-length script related to GAME.
Due to its message, have you sent it to any charities/organisations etc…?
Yes, we’re in the process now of sending it out. We have a very long list of organizations, non-profits–women-focused, girl-focused, sports-focused, equality-minded organizations. So we’re trying to get the word out – any ideas for specialty audiences are welcome!
Lastly, are you currently working on anything new that you can tell us about?
I’m working on a feature-length film related to GAME that’s also set in the world of basketball. That’s what I’d like to direct next. It’s not the same story exactly, and it has slightly different characters, but it’s the same world, theme and topic, just on a way bigger scale!
GAME will be screening in Vancouver on Wednesday 9th August, 6:15pm at Vancity Theatre.
You can follow Jeannie Donohoe and GAME on social media on the accounts below: