FILM – Game’s Jeannie Donohoe “Casting can be very instinctual”

GAME – Trailer from Jeannie Donohoe on Vimeo.

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.

Producer Joey Horvitz, has over two decades of extensive experience in development, production, distribution, and marketing. From co-founding Cutting Edge Entertainment, to founding film production company Contagious Entertainment. Currently, Horvitz has been responsible for the award-winning Lexus Short Films initiative, which is now going into its fourth season.

Game has been receiving film festival awards all over the world including; at U.K.’s Raindance Film Festival’s Oscar Qualifying award Best Short FilmBest of Fest Audience Favourites at Palm Spring International ShortFest, Best U.S. Narrative Film at D.C. Shorts, Audience Choice Award at L.A. Indie Film Festival, Best Narrative Short at Tokyo Lift-Off Film Festival and the Bronze Lion Award in Entertainment at Cannes Lions.

Game will soon screen at Savannah Film Festival, Hawaii International Film Festival, and Aesthetica Short Film Festival.

Why did you name your short film ‘Game’?

I like titles with layered meanings.  GAME speaks to the nature of sports and the basketball plot, but also to a bold willingness and courage to push past boundaries.  I think many societal norms and rules are like a game as well.  How do we navigate the game of gender conventions?  What’s the game plan for progress when you’re asked to examine hard truths?  My favorite basketball movie is Spike Lee’s He Got Game, so maybe there’s a hint of a tribute to that as well.

What sparked the initial idea for it?

I played a lot of sports growing up and I’m a big fan of basketball–I love the game and all the human narratives that surround it.  I’ve also had a lifetime of experiences feeling and observing the world’s troubling inequalities between women and men.  I wanted to talk about gender constraints and possibilities, but to do it within an entertaining sports film with a twist.  

What were some of the challenges you encountered while making this film? And how did you overcome them?

One big challenge early on was the fact that I wrote a very tough role to cast!  Whoever was going to play “AJ Green” needed to be an excellent basketball player, a strong, truthful actor, able to pass as a boy, and young enough to play high school age.  We had great casting directors on the case.  They brought in a number of very strong candidates, including women who played in the WNBA or overseas.  But then one day, the casting director was out shopping in a clothing store and spotted someone who might have that look.  She went up to the woman in the store and asked if she played basketball.  The answer was yes: four years college ball at Nevada, point guard.  She had never acted, but was game to come in for an audition.  And that was Nicole!  She was absolutely amazing to work with.

Another (fun) challenge was filming the basketball sequences.  It’s a somewhat daunting task to make your first sports film, but I wrote it with a passion and was determined to do it.  I did a lot of viewing research, watching or re-watching 50 sports films and shows to see what I could learn, what I liked, what I didn’t want to do.  I also watched a lot of live high school basketball, and our casting callbacks and rehearsals were on a basketball court.  The game of basketball moves very quickly and there’s a big vertical difference between the ball, feet, players hands and even faces, in relation to the 10-foot-high basket, so designing the blocking and shots was a challenge.  I knew I wanted naturalistic, real playing sequences, and I didn’t want to cut or cheat shots or use body doubles, so the first step was casting all real basketball players.  And we filmed a lot of the action continuously with two cameras.

Were there any positive things that came out of you making this film?

Absolutely!  The experience was and continues to be super positive in so many ways.  The biggest joy was certainly working with this incredible group of people.  The cast was inspiring to be around let alone collaborate with on a story like this.  The crew was also super talented, and it was mostly women in the key roles, which made for a unique set.  I really enjoyed the teamwork.  One of the most gratifying, ongoing aspects of making GAME has been sharing the film with audiences and hearing all kinds of people respond to it.  People come up to me a lot afterward and tell me how much the story meant to them, or they share their personal stories of overcoming obstacles like the lead character.  It’s been very meaningful to connect with audiences through screening GAME.

Did Rick Fox’s background as a basketball player play a role when you decided to cast him for the film as a coach?

Even in the writing stage, I had a long-shot dream of casting an NBA player or former player to play the Coach character.  I thought it would lend authenticity to a role like that and also hopefully shine a light on the message of the film.  It was easily one of the most thrilling moments of this process (and my life!) when Rick Fox came on board.  I’m from Boston originally, so I’ve followed his career since he was a Celtic and then as a Laker and an actor.  He’s in my favorite basketball movie, He Got Game.  Rick is a very sincere, insightful person and actor, and he really got the role and the complexity of what Coach decides to do in the story.  Collaborating with him on set was amazing.  The players (and everyone) really looked up to him so much, so in many ways, it was like having a real coach on the court.

Nicole Williams gave a terrific performance, what was it about her that stood out from the other potential actors?

Nicole was exceptionally natural, especially for someone who had never acted before!  She’s a smart, emotionally tuned-in young woman, and she had a kind of effortless understanding of the character, bringing her own instincts and experience to the part.  And she’s great at basketball.  Casting can be very instinctual.  I think you have to feel moved by an actor if you want to move an audience.  We had a few strong contenders, but it just felt right to go with Nicole.  She was a joy to work with, and she’s really the heart of this film.

This film is about gender inequality. Why was it important for you to make a film about it in this day and age?

It’s interesting… I wrote and directed GAME in the last months of the presidential campaigns, and we finished post-production the day before the election.  Like most people, I thought we were about to elect the first woman president of the United States.  I felt GAME was addressing a topical issue while reflecting the optimism and progress of that new frontier.  We premiered the film the day after the election, and it took on an entirely new meaning to me, locker room scene and all.  I think the story is actually even more relevant now.  When coming up with the idea, I thought the film’s message was like a voice in the choir.  Now I think of it as more of a battle cry.

Have you ever experienced gender inequality, if so are you able to share your experience?

I don’t know any woman who hasn’t experienced gender inequality.  We live in an undeniably patriarchal society.  There are explicit ways I’ve experienced gender inequality and then subtle, insidious ways that sexism and misogyny affect everyday life.  I had one experience growing up that was definitely one of the inspirations for the plot of GAME.  My best friend and I were around 10 years old, and we were strong, active kids who happened to have very short, matching haircuts.  A circus came to our town, and we got “hired” (as volunteers) to help raise and set up the tent.  We were so excited, and we showed up for the gig, ready to work.  But the guy in charge started talking to my mother, and it became clear to him that we were girls, not boys, as he had thought, unbeknownst to us.  The two of us were replaced for the job by one very scrawny boy, and my friend and I went home.  The image of that event is crystal clear in my mind, decades later.  I will never forget the sense of injustice I felt and continue to feel at every story or incident of unfair treatment of women.  It’s amazing how something formative like that will impact your outlook on the world and light a fire under you.  I’ve been an alert feminist ever since.

What do you want women to take away from the film?

I hope women, girls, and gender-non-conforming people will feel empowered and inspired watching GAME.  I also hope male audiences will take away from the film an engagement with the questions it poses.  There are a lot of different types of roles men play in issues of equality, and I want to highlight the potential of male allies.  It’s been interesting sharing the film–some of the most profound responses I’ve gotten have been from men and boys, which I have to say pleasantly surprised me.  This is a movie about testing limits and pushing boundaries, and I think it’s a conversation starter for issues of gender inequality in sports and more broadly.  I hope people see a character who’s talented, ambitious, and hard-working, and who wants to go all the way.  I also want to celebrate the incredible women athletes of history, many of whom aren’t nearly as well known or celebrated as male athletes. That’s the idea behind the end credit montage with real basketball footage from over a century of women’s basketball.

What projects are up next for you?

One of the exciting things about sharing GAME with audiences is that people keep saying they want to see more from these characters and the story.  It’s great to hear that, because I’ve been working on a feature-length story related to GAME, which I plan to direct as my first feature.

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