Currently streaming on Netflix is Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh’s NBA drama High Flying Bird, written by Oscar-winner Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight) and starring André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, Sonja Sohn, Zachary Quinto, Kyle MacLachlan and Bill Duke, plus appearances from NBA athletes Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell.
In the midst of a pro basketball lockout, sports agent Ray Burke (André Holland) finds himself caught in the face-off between the league and the players. His career is on the line, but Ray is playing for higher stakes. With only 72 hours to pull off a daring plan, he outmaneuvers all the power-players as he uncovers a loophole that could change the game forever. The outcome raises questions of who owns the game – and who ought to.
For Holland, not only does this film mark his first leading role but also reunites him with Soderbergh, who directed him in the Cinemax series The Knick and with writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, who shared an Oscar for co-writing with Barry Jenkins the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight. He also played activist Andrew Young in Ava DuVernay’s MLK film Selma.
Holland recently spoke with Blackfilm.com’s Nicole Granston on working with McCraney again his experience working in front and behind the camera.
Nicole: How did this movie come to be? Were you instrumental in bringing Tarell Alvin McCraney and Steven Soderbergh together for this film?
André: This project started 5 years ago. It was an idea that I had that I pitched to Steven. Through our conversations we came up with the concept for the movie that we see. And then I brought Tarell along as we have a long history working together. I introduced him to Steven and they got along well and we continued to work together over the course of 4 years and little by little, the film came to life. I definitely had a hand in the shaping of the idea. I am extra proud of it for that reason.
Nicole: So, you had the idea and Tarell wrote it?
André: To be honest, I had an idea that I pitched to Steven. He didn’t love the entirety of the idea that I had, but together we talked through things and through a series of discussions, it was something we came up with together.
Nicole: In terms of the concept, was basketball the original sport you thought of? Are you a huge basketball fan? How much of a sports fan are you?
André: In a way, the NFL would have been equally if not more potent to tackle, in terms of what they’re going through right now. My initial idea was about baseball and the Negro League. That is what I originally presented to Steven. Essentially what I was interested in was what I did in the movie “42”, where I played a journalist/ sports reporter. That was when I became aware of the underbelly of the sport. I had always been taught that Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, which was a huge milestone and something to be celebrated. Which it certainly was, don’t get me wrong, but I really got educated about the cost of that integration and what it meant to the Negro League. It effectively destroyed that whole enterprise. As Steven and I began to talk about that, it turned into politics and labor as it relates to professional sports.
So much has happened in sports in recent years. It’s really timely that the movie is out right now. In a way, had it come out two years ago it would have been equally timely but for a different reason. Clearly there’s a lot that needs to be talked about in sports. Hopefully people are engaging with the questions we’re asking in the film.
Nicole: Whose idea was it to film this movie only on an IPhone?
André: Steven recommended we film it this way. He had just finished the movie Unsane and was excited about the technology. When he proposed it, it made sense to me because it spoke to the content of the film, which is about how to democratize these endeavors. It made sense. Once I saw the footage and image capture, I was really impressed with it.
Nicole: How was your experience working on a production with only an IPhone?
André: We shot the entire movie in 13 days. I don’t think we would have been able to do that with a traditional camera package. The movie is very dialogue heavy, which in our case created a lot of set ups. In order to make a non-paned scene between two people seem cinematic, it involves a lot of different camera angels.
With the IPhone, Steven was able to run two or three at a time if he needed to; stick one in the corner, hold one in his hand and put one on the table. Before you know it, you have the same capture. I came to really like it. It made me want to try and shoot something myself. I went out and bought the camera package he used for myself because I want to experiment with it and see what I can do on my own. Anything I can do to minimize the distance between an idea and the execution is interesting to me.
Nicole: What did you learn about through this experience with this being your first Executive Producer credit?
André: I’ve had to relearn something that I’ve known for a long time, if you want something you have to go out and do it for yourself. The big reason I started talking to Steven about this project is because I felt the opportunities that I wanted for myself and my career weren’t out there for me or I wasn’t being considered for those things. The fact is I really wanted to play a lead in a film. I wanted to know if I could do it. I felt like I could and I wanted to have the experience. That wasn’t being presented to me and the more I asked my team about it, the feedback I would get was, people haven’t seen me do it yet. Until we find that role that’s perfect for you to lead, it can be challenging for people to buy in. It becomes a math problem at a certain point. If you’re not a person they can rely on at the box office, it becomes a difficult sell. I was frustrated and started questioning my own ability. My best friend, Maurice Anderson, he’s my partner in the production company he said why don’t we create the opportunity for ourselves. So, that’s where it all started. What I’ve learned is you have to be proactive. That’s something I would say to someone now who’s just starting out. Look for material that excites you and people who are like-minded and want to work with you. Invest in those relationships.
Nicole: What’s next for you?
André: Besides taking a little bit of a break, I want to keep working but I want to keep working on great material, with people I like spending time with. I’m also working on having more balance in my life. I want to invest more in my friendships and personal relationships. I want to make sure I’m balancing my life in a good way and not being single minded, in terms of pursuing this career at all costs. At the same time, I’m still producing. We have 6 or 7 projects that are ready to go and that I’m pitching on. I’m hope to Direct something later this year. I’m taking it day by day.