Philadelphia Basketball Fans Can’t Wait For This Month’s Release Of Adam Sandler’s Netflix Movie Hustle, with Queen Latifah and Utah Jazz forward Juancho Hernangómez. They have good reason: A Philadelphia 76ers team including Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris and head coach Doc Rivers will make their big-screen debut.
And then there’s the caramel icing on the Tastykake Krimpet: Most of the film was shot in Philadelphia.
Directed by South Philly-born Jeremiah Zagar, Hustle is the fictional story of Sixers scout Stanley Sugerman (Sandler). When we meet Stanley, he has just been promoted to assistant coach by Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall). When Rex dies unexpectedly, his son, Vin (Ben Foster), forces Stanley back to his grueling scouting gig and will only let Stanley return to training if he finds the player who can lead the Sixers to a championship. Stanley travels to Spain and discovers streetball phenom Bo Cruz (Hernangómez), and the sweet story of two men who need each other to fulfill their dreams unfolds.
“Yeah, it’s a sensitive movie,” 41-year-old Zagar told me. “That’s what I love about sports movies. You look at this impossible thing in front of you and you’re like, ‘How am I going to do this?’ It seems insurmountable. But if you never back down and are true to yourself, you can achieve this dream. This giant dream. This big dream.
Hustle features cameos by the greatest – and should I add, the toughest – NBA players of all time, like Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Julius Erving and Allen Iverson, with Philadelphia among the sporting cities tenacious in the country, as a backdrop. Everyone playing basketball in this movie is NBA players, so there are a lot of great hoops. But HustleThe strength of is in emotional intelligence. Feelings are raw in nearly every scene as Zagar exploits competitive pressures, relationship difficulties, and character-building events.
Zagar and I discussed the cinematic techniques he used to direct it.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
So the movie I did before was We Animals. This is the coming-of-age story of a young gay man from upstate New York. The kids had never acted before and they had to do some deep emotional work for the film, so I brought in an acting coach named Noelle Gentile, and she did an amazing job. When Adam [Sandler] told me they wanted to work with real basketball players, I decided we needed to bring in someone who could bring out what was deep inside them. So we brought in Noelle. She worked with Juancho, [Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard] Anthony [Edwards], and Dr. J for weeks, even months. And they were dedicated, they gave their all. There’s a scene between Juancho and Adam, and Juancho is shaking and crying in the car – it was amazing. He put himself in this space, and it was Noëlle who helped him get there.
In basketball, you’re supposed to do that. He’s mean, but that’s not outside the realm of what Michael Jordan or any basketball player would do during a game. He [Kermit] was trying to find the weakness of its competitor. Anthony is a friend of Juancho. They played together on the Timberwolves. When we auditioned, we could see that they [Juancho and Anthony] had so much chemistry and it felt natural. Anthony rewrote the script to make sure it suited him, that what he said would read as he would say if he was on the job.
We wanted them to be able to see the player perspective. You are looking at Juancho’s point of view. You observe Kermit’s point of view. We do this in several ways. One of the things we did was build a Charlie bar – a bar that sticks to the player’s stomach, and at the end of the bar there’s a camera that the player can use with handheld controls. When the player looks at the camera, the audience has the impression that the player is looking at them. It’s the perspective you don’t get when watching basketball. We give the viewer the perspective of Kermit and Bo… Cinema is a language of close-ups. Hitchcock always said the close-up was king. When you’re in close-up, you feel the humanity of the subject because the subject is looking you straight in the eye. We stole this technique from [Martin] Scorsese. He did it in Angry bull. We watched these scenes over and over again.
When we started talking about casting for the role of Teresa, I was excited about the idea of an interracial couple. I am in a mixed relationship. My wife is African American. We live in a city where there is a lot of mixing of people and cultures. Adam was really into it. Adam is a close friend of Queen Latifah. What’s also great about Adam and Queen is that they look like real people. They look like the folks we see in South Philly, but they still have a movie star glow. One of the first scenes we shot was Queen and Adam walking through the Italian market and they were arguing at Fante’s. They are both wonderful improvisers, and there, we knew it would be a fun relationship, full of sweetness and attention. The movie was about two yeah guys, but those guys wouldn’t have been who they were without the amazing women around them.
This is the Philadelphia I know and love. The writers [Will Fetters and Taylor Materne] knew the area well, but I worked with them to make it really authentic. I mean: Let’s call Ishkabibble’s. We had John’s Water Ice, but that scene was removed. We had Bo training on this brutal Manayunk hill. We rolled it over a bridge in Fairmount Park. Let’s do something outside Pat and Geno’s. Let’s make real courts like this basketball court in Grays Ferry. South Philly Cemetery is right next to my mother’s [Julia Zagar] Eyes Gallery in South Philly. This is my Philly.
There are two elements to the film: Philadelphia-centric hip-hop with artists like Tierra [Whack] Cap [Sigel]and soft [Mill], and then there’s the music that Dan Deacon composed for the film. Deacon is a Baltimore based electronic musician. We worked together on a short several years ago, and it came with this amazing soundtrack that we played when we wanted to get into the minds and emotions of the characters during games. The music he composed was so iconic during the games that I think people are going to be ripping off this music for years to come.
Hustle opens in eight select theaters on June 3 — including Cinemark University City in West Philly and The PFS Bourse in Old City — and will be available to stream on Netflix on Wednesday, June 8.